ArchaeologyWeb of trade routes linked Eurasia's cuisines and economies

‘Globalized’ early Bronze Age Levantines consumed exotic Asian nosh, study shows

Analysis of dental tartar from skeletons excavated at Megiddo and Tel Erani shows first evidence in region from 2nd millennium BCE of foods such as bananas, soy beans, turmeric

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Illustrative: A young devotee, face smeared with turmeric powder, participates in a procession towards Golconda Fort during Bonalu festival in Hyderabad, India, July 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)
Illustrative: A young devotee, face smeared with turmeric powder, participates in a procession towards Golconda Fort during Bonalu festival in Hyderabad, India, July 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)

Proving a network of elusive Bronze Age trade routes is like pulling teeth for scholars. Taking that quite literally, the lead authors of a new scientific paper analyzed ancient Southern Levant dental tartar and uncovered a cornucopia of minuscule last suppers — the exotic ingredients of which shore up an increasingly recognized academic theory of a “globalized” 2nd millennium BCE Bronze Age.

As part of a multi-year, interdisciplinary project, a team of researchers led by Harvard University Prof. Christina Warinner and University of Munich Prof. Philipp Stockhammer microscopically examined tooth tartar taken from 13 skeletal remains excavated at northern Israel’s Megiddo site, which was largely populated by Canaanites. Three more skeletal samples were taken from an Iron Age cemetery at Tel Erani, located near Kiryat Gat, which dates to circa 500 years after Megiddo and is thought to have been populated by Philistines.

With the microscopic remains that were preserved over the millennia by the “skin” of the skeletons’ teeth, the scientists discovered non-native, outlier foodstuffs such as soybeans, turmeric and bananas, which were not previously known to exist in the Southern Levant at this time.

“Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now,” said Stockhammer in a press release.

The study, “Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE,” was published this week in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal. It outlines compelling evidence of a wide-ranging trade route, spanning from South Asia to Egypt, and posits it was part of an even larger Bronze Age “globalized” network.

View of Megiddo. (Megiddo Expedition)

This increasingly studied idea of a connected ancient world led scholar Helle Vandkilde to coin the term “Bronzization” in a 2016 paper explaining how the pursuit of the components of bronze created a web of routes. A recently published example of a trade route in pursuit of bronze production is found in a study that concluded that ancient tin ingots discovered in Israel were mined in England.

Now, say the PNAS authors, “Although named for a metal that is highly visible in the archaeological record, the process of Bronzization was likely a much broader phenomenon that also linked cuisines and economies across Eurasia.”

Among the previously known exotic cuisine, evidence of vanilla, most likely collected from South Asia vanilla orchid pods, was already uncovered at Megiddo in a tomb dated to the later phase of the Middle Bronze Age (around 1700-1600 BCE). Likewise, the earliest citrus within the Mediterranean, dated to circa 2,500 years ago, probably came from Southeast Asia, according to a study by Tel Aviv University Prof. Dafna Langgut.

Ceramic assemblage inside the undisturbed 3,600-year-old tomb chamber at Megiddo. (Robert Homsher)

Tel Aviv University Prof. Israel Finkelstein, who is an author in the study, believes this new paper goes much farther to shore up the idea of an ancient spice route.

“This is clear evidence of trade with southeast Asia as early as the 16th century BCE – much earlier than previously assumed,” said Finkelstein in a press release. Finkelstein has led excavations at Megiddo since 1994 and most of the samples in the present study came from tombs and other burials there.

“Several years ago, we found similar evidence of long-distance trade: molecular traces of vanilla in ceramic vessels from the same period at Megiddo. Yet very little is known about the trade routes or how the goods were delivered,” said Finkelstein.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

This issue of delivery is addressed by co-lead author Stockhammer in his massive collaborative project, “FoodTransforms: Transformations of Food in the Eastern Mediterranean Late Bronze Age.” As emphasized in the PNAS study, what makes its methodology notable is that unlike tried and true “macro-archaeological” methods such as digging and sifting, it drills down into the issue through micro-testing of dental calculus.

Prof. Philipp Stockhammer of the University of Munich (Youtube screenshot)

“Although there are numerous ways to investigate the food and drink consumed in antiquity, perhaps the most powerful evidence is based on material obtained from inside the mouth,” reads Stockhammer’s project website.

“One such material is dental calculus (tartar), a calcified microbial biofilm that builds up in layers over the years. HDC is an abundant, nearly ubiquitous, and long-term reservoir of the ancient oral microbiome, preserving not only microbial and host biomolecules but also dietary and environmental debris,” he writes.

According to his co-author, Harvard University’s Warinner, the ancient tooth tartar is “like a time capsule… It’s the single richest source of ancient DNA in the archaeological record. There are so many things we can learn from it — everything from pollution in the environment to people’s occupations to aspects of health. It’s all in there,” she said in a 2019 interview.

When using these Palaeoproteomic methodologies to analyze the “microremains” and proteins preserved in the dental calculus of the 16 skeletons’ samples, the authors found examples of expected staple foods such as cereals, sesame, and dates, according to a PNAS press release. It was the unexpected edibles that bit into their intellectual curiosity and pushed back the clocks on these foodstuffs’ appearance in the Middle East.

“Our results provide clear evidence for the consumption of expected staple foods, such as cereals (Triticeae), sesame (Sesamum), and dates (Phoenix). We additionally report evidence for the consumption of soybean (Glycine), probable banana (Musa), and turmeric (Curcuma), which pushes back the earliest evidence of these foods in the Mediterranean by centuries (turmeric) or even millennia (soybean),” they write.

“In fact, we can now grasp the impact of globalization during the second millennium BCE on East Mediterranean cuisine,” said Stockhammer in a press release. “Mediterranean cuisine was characterized by intercultural exchange from an early stage.”

Bananas on display in a Jerusalem market. Banana farming is one of the most stable and profitable agricultural sectors in Israel and the largest among the country’s plantation-based crops. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The authors conclude that incredibly perishable bananas discovered in samples from at Tel Erani were likely either eaten by the male subject — perhaps a merchant — prior to his arrival and death, or were transported as dried fruit.

At Megiddo, the scholars discovered a plethora of soybean samples, which they conclude was transported there as oil. Oil was a highly desired commodity during this era and had uses ranging from embalming the dead to cooking and medicine to personal body care. The idea that the soybean remnants came in oil may explain the lack of soybeans in the archaeological record, although they was cultivated in China since at least the 7th century BCE. Soybean cultivation is only documented in Israel from the 20th century CE onwards.

Unlike soybeans, the turmeric spice is known within the Near East since the 7th century BCE from Assyrian cuneiform medical texts in Nineveh. However, the first archaeological evidence is only from the Islamic period during the 11th to 13th centuries CE. From the Megiddo evidence, the authors surmise that the spice was already available in the Levant from the the mid-2nd millennium BCE.

Illustrative: A vessel filled with turmeric powder stands as a Kashmiri waza, or chef, cooks for a wedding feast wazwan in Srinagar, India, June 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

“The broader body of evidence for exotic goods, which also includes zebu cattle, chickens, citron, melon, cloves, millet, vanillin, peppercorns, monkeys, and beetles, points to a pattern of established trade,” write the authors.

The broader body of evidence for exotic goods, which also includes zebu cattle, chickens, citron, melon, cloves, millet, vanillin, peppercorns, monkeys, and beetles, points to a pattern of established trade

All of these perishable goods — and potentially many more — may have been trafficked through a widespread early spice route. But only through a consistent use of microscopic Palaeoproteomic methods will they continue to be detected, the authors emphasize.

“The recovery and identification of diverse foodstuffs using molecular and microscopic techniques enables a new understanding of the complexity of early trade routes and nascent globalization in the ancient Near East and raises questions about the long-term maintenance and continuity of this trade system into later periods,” write the authors.

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