The first evidence of the use of vanilla has been discovered in residue from an afterlife feast at a 3,600-year-old tomb in Israel, rewriting the history of the spice.
Prior to this find, it was thought by scientists that vanilla originated 13,000 miles away, in South America, several thousand years later.
The vanillin compound was discerned in three out of four small jugs, which were placed as part of burial food offerings surrounding three intact skeletons, adorned with gold and silver jewelry. The treasure trove of jewels — and now vanilla extract — comes from a spectacular untouched Bronze Age burial chamber first excavated in 2016 at Megiddo.
The surprise discovery, labelled Tomb 50, by a team of excavators led by Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Israel Finkelstein, has been widely publicized; the displayed wealth is thought to be due to an elite, or even royal, Canaanite burial.
Today, vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, following saffron. One can only imagine how luxurious its use was during the period in which Finkelstein has dated the tomb — the summit of the Canaanite civilization, the later phase of the Middle Bronze Age (around 1700-1600 BCE).
At this weekend’s annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Denver, Tel Aviv University’s Vanessa Linares presented the findings of organic residue analysis on the four small containers in a lecture, “Long Distance Trade: Vanillin as a Mortuary Offering in Middle Bronze Age Megiddo.”
According to her published lecture’s abstract, the major compounds into making vanilla extract — vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde — were identified in three of the small vessels. According to Linares, though these compounds are found in several species of plant life, the source for this residue is the vanilla orchid.
“This is based on the profuse quantity of vanillin found in the juglets that could have only derived from the abundant amount of vanillin yield from the vanilla orchid pods,” writes Linares.
She states that three species of vanilla orchids could be possible sources during this ancient era: V. polylepsis Summerh (today found in central east Africa), V. albidia Blume (India), and V. abundiflora J.J. Sm. (southeast Asia).
In a Science News story, where the research was first popularly publicized, archaeologist Eric Cline of George Washington University in Washington, DC, said, “It’s really not surprising that vanillin reached Bronze Age Megiddo, given all the trade that occurred between the [Middle East] and South Asia.”
Cline, who was not party to the Megiddo research, clarified in Science News that there is no evidence of trade between the Levant and East Africa, which would rule out one possible vanilla source.
Rather, “the vanilla orchids or their beans probably reached Megiddo via trade routes that first passed through Mesopotamian society in southwest Asia,” according to the article. At other archaeological sites in Israel, it has been discovered that other plant species, such as citrus, took a similar route about a thousand years later.
As for the reason why the vanilla was in the elite burial tomb, Linares said in Denver, “Bronze Age people at Megiddo may have used vanillin-infused oils as additives for foods and medicines, for ritual purposes or possibly even in the embalming of the dead.”
A tomb frozen in time
The fact that vanilla was included in the elite burial at Megiddo is indicative of its high value 3,600 years ago. Even today, due to its increasingly steep costs, scientists are working to produce good artificial analogues for the elite flavor.
The northern Israel site, known in popular culture for its apocalyptic name Armageddon (a corruption of the Hebrew, Har Megiddo, Mount Megiddo), hosted a continuously inhabited settlement from 7000 BCE to circa 500 BCE.
According to archaeologist Finkelstein, the settlement of Megiddo is key to understanding the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Holy Land. It appears in “all the great archives of the Middle East,” he said, including the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and in Assyrian, Egyptian, and Hittite documents. The settlement’s ancient military and trade routes were still in use until the end of the Ottoman Empire’s rule there in 1918.
In a May 2018 interview ahead of the recent dig season, Finkelstein said, “We dig at Megiddo because it is the most celebrated site for the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Levant. The finds at Megiddo are the key for understanding 3,000 years of history of the region, between 3500 and 500 BCE, including the material culture of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and issues related to the biblical text.”
Finkelstein’s team began excavating the site in 1994, before the big technological and scientific boom in the field.
“Things are very different today on both the side of recording in the field and methods of research,” Finkelstein said in May. “For the latter, especially important is the introduction of the exact and life sciences into archaeological research, including physics-related dating techniques, geo-archaeology and recently ancient DNA. These fields open a new world for us, as they provide us with the record which cannot be detected with the naked eye.”
The frozen-in-time state of Tomb 50 allows archaeologists to observe and analyze the death practices at the site as a 360-degree, interdisciplinary team.
Last year, upon the initial publication of the tomb, the Megiddo Expedition’s expert on Canaanite funerary rites, Melissa Cradic told The Times of Israel, “The incredible state of preservation of Tomb 50 offers an important opportunity for comprehensive scientific study of the ancient population and their funerary practices. We are studying diet and health, mobility and migration, ancient DNA, organic residues, environment, and issues of identity using the osteological and material remains.”
That multi-focal analytical approach is already bearing fruit — or at least vanilla beans.
“These results shed new light on the first known exploitation of vanilla, local uses, significance in mortuary practices, and possible long-distance trade networks in the ancient Near East during the second millennium BCE,” according to Linares.