Ancient Middle Eastern People Dined on Foods from South Asia

Analysis of dental plaque more than 3,000 years old reveals traces of proteins from bananas, soybeans and turmeric.
Overhead shot of an archaeological dig at a site known as Megiddo, stone walls bounding several rooms are shown.

Excavation of Area K at Megiddo.

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The Megiddo Expedition

Charles Q. Choi, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Exotic spices such as turmeric and fruits such as bananas had already reached the Mediterranean more than 3,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought, a new study finds.

Although global trade is often thought of as a recent phenomenon, prior work has suggested trade networks connected distant societies even in the Bronze Age more than 4,000 years ago. Until now, "it was thought this trade was for raw materials such as metals like tin or gold and precious stones like lapis lazuli," said study co-senior author Philipp Stockhammer, an archaeologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Münich in Germany.

In the new study, Stockhammer, along with bioarchaeologist Christina Warinner at Harvard University and their colleagues, examined dental plaque that hardened over time into a substance called calculus, which can serve as a time capsule of a person's diet. "Until 10 years ago, calculus was just seen as dirt on excavated teeth that you just cleaned off," Stockhammer said. "Now we see it as a treasure chest."

The scientists focused on two sites in present-day Israel, examining 13 individuals from Megiddo dating from between 3,500 to 3,700 years ago, and three individuals from Tel Erani dating about 3,100 years ago. They analyzed both areas seeking a wide perspective on the Levant, or eastern Mediterranean, an important ancient bridge linking Asia, Egypt and the Mediterranean. Megiddo, after which Armageddon is named, was a major urban center during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, whereas Tel Erani was a rural site in the Early Iron Age.

The calculus revealed evidence of typical foods of the Levant, such as wheat and dates. However, the researchers unexpectedly also discovered traces of more exotic fare -- soybean and turmeric proteins were detected on an individual from Megiddo, and a banana protein was found on a person from Tel Erani. The bananas and turmeric may have come from South Asia, whereas the soy may have originated as oil from East Asia, the researchers speculated; the individuals on whom these molecules were found might have eaten these as imported goods or might have been seafarers or merchants who dined on such foods abroad.

"These results are important evidence of something we shouldn't find so surprising -- that even many thousands of years ago, people were intertwined across very long distances," said archaeologist Alexander Bauer at Queens College of the City University of New York, who did not take part in this research.

These are the earliest signs of turmeric and soy in the Levant for centuries, or even millennia. The most ancient references to turmeric in the area until now appeared in Assyrian cuneiform medical texts from about 2,700 years ago, and soybean cultivation was unknown in this region before the past century or so.

All in all, these findings suggest the Levant's connections eastward during the Bronze Age "extended farther than we had thought, and also indicate that we were correct in our previous thinking that a lot of that evidence has disappeared -- that is, that we are now missing much of the trade items that were perishable, which apparently included fruits, vegetables, spices and other edible items," said archaeologist Eric Cline at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who did not participate in this study.

Previous research likely failed to find bananas and turmeric in the archaeological record because they hardly leave any traces when they decay, Stockhammer noted. It remains a puzzle why soy was not seen in the ancient Levant until now -- perhaps it was not imported as soybeans, which could have preserved well in the archaeological record, but came in the form of soy oil. "Many exotic oils are mentioned in Egyptian and other sources that we still have not identified yet," Stockhammer said.

Turmeric and soy were found on an individual buried in a wealthy tomb in Megiddo, potentially suggesting that such exotic ingredients were elite goods. However, the fact that bananas were eaten by a relatively humble person at the later site of Tel Erani might suggest that exotic food became more and more accessible to broader groups of the society over time back then, Stockhammer noted.

These findings are just "the tip of the iceberg," Stockhammer said. Currently, many of the proteins found in the ancient calculus are unknown, but future research could identify them, he noted. In addition, calculus on many more teeth can now be analyzed instead of ignored, he added. "These are very exciting findings, and I sincerely hope we can look forward to more such studies in the future," Cline said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Dec. 21 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Author Bio & Story Archive

Charles Q. Choi is a science reporter who has written for Scientific American, The New York Times, Wired, Science, Nature, and National Geographic News, among others.