Bronze Age Global Trade Identified in Teeth
Bronze Age people in Israel were smarter than scientists thought. They were eating Chinese food 3,700 years ago.
It’s nice to see Germans and Jews working together these days. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute back in the 1930s had been implicated in cooperation with the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. That was then. Now, in 2020, scientists from Max Planck and from Ludwig-Maximilian University have joined up with scientists from several Israeli universities to discover something significant: people living in the Levant (coastal Mediterranean lands in the Middle East) were eating Asian delicacies in the late Bronze and early Iron Ages. How could they tell? They examined the dental calculus (hardened plaque) in the teeth of skulls.
People in the Mediterranean ate foods from Asia 3700 years ago (New Scientist). “People living in the Mediterranean may have been sampling South Asian and East Asian cuisines up to thousands of years earlier than previously thought,” the article begins.
Philipp Stockhammer at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany and his colleagues examined microscopic food remains present in the teeth of 16 individuals from the Levant, a region east of the Mediterranean Sea. The people lived in the 17th and 11th centuries BC in the cities of Megiddo and Tel Erani.
The team found that these people – who came from a range of social classes – ate foods from South Asia or East Asia, including sesame, soybean, turmeric and banana. This pushes back the timeline for these foods appearing in this region by centuries or, in soybean’s case, millennia.
Trade routes for precious stones were known, but exotic food? The discovery of globalization in cuisine opens up new questions about the abilities of ancient peoples. The technique used by these scientists may also help understand the trading habits of early Americans, Australians and Africans.
Megiddo is in northern Israel near the valley of Jezreel or Megiddo (Armageddon). Tel Erani is near the land of the Philistines, perhaps near Libnah or Gath. If Canaanites and Philistines were eating Asian delicacies in the late Bronze Age, perhaps King David and Solomon were acquainted with such foods in their Early Iron Age kingdoms. It is not known at this time if they had take-out Chinese food. Most likely, evidence of this global trade will be found throughout the Fertile Crescent.
The research is published in PNAS (Scott et al., 21 December, 2020), “Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE.”
Here we report the identification of staple and exotic food remains in Bronze and Early Iron Age dental calculus from the Southern Levant. The analysis of dietary plant microremains and proteins sheds new light on consumed exotic foods from South and East Asia during the second millennium BCE. We provide the earliest direct evidence in the Mediterranean to date for the consumption of sesame, soybean, probable banana, and turmeric. 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.
The researchers expected to find evidence in the teeth for date palms and wheat, which indeed they did find. They did not expect to find cereals and spices from the far east, including China.
In contrast to the crops above, the consumption of soybean (Glycine), probable banana (Musa), and turmeric (Curcuma longa) were unexpected finds. Soybean cultivation was unknown in this region before the 20th century CE and, like millet, its domestication center was near the Yellow River in Central China, where it was cultivated as early as 7000 to 6500 BCE (101). However, soybean, like sesame, is a major oil plant, and its oil could have been transported over long distances….
Banana (Musa) was domesticated during the fifth millennium BCE in New Guinea (109) and by the first millennium BCE had dispersed under human cultivation as far west as Cameroon in West Africa (110, 111). However, reconstructing the intervening cultivation and trade of bananas has proven particularly difficult to trace through the archaeological record. Banana fruit is highly perishable and domesticated bananas are seedless (reproducing instead by cuttings), and thus there is a strong bias against the recovery of banana macrobotanical remains.
Yet there it was: banana residue in the teeth of an individual at Tel Erani. How did it get there? The other plants may have been cultivated from seeds transported by traders, but not this one. The researchers were dumbfounded, but confident of the identification.
Our identification of a major banana fruit-ripening protein in the dental calculus of individual ERA017 at Tel Erani lends support for either the banana being present in the Levant by the first millennium BCE or a mobile individual (e.g., a merchant or seafarer) who consumed banana during his lifetime in South or East Asia before being buried at Tel Erani.
However, if one “mobile individual” ate bananas while in Africa, it seems unlikely that remains of the banana would remain in the individual’s teeth after the long trip to Israel. In short, this research points to “the existence of a dynamic and complex exchange network connecting the Mediterranean with South Asia during the second millennium BCE,” the paper concludes.
Moderns should not be so proud of our global commerce. We are building on the work of millennia of intelligent and resourceful people. Considering the means of transport available to people in the late Bronze Age (human and animal feet, perhaps wagons at times, and ships having to sail around India), it is truly remarkable to see banana and turmeric on the teeth of commoners in Philistine and Canaanite lands. The Hebrew peoples also inhabited the land of Canaan in those days. Solomon imported exotic spices and animals and birds by 950 BC; these global trade achievements were centuries earlier. As far back as we find humans, we see intelligence, foresight, and resourcefulness. Humans are unique and exceptional beings, endowed with minds and souls, not just brains.