Photo Credit: David Blaikie via Wikimedia
Denees (Seabream)

Seabream teeth have revealed that marine agriculture existed in the Middle East as early as 3,500 years ago, according to a new study conducted by the University of Haifa, Oranim College, the Institute for Oceanographic and Limnological Research, and German researchers at Mainz and Goettingen universities. The study, published in the prestigious journal Nature Scientific Reports (Tooth oxygen isotopes reveal Late Bronze Age origin of Mediterranean fish aquaculture and trade), marine agriculture was held in the Red Sea, based on the earliest empirical evidence to date.

“According to the new findings, together with other archaeological finds from the Bronze Age—the beginning of the biblical period, we learn that Egypt was becoming an aquaculture superpower, which exported fish to the north, including the Israeli and Canaanite cities,” said study editor Dr. Guy Sisma-Ventura of the University of Haifa.

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Today, in light of the growing consumer demand for fish, marine agriculture is also developing rapidly, as part of the “Blue Revolution.” But when did mankind begin the development of organized aquaculture?

“Wall paintings from ancient Egypt, from the third century BCE, show descriptions of fishing and cutting fish for trade, but no archaeological-empirical evidence had been found for aquaculture in such an ancient period,” explained Dr. Irit Zohar, one of the study’s authors.

Fish teeth examined in the study / Photo credit: Courtesy University of Haifa

The study, funded by the European Research Foundation (ERC), the German National Research Foundation (DFG) and the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), discovered early empirical evidence that preceded those murals by centuries.

The study was based on an examination of the composition of the oxygen isotopes in the teeth of the fish Denees (Gilt-head bream, in Latin: Sparus aurata), commonly found in the Mediterranean Sea.

“The test allows us to identify where the fish grew in the last months of its life when tooth was being formed,” Dr. Sisma-Ventura explained. “The ratio between the isotopes 180 and 160 is constantly changing in nature according to the water temperature and the salinity level. Therefore, tracking the relationship between the two isotopes in the teeth of modern fish and the teeth of archaeological fish allows us to identify and restore the temperature and salinity in which the tooth was formed.”

“Once we know this, we can cross check it with geological, archaeological and other historical evidence of sea water temperatures in different areas, and to identify the possible habitat of the fish, and the period in which it lived,” Dr. Sisma-Ventura concluded.

The study sampled more than 100 Denees teeth, from various archeological sites in Israel, including coastal sites, such as Dor and Ashkelon, but also from inland sites such as Jerusalem and Hatzor. The variety of fish teeth studied covered a chronological sequence spanning more than 10,000 years, from the beginning of the Neolithic period (beginning of agriculture) to the Early Islamic period (7-8 CE).

The findings show that in ancient times, 3,500 years ago, the Denees were caught in two central areas: in the open sea and in ancient, salty coastal lagoons. But about 3,500 years ago, with the stabilization of the sea level, a change took place and most of the fish were caught in one habitat: the salty lagoon of Lake Bardawil in northern Sinai.

“The test of the ratio between the isotopes attested to the temperature and salinity in which the fish were grown from that period. When we looked at all the possible sites, only Bardawil’s salty lagoon fit this specific chemical mark,” the researchers explained.

It was also found that in biblical times the Denees was the main imported fish to sites in central Israel. The size of the fish also indicated a transition to aquaculture: in the periods earlier than 3,500 years ago, the captured fish varied widely in their sizes, but starting 3,500 years ago, the range of sizes was being reduced until, during the biblical period, the imported fish were down to “plate size,” about one pound in weight and 15 inches in length.

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