A new study by an international team that included researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority reveals that as early as the 16th century BCE there was significant global trade between India and Southeast Asia, and Israel. The trade included exotic foods such as soybeans, bananas, and turmeric – almost a thousand years before the first evidence of the presence of these foods in the Middle East.
The study focused on food scraps identified in the dental plaque of people buried in the 16th century BCE in Tel Megiddo in northern Israel, and the 11th century BCE in Tel Irani near Kiryat Gat in the south.
The remains of various foods were found in the teeth of these people, including food from Southeast Asia such as soybeans, bananas, and turmeric.
The study was conducted by Prof. Philipp Stockhammer of the University of Munich, and researchers from various institutions around the world including, from Tel Aviv University, Prof. Israel Finkelstein and Dr. Mario Martin of the Jacob Alkov Department of Archeology, and Dr. Yanir Milevsky and Dmitry Yagorov from the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The findings were published Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE).
When we imagine the urban market in Megiddo 3,700 years ago, we think of local ingredients such as wheat, dates, and sesame, and, indeed, according to the researchers, ancient proteins and micro-fossils from these foods were found in the jaws of the ancient residents of the city. But with them were also found remnants of soybeans, bananas, and turmeric, and, according to the researchers, nowhere in the world has older evidence of soybeans, bananas, and turmeric been found outside of South and East Asia. The recent discovery predates their presence in the area of the Land of Israel and in the Mediterranean Basin by hundreds of years (turmeric) and even by a thousand years (soybeans).
This means that as early as the second millennium BCE, long-distance trade in exotic fruits, spices and oils existed between South Asia and the Land of Israel, through Mesopotamia or Egypt – suggesting globalization in the Bronze and Iron Ages. Of course, bananas would not have survived the journey from Southeast Asia to Megiddo, which suggests they were sold and consumed as dried fruit – very much like the lovely banana chips on your supermarket shelf.
“This is clear evidence of trade with Southeast Asia as early as the 16th century BCE, much earlier than the researchers have assumed so far,” explains Prof. Finkelstein. “We discovered similar evidence for long-distance trade a few years ago in a study of molecular remains in pottery vessels from that period in Megiddo, a study that yielded evidence of vanilla root imports. But more is hidden than known in terms of details about the ways of trade and the manner of transferring the goods.”
“In the excavation, we conducted at Tel Irani, we discovered, surprisingly, a cemetery from the Early Iron Age – about 3,100 years ago,” said Dr. Yanir Milevsky and Dimitri Yagorov of the IAA. “In some of the graves we found families buried together – children buried next to their parents. Alongside the buried, we discovered burial offerings: bowls, jars, and jugs, buried with the dead in the belief that the vessels would be used by them in the next world. Animal bones were also found in some of the vessels, mainly sheep and goats, food for the dead. We intend to investigate these excavated vessels to examine whether in some of them there are remnants of bananas and sesame seeds, as found in the teeth of the buried. In addition, we are conducting research with Prof. Stockhammer with DNA testing to try and understand who these people were and where they came from.”
Researchers believe soybeans were first domesticated in today’s China in the seventh millennium BCE. The banana was first domesticated in New Guinea, in the fifth millennium BCE, and it arrived in West Africa 4,000 years later. But so far, no earlier spread of the fruit in the Middle East has been known.
The turmeric and soy proteins were found in the jaw of one man from Megiddo, and banana proteins in two jaws from Tel Irani, therefore it isn’t known to what extent these foods were available to any consumer from any social class. But the researchers estimate that these were people who probably belonged to a relatively upper class in the city-state of Megiddo. This is evident in the structure of the tombs and the offerings placed in them.
In addition, the researchers found evidence of sesame consumption in the jaws from both Megiddo and Tel Arani, showing that sesame became a significant part of the local cuisine as early as the second millennium BCE.
“The study demonstrates the possibilities inherent in combining the exact and natural sciences in modern archaeological research,” concludes Prof. Finkelstein. “Traditional archaeology, which can be called macro-archaeology, provides visible data, such as buildings, pottery, jewelry, and weapons. But a whole world of other data, of great importance, is revealed only under a microscope using advanced analytical methods.”