Sweet-toothed Canaanites imported exotic food to Israel 3,600-years ago

Analysis of teeth of individuals who lived in Megiddo then show that the Canaanites imported exotic food from India and Southeast Asia.

Excavations in Megiddo (Area K, where some of the investigated graves were discovered) (photo credit: MEGIDDO EXPEDITION)
Excavations in Megiddo (Area K, where some of the investigated graves were discovered)
(photo credit: MEGIDDO EXPEDITION)
Bronze Age cuisine in Israel included exotic foodstuffs, such as bananas, soybeans and turmeric, according to a new study published in the journal PNAS. It pushes back the evidence for these foods by centuries.
The conclusion is based on analysis of micro-remains and proteins preserved in the tooth tartar of individuals who lived in Megiddo and Tel Erani during the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
“Human dental calculus is wonderful material, full of information about past food habits,” Prof. Philipp W. Stockhammer said. “By studying calculus from Bronze and Iron Age [remains] at the Levant, we are able to trace otherwise often invisible food and can get insights into individual nutrition.”
Fig. 1: Excavation of the burial ground at Tel Erani (IAA)Fig. 1: Excavation of the burial ground at Tel Erani (IAA)
The study was carried out by an international team of experts from LMU Munich, Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.
The authors show that in addition to Levantine plants, such as chickpeas, lentils, barley, wheat, grapes, figs and dates, the Canaanite inhabitants also ate bananas, soybeans, sesame, turmeric and other exotic spices – typical ingredients of Middle Eastern cuisine today (except for soybeans and bananas).
The research proves that Mediterranean cuisine was diverse and that exotic foods from Asia had arrived several centuries, and sometimes millennia, earlier than had been previously thought.
The origin of the fruits and plants was proven by detailed analysis of the remains of 18 individuals found in Megiddo and Tel Erani excavations, including plant remains and proteins that have remained preserved in human dental calculus over thousands of years.
The human mouth is full of bacteria that continually petrify and form calculus. Tiny food particles become entrapped and preserved in the growing calculus, and these remnants can be accessed for scientific research.
“This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” Stockhammer said. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now.”
Turmeric in Megiddo
Previously, researchers thought the Middle Eastern diet contained mostly bread. In fact, archaeologists excavating in Jericho found that the most abundant item in the destruction apart from pottery was grain. As a result, they concluded that Canaanites ate a lot of grain.
Bread was such an important part of the diet that in Hebrew, the expression to “eat a meal” literally meant to “eat bread.” Cereals used to make bread, such as wheat, barley, oats, spelt and millet, made up a large portion of the Bronze Age Canaanite diet. Researchers estimate that a person would consume some 200 kg. of cereals a year, providing about half of their needed calories.
The international team of archaeologists and experts was surprised to find that sesame had become a staple food in the Levant by the second millennium BCE.
Two additional protein findings were particularly remarkable. Turmeric and soy proteins were found in the dental calculus of one individual from Megiddo in the 16th-15th century BCE, while banana proteins were identified in another individual from Tel Erani 500 years later.
“The Megiddo individual who revealed evidence for soybeans and turmeric was buried in an elaborate family burial, stone built, meaning that he was probably a member of the city’s elite,” said Prof. Israel Finkelstein, who is co-director of the Megiddo excavation along with Dr. Mario M. Martin of Tel Aviv University.
In another recent study from Megiddo, evidence of vanilla was discovered in the elite tomb there.
“These foods were clearly something special and priced as such,” Martin said. “The evidence for far-distance trade is not altogether unexpected. It is certainly exciting to be able to prove the actual existence of these foodstuffs in the southern Levant.”
While the elites of Megiddo could afford luxury goods, such as turmeric, the individual from Tel Erani, where the banana proteins were identified, seemed to have belonged to the rural population.
“The Erani individual was only buried in one flask, a standard vessel, nothing special with regard to the archaeological context and no indication for elevated status,” Stockhammer said.
Other evidence, such as cinnamon, was verified several years ago and is found considerably later during the Iron Age, he said.
Nonetheless, all three foods are likely to have reached the Levant via South Asia. Bananas were originally domesticated in Southeast Asia, where they had been used since the fifth millennium BCE, arriving in West Africa 4,000 years later. But little is known about their intervening trade or use.
“Our analyses thus provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world,” Stockhammer said. “No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region.”
The sudden appearance of bananas in West Africa just a few centuries later indicated that such a trade might have existed, he added.
“I find it spectacular that food was exchanged over long distances at such an early point in history,” Stockhammer said.
Milk, honey and bananas
Until now, there has been little evidence regarding these culinary descriptions painted in ancient sources. The variety of foods, such as grapes, pistachios, almonds, pomegranates and figs, found in Canaan during the Bronze Age is highlighted in the Bible (Genesis 43:11, Numbers 13:23) and in second-millennium textual sources from the Near East.
For instance, Assyrian cuneiform tablets record donkey caravans between the Mesopotamian city of Aššur and the Anatolian trade post of Kaneš in the 19th century BCE and in the 15th century BCE during the reign of Amenhotep IV, commonly referred to as Akhenaten.
The flow of exotic goods, such as ivory, ostrich eggshells, ebony and frankincense, flourished, as indicated by clay tablets from el-Amarna, Egypt, priceless letters that contain correspondence from the city kings of Canaan to the foreign office of the Pharaoh, which throw light on the conditions in Canaan in the 14th century BCE.
Among the most well-known of these accounts is an expedition initiated by Egypt’s Queen Hatshepsut to the land of Punt (probably located in the Horn of Africa region) in the 15th century BCE. In addition, seals, stone weights, lapis lazuli and carnelian jewelry weights provide evidence for long-distance trade between the Near East and the Indian subcontinent.
“In fact, we can now grasp the impact of globalization during the second millennium BCE on East Mediterranean cuisine,” Stockhammer said. “Mediterranean cuisine was characterized by intercultural exchange from an early stage,”
The extent to which spices, oils and fruits were imported is not yet known. But there is much to indicate that trade was taking place.
There is other evidence of exotic spices in the Eastern Mediterranean. For example, Pharaoh Ramses II was buried with peppercorns from India in 1213 BCE. They were found in his nose.