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Mediterranean Cultures Imported Asian Exotic Foods Before 1700 BC

Mediterranean Cultures Imported Asian Exotic Foods Before 1700 BC

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The remains of exotic foods, spices and oils discovered on the calculus of ancient teeth discovered around the Mediterranean have been analyzed revealing new insights into the ancient Bronze Age food trade between Asia and the Levant. Turmeric, bananas, soy and other exotic Asian foods and spices reached the Mediterranean more than 3000 years ago, according to a new paper by a team of international researchers at the University of Munich (LMU). Studying long-distance trade routes between Asia and the Levant during the Bronze Age, the team set out to discover if exotic foods were also exchanged, and they discovered that hugely distant societies were connected much earlier than previously thought.

Using Ancient Teeth From Israel To Prove Exotic Foods Trade

Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC) and Early Iron Age (starting from 1200 BC) dental calculus was gathered from the teeth of skeletons unearthed in the Southern Levant. The remains of dietary plant micro-remains and proteins in the teeth matrixes were analyzed and revealed that early Mediterranean cultures consumed exotic foods from South and East Asia during the second millennium BC, including “sesame, soybean, probable banana, and turmeric.”

Professor Philipp Stockhammer and his multidisciplinary international team of scientists analyzed the microscopic food residues found in tooth tartar to discovered ancient people in the Levant were consuming turmeric, bananas, and soy in the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. This finding, according to Stockhammer, dates the trade connection between the Near East and Middle East to “millennia, earlier than had been previously thought.”

The Megiddo archaeological site in Israel provided some of the ancient teeth that proved the Southern Levant was importing exotic foods like bananas, soy, and turmeric from South East Asia as early as 3700 years ago. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Megiddo archaeological site in Israel provided some of the ancient teeth that proved the Southern Levant was importing exotic foods like bananas, soy, and turmeric from South East Asia as early as 3700 years ago. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

The New Evidence For Long-Distance Trade In Exotic Foods

The results of the new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, present the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana, and soy outside of South and East Asia. The paper reports on the analysis of 16 people’s teeth from the Megiddo and Tel Erani excavations in present-day Israel (Southern Levant), which in the Bronze Age served as an important link connecting the Mediterranean, Asia and Egypt. The ancient proteins and plant microfossils found in the tooth calculus “enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” says Stockhammer, in a new discipline of analysis called “Palaeoproteomics.”

Co-senior author of the article, Christina Warinner, a molecular archaeologist at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told PNAS that this new research demonstrates “the great potential of these methods to detect foods that otherwise leave few archaeological traces. Dental calculus is such a valuable source of information about the lives of ancient peoples.” And lead author, Ashley Scott, another LMU biochemist, is quoted in Archaeology News Network as saying the new approach, “Palaeoproteomics, breaks new scientific ground.”

Dr Ianir Milevski of the Israel Antiquities Authority on site at Tel Erani, Israel. Dr Milevski was involved in the latest study on the ancient trade in exotic foods to the Southern Levant from South East Asia. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Dr Ianir Milevski of the Israel Antiquities Authority on site at Tel Erani, Israel. Dr Milevski was involved in the latest study on the ancient trade in exotic foods to the Southern Levant from South East Asia. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Tracking Ancient Diets, Trade Routes With Palaeoproteomics

Palaeoproteomics involves looking at allergy-associated proteins that are related to the thermostability of many allergens, says Scott. Applying this method of analysis, the team was able to identify wheat by reading the signatures of wheat gluten proteins and then independently confirming the finding using a type of plant microfossils known as “phytoliths.” Phytoliths were also used to identify millet and date palm in the Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages. In the same way, sesame proteins were identified in the dental calculus from both the Megiddo and Tel Erani archaeological sites, said Scott.

In one individual’s dental calculus from Megiddo, turmeric and soy proteins were found. And at the Tel Erani site, dental calculus containing banana residue was found. Bananas are known to have been domesticated in Southeast Asia from the 5th millennium BC onward.

While hard evidence of the long-distance trade in exotic foods was presented in the new study, the extent to which these spices, oils and fruits were imported into the Levant is still unclear.

However, the team set out to clarify if the early globalization of trade networks in the 2nd millennium BC also included exotic foods. They discovered that there already existed a flourishing long-distance trade route between South Asia and the Levant via Mesopotamia or Egypt in the 2nd millennium BC.

In conclusion, the researchers confirmed that exotic fruits, spices, and oils were on the inventory lists of long-distance traders since at least the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC). 

Top image: Seeds and spices on display in the Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Based on the conclusions from the latest study, the Southern Levant were already importing exotic foods, like bananas, sesame, and turmeric, from South East Asia 3700 years ago, much earlier than previously thought.  Source: RiCi / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



Hi All,

That's funny this article reminded me of the 40 Year's of Wandering in the Desert taught in The Bible, from the Scriptures of Exodus to The Book of Numbers it was non-stop the complaining of The Israelites but, one of the biggest gripping epilogue notated was of Food.

In bringing up their moans and groans to Aaron an Moses; they'd often, say "in Egypt we had garlic and leeks". Understanding all of the Exotic Spices each Civilization was exposed to helps in explaining The Israelites stiff-necked response to the New Diet plan asked of The Nation as a Whole.

In case anyone is curious; I'm saying Nation, due to fact, They are Identified as such in Genesis.

Going back to the diet part with the added assistance of Exotic Spices. I understand the cuisines Curry Dishes has been around for quite sometime, and over in Ethiopia there are two types of bread that is a regular staple with I guess Curry like dishes.

I found out that for 1000s of year's this unleavened bread were used to scoop their Meals Up to eat their food. Then there is a sweet poppy seed like bread man it is so good but, due to the poppy seeds in that same bread, I had to stop eating the bread.

Dr. Henry Gate's. Jr produced a Documentary Series on PBS about The African Civilization's and for some reason that I don't yet understand Dr. Gate's got to The Spice Capitol in Africa right before he ended The Series on Ethiopia.

I felt like saying too Dr. Gate's I admire his work very much, "Man, Dr. Gate's; you should have mentioned that African Spice Capitol In The Beginning of The Documentary Series".

We're I to ever visit that Spice Capitol; it would cause havoc with my allergies, so I'll admire the place from a very, very long distance.

I read a lot books on personal accounts of Soldiers who served in Vietnam. Then I read that the Republic of Korea (ROK yes I noted the irony of its acronym), were assisting The U.S. in The War.

So our soldiers that interacted with them praised their fierce fighting on the battlefields.

It was their favorite dish that The Republic of Korea Soldiers ate everyday during the War Kimachi our guys couldn't stomach.
The smell nauseated them hey our Soldiers Words not mine.

I just think the Korean Soldiers used a lot of Ginger and Vinegar in the food.

It's a Staple Dish Koreans have eaten as long as Indian Curry has been around. I tried 4 cups of it at church (it was potluck) it was great I didn't get what those Soldiers were complaining about.

It did have a lot of Spices in this Dish sorry can't tell you which one's they all are accept for The Ginger & Garlic, plus, every household in Korea is different they prepare Kimachi in their families recipe style.

I am also reminded of an event that my grade school hosted, it was Multiculturalism Observance Day.

I got the chance to sample a bowl of lentils the family that present the lentils dish and some chicken came from Jerusalem oh the chicken was delicious and the bowl of lentils reminded me of Southern comfort food.

Such as the Southern Dish Hoppin John's a black eyed peas and rice dish or Northern White Beans an finally Butter Beans sometimes served with biscuits or cornbread.

Multiculturalism Observance goal of the school was to teach both diversity and appreciation for one another's culture and what better way than with Food & Music.

At the end of the day with Multiculturalism Observance,
The Vegetarian Spicy Curry Food, Mexican Food & Salvadoran Food won my heart an that's my truth and I'm sticking to it.

That's right, I forgot the Chicken prepared by the Family originally from Jerusalem and yes that chicken was so good. My mom and I thought it might have been one of those Free Range Chickens.

There's about three of those Free Range Chickens; that, I'm aware of Willy Bird's, Rosie Bird's, and Rocky. Jr's.

Share an example my grandmother asked if she could cook a turkey for Thanksgiving so we got a Diestel Turkey which is Free Range and on the day of Thanksgiving she thought she'd did something wrong because the Turkey was done (she cooked her Turkey's at 12:00 p.m.), It was done by 2:00-2:30 p.m.

Grandma said we should have told her it was a turkey from the farm, she realized it more so when we were eating it. So getting back to that good tasting free range chicken prepared special for Multiculturalism Observance.

It's nice how long the Exotic Spices has been around and the people long ago wanting food to taste good the lengths they went to make that happen.

All this food discussion takes me right back; to The Bible, in The Time of Daniel and the choice he and his 3 friend's Mishael, Hananiah, & Azariah made while in Exile (Bible often refers to this period as The Babylonian Captivity or The Babylonian Exile).

King Nebuchadnezzer decided to choose the most gifted of the Jewish Captives to serve in his Palace as Wise men Daniel was found to be gifted in Interpretation of Dreams.

This was a big deal with our Ancient Ancestors it was believed the gods were communicating with Us and they needed to know what the gods were divulging to them.

Nowadays we go to Psychiatrist or Psychologist to interpret our Dreams while still other's seek counsel from our various Spiritual Leaders.

Getting back to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, & Azariah children of the Tribe Judah King David's Bloodline. The young men made a pledge too never forsake their traditions or the God of their Father's.

So when The King bestowed upon them The Food from The King's Own Table they refused the food offered to them and requested of the chief Eunuchs instead to allow them too drink water and eat only vegetables instead.

There's a double meaning for this request by Daniel and his 3 friend's but, we won't get into it; right now. I will say is that the Foreman in charge of The Youth from Jerusalem initially refuses this request by Daniel.

Until, the prophet proposed to allow him eat his way for 10 Day's.

Then the four youth present themselves before this Foreman; after 10 Day's, He can see for himself how much healthier they are in comparison to those youth in training who ate the Food of The King.

So for the rest of Daniel's life as well his friend's were able to maintain the same steady diet the feasted on since arriving as Captives in Babylon.

Daniel doesn't mention whether his vegetables were seasoned.
If I were to guess a possible Spice that could have been used Tumeric?

After all, I myself eat Spicy vegetarian curry & drink due to the hot spices in the meal I'm left needing to drink a lot of Water when done with my meal. Soups with Turmeric within it I notice tends to make one quite thirsty too.

I brought up subjects from The Bible due to the fact this here wonderful article mentioned both Israel and Spices & the type of food that was consumed and what spices were used in that part of the World.

So Israel was mentioned Egypt was mentioned Spices that were traded and used for consumption was mentioned.

All the talk of Exotic Spices prompted me to remember Dr. Henry Gate's. Jr 's documentary series on Africa's Great Civilizations and The African Spice Capitol that's been situated there for 1000s, and 1000s of years.

I really enjoyed reading this article and discussing The Topic; so
if I don't here from anyone soon Happy New Year, Everybody and until next time Everyone, Goodbye!

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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