Ancient Teeth Reveal Bronze Age Trade Between South Asia, Mediterranean

An archaeological excavation of the ancient city of Megiddo in northern Israel. (Credit: The Megiddo Expedition.)

(CN) — The Levant was the site of global trade as long ago as 3,700 years, much earlier than previously believed, researchers found in an archaeological excavation of 16 Bronze Age bodies in modern Israel.

Philipp Stockhammer, a prehistoric archaeologist at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, and his colleagues analyzed food residues in the ancient corpses’ tooth tartar, also known as dental calculus. In these human fossils, which dated to the second millennium BCE, the scientists saw evidence of turmeric, bananas and soy.

“Exotic spices, fruits and oils from Asia had thus reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” Stockhammer said in a statement. “This is the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana and soy outside of South and East Asia.”

It’s no surprise that long-distance trade of food and spices was conducted during the Roman era, but evidence of trade with South Asia this early comes as a new find. Egypt and Mesopotamia were likely waypoints along the trade routes from South Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean.

A 3D reconstruction of a grave found in an excavation of Megiddo, an ancient city in in northern Israel. (Credit: The Megiddo Expedition.)

The 16 bodies were excavated from Megiddo, a Bronze Age Canaanite city-state where the Canaans prepared to resist Egyptian military expansion in the 15th century BCE, and Tel Erani, where a Nagada Egyptian trading post sat more than 5,300 years ago.

Teeth are an excellent source of evidence for the lives of the ancients: bacteria from minerals, pathogens and other illuminating samples are deposited and preserved — essentially fossilized — for millennia.

“This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” Stockhammer continued. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”

His team’s process of paleoproteomics — analyzing the proteins preserved in mineralized tissues such as teeth and bones — “breaks new scientific ground,” said the study’s lead author, LMU biochemist Ashley Scott, in a statement.

Harvard University molecular archaeologist Christina Warinner, a senior author on the article, agrees.

“Our high-resolution study of ancient proteins and plant residues from human dental calculus is the first of its kind to study the cuisines of the ancient Near East,” Warinner said in a statement. “Our 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.”

The paleoproteomeics research method depends on the food proteins’ survival in teeth tartar over the years.

“Interestingly, we find that allergy-associated proteins appear to be the most stable in human calculus,” Scott said.

Wheat gluten, for instance, was found in the ancient teeth. By detecting plant microfossils known as phytoliths, which are rigid silica structures that helpfully persist after a plant’s decay, the scientists could also confirm the presence of cereals, dates and sesame in ancient Mediterranean diets.

The turmeric and soy proteins were found in a Megiddo individual’s teeth, and the banana proteins were recovered from a Tel Erani body. Bananas were domesticated and used in Southeast Asia since the 5th millennium BCE. Prior to this study, little was known about bananas’ trade or use until they came to West Africa by 1,000 BCE.

“Our analyses thus provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world. No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region,” Stockhammer said in his statement. “I find it spectacular that food was exchanged over long distances at such an early point in history.”

The findings come with caveats, however, as it is impossible to know whether these particular individuals had simply lived, and therefore dined, in South Asia at some point in their lives before their remains wound up in the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean region that now covers Israel and Lebanon and parts of Syria and Jordan.

Still, the study — published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — may well indicate the earliest known signs of trade across Asia.

“We can now grasp the impact of globalization during the 2nd millennium BCE on East Mediterranean cuisine,” Stokchammer concluded. “Mediterranean cuisine was characterized by intercultural exchange from an early stage.”

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