Ancient Mediterranean People Ate Bananas and Turmeric From Asia 3,700 Years Ago

Fossilized tooth plaque reveals a diverse and exotic palette reflected in the region’s modern cuisine

Bronze Age market scene at the Levant. Illustration: Nikola Nevenov
New analysis of the fossilized tooth plaque of 16 ancient Mediterraneans reveals that they consumed foods imported from Asia—like turmeric and banana, pictured—a thousand years earlier than researchers previously thought. Illustration: Nikola Nevenov via Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

The story of the trade route from Asia to the Mediterranean world is commonly thought to begin in the first century A.D. Now, research reveals that people in the Mediterranean ate foods that grew in South Asia—like sesame, soybean, turmeric and banana—at least 3,700 years ago.

New analysis of fossilized tooth plaque from 16 ancient Mediterranean people reveals that their diet was more diverse than researchers previously thought. In a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers reconstruct the eating habits of people living in the Bronze and Early Iron Age across the Southern Levant.

"We need to get rid of the assumption that people in the past only ate what grew in their immediate surroundings," Philipp Stockhammer, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, tells Claire Cameron for Inverse. "From early on, humans were interested in different tastes, exotic food, and elaborate cuisine, and took a lot of effort to get access to a variety of food."

The research adds to archaeological and textual evidence that food was an important part of the globalized import system for the people of Southern Mediterranean, reports Andrew Curry for National Geographic.

"Our findings indicate that the ancient societies of the Eastern Mediterranean and South Asia were engaging in trade and communication during the 2nd millennium B.C.E.," Christina Warriner, assistant professor of Anthropology and study co-author, tells Inverse. "Today, it is hard to imagine Levantine cuisine without sesame-based foods like tahini, but sesame was originally an import."

Turmeric, bananas and soybeans were staple foods in South Asia at the time. Today, Levantine cuisine centers the flavors of ras el hanout, a spice blend with turmeric, and the sesame-based halva or tahini, Inverse reports.

The research included the remains 16 people who lived in the region between 1688 B.C.E. and 1000 B.C.E. Some were found buried in Megiddo, a town in present-day Israel, sometimes better known by its Biblical name, Armageddon. Based on the objects they were buried with, these people appeared to be wealthy. Others, like those found in Tel Erani, also now Israel, were not so wealthy, National Geographic reports.

Researchers studied the teeth of 14 skulls that were well preserved. Dental calculus, also known as tooth tartar, is a form of calcified dental plaque. It was once thought to be junk that was discarded in archaeological digs, according to National Geographic. But the dental calculus contains traces of animal DNA and microfossils that researchers can match with certain edible plants.

“If you would stop brushing your teeth, in 2,000 years I could tell what you were eating,” Stockhammer tells National Geographic.

They found traces of locally grown foods and known staple crops like dates and wheat. But they also discovered proteins found in wheat, sesame, turmeric, soybean and banana—clues that indicate a much more diverse food culture than previously thought.

"We show that protein analysis can be used to detect processed and prepared foods, like oils and spices, that otherwise leave very few diagnostic traces behind," Warriner tells Inverse. "This is exciting because oils and spices were likely among the earliest goods traded over long-distances, but they are among the most difficult foods to identify archaeologically."

Foods that were consumed by the wealthier classes—like those buried in Megiddo—seemed to become available to more common people over time. The high-status individual in Megiddo seems to have eaten exotic foods in the early second millennium. The teeth of the Tel Erani man, on the other hand, show traces of banana microfossils from the late second millennium, Inverse reports.

Andrew Clarke at the University of Nottingham tells New Scientist that the dental analysis technique provides new opportunities to understand the food histories of people around the world.

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