Researchers have long believed that the first people to cultivate vanilla orchids were the indigenous Totonac people of Veracruz, Mexico, about 1,000 years ago, or perhaps even a little longer. They were conquered by the Aztecs, who learned to enjoy a dash of vanilla in their hot chocolate. The Spanish, it’s believed, went on to import vanilla to Europe after conquering the Aztecs.
But a recent report based on a discovery from Megiddo, a Canaanite city and archaeological site in Israel, raises the possibility that vanilla may have been made 3,600 years ago in a totally different continent. The finding comes from residue analysis conducted on four juglets found in an untouched Bronze Age burial called “Tomb 50.” Bruce Bower at ScienceNews reports that the residue in the juglets contained vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, the major flavor components in vanilla, along with residue of olive oil and other biomarkers. The research was presented by doctoral candidate Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.
While those compounds exist in other plants, Linares argues that only vanilla bean pods could have produced the amount found in the Bronze-Age Megiddo concoctions. “This is based on the profuse quantity of vanillin found in the juglets that could have only derived from the abundant amount of vanillin yield from the vanilla orchid pods,” she writes in her abstract.
The claim of the flavoring in ancient Israel is a pretty non-routine one, and vanilla experts are skeptical. Ken Cameron, director of the Wisconsin State Herbarium at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation, points out that there are a range of plants and chemical processes that produce 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde. “It is produced by many different plants and even results after the breakdown of other molecules such as lignin (wood). This is why some wines aged in oak barrels have a vanilla-like aroma,” he writes in an email to Smithsonian.com. Calling attention to the residue of olive oil also discovered in the juglets, he writes, “Perhaps relevant to this story is the fact that olive oil contains vanillin… In my mind this would be a more logical source.”
Linares expresses disappointment that the study has garnered so much attention before its official publication. The full study—including her data—is currently under review, and the analysis of vanillin and other biomarkers will appear in full when the paper is published. In short, she writes in an email to Smithsonian.com, the vanillin produced by the breakdown of lignin and other plant products only appears in trace amounts along with other biomarkers from the breakdown of wood or other plant material. In her analysis of the Megiddo juglets, however, vanillin appears in much higher concentrations than expected from lignin or other non-vanilla plant products, and, in fact, is the primary biomarker found in the juglets, along with three to four other biomarkers associated with vanilla. “Our analysis has excluded lignin, aromatic resins, and other various plants as possible sources based on the biomarker assemblage found in the Megiddo juglets,” she writes.
She isn’t claiming the Megiddo vanilla comes from some ancient unknown connection between the Canaanites and Mexico. The vanilla orchid family is quite large with more than 100 species spanning the globe in mostly tropical areas. According to Linares, it’s possible that a vanilla species was being traded to the Middle East from East Africa, southeast Asia or India.
Cameron cautions against this interpretation as well, pointing out that while vanilla orchids from the New World form the aromatic pods that we use as vanilla flavoring today, Old World species don’t develop the same fruit pods, and there’s no evidence that these vanilla species were collected or cultivated for use before Spanish conquistadors introduced the spice. Dorian Fuller, an archaeobotanist at University College London, not involved in the research, tells Andrew Lawler at Science that he “would be cautious in attributing origins, given the lack of much ethnobotanical evidence for the use of native vanilla.”
Linares’ research only addresses what was found in the juglets—any evidence for an established vanilla trade network goes well beyond her study. Whether vanilla was traded in the ancient world or not, the occupants of the tomb where the juglets were found were the type of people who might enjoy such luxury goods. The burials included a man and woman and an 8- to-12-year-old boy, all of whom were decorated with gold and silver jewelry, an indication of their high-status position in Canaanite society. Six other bodies in the tomb found near the city gate were of lower-status individuals.
Researchers began an exhaustive investigation of the tomb last year, and that is one reason they analyzed the contents of the juglets. “The incredible state of preservation of Tomb 50 offers an important opportunity for comprehensive scientific study of the ancient population and their funerary practices,” Melissa Cradic, the Megiddo excavations expert on Canaanite funeral practices, tells The Times of Israel. “We are studying diet and health, mobility and migration, ancient DNA, organic residues, environment, and issues of identity using the osteological and material remains.”
In the meantime, until Linares data is published, we’ll hold our judgement on the vanilla issue, unless the researchers dig up the smoking gun: a nice, crisp Bronze Age ice cream cone.
Editor's note, December 12, 2018: This story has been updated and revised to include comments from Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University and Ken Cameron, director of the Wisconsin State Herbarium at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.