Food study peels back human history 1,000 years earlier than thought

"We are now starting to understand how and when the diverse components of iconic cuisines came to be."

Consider the humble banana: The ubiquitous fruit arrived in the United States a mere 150 years ago, in the 1870s and '80s. Since then, it has ascended to become Americans' most beloved fresh fruit, and one of the most affordable. At 55 cents a pound on average, bananas grace fruit bowls across the socioeconomic spectrum. Bunches hang at mega grocery stores in the exurbs; they rest on the counter at corner delis in the urban core.

Though America's bananas now come from Central America or the Caribbean, they originally came from half a world away — South Asia. They are labor-intensive to pick and difficult to transport, but with globalization in food production and trade, they started as a delicacy for the privileged and have ended up a staple.

The modern story of the banana in America mirrors a much older — ancient, even — tale of how humanity shaped its culture around food.

Philipp Stockhammer, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, tells Inverse the prevailing belief ancient humans only ate food grown near their home is all wrong.

"We need to get rid of the assumption that people in the past only ate what grew in their immediate surroundings," Stockhammer says. "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."

As early as 4,000 years ago, these exotic fruits had already made their way onto plates far beyond the Indian Ocean.

For decades, the best evidence archaeologists had to understand what ancient humans ate lay in their preserved goods. The pots of honey stored in ancient tombs or remnants of cooking ash found ingrained in discarded pottery, for example.

Old teeth tell a new story — Thanks to new techniques involving the analysis of the dental pulp preserved in the teeth of 16 ancient Mediterraneans, archaeologists are slowly reconstructing the daily diets of these peoples — discovering their tastes and desires may have been far closer to our modern-day eating habits than we previously thought.

The new analysis, which takes a close look at the food proteins locked in Bronze Age humans' dental pulp — essentially, the plaque built up on their teeth — was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What they discovered — Stockhammer and his colleagues discovered the earliest evidence yet for the consumption of turmeric and soybeans in the prehistoric Levant — an area of the Southern Mediterranean that today includes Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Turkey.

The evidence pushes the entry of these foods into the Mediterranean diet back by 1,000 years, Stockhammer and his colleagues learned.

"We are now starting to understand how and when the diverse components of iconic cuisines came to be."

They also found some of the earliest evidence yet these foods were consumed in processed forms — oils, spices, and dried goods — hinting at an ancient culinary scene far more diverse and sophisticated than we had previously imagined.

Further, the study reveals how ancient peoples interacted with one another. Turmeric, bananas, and soybeans are staple foods in South Asia, not the Mediterranean — even sesame, a food considered essential to these cuisines, was an import, the study shows.

Today, halva, made with sesames, is a popular sweet in Greek and Turkish cuisine, as well as other Arab culinary traditions.


Christina Warriner, assistant professor of Anthropology and study co-author, tells Inverse one ingredient that we think of as quintessential was actually a foreign delicacy.

"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.," Warriner says. "Today, it is hard to imagine Levantine cuisine without sesame-based foods like tahini, but sesame was originally an import."

"We are now starting to understand how and when the diverse components of iconic cuisines came to be," she adds.

How they did it — The researchers used a combination of microscopy and protein analysis to analyze food remains in the dental calculus of 16 individuals who once lived in the region between 1688 B.C.E and 1000 B.C.E. Some, like individuals found buried in Megiddo, now in Israel, appeared to be of wealthy stature judging by the objects they were buried with. Others, like those found at Tel Erani, another site in what is now Israel, did not appear so wealthy. But they all had one thing in common: Bad dental hygiene.

"Dental calculus, also known as tooth tartar, is a form of calcified dental plaque," Warriner explains.

A 3D reconstruction of one of the grave sites found at Megiddo, an area near to the modern Israeli city of Haifa.

The Megiddo Expedition

"The plant microfossils we studied included phytoliths — a form of plant glass that forms especially in grasses and cereals — and starch granules," she says.

These microfossils revealed the trace remains of dates and wheat — both expected, as they were locally grown foods and known staple crops.

But when they dug into the proteins contained in 14 of the individuals' teeth (2 skulls' teeth were not well-enough preserved to perform this analysis), they found plant proteins indicating a rich and diverse food culture.

"Only now we have become sufficiently aware that food was an important part of this early globalization."

"These included proteins found in wheat, sesame, turmeric, soybean, and banana," Warriner says.

"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 adds. "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."

Curiously, the distribution of dietary proteins changed over time, suggesting the abundance of food available to people from different realms of society also changed — becoming increasingly accessible over time.

"What we can see is that in the early 2nd millennium, it were the high-status individuals from Megiddo that had access to foreign food," Stockhammer says. "Whereas in the late 2nd millennium, the Tel Erani man who ate banana was definitely not of elevated status."

The researchers' imagined market scene.

Nikola Nevenov

Why it matters — By digging into what these ancient peoples ate, the paper provides a window onto the past, revealing how ancient human societies, separated by great distances, communicated with one another with food — and the individuals responsible for driving the changing, expanding palates.

Lebanese cuisine today features Sfouf, a turmeric cake. Ras el hanout, a spice blend that also includes turmeric, is one of the flavors most associated with Levantine cuisine. Entire shops are dedicated to sesame-based halva. And what would a falafel wrap be without tahini?

"Only now we have become sufficiently aware that food was an important part of this early globalization — very similar to our present-day situation, where food is one of the most global goods!" Stockhammer says.

"The finding of both turmeric and soybean protein in the dental calculus of one of the individuals from Meggido was especially exciting," Warriner says. "This individual was buried in a wealthy tomb and there are several archaeological hints that he may have been a merchant or long-distance trader."

"Although we cannot be sure, he may represent someone who was directly involved in establishing the long-distance links between the Levant and distant trading centers in South Asia or beyond," she says.

One of the sites excavated at Megiddo. Analysis of individuals discovered at Megiddo revealed how Bronze Age people living in the region ate.

The Megiddo Expedition

What's next — Although the study expands our ideas about how ancient humans in the Mediterranean once lived and ate, the study is limited by the small sample size of just 16 individuals. Only further research can fully reveal the culinary dynamics at play in the ancient Levant.

"From our findings, it is difficult to say what role communication about exotic food played in the past," Stockhammer says.

The study also doesn't shed light on how ancient traders conveyed their wares from one corner of the globe to another, or how local traders would have distributed these foods once they made it to market.

"It is very difficult to describe such markets, as we are lacking visual as well as textual sources. We assume that they were similar to present-day markets in the Mediterranean with market stalls offering fruit, vegetables, and spices," Stockhammer says.

Today, our diets rely on international trade. The idea of not being able to access foods like bananas, curry spices, or tofu is anathema to many of us in the western world. But one thing we can identify with these ancient traders about is the lengths we will go to get that one variety of chili, that spice blend from that area of Thailand, that cheese from that region of France. Ultimately, these findings connect us with our ancestors — revealing our desires are not so different.

The efforts ancient humans made to get the foods they coveted was "very similar to what people do today," Stockhammer says. "Although nowadays the effort is definitely less and the speed much faster. I do not need to wait anymore for a ship from India bringing more pepper or turmeric."

Abstract: Although the key role of long-distance trade in the transformation of cuisines worldwide has been well-documented since at least the Roman era, the prehistory of the Eurasian food trade is less visible. In order to shed light on the transformation of Eastern Mediterranean cuisines during the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, we analyzed microremains and proteins preserved in the dental calculus of individuals who lived during the second millennium BCE in the Southern Levant. Our results provide clear evidence for the consumption of expected staple foods, such as cereals (Triticeae), sesame (Sesamum), and dates (Phoenix). We additionally report evidence for the consumption of soybean (Glycine), probable banana (Musa), and turmeric (Curcuma), which pushes back the earliest evidence of these foods in the Mediterranean by centuries (turmeric) or even millennia (soybean). We find that, from the early second millennium onwards, at least some people in the Eastern Mediterranean had access to food from distant locations, including South Asia, and such goods were likely consumed as oils, dried fruits, and spices. These insights force us to rethink the complexity and intensity of Indo-Mediterranean trade during the Bronze Age as well as the degree of globalization in early Eastern Mediterranean cuisine.
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