Canaanites Ate Soy, Philistines Munched Bananas: Study Reveals Ancient Trade in Exotic Foods

Analysis of teeth from the Bronze and Iron Ages indicates very early globalization: More than 3,500 years ago, people in today’s Israel ate goods from the Far East

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Artist's impression of a Bronze Age market
Artist's impression of a Bronze Age marketCredit: Nikola Nevenov
Ariel David
Ariel David

These days we feel sophisticated when we order sushi or some other Asian delicacy at the tap of a smartphone. But though the process was more laborious, it seems that around 3,500 years ago ancient Levantines could already enjoy exotic foods from distant lands in the Far East.

An analysis of dental calculus on teeth unearthed at two archaeological sites in Israel shows that in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages, at least some people amongst the Canaanites and the Philistines could afford to eat soy, turmeric and bananas. These crops would not be grown in the region until centuries or even millennia later. They had to have been imported, likely from India or East Asia, an international team of researchers reports in a study published Monday in the journal PNAS.

It’s been clear for some years that the Bronze Age civilizations around the Mediterranean were much more advanced than had been realized, and also that they traded amongst themselves, via inland routes and across the sea. But the new findings highlight just how vast and diversified their trading networks were, and the extent to which our world was already globalized millennia ago. This, to be clear, was centuries before the ancient Israelites emerged as a people in Canaan and almost a thousand years (depending on who you ask) before the Bible was first written

The study also suggests that when the civilizations of the Bronze Age suddenly collapsed, for reasons still unclear, the new peoples that emerged in the Early Iron Age, such as the Philistines of biblical fame, quickly reestablished long-distance trade ties.

Teeth from Armageddon

Researchers have increasingly been applying scientific methods to analyze either dental calculus or the isotopes embedded in teeth enamel to glean new information about the diet, migrations and health of ancient populations.

Reconstruction of the Megiddo grave whose individuals were examined in this studyCredit: Megiddo Excavation

In the case of the PNAS study, the researchers analyzed the dental calculus, which is hardened plaque that accumulates on teeth (especially if you don’t brush them properly), from 16 individuals.

Thirteen were from burials dated to the Middle Bronze Age (17th-16th century B.C.E.) unearthed in the ancient Canaanite town of Megiddo, also known as the biblical site of Armageddon, in today’s northern Israel.

The other three were from an 11th century B.C.E. cemetery at Tel Erani, an Early Iron Age rural settlement linked to the Philistine culture, which at that time was developing along what is today’s Israel southern coast and the Gaza Strip.

After delicately scraping some calculus from each tooth, the researchers prepared solutions from the crud and analyzed those using a mass spectrometer to identify the proteins in the samples. These were compared to known proteins found in different foods and which are unique to specific crops.

Along with the expected signals of cereals, sesame, dates and other staples that were a big part of the Levantine diet, they found some unexpected signals, says Philipp Stockhammer, a professor of archaeology at LMU Munich who led the team.

One of the Bronze Age individuals from Megiddo had consumed soy and turmeric, while one of the Tel Erani teeth showed a strong signature of a protein found in bananas, the scientists report.

The Erani Bronze Age cemeteryCredit: IAA

We don’t exactly know how often a certain food needs to be eaten in order to leave traces in the calculus, but it is certainly not the result of occasional snacking, says Stockhammer, who also co-directs the joint Max Planck – Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean

“If we found it, it means they ate it more than once; it means it could have been a significant part of their diet,” he says.

The findings from the Megiddo individual push back the clock on the arrival of soy in the Levant by thousands of years, since its cultivation in the region is unknown until the 20th century, Stockhammer notes.

Turmeric and banana appeared in the region before modern times, but the earliest securely identified remains of these foods are still dated to centuries after the time of the teeth involved in this study.

“The soy is especially a big enigma,” he tells Haaretz. “This person could have been someone very mobile, who was involved in trade or stayed for a long time in South or East Asia, or there is a chance they could get this product directly at the market in Megiddo: either way, this individual had access to these exotic foods, and that is what’s so fascinating.”

Let them eat bananas

The soy may have been consumed in the form of oil, which would have been easier to transport and would have made it less perishable, Stockhammer postulates.

Why the locals would import soy oil to a country rich in other oil-bearing crops is not entirely clear. It is known however that the ancient Egyptians, which for part of the Bronze Age controlled Megiddo and the Levant, were particularly interested in exotic oils, which they used for mummification and other cultic practices, Stockhammer says.

Bananas now grown locally in a Tel Aviv gardenCredit: Aviva Ein-Gil

As for how the soy and other exotic foods identified in the study reached the Levant, it is likely that they did not come directly from Far East Asia but through India. As early as the second millennium B.C.E., India had become a commercial bridge between East and West, he says. Traders would carry their wares by sea to the Persian Gulf then inland to Mesopotamia and Middle Eastern markets. Or they may have sailed all the way to the Egyptian ports on the Red Sea, the archaeologist theorizes.

However these exotic goods reached the region, buying them would probably not have been for everyone’s pockets, notes Israel Finkelstein, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist who heads the dig at Megiddo. The soy-eater was found in a fairly elaborate family tomb that contained more than 20 bodies and funerary offerings of pottery and bronze artifacts, Finkelstein says. It was not as refined as the so-called “royal tomb” that was discovered in 2016, with bodies adorned with gold and silver jewelry, but it was still a burial that belonged to members of the city’s elite, he says.

“I don’t think we are talking about large scale trade,” Stockhammer adds. “These goods were not just for the highest members of the elites but also not for everyone.”

Interestingly enough, the burial of the banana eater from Tel Erani, who lived around 500 years later, didn’t evince any particular signs of high social status.

“As time went on, these exotic goods probably became more broadly available, and we see that someone who was seemingly not a member of the elites and was buried in a humble grave still got to consume bananas,” Stockhammer says. It is possible this person was a sailor on ships that stocked dried bananas as a source of food, or this product may have just been available at the local market.

“There is nothing apparently out of the ordinary about this individual,” the archaeologist concludes, and adds: “I think that bananas were more available than we might think.”

Archaeologists digging in the area of Megiddo where the burial of the Canaanite soy-eater was foundCredit: Ariel David

Add a dash of pepper to your mummy

Skeptics may argue that the sample in this study was small and it is hard to draw broad conclusions about trade and diets based on two individuals who ate exotic foods several centuries apart.

However, when one looks at other clues that have emerged in recent years of close ties between the ancient Mediterranean and East Asia, the picture comes into greater focus, Stockhammer and colleagues note. Peppercorns, probably from India, were involved in the mummification of Pharaoh Ramses II; cloves, originally from Indonesia, have been found at Terqa, a Bronze Age site in Syria; monkeys depicted in 17th-16th century B.C.E. frescoes at Akrotiri, on the Aegean island of Thera, have been recently identified as a species that originated in India; and, at Megiddo itself, the site where soy or soy oil was apparently available, a jug from the so-called “royal tomb” was found to contain traces of vanilla, another possible import from the Far East. 

Taken together, all this shows that the world went through an early wave of globalization, or “Bronzization” as some scholars call it, during the Bronze Age, and that trade happened over larger distances and involved many more products than previously thought, Stockhammer says.

Excavating MegiddoCredit: Megiddo Excavation

“We tend to think that trade back then was focused on metals, raw materials and precious stones, but now see there was already an intense commerce in spices and food,” he notes.

Part of this distorted picture arises from the fact that, unlike metal objects and jewelry, perishable goods are rarely found in archaeological digs and ancient shipwrecks. Part of it is also caused by the preconceptions we have about people in the distant past. “There is often this myth that before modernity people lived in harmony with nature, eating only the things they grew in their garden, and this is obviously wrong. As soon as they could, people started to want food and spices from other places,” Stockhammer says.

The food trade industry also appears to have been particularly resilient to political and social upheavals. Around the 12th century B.C.E. a period of chaos and instability, possibly sparked by climate change, enveloped the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. In what has been termed the Bronze Age Collapse, the Hittite empire in Anatolia and the Mycenean civilization in Greece vanished, while Egypt retreated from its colonial possessions in Canaan.

As the Iron Age dawned and new political entities began to form, such as the Philistine city-states and the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah, it seems that the desire for foreign foods did not abate, as evidenced by the banana eater of Tel Erani, who lived maybe just a century after the crisis.

“Despite the collapse, maybe not the day after, but very quickly around the year 1000 B.C.E., we have evidence of recovery,” says Finkelstein.

While trade in the Bronze Age was more of a state-sponsored affair, the collapse of the great empires about 3,200 years ago meant that in the Early Iron Age trade apparently became the fief of individual entrepreneurs – and, who knows, the individual from Tel Erani may have been one of those adventurous businessmen, Stockhammer posits.

The study of dental calculus is opening up a completely new field of study that can give us much information about broader historical currents and single, individual stories, he says. “For the first time we can say this person ate this or that during their lifetime,” he concludes. “The dead are no longer just anonymous skeletons, we can get so close to their personal histories, and I think that’s very cool.”

So, consider yourself warned. If you don’t want future archaeologists to dig up your bones to figure out what you ate, brush your teeth.

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