Earliest Evidence of Eggplants in Israel Found in 1,000-year-old Jerusalem Garbage Pit

The eggplant, which was probably brought to the Holy Land during the Persian conquest, joined crops grown locally for thousands of years to became a local staple

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A researcher puts ancient seeds found in a dump in Jerusalem into test tubes, which contain, from the left, lentils, various pumpkins, fig, Christ’s thorn jujubes and eggplant.
A researcher puts ancient seeds found in a dump in Jerusalem into test tubes, which contain, from the left, lentils, various pumpkins, fig, Christ’s thorn jujubes and eggplant.Credit: Eliyahu Yanai/City of David
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Archaeologists excavating an ancient garbage pit in Jerusalem have found the earliest evidence of the arrival of eggplant in Israel.

The 1,000-year-old dump, the eggplant seeds and much more were found in excavations of the stepped street in the City of David (also known as Pilgrimage Road), which extends south of Temple Mount, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Thursday. The pit itself was dug in a tunnel that passes beneath the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.

While the street dates to the Second Temple period (about 530 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), the refuse and seeds were dated to the early Islamic period (750 to 940 C.E.). Among the vessels found in the ancient trash was a lamp bearing the inscription “baracha” (blessing) in Arabic.

Oriya Amichay, one of the excavators of the site, poses in the laboratory where she examines the ancient seeds.Credit: Eliyahu Yanai/City of David

Rather than decaying, the seeds were preserved due to a mineralization effect, a sort of fossilization where organic matter is replaced by inorganic matter, explains Oriya Amichay, who is excavating the site with Nahshon Szanton, excavation director for the IAA.

Where would the eggplant have come from a thousand years ago? Technically a fruit, it belongs to the Solanum genus, which includes about 1,500 species, including pretty purple flowers, potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants. But although tomatoes and peppers spread worldwide from South America, the eggplant originated in the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka. The archaeologists suspect it may have arrived with the Persians, who conquered Jerusalem in the year 614.

“During that time, the people in Israel were exposed to new types of fruit and vegetables that came subsequent to the Persian conquest. Some, like the eggplant, became a common crop locally,” says Szanton. “These agricultural developments led to change in local nutrition. The arrival of new species and flavors made diets more varied than before. I imagine that’s one of the periods when the character of the East Mediterranean cuisine so well known today, based heavily on vegetables and fruits, was formed.”

Ancient seeds

Nahshon Szanton, excavation director for the Israel Antiques Authority, holds oil lamps found in the ancient dump.Credit: Eliyahu Yanai/City of David

Aside from the eggplant, the archaeologists also found thousands of seeds identifiable as grape, olive, Christ’s thorn jujube pits, black mulberries, lentils, figs and more, the IAA said. The copious amount of grape seeds indicates that there had been a grape-syrup production industry.

“As a natural outcome of their activity, workshops and markets created a great deal of garbage that sometimes was buried in refuse pits and cesspits that were dug nearby,” says Szanton. “Archaeological findings from the refuse pits provide tangible evidence of what written historical sources of the period have to say, and provide valuable information about the diet, lifestyle and economic and trade connections of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and neighboring countries 1,000 years ago. The eggplant seeds, which originated in Persia, are just one example of the research potential of ancient refuse.”

The pit also produced bones from cattle, fish and birds, and evidence of edible wild grasses.

The analysis of ancient seeds has shed much light on the origins of farming and diet in the earliest settlements. While ancient Israel wasn’t the home of the eggplant, Neolithic Galileans were growing fava beans more than 10,000 years ago and eating them as a staple, archaeologists announced in 2015. The discovery of large stone mortars from around 12,500 years ago at Huzuq Musa was interpreted as evidence that they were growing barley and making flour out of it. A different study, drawing the barley family tree based on genetic analysis, concluded that its domestication began in the area of northern Israel.

Grape seeds found in the ancient garbage dump.Credit: Eliyahu Yanai/City of David

That theory was supported by the unexpected discovery, announced in early 2016, of a village by the Sea of Galilee, dating to 12,000 years ago, which was much larger than had been expected to be sustainable at the time. And finally, analyses of flint sickles and the remains of brush huts dating to some 23,000 years ago indicated that the prehistoric Galileans were already cultivating some grains, including wheat and barley. Eggplants were very late to the party.

With writing by Ruth Schuster

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