Ancient teeth confirm: people have been trading internationally for thousands of years

We often hear how we’re living in a more interconnected world than ever before — and that is true. But people have never lived in complete isolation from others. New research comes to support this view, by showing that long-distance trade in food and spices was already taking place between Asia and the Mediterranean region over 3000 years ago.

Image credits John Oliver.

Spices such as turmeric and foods including bananas were known and present in the Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age, the paper explains, much earlier than previously assumed. The authors further note that such plants were not endemic to the Mediterranean, so the only way they could get there was via long-distance trade.

Megiddo Mall

“Exotic spices, fruits, and oils from Asia had reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” says Philipp Stockhammer from LMU, who led the research. “This is the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana, and soy outside of South and East Asia.”

The international team of researchers analyzed the tartar (dental deposits) on the teeth of 16 people unearthed in excavations at the Megiddo and Tel Erani sites in modern-day Israel. This area mediated any ancient travel and trade between the Mediterranean, Asia, and Egypt. If you wanted to travel between these places in the 2nd millennium BCE, you had to go through the Levant.

What the researchers were looking for was food residue, such as proteins or plant microfossils, that remained preserved in the dental plaque over the last thousands of years. From there, they hoped, they could reconstruct the local diet.

Dental plaque or calculus is produced by bacteria that live in our mouth. As it forms it can capture small particles of food, which become preserved.

“This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” says Stockhammer. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”

The techniques they used fall under the domain of paleoprotemics, a relatively new field of science concerned with the study of ancient proteins. The team managed to identify both “ancient proteins and plant residues” from the teeth, revealing that their owners had consumed foods brought from faraway lands.

It was quite surprising for the team as well. Such techniques are difficult to use, they explain, because you have to piece together what food people ate judging solely from the proteins they contained. The proteins themselves must also survive for thousands of years until analyzed, so there’s also quite a lot of luck required to pull it off.

The team confirmed the presence of sesame in local diets at the time (sesame is not an endemic plant to the Levant), suggesting that it had become a staple food here by the 2nd millennium BCE. The teeth of one individual from Megiddo showed turmeric and soy proteins, while one individual from Tel Erani showed traces of banana proteins — all of them likely entering the area through South Asia.

“Our analyses thus provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world. No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region,” says Stockhammer. “I find it spectacular that food was exchanged over long distances at such an early point in history.”

Naturally, the team can’t rule out that this individual traveled or lived in South Asia for a period of time, consuming local foodstuffs during this time. They also can’t estimate the scale of any trades going on, only find evidence that such networks probably existed.

Still, the findings showcase how early long-distance trade began, and they go to show that people have been living in and building an interconnected world for a very long time now. While definitely interesting and important from an academic point of view, such results also help to put our current social dialogues around globalization, trade, and immigration into perspective.

The paper “Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE” has been published in the journal PNAS.

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