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Exotic foods and spices show ancient Israel was part of global trade with India during the Bronze and early Iron Ages 3,600 years ago.

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel

Researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority in collaboration with other international teams have revealed that ancient Israel had significant global trade with India and Southeast Asia as early as the 16th century BCE.

Some of the exotic foods and spices that were traded included soybeans, bananas and the spice turmeric – almost one thousand years before any previously known availability of these foods in the Levant.

Keen dental forensic archaeology was responsible for the discoveries, as the study focused on traces of food in the dental remains of people buried at Tel Megiddo in the Galilee and Tel Erani south of Tel Aviv near Kiryat Gat.

These records revealed the people had eaten foods native at the time to Southeast Asia, not Israel.

When picturing the market of the city of Megiddo 3,700 years ago, the researchers said the local foods included items like wheat, dates and sesame seeds. They were able to confirm this by finding ancient proteins and micro-fossils from these staple foods in the examined jawbones. However, alongside these expected findings, traces of soybeans, bananas and turmeric were also discovered.

This, according to the researchers, is the earliest evidence of soybeans, bananas and turmeric found anywhere outside of Southeast Asia. The discovery pushes back the earliest known availability of these foods in the Land of Israel and the Mediterranean Basin by centuries for turmeric and by a thousand years for soybeans.

This means that long-distance trade in exotic fruits, spices and oils was conducted between Southeast Asia and the region of the Land of Israel, through Mesopotamia or Egypt, as early as the second millennium BCE.

Bananas would never have survived the long journey from Southeast Asia to Megiddo, so researchers concluded they were delivered and consumed as dry fruits.

“This is clear evidence of trade with southeast Asia as early as the 16 th century BCE – much earlier than previously assumed,” said Prof. Israel Finkelstein the university’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. “Several years ago, we found similar evidence of long-distance trade: molecular traces of vanilla in ceramic vessels from the same period at Megiddo. Yet very little is known about the trade routes or how the goods were delivered.”

“One surprising find in our excavation at Tel Erani was a cemetery from the Early Iron Age – about 3,100 years ago,” said Dr. Ianir Milevski of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“In some tombs we found families buried together, children alongside their parents. We also found burial offerings – bowls, jugs and pitchers buried with the dead, for their use in the afterlife. In some vessels, we found animal bones, mostly the remains of sheep and goats, intended as food for the dead. We plan to further investigate the vessels, in search of remains of bananas and sesame seeds similar to those found in the teeth of the people buried with them,” Dr. Milevski said.

The researchers are also examining the DNA in the human bones to understand who these people were and where they came from.

Soy was first domesticated in the region of China in the 7th millennium BCE. The banana, domesticated in New Guinea in the 5th millennium BCE, arrived in West Africa 4,000 years later, but until now no indication was found of any earlier appearance of this fruit in the Middle East.

The researchers still don’t know just how accessible these foods were to people from different social classes. They assume that the jawbones probably belonged to people of relatively high social status in the city-state of Megiddo who could afford the imported delicacies, as the tombs and findings indicated they were well off.

“Our study demonstrates the immense possibilities embodied in the incorporation of the exact and natural sciences into modern archaeological research,” concluded Prof. Finkelstein. “Traditional archaeology, which may also be called macro-archaeology, provides data visible to the eye – such as buildings, pottery, jewelry and weapons. A whole world of other data, of critical importance, is revealed only under the microscope and by using advanced analytical methods.”