Exotic food exchange in the second millennium BCE

Ancient commerce: Trade and cultural ties took place between the East and the West even in the Bronze Age .   | Photo Credit: Asela Don

We are familiar with the ‘Silk Route’ that connects Chinese and Central Asian regions with Southern Asian and West Asian regions of the world and how trade between these regions had started over 4,000 years ago, or the second millennium BCE. It was then that the King of Babylon (the region near the Euphrates River) Hammurabi ruled and had strict moral laws for his subjects. In this connection, the remarkable and ‘must read’ book ‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the World’, written by Peter Frankopan mentions how even before that time, trade and cultural ties were going on between the East and the West in the Bronze Age (3000 BCE)’, that is, 5000 years ago. People from the Mediterranean region were trading with those in the Central, South and East Asia, introducing horses, camels and donkeys, and likewise from India through the Gulf region. Exchange of ‘exotic’ (non-native) food items such as wheat, rice, pulses, sesame, banana, soybean and turmeric was taking place.

Bronze Age bodies

Happily, studies from the Levant Region, a large land mass including Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, still has the bodies of people who lived there in the Bronze Age, in the cemeteries and burial grounds. Studies of the bodies have been carried out by a group from Israel, Germany, Spain, U.K. and the U.S. The exciting paper, titled ‘Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE’, has appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, or PNAS, in December 2020. It may be accessed through

Ancient literary sources referred to how long-distance travel was taking place in the third millennium BCE, of the transport of live animals such as the movement of donkeys from Egypt to the Southern Levant, i.e., the region between modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and the cities of Amman, Aleppo, Beirut and Damascus, and even between Italy and Mesopotamia (Iran, Syria and Turkey). Botanical evidence also confirmed the exchange of fruit trees such as melons, citrus fruits and others from Southern Asian region during the Bronze Age (2000–1500 BCE). This showed the evidence of a Mediterranean cuisine, and even trading between the Indus Valley Civilisation and the Southern Asian region such as from Indonesia to the Southern Levant, in particular the Middle Bronze Age sites such as in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

Dental calculus

Two sites in this region, Megiddo and Tel Erani, were chosen for study. The research group had access to the tombs, cemeteries and burial sites in this region. Sixteen (16) samples from here were collected, from which they could obtain bones of the long-dead people. Analysis of the tooth bones, in particular the lower teeth connecting the jaw, was done and studied in detail. Scientists call this analysis, ‘dental calculus’. (By the way, this term calculus has nothing to do with mathematics at all, so please do not think that they were doing any advanced mathematical analysis!) The calculus here refers to the protein analysis of the teeth taken from the dead body, which offers information about the kind of food was eaten by the person – in particular plant material that had been stuck in the tooth. These plant materials are called ‘phytoliths’ (’phyto’ referring to plant and ‘lith’ to the fossilised part of the plant tissue stuck in the tooth).

The researchers could analyse the dental calculus of 16 individuals buried in Megiddo and Tel Erani, and the analysis revealed the presence of millet, date palm, flowering plants, grasses and dietary plants such as wheat, rice, sesame, barley, soybean, banana, ginger and turmeric, among others.

Proteome analysis

The group followed it up with the proteome analysis, which tells us the entire set of proteins expressed in the cells of the material. This revealed the presence of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, jasmine, cloves and peppercorn, revealing thereby that trade routes existed as early as the Bronze Age (3000–1200 BCE) and the Iron Age (500 BCE) between the Southeast and the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea-Dead Sea regions.

Bronze Age in India, particularly in the Northwest part of the country, is well documented by archeologists and historians. (The details of Bronze Age in the South of the region are still being studied). The Indus Valley Civilisation had already moved from the Stone Age into the Bronze Age (3300 – 1300 BCE). Metallurgy was practised.

The Indus Valley Civilisation, around 2600 BCE, is well documented for its urbanisation in the cities of Mohenjo- Daro and Harappa in what is now in Pakistan, then Nothwest India region, where introduction of written texts, agriculture, water management, astronomy and philosophy, were practised. More on this can be had by accessing the site: <>. In agriculture, we note millet, rice, wheat, grasses were produced. In technology, water management was practised. In business, trade between this region and Central Asia, Mesopotamia, and the Southern Levant was practised. All this was happening long before the Silk Routes were established.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 1:20:49 PM |

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