Ancient humans ate food from far off places.

Domingo C. Salazar, researcher of excellence of the Valencia region at the University of Valencia, is one of the signees of a study published in journal PNAS, which shows that the long-distance trade of exotic foods such as turmeric or bananas reached the Mediterranean around 3,700 years ago, much before it was originally thought. The study of ancient proteins preserved in human plaque reveals that oriental elements and cooking oils were already used back in that era.

“Today’s Mediterranean cooking, including Valencian cooking, is characterised by having been created from cultural exchanges, and we now know that it was also this way during the Bronze Age, after this study reveals that the globalisation affected Mediterranean cooking millennia ago,” explains biomolecular archaeologist Domingo C. Salazar García. This research intended to clarify whether the early globalisation of the commercial networks during the Bronze Era also affected eating habits.

The research team analysed food remains in the dental plaque and found evidence that the inhabitants of the Eastern Mediterranean coast already ate turmeric, bananas and even soy during the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. To analyse them, the international team (including researchers from Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain) examined the remains of 80 people from the digs of Megiddo and Tell Erani (Israel), sites which are included in an area considered an exchange path between Egypt, the Mediterranean and Asia 4,000 years ago.


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“The spices, fruits and exotic oils from Asia thus reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than was thought,” says Philip Stockhamer, senior co-author of the study. “This is the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, bananas and soy outside South and East Asia,” concludes Robert C. Power, co-first author of the study. It is also direct evidence that even in the second millennium B.C. there was a budding long-distance trade of exotic fruits, spices and oils, which is believed to have connected the south of Asia and the Mediterranean via Mesopotamia or Egypt.

The goal of this research was to learn the eating habits of the population of this area during the Bronze age through the analysis of traces of food remains, including proteins and microremains of plants in human dental calculus. In this sense, the human mouth is full of bacteria which constantly petrify and create calculi. During this process, tiny particles of food become trapped and preserved in them, which are the ones that have now enabled the research. “We have been fortunate to find people who did not pay much attention to dental hygiene in the past, which today allows us to study their dental calculus,” says Domingo C. Salazar.

Paleoproteomics

The research team has used a paleoproteomic method (studying ancient proteins) which they hope may become a standard procedure in archaeology. “Our high-resolution study of ancient proteins and plant residue from the human dental calculus is the first of its type to study the cooking habits of the Near East,” says Christina Warinner, senior co-author of the article.

“Our approach opens new scientific paths,” explains doctoral student and co-first author Ashley Scott. This is because assigning individual protein remains to specific foods is not an easy task. “Strangely enough, we found that the proteins associated to allergies seem to be the most stable ones in the human calculus,” says Scott, a finding which is believed to be due to the thermostability of many allergens. For example, researchers were able to detect wheat through the gluten proteins of this food item. Then, the team was able to independently confirm the presence of wheat using a plant microremain known as phytolith.

The international team of this research is comprised by scientists from, as well as the University of Valencia, the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the University of Harvard, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Haifa.


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