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People in the Mediterranean ate foods from Asia 3700 years ago

Bananas in a floating market in Thailand

Zoltan Bagosi/Alamy

People living in the Mediterranean may have been sampling South and East Asian cuisines as much as thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Philipp Stockhammer at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich and his colleagues examined microscopic food remains present in the teeth of 16 people from the Levant, a region east of the Mediterranean Sea. The people lived in 17th and 11th centuries BCE in the cities of Megiddo and Tel Erani.

The team found that these people, who came from a range of social classes, ate foods from South Asia or East Asia including sesame, soybean, turmeric, and banana. This pushes back the timeline for these foods appearing in this region by centuries, or in the case of soybean, millennia.

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“We had always thought this early globalisation was limited to precious stones and metals. Now we see that this early globalisation went hand in hand with the globalisation of food,” says Stockhammer.

Stockhammer’s team determined what foods were eaten by analysing dental calculus, a form of hardened plaque which archeologists usually remove – but do not examine – from excavated skeletons to clean them.

“I hope this will trigger awareness for dental calculus in the future and show how much potential there is. If you clean it up you basically destroy this unique treasure box that you can open,” says Stockhammer.

“There’s still a lot that we don’t know about food histories in Africa, Australia and the Americas as well,” says Andrew Clarke at the University of Nottingham. “So, I think there’s quite exciting opportunities to apply these techniques to other regions.”

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2014956117

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