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Sesame, bananas, turmeric: Link between Mediterranean diet and South Asia

Calcified dental plaque from archeological remains reveals the complexity of ancient trade and diets 3,500-4,000 years ago. How do we know this, and why is it significant?

Written by Pooja Pillai , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 6, 2021 8:39:26 am
Bananas were widely cultivated in South Asia as early as 3,500-4000 years ago. (Thinkstock image, File)

Bananas are among the most consumed fruits around the globe, but there is now archaeological evidence to suggest they became part of the wider global diet much earlier than once believed. In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this week, researchers studying the eating habits of people in the southern Levant region during the Bronze and Early Iron Age said they found evidence of foods from South Asia, including bananas, sesame and turmeric, going back to at least the second millennium BCE.

So, why is this significant?

This new finding shows the Levant — the eastern Mediterranean region which includes present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Turkey — had been trading with South Asia, where bananas, sesame and turmeric were widely cultivated, as early as 3,500-4000 years ago.

According to the authors of the paper: “We find that, from the early second millennium onwards, at least some people in the Eastern Mediterranean had access to food from distant locations, including South Asia, and such goods were likely consumed as oils, dried fruits, and spices. These insights force us to rethink the complexity and intensity of Indo-Mediterranean trade during the Bronze Age as well as the degree of globalisation in early Eastern Mediterranean cuisine.”

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What this means is that the development of certain crucial elements of modern Levantine cuisine, such as the sesame seed paste known as tahini and ras el-hanout, a spice mix that includes turmeric, can be traced back to this early period.

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It also forces us to rethink our belief that a “global” diet is an essentially modern concept; the archaeological evidence drawn from ancient skeletons suggests that bananas had become popular enough in the region that they were accessible to the common people, and not just royalty, as would have been the case of more exotic foods.

How exactly do we know all this?

The evidence on which the study is based comes from the dental calculus — tooth tartar or calcified dental plaque — drawn from the teeth of 14 skulls. Dental calculus, which was once discarded, is now considered an invaluable source of insight into the way ancient peoples lived. Dental calculus has been found to trap a lot of evidence, from DNA to food molecules to bacteria, and helps shed light on a number of different things.

For example, an old historical puzzle. The mysterious illness known as cocliztli which contributed to the collapse of the Aztec Empire after the Spanish conquest – was solved thanks to microbiological evidence found in the dental calculus of cocliztli victims. The study, which was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution in 2018, showed that a salmonella outbreak had been responsible for nearly wiping out the population of the region.

The PNAS study, similarly, found evidence of imported food items like bananas, soybeans, sesame and turmeric in the dental calculus of the remains examined.

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First published on: 29-12-2020 at 02:27:39 pm
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