FoodTransforms – Return to history to understand today

Mediterranean cuisine is perceived as a timeless constant, already linking the different societies around the sea by the 2nd millennium BC. But it has never been a static entity. Intercultural encounter and long-distance exchange shaped the Mediterranean diet longer than previously assumed, as a team of researchers working alongside LMU archaeologist Professor Philipp W. Stockhammer found out.

Market Scene at the Bronze Age Levant

Market Scene at the Bronze Age Levant

Nicola Nevenov

Porträt Professor Philipp W. Stockhammer

Portrait photo of Professor Philipp W. Stockhammer

LMU München

Philipp Stockhammer is Professor of prehistoric archaeology with special focus on the Eastern Mediterranean at the Institute for Pre- and Protohistoric Archaeology and Archaeology of the Roman Provinces at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich (LMU) and co-director of the Max Planck Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean.

His project „FoodTransforms: Transformations of Food in the Eastern Mediterranean Late Bronze Age“ analyses changes in eating habits as a consequence of intercultural contacts in the Eastern Mediterranean during the 2nd millennium BC and draws parallels to today’s globalization.

“Our overall hypothesis is that the present uniformity of the Eastern Mediterranean cuisine is the result of the transformative power of long-term intercultural contact and not of the similar landscape and vegetation”, explains Stockhammer, “We therefore want to investigate the crucial role of early globalization processes in the 2nd millennium BC for the (trans-)formation of the Eastern Mediterranean cuisine”.

Transformative dynamics of early globalization

Philipp Stockhammer has received one of the coveted ERC Starting Grants in 2015 for his project, with which the European Research Council supports outstanding young scientists. In the funding period the archaeologist analyses the transformative dynamics of early globalization in the Eastern Mediterranean Late Bronze Age with regard to food practices. Stockhammer is working together with an international and interdisciplinary team of scientists from LMU Munich, the University of Tübingen, Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

FoodTransforms integrates archaeological, textual and scientific research in order to trace this early genesis of the Mediterranean diet: This will help present-day people to understand the origins and transformations of their food cultures. Extraordinary research methods are used for this purpose: the analysis of food remains in ceramic containers that were used for transport as well as in human dental calculus, in which proteins, lipids, microremains and aDNA of ancient food have been preserved over thousands of years.

Jaw of a Medieval Individual from Germany with calculus

Jaw of a Medieval Individual from Germany with calculus

Christina Warinner

New understanding of trade routes

The research team used molecular and microscopic techniques to analyze micro remains and proteins preserved in the dental calculus of individuals who lived during the second millennium BC in the Southern Levant. This region served at that time as an important bridge between the Mediterranean, Asia and Egypt. Researchers took samples from a variety of individuals at the Bronze Age site of Megiddo and the Early Iron Age site of Tel Erani, which is located in present-day Israel. “This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” says Stockhammer. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”

“Using new molecular and microscopic techniques, which are called “Palaeoproteomics”, enables a new understanding of the complexity of early trade routes and nascent globalization in the ancient Near East and raises questions about the long-term maintenance and continuity of this trade system into later periods”, says Stockhammer.

„Our results provide clear evidence for the consumption of expected staple foods, such as wheat, sesame, and dates. We additionally report evidence for the consumption of soybean, banana, and turmeric. This pushes back the earliest evidence of these foods in the Mediterranean by centuries (turmeric) or even millennia (soybean)”, stresses Stockhammer, “From the early second millennium onwards, at least some people in the Eastern Mediterranean had access to food from distant locations, including South Asia."

These overwhelming insights force us to rethink the complexity and intensity of Indo-Mediterranean trade during the Bronze Age as well as the degree of globalization in early Eastern Mediterranean cuisine.

Philipp Stockhammer

One thing is for sure: “Mediterranean cuisine has deep global roots and even in the Bronze Age, long-distance trade contributed new tastes,” states Stockhammer, “At the same time, this can also reassure us: Even our current globalization will not endanger Mediterranean cuisine because it has always creatively integrated global influences locally”.