A team of archaeologists has recently discovered vanilla residue in a 3,600-year-old Bronze Age Canaanite tomb in Tel Megiddo, Israel, and is currently trying to learn where the vanillin compound may have originated from as well as what its use may have been at the burial site where it was found.
As the Times of Israel reports, it is Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Israel Finkelstein and his team of archaeologists and excavators that can be credited for the astonishing discovery of the ancient vanilla in a location that is now being called Tomb 50.
Perhaps one of the things that has most surprised people about this particular find is that vanilla was reportedly believed to have come from South America at a distance of 13,000 miles away and was also not believed to have been in use 3,600 years ago.
However, regardless of its origin or theory of use, it cannot be disputed that Prof. Finkelstein’s team did indeed find vanilla in an ancient Canaanite tomb in Israel. Traces of the vanillin compound were discovered in three of the tiny jugs that had been left beside the coffin in Tomb 50, along with extravagant silver and gold jewelry.
At the present time, vanilla is second only to saffron in terms of the price it commands. At the time of this Bronze Age burial, vanilla would, in theory, have been a highly prized, if not rare, spice.
שאריות שנתגלו בקבר בן 3600 שנה בארץ הקודש משחזרים את ההיסטוריה של תבלין הווניל.
— טיימס אוף ישראל (@timesofisraelHB) November 20, 2018
Last weekend Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University attended the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Denver, and discussed what had been discovered after an organic residue analysis was performed on the vanilla residue found in the Canaanite tomb.
Linares noted that both vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde were found in the small jugs in Tomb 50 and stated that while these compounds can certainly be found in other kinds of plants, the vanilla residue discovered in Israel came from a vanilla orchid.
“This is based on the profuse quantity of vanillin found in the juglets that could have only derived from the abundant amount of vanillin yield from the vanilla orchid pods.”
In terms of the species of vanilla orchids that may have been used during the Bronze Age 3,600 years ago, Linares listed V. albidia Blume (India), V. abundiflora J.J. Sm. (southeast Asia), and V. polylepsis Summerh (found in central east Africa).
According to Eric Cline of George Washington University, the use of vanilla in Megiddo, Israel, even 3,600 years ago shouldn’t really come as a major surprise with established trade routes being what they were.
“It’s really not surprising that vanillin reached Bronze Age Megiddo, given all the trade that occurred between the [Middle East] and South Asia.”
However, as no trade is believed to have occurred directly between East Africa and the Levant, this means that there are still two different regions that could have provided the vanilla beans or orchids.
“The vanilla orchids or their beans probably reached Megiddo via trade routes that first passed through Mesopotamian society in southwest Asia.”
But why were the vanilla compounds in the Canaanite tomb in the first place? There could be many different reasons for this, as Linares has stated, including using vanilla oil derivatives for foods or perhaps even medicines.
“Bronze Age people at Megiddo may have used vanillin-infused oils as additives for foods and medicines, for ritual purposes or possibly even in the embalming of the dead.”
Linares also noted of the vanilla that was discovered in the 3,600-year-old tomb in Israel, “These results shed new light on the first known exploitation of vanilla, local uses, significance in mortuary practices, and possible long-distance trade networks in the ancient Near East during the second millennium BCE.”