News Ticker

Opium, cumin, and sycamore brought to ancient Israel by ‘Sea Peoples’

Species turnover between the Bronze and Iron Age at Iron Age sites. Each site is marked by two columns. The green column marks the number of Bronze Age species found in the Iron Age floral list. The red column marks the number of new species in Iron Age sites. Numbers beneath the site name give the absolute numbers of Bronze Age /Iron Age species. Credit: Map produced by M. Frumin using ArcGIS for Desktop (ArcMap 10.1), ESRI.

The ancient Philistines—known from the Bible as bitter enemies of Israel—are thought to be one of the ‘Sea Peoples’ that appeared on the Levantine coast during the Bronze Age, around 1,200 BCE. The term ‘Sea Peoples’ is found primarily in ancient Egyptian sources.

Once thought to be have migrated from a specific geographical region, researchers have recently discovered that Philistine culture was a ‘melting pot’ of many diverse origins. The different types of architecture, pottery, and rituals found in the Levant suggest multiple ethnic roots, including from ancient Greek, Cypriot, Anatolian, and Egyptian cultures.

Now, a new study by a team of archeologists in Israel has found how great a long-term impact Philistine culture had on local plant diversity. By compiling and analyzing a comprehensive database of plant remains found at ancient Bronze and Iron Age sites in the region, the researchers found that as the new migrants appeared, so did new species of cultivars.

The opium poppy, for example, which originates in western Europe, was never seen in Israel prior to the arrival of the Philistines. The edible parts of the sycamore tree and cumin also “were not identified in the archeobotanical record of Israel prior to the Iron Age, when the Philistine culture first appeared in the region,” said co-author Suembikya Frumin, a Ph.D. student at Prof. Ehud Weiss’s laboratory at Bar-Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archeology, in a statement.

Prof. Weiss is one of the lead authors of the study, which was provided in advance to Science Recorder and published Aug. 25 in the journal Scientific Reports. The other co-authors are Prof. Aren M Maeir, also at Bar-Ilan University and Dr. Liora Kolska Horwitz from Hebrew University.

Cumin, which has been found at ancient Mesopotamian sites dating from around 2,000 BCE and at 18th dynasty Egyptian sites from between 1,500 and 1,300 BCE, appears later in Israel only at Philistine sites. The sycamore tree originally comes from eastern Africa and was cultivated in ancient Egypt. Although some sycamore timber was discovered at a neolithic site at Jericho, it does not become common until the arrival of the Philistines, the authors write.

In addition to introducing three new plant species coming from different geographical regions, the Philistines also brought new farming methods and food preferences, the study says.

The Philistines left an indelible mark on both the flora and fauna of Israel and other parts of the Levant. Their legacy includes plants cultivated today in Israel, such as cumin, coriander, sycamore, and opium poppy. They also introduced European pig species that interbred with and overwhelmed local populations—so much so that today’s wild boar in Israel carries European genetic markers rather than Near Eastern ones.

The new study shows how looking at the ancient bio-archeological record can help scientists better understand the foundations of modern biodiversity. The information “may also assist contemporary ecologists in dealing with the pressing issue of invasive species,” the statement said.

Delila James

Delila James

Associate Editor/Writer
Delila James practiced civil rights and employment law for almost 20 years. Before going to law school, she raised organic lamb on a ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills, ran a dairy farm in Muscoda, WI, and then owned a popular live music nightclub in Madison, WI. She has a Master's degree in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she went to law school. She also is a published poet. She now is a book editor, writes legal blogs, and is trying to finish a book. She has been writing for Science Recorder since March, 2013.
About Delila James (1301 Articles)
Delila James practiced civil rights and employment law for almost 20 years. Before going to law school, she raised organic lamb on a ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills, ran a dairy farm in Muscoda, WI, and then owned a popular live music nightclub in Madison, WI. She has a Master's degree in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she went to law school. She also is a published poet. She now is a book editor, writes legal blogs, and is trying to finish a book. She has been writing for Science Recorder since March, 2013.