Extensive Fish Trade between Egypt and Israel Existed about 3,500 Years Ago: Study

October 16, 2018

A new study carried out by a team of researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) suggests that an extensive fish trade existed on the shores of the southeastern Mediterranean Sea about 3,500 years ago. Researchers arrived at the conclusion after analyzing about 100 fish teeth discovered from multiple archeological sites located in what is now Israel.

According to researchers, the teeth discovered in Israel belong to gilthead sea bream, a saltwater fish also called dorade (scientific name Sparus aurata). About 3500 years ago, people of Egypt extensively caught gilthead sea bream in the Bardawil lagoon and transported it as dried fish to southern Levant (in Israel). The fish trade started in the Late Bronze Age and continued for almost 2,000 years, into the early Byzantine Period (roughly 300 to 600 AD.)

The Bardawil lagoon is located on the northern Sinai coast in Egypt. The lagoon is believed to have come into existence about 4,000 years ago when the sea level finally stabilized after the end of the last Ice Age.

Some earlier studies have already revealed that the gilthead sea bream was already being fished about 50,000 years ago in the southern Levant. Moreover, trade of exotic fish, such as the Nile perch, between Egypt and Canaan region also existed over 5,000 years ago. However, the latest study demonstrates the extent to which the fish trade between the neighbors increased in the Late Bronze Age.

In the current study, researchers examined 100 large shell-cracking teeth of gilthead sea bream, unearthed from 12 archeological sites in the southern Levant. These sites covered a time period ranging from the Neolithic to the Byzantine Period. Researchers analyzed the phosphate oxygen isotope compositions (δ18OPO4) in the tooth enamel, to get an idea of the salt content of the surrounding water in which the fish lived. The team was also able to estimate the body size of the fish on the basis of the size of the shell-cracking teeth. Detailed analysis revealed that while some of the fishes originated from the southeastern Mediterranean, nearly 75 percent of them lived in a very saline body of water. The Bardawil lagoon contains hypersaline water with a salt content of 3.9 to 7.4 percent, and it provided a perfect environment for the sea bream growth.

“Our examination of the teeth revealed that the sea bream must have come from a very saline water body, containing much more salt than the water in the Mediterranean Sea,” said Professor Thomas Tütken of JGU.

The Bardawil lagoon is about 30 km long, 14 km wide, and has a maximum depth of 3 meters. A narrow sand bar separates this lagoon from the Mediterranean.

“The Bardawil lagoon was apparently a major source of fish and the starting point for the fish deliveries to Canaan, today’s Israel, even though the sea bream could have been caught there locally,” said co-author Professor Andreas Pack from the University of Göttingen.

“There was a mainland route from there to Canaan, but the fish were probably first dried and then transported by sea,” added Tütken.

Researchers also believe that extensive fishing in the lagoon eventually led to depletion of stocks.

“It would seem that fishing and the trade of fish expanded significantly, in fact to such a degree that the fish did not have the chance to grow as large,” Tütken says.

According to Tütken, it can be considered an early form of the systematic commercial exploitation of fish, which continued for about 2,000 years.

The detailed findings of the study have been published in Nature.

Link to Study: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-32468-1

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