Register for updates

 
 

Archaeology
RSS Feed
Citrus: From Luxury Item to Cash Crop
Thursday, August 17, 2017 9:30:00 AM

Citrus fruits were the clear status symbols of the nobility in the ancient Mediterranean, TAU researcher says

New research from Tel Aviv University reveals that citrons and lemons were clear status symbols for the ancient Roman ruling elite and plots the route and evolution of the citrus trade in the ancient Mediterranean.

The study is based on a collection of ancient texts, art, artifacts, and archaeobotanical remains such as fossil pollen grains, charcoals, seeds, and other fruit remnants. It was led by archaeobotanist Dr. Dafna Langgut of TAU's Institute of Archaeology and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and recently published in HortScience.

Until the first century AD, the only citrus produce available to the ancient Romans were the extremely rare and inordinately expensive citrons and lemons. "Today, citrus orchards are a major component of the Mediterranean landscape and one of the most important cultivated fruits in the region. But citrus is not native to the Mediterranean Basin and originated in Southeast Asia," Dr. Langgut said.

"My findings show that citrons and lemons were the first citrus fruits to arrive in the Mediterranean and were status symbols for the elite. All other citrus fruits most probably spread more than a millennium later for economic reasons."

The first Roman lemon?

At first the Romans only had access to rough-skinned citrons, also known as etrogim — mostly rind and dry, tasteless flesh. The citron arrived in Rome from what is now Israel. The earliest botanical remains of the citron were identified in a Persian royal garden near Jerusalem and dated to the 5th-4th centuries BC. It is presumed that it spread from there to other locations around the Mediterranean.

"The first remains of the earliest lemon, found in the Roman Forum, date to right around the time of Jesus Christ, the end of the first century BC and early first century AD," said Dr. Langgut. "It appears that the citron was considered a valuable commodity due to its healing qualities, symbolic use, pleasant odor and rarity. Only the rich could have afforded it. Its spread therefore was helped more by its high social status, its significance in religion and its unique features, rather than its culinary qualities."

According to Dr. Langgut, sour oranges, limes and pomelos were introduced to the West by Muslim traders via Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula much later, in the 10th century AD.

Muslim trade routes

"It is clear that Muslim traders played a crucial role in the dispersal of cultivated citrus in Northern Africa and Southern Europe," Dr. Langgut said. "It's also evident because the common names of many of the citrus types were derived from Arabic, following an earlier diversification in Southeast Asia. Muslims controlled extensive territory and commerce routes from India to the Mediterranean."

According to the research, the sweet orange associated with Israel today only dates as far back as the 15th century and was the product of a trade route established by the Genoese and, later, the Portuguese. The sticky-sweet mandarin was introduced to the Mediterranean only in the beginning of the 19th century.

"It wasn't until the 15th century that the sweet orange arrived on European tables. By the time mandarins appeared in the 19th century, citrus fruits were considered commonplace," said Dr. Lanngut. "They were cash crops rather than luxury items."

The researcher is currently determining which plants were grown in the gardens of Herod the Great's palaces, with the support of the Israel Science Foundation.




Latest News

Breast Cancer Recruits Bone Marrow Cells to Increase Cancer Cell Proliferation

Cancer-associated fibroblasts are derived from bone marrow cells called mesenchymal stromal cells, TAU researchers say.

Epigenetic Map May Pave Way for New Therapeutic Solutions to Hearing Loss

Understanding the expression of and controlling the genes involved in hearing are milestone discoveries, TAU researchers say.

Gas Clouds Whirling Around Black Hole Form Heart of Extremely Distant Luminous Astronomical Object

Discovery is the first detailed observation of the environs of a massive black hole outside the Milky Way.

The Tactics Behind "Taking to the Streets"

A new book by TAU researcher explores importance of public space in the design of social protests.

Training Program for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities Opens at TAU's School of Dental Medicine

Pilot program launched by TAU and AKIM helps students find jobs and changes attitudes about people with special needs.

TAU and its American Friends to Honor Susan and Henry Samueli at International Gala in Los Angeles

Philanthropists and Stanley Cup Winners to be recognized; Noa Tishby to serve as event emcee.

Astronomers Discover Giant Relic of Disrupted "Tadpole" Galaxy

Discovery illuminates how and why galaxies disappear, say TAU researchers.

Drug Candidate May Recover Vocal Abilities Lost to ADNP Syndrome

Protein snippet normalizes disrupted neural connectivity caused by genetic disorder, TAU researchers say.

TAU and Northwestern University Launch Joint Nanoscience Program

Collaboration to include student exchange program, post-doctoral scholarships and research grants.

Scientists Use Patients' Own Cells and Materials to Engineer Fully Personalized Tissue Implants of Any Kind

Risk of an immune response to an organ implant virtually disappears, TAU researchers say.

contentSecondary
c

© 2018 American Friends of Tel Aviv University
39 Broadway, Suite 1510 | New York, NY 10006 | 212.742.9070 | info@aftau.org
Privacy policy | Tel Aviv University