Canaan and Egypt: Ancient Fish Trade

Millennia-old fish teeth reveal extent of fishing industry

canaan-egypt-ancient-fish

Oxygen isotope analysis was conducted on the teeth of gilthead sea bream fish from the southern Levant. The results indicated that there was an extensive ancient fish trade between Canaan and Egypt that lasted millennia. Photo: ©: Guy Sisma-Ventura, Israel.

With button-shaped teeth that can gnash through the shells of crabs and mussels, a fish known as the gilthead sea bream (Sparus aurata) was extensively traded between Canaan and Egypt 3,500 years ago.

Scientists from Germany and Israel analyzed 100 sea bream teeth from 12 archaeological sites in Israel, publishing their findings in the journal Scientific Reports. The oxygen isotopes of the teeth indicated to the scientists that about 75 percent of the fish in the study came from a hypersaline body of water, while the rest came from the southeastern Mediterranean Sea. The Bardawil Lagoon on the north coast of the Sinai—between Canaan and Egypt—is the only body of water in the area that contains such a high concentration of salt.

“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 study co-author Andreas Pack of the University of Göttingen in a Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) press release.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.

It appears that the ancient fish trade between Canaan and Egypt lasted from the Late Bronze Age through the Byzantine period. The study dispels the previously held assumption that remains of the sea bream at coastal Levantine sites were entirely the result of a local fishing industry and not long-distance trade.

“There was a mainland route from [the Bardawil Lagoon] to Canaan, but the fish were probably first dried and then transported by sea,” explained JGU scientist Thomas Tütken, one of the authors of the study, in the press release. “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.”

bardawil-lagoon

Map showing the Bardawil Lagoon on the northern coast of the Sinai. Photo: Courtesy of Guy Sisma-Ventura et al.

In their Scientific Reports paper, the researchers note that the famed “Rabbi Abbahu, a Jewish sage living in fourth-century C.E. Caesarea Maritima … declared that ‘any fish [brought to the city] must come either from Apamea [in Syria] or from Pelusium [Bardawil’s harbor town from the sixth century B.C.E. until the drying up of the eastern arm of the Nile].’”

Fishing was critical to many economies in the ancient Mediterranean, as attested by archaeological remains of fish and fishing equipment as well as depictions of fish and fishermen in art.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Fishy Secret to Ancient Magdala’s Economic Growth by Marcela Zapata-Meza

Early Christian Art Symbols Endure after Iconoclast Attack
Fish and fishermen in early Christian iconography

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  • DENNIS says

    Maybe the high saline content of the lagoon affected the flavor of the fish there making them more “tasty” than the same species caught off the Canaanite coast to the north?


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