Vanilla may have been used in Israel long before its domestication in Mesoamerica, according to a new find in an ancient tomb. The monumental stone tomb stands near the palace from which ancient kings once ruled the Canaanite city-state of Tel Megiddo, in modern-day northern Israel. Later, the ancient Greeks knew the city by another name: Armageddon. Yes, that Armageddon. But Tel Megiddo is a major archaeological site for reasons that have nothing to do with the theological cloud that hangs over it.
In 2016, archaeologist Melissa Cradic of the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues excavated a 3,000- to 4,000-year-old tomb near the palace. Along with the remains of at least nine people, the tomb contained lavish decorations and funerary goods, including four small jugs. When archaeologist Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University analyzed the organic residues left behind on the insides of the jugs, she found something surprising: three of the four contained organic compounds called vanillin and 4-hydroxbenzaldehyde, which are the major compounds found in vanilla extract; they’re the chemicals that give vanilla its familiar taste and scent. After Linares and her colleagues ruled out other possible sources of contamination, they determined that the residue left behind on the offering jugs could only have come from the seed pods of the 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,” wrote Linares in an abstract for her presentation at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting. She pointed out three species as the most likely sources: one native to central East Africa, one from India, and one from Southeast Asia.