Fish fossils reveal
Roman trade routes
Genetics shows ancient Anatolians imported Egyptian catfish.
14 July 2003
HELEN R. PILCHER
Fossilized remains of a fish supper
have revealed a hitherto unknown Roman trade route. Genetic analysis shows that
1400-year-old catfish unearthed in an ancient Anatolian city probably came from
The fossils were found among the
mountain-top ruins at Sagalassos, 110 kilometres inland from Turkey's southern
Mediterranean coast. Catfish (Clarias gariepinus) are not native this
In AD600 Sagalassos was a hub of
Greco-Roman culture, agriculture and export. "The catfish was probably
a delicacy for aristocrats," says the director of the dig Marc Waelkens
from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Romans may also have imported
these and other exotic fish to stock their decorative pools. Waelkens and his
colleagues found Nile perch (Lates niloticus) and African tilapia (Tilapia
zillii) at the site too, they report in this month's Journal of Archaeological
The fish add to growing evidence
that Sagalassos had connections with far-flung regions of the Roman Empire -
its pottery, for example, has turned up in north-east Africa.
It's interesting that trade relationships
were going on this late, says Stephen Mitchell, who studies ancient history
at the University of Exeter. From AD500 onwards, the city suffered earthquakes,
economic recession, plague and invasion. Evidence of fish importing, he says,
"implies a high level of organisation close to the city's end".
Waelkens' team found the fish remains
in kitchen rubbish pits. The presence of fins, but no heads, was the first hint
that they were from afar. Says fish geneticist Filip Volckaert, also from the
University of Leuven: "Egyptians probably opened up the belly, took out
the guts, took off the heads, treated them with salt or dried them, and then
put them on a shipment." Sun drying might also have helped preserve the
"Evidence of fish importing
implies a high level of organisation close to the city's end"
-Stephen Mitchell, University of Exeter
The researchers analysed mitochondrial
DNA from six of the pectoral fins. This genetic material changes little over
time. They compared it against modern specimens from Turkey, Syria, Israel,
Mali, Egypt and Senegal. The Sagalassos samples matched those from present-day
catfish from the river Nile.
Since 1990, Sagalassos has become
a large-scale, interdisciplinary excavation. Covering 1800 square kilometers,
the area reveals a near intact city and its contents. Researchers are reconstructing
the life style, economy, agricultural practices and climate changes experienced
in this late Roman outpost.
1. Arndt, A. et al. Roman trade relationships at Sagalassos (Turkey) elucidated by ancient DNA of fish remains. Journal of Archaeological Science, 30, 1095 - 1105, (2003).
© Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2003