Evidence for cultivation of sesame in the ancient world
- Cite this article as:
- Bedigian, D. & Harlan, J.R. Econ Bot (1986) 40: 137. doi:10.1007/BF02859136
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There is botanical and textual evidence for sesame cultivation in the ancient Old World. Excavations at the Indus civilization site of Harappa have yielded charred sesame from a stratum attributed to 3050–3500 B.C. The Vedic scriptures (ca. 1000B.C.) contain frequent references to sesame. The existence and identity ofSesamum indicum as a Mesopotamian oil source have been controversial since 1966 when H. Helbaek reported that not a single seed of sesame had been found in the Near East from earlier than Islamic times. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary and some cuneiformists subsequently have translated še-giš-Ì as “linseed” (=flax, genusLinum, named by Linneaus). Helbaek’s assertion that no ancient sesame remains have been excavated is inaccurate, but the reported finds (Karmir Blur in Armenia, [ancient Urartu], ca. 600 B.C.; Hajar Bin Humeid in South Arabia, ca. 450 B.C.) are late. Sesame was a major item of agriculture in the Urartian economy and that kingdom was a northern neighbor of Mesopotamia. In the fifth century, B.C., Herodotus wrote that sesame was the only oil used in Babylonia. The crop was well known to ancient Greek and Roman authors. Records of sesame in Egypt and China are late (ca. 3rd c. B.C.). New evidence suggests that the Mesopotamian oil plant še-giš-Ì is sesame, and that the crop and one name for its oil,ellu, were introduced from India. A cuneiform text indicates that the barley harvest [in spring] was followed by the sowing of še-giš-Ì, a summer crop in Mesopotamia. Sesame can be distinguished clearly from flax, a cool-season crop, and their growing seasons differ as would be expected.