Economic Botany

, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 137–154 | Cite as

Evidence for cultivation of sesame in the ancient world

  • Dorothea Bedigian
  • Jack R. Harlan


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.


Economic Botany Sesamin Sesame Seed Flax Seed Summer Crop 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Literature Cited

  1. Anonymous. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. W. H. Schoff, trans. 1912 Longmans, Green, London.Google Scholar
  2. Aristophanes. The Eleven Comedies. Anon, trans. 1930 Liveright, New York.Google Scholar
  3. Bedigian, D., and J. R. Harlan. 1983 Nuba agriculture and ethnobotany, with particular reference to sesame and sorghum. Econ. Bot. 37: 384–395.Google Scholar
  4. —, D. S. Seigler, and J. R. Harlan. 1985 Sesamin, sesamolin and the origin of sesame. Biochem. Syst. Ecol. 13: 133–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. -, C. A. Smyth, and J. R. Harlan. 1986 Patterns of morphological variation in sesame. Econ. Bot. 40:Google Scholar
  6. Burrow, T. 1947 Dravidian Studies vi. Bull. School Oriental and African Stud. 12: 142–143.Google Scholar
  7. —, and M. B. Emeneau. 1984 Dravidian Etymological Dictionary. 2nd ed. Clarendon Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  8. Chaturvedi, M., and B. N. Tiwari, ed. 1970 Hindi-English Dictionary. National Publ. House, Delhi.Google Scholar
  9. Clay, A. T. 1919 Neo-Babylonian Letters from Erech. Yale Oriental Series, Babylonian Texts. Vol. 3: 180:5. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.Google Scholar
  10. Columella, L. J. M. On Agriculture. H.B. Ash, trans. 1941 Loeb Classics Library. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  11. Dales, G. 1971 Early human contacts from the Persian Gulf through Baluchistan and Southern Afghanistan.In W. G. McGinnies, B. J. Goldman, and P. Paylore, ed, Food, Fiber and the Arid Lands, p. 145–170. Univ. Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.Google Scholar
  12. Deines, H., and H. Grapow. 1959 Wörterbuch der Aegyptischen Drogennamen. Grundriss der Medizin der Alten Aegypter. Vol. 6. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin.Google Scholar
  13. Delougaz, P. 1940 The Temple Oval at Khafajah. Oriental Inst. Publ. 53. p. 154. Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.Google Scholar
  14. Donner, H., and W. Roellig. 1964 Kanaanaische und Aramaische Inschriften. Vol. 2. Harrasowitz, Wiesbaden.Google Scholar
  15. Dossin, G. 1933 Lettres de la Premiere Dynastie Babylonienne. Vol. 1. Musee de Louvre, Dept. Antiquites Orientales, Textes Cuneiformes 17: 5:4. Geuthner, Paris.Google Scholar
  16. Dymock, W., C. J. H. Warden, and D. Hooper. 1893 Pharmacographia Indica. Vol. 3. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, London.Google Scholar
  17. Ebeling, E. 1923 Keilschrifttexte aus Assur religioesen Inhalts, (KAR 376 r. 19). Wiss. Veröff. Deutsch. Orient-Ges. 34: ii/5.Google Scholar
  18. Eckey, E. W. 1954 Vegetable Fats and Oils. Reinhold, New York.Google Scholar
  19. Fairservis, W. A. 1983 The script of the Indus Valley civilization. Sci. Amer. 248: 58–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Faroukh, O. 1965 Tarikh al Adab al Arab. Dar ul ’Ilm lil Malayim, Beirut.Google Scholar
  21. Feigin, S. I. 1979 Legal and administrative texts of the reign of Samsu-Iluna. Yale Oriental Series, Babylonian Texts. Vol. 12. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.Google Scholar
  22. Finkelstein, J. J. 1972 Late Old-Babylonian documents and letters. Yale Oriental Sercies, Vol. 13. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.Google Scholar
  23. Frankena, R. 1968 Briefe aus der Leidener Sammlung. Altbabylonische Briefe in Umschrift und Uebersetzung, Vol. 3. TLB 4 65:2. Brill, Leiden.Google Scholar
  24. Gelb, I. 1970 Makkan and Meluhha in early Mesopotamian sources. Revue d’Assyriologie 64: 1–8.Google Scholar
  25. Gelb, I. J., T. Jacobsen, B. Landsberger, and A. L. Oppenheim, ed, 1958 Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute, Chicago. “E”. The Oriental Institute, Chicago, IL.Google Scholar
  26. —, —, —, and —. 1959 Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute, Chicago. “D”. The Oriental Institute, Chicago, IL.Google Scholar
  27. —, B. Landsberger, and A. L. Oppenheim, ed, 1962 Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute, Chicago. “S”. The Oriental Institute, Chicago, IL.Google Scholar
  28. Germer, R. 1979 Untersuchung über Arzneimittelpflanzen in Älten Ägypten. Ph.D. Diss. Univ. Hamburg.Google Scholar
  29. Goetze, A. 1956 Laws of Eshnunna. Annual, Amer. School of Oriental Research. Dept. Antiq. Govt. Iraq and ASOR, New Haven, CT.Google Scholar
  30. Gove, P. B., ed, 1967 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. Merriam, Springfield, MA.Google Scholar
  31. Gupta, S. M. 1971 Plant Myths and Traditions in India. Brill, Leiden.Google Scholar
  32. Harutyunian, N. V. 1964 Urartian Agriculture and Stockbreeding. (Russ.) Akad. Nauk. Armen. SSR, Yerevan, ASSR.Google Scholar
  33. Hawkes, J. 1976 The Atlas of Early Man. St. Martin’s, New York.Google Scholar
  34. Helbaek, H. 1966 The plant remains from Nimrud.In M. E. L. Mallowan. Nimrud and Its Remains. Vol. 2, Appendix I, p. 613–618. Dodd, Mead, New York.Google Scholar
  35. —. 1969 Plant collecting, dry-farming and irrigation agriculture in prehistoric Deh Luran.In F. Hole, K. V. Flannery, and J. A. Neely, ed, Prehistory and Human Ecology of the Deh Luran Plain, p. 383–426. Mem. Mus. Anthropol., No. 1. Univ. Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.Google Scholar
  36. Herodotus. History. 1928 G. Rawlinson, trans. Tudor Publ. New York.Google Scholar
  37. Hilprecht, H. Unpubl. OB tablet 1883 25 and r. 15. Hilprecht Sammlung, Jena Univ., DDR.Google Scholar
  38. Hoffner, H. A. 1974 Alimenta Hethaeorum. Amer. Oriental Series, Vol. 55. Amer. Oriental Soc., New Haven, CT.Google Scholar
  39. Hornell, J. 1941 Sea-trade in early times. Antiquity 15: 233–256.Google Scholar
  40. Hunt, A. S., and C. C. Edgar, ed and trans. 1932 Select Papyri. Vol. 1, p. 277, 287; Vol. 2, p. 11–35. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  41. Indian Agricultural Research Institute. 1961 Handbook of Agriculture. New Delhi.Google Scholar
  42. Jacobsen, T. 1958 Reprinted 1982 Salinity and Irrigation Agriculture in Antiquity. Int. Inst. Mesopotamian Area Stud. Undena, Malibu, CA.Google Scholar
  43. John, C. M., G. V. Narayana, and C. R. Seshadri. 1950 The wild gingelly of Malabar. Madras Agric. J. 37: 47–50.Google Scholar
  44. Joshi, A. B. 1961Sesamum. A Monograph. Indian Central Oil Seeds Committee, Hyderabad.Google Scholar
  45. Kassabian, Z. 1957 Production of vegetable oil in Urartu. (Armen.) Izv. Akad. Nauk Armen. SSR 4: 107–116.Google Scholar
  46. Keimer, L. 1924 Die Gartenpflanzen in Alten Agypten. Vol. 1. Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, Hamburg, Berlin.Google Scholar
  47. Keiser, C. E. 1917 Letters and Contracts from Erech Written in the Neo-Babylonian Period. Babylonian Inscriptions in the Collection of James B. Nies (BIN) 1: 11:19. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.Google Scholar
  48. Kirtikar, K. R., B. D. Basu, and I. C. S. An. 1918. 1975 reprint. Indian Medicinal Plants. Vol. 3. Lalit Mohan Basu, Allahabad.Google Scholar
  49. Kraus, F. R. 1964 Altbabylonische Briefe in Umschrift und Uebersetzung. Briefe aus dem British Museum (CT 43 und 44). Brill, Leiden.Google Scholar
  50. —. 1968 Sesam im Alten Mesopotamien. J. Amer. Oriental Soc. 88: 112–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Kuiper, F. J. B. 1955 Rigvedic Loanwords.In O. Spies, ed, Studia Indologica, p. 137–185. Festschrift W. Kirfel. Bonner Orientalische Studien N.S. 3.Google Scholar
  52. Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. 1972 Trade mechanisms in Indus-Mesopotamian interrelations. J. Amer. Oriental Soc. 92: 222–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Landsberger, B. 1949 Jahreszeiten im Sumerisch-Akkadischen. J. Near Eastern Stud. 8: 248–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Law, J. T., comp.circa 1892 Law’s Grocer’s Manual. Gilbert and Rivington, Ltd., London,In David, E. 1970 Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. Vol. 1. Penguin, Harmonds-worth, UK.Google Scholar
  55. Levey, M. 1959 Chemistry and Chemical Technology in Ancient Mesopotamia. Elsevier, London.Google Scholar
  56. Lisan al-’Arab. 1981 Ibn Mandur, compil. Dar ul Maarif, Cairo.Google Scholar
  57. Loret, V. 1892 La Flore Pharaonique. Revised 2nd ed., Leroux, Paris.Google Scholar
  58. Lucas, A. 1962 Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. Arnold, London.Google Scholar
  59. Manilal, K. S. 1980 The implication of Hortus Malabaricus with the botany and history of peninsular India.In K. S. Manilal, ed, The Botany and History ofHortus Malabaricus, p. 1–5. A. A. Balkema, Rotterdam.Google Scholar
  60. —, C. R. Suresh, and V. V. Sivarajan. 1977 A reinvestigation of the plants described in Rheede’s “Hortus Malabaricus”—an introductory report. Taxon 26: 549–550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Martin, J. H., W. H. Leonard, and D. L. Stamp. 1976 Principles of Field Crop Production. 3rd ed., Macmillan, New York.Google Scholar
  62. Masica, C. 1978 Aryan and Non-Aryan elements in north Indian agriculture.In M. M. Deshpande and P. E. Hook, ed, Aryan and Non-Aryan in India. Michigan Pap. South and South East Asia. Center for South and South East Asia, Ann Arbor 14: 55–151.Google Scholar
  63. Mehra, K. L. 1967 History of sesame in India and its cultural significance. Vishveshvaranand Indological J. 5: 93–107.Google Scholar
  64. Menzel, D. H. 1964 A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.Google Scholar
  65. Monier-Williams, M. 1964 Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Oxford, New Delhi.Google Scholar
  66. Mookerji, R. K. 1912 Indian Shipping. A History of the Sea-Borne Trade and Maritime Activity of the Indians from the Earliest Times. 1962 reprint. Kitab Mahal, Allahabad.Google Scholar
  67. Murray, J. A. H. ed, 1961 Oxford English Dictionary. Clarendon Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  68. Nayar, N. M., and K. L. Mehra. 1970 Sesame: its uses, botany, cytogenetics, and origin. Econ. Bot. 24: 20–31.Google Scholar
  69. Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu. 1596 Li Shih-Chen. 1893 reprint. Commercial Press, Shanghai, China.Google Scholar
  70. Pinches, T. G. 1899 Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum 8: 8e:10. British Museum, London.Google Scholar
  71. Piotrovskii, B. B. 1950 Karmir Blur I. (Russ.) Yerevan, Armenian SSR.Google Scholar
  72. —. 1952 Karmir Blur II. (Russ.) Yerevan, Armenian SSR.Google Scholar
  73. —. 1966 II Regno di Van Urartu. (Italian). M. Salvini, trans. Edizioni dell’Ateneo, Roma.Google Scholar
  74. Pliny. Natural History. H. Rackham, trans. 1938 Loeb Classical Library. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  75. Prakash, O. 1961 Food and Drinks in Ancient India. Munshi Ram Manohar Lal, Delhi.Google Scholar
  76. Ratnagar, S. 1981 Encounters: The Westerly Trade of the Harappan Civilization. Oxford Univ. Press, Delhi.Google Scholar
  77. Rheede tot Drakestein, Henricus van. 1689 Hortus Malabaricus. Vol. ix, p. 105–107. J. van Someren, Amsterdam.Google Scholar
  78. Sampson, H. C. 1936 Cultivated plants of the British Empire and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Kew Bull. Misc. Inform. Additional Series xii.Google Scholar
  79. Simmons, S. D. 1978 Early Old Babylonian Documents. Yale Oriental Series, Vol. xiv. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.Google Scholar
  80. Stol, M. 1985 Remarks on the cultivation of sesame and the extraction of its oil. Sumerian Agric. Bull. 2: 119–126.Google Scholar
  81. Theophrastus. Enquiry into Plants. A. Hort, trans. 1916 Loeb Classical Library. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  82. Van Beek, G. W. 1969 Hajar Bin Humeid. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, MD.Google Scholar
  83. Vats, M. S. 1940 Excavations at Harappa. Manager of Publications, Delhi.Google Scholar
  84. Veerhoff, O. 1940 Time and temperature relations of germinating flax. Amer. J. Bot. 27: 225–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Vishnu-Mittre. 1977 The changing economy in ancient India.In C. A. Reed, ed, Origins of Agriculture, p. 569–588. Mouton, The Hague.Google Scholar
  86. Von Soden, W. 1960 Ellu. Akkadisches Handwoerterbuch. Vol. 1., p. 204–205. Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden.Google Scholar
  87. Waetzoldt, H. 1983 Leinen. Reallexikon der Assyriologie 6: 583–594.Google Scholar
  88. —. 1985 Ölpflanzen und Pflanzenöle im 3. Jahrtausend. Sumerian Agric. Bull. 2: 77–96.Google Scholar
  89. Weidner, E. 1967 Gestirn-Darstellungen auf Babylonischen Tontafeln. Sitzungsb. Oesterr. Akad. Wiss. 254/II: 1–55.Google Scholar
  90. Weiss, E. A. 1971 Castor, Sesame, Safflower. Barnes and Noble, New York, NY.Google Scholar
  91. Wheeler, M. 1968 The Indus Civilization. 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  92. Woosley, A. I. 1976 Pollen Studies in Archaeology: Correlation of the Prehistoric Pollen and Cultural Sequences of the Deh Luran Plain, Southwestern Iran. Ph.D. Diss., Univ. California, Los Angeles, CA.Google Scholar
  93. Xenophon. March of the Ten Thousand. (Anabasis). H. G. Dakyns, trans. 1901 Macmillan, London.Google Scholar
  94. Zabadi, Alfairo. 1970 Qamus al Muhit. Issa al Babi al Halabi, Cairo.Google Scholar
  95. Zeist, W. van, and J. A. H. Bakker-Heeres. 1975 Evidence for linseed cultivation before 6000 B.C. J. Archaeol. Sci. 2:215–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© New York Botanical Garden 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dorothea Bedigian
    • 1
  • Jack R. Harlan
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of BiologyWashington UniversitySt. Louis
  2. 2.Crop Evolution Laboratory, Department of AgronomyUniversity of IllinoisUrbana

Personalised recommendations