Even 4,000 years ago, people in the Mediterranean knew what was good for them. A new study found ancient Syrians ate similarly to what we now call the Mediterranean diet, which is today touted for its many health benefits.

"The old phrase 'you are what you eat' really is true here," University of Leuven archeological chemist Benjamin Fuller told Elana Spivack at Inverse. "The technique of stable isotope ratio analysis allows the direct determination of the type of food groups that were actually consumed."

The researchers used this technique on large datasets of archeological isotope measurements to examine the settlement history of Tell Tweini in Syria. During the Bronze and Iron Ages this site was a major harbor for the Ugaritic Kingdom.

The dataset included isotope measurements from 410 plant seeds as well as 16 human and 210 other animal bones, spanning from 2600 to 333 BCE.

Relatively low levels of nitrogen 15 isotopes measured in the people's remains hinted at their occasional consumption of meat, suggesting residents of Tell Tweini relied on their domesticated animals mostly for work, milk, and wool. Between 2000 and 1600 BCE in particular, it appears their diet consisted of largely whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, including an abundance of olives and grapes.

"The human diet was relatively low in animal protein and appears comparable to what is considered today a typical Mediterranean diet consisting of bread (wheat/barley), olives, grapes, pulses, dairy products and small amounts of meat," Fuller and colleagues write in their paper.

While their reliance on plant consumption may have emerged out of necessity, freeing up their animals for other uses, the ratio of meats to fruit, grains, and vegetables still proves to be the healthiest option today, for both our own wellbeing and the environment's.

High levels of carbon 13 isotopes in the preserved seeds suggest Tell Tweini's crops were well cared for and watered throughout the site's history. Use of animal manure would also explain the high levels of nitrogen 15 isotopes found in the plants.

Where the Tell Tweini population's diet departs from that of people in the Mediterranean today is that despite being less than two kilometers (just over a mile) from the coast, and despite a large variety of fish being recovered at Tell Tweini, humans there during the Middle Bronze Age did not appear to eat much food from the sea. Nor did they eat much from other waterways.

Members of the ancient society must have been able to produce enough food from their crops, indicating their land was fertile. This correlates with the region's known olive oil production.

"Excavations at the site indicate that the production of olive oil became a main economic activity of Tell Tweini and installations related to this activity could be found in every house during the Iron Age," Fuller and team explain.

Shortly after 1200 BCE, Ugarit collapsed. The kingdom's fall was attributed to crop failure, social unrest, and famine across the region, yet signs of Tell Tweini's oil production emerged again soon after with no sign of stress in the plant isotopes.

"We might conclude that the inhabitants of Tell Tweini handled the increased aridity during this period very well, and in most cases even better than at other contemporaneous settlements," the researchers say.

These findings reveal that a Mediterranean-like diet has helped sustain humanity for millennia. But this diet also emerged in a fertile environment with a relatively stable climate.

"Ugarit… witnessed negligible resettlement subsequent to its Late Bronze Age devastation," Fuller and colleagues point out.

"The inquiry into whether less favorable environmental conditions or the absence of adaptive strategies among its inhabitants played a pivotal role, relative to Tell Tweini, warrants further investigation."

This research was published in PLOS ONE.