The basil, the oldest found in Japan, dates back more than 1,500 years and originated in the tropics of Southeast Asia, archaeologists announced May 13.
It was found in the Makimuku ruins which date back to the early third and fourth centuries.
"Basil of Southeast Asian origin could have been brought here as dried medicinal herbs through exchanges with the Chinese," said Masaaki Kanehara, a professor of archaeology at Nara University of Education.
The ruins, a national historic site, are believed to have once been home to the ancient kingdom of Yamataikoku that was ruled by Himiko.
The exact location of the kingdom has long been a topic of academic debate.
The find was announced in an article published by Kanehara and his wife, Masako, who is also an environmental archaeologist, in a bulletin of the Research Center for Makimukugaku.
The pollen was discovered during a dig conducted in 1991 in a ditch measuring 1.5 meters wide and 1 meter deep, located about 50 meters south of a "kofun" in the ruins. A kofun is a huge burial mound of a high-ranking figure in ancient Japan and the Makimuku Ishizuka Kofun is believed to have been built in the early or mid third century.
Realizing several years ago that the discovered pollen resembled that of the basil plant, the couple planted about 10 kinds of basil last year. After comparing different kinds of basil pollen, the two concluded that the pollen found in the ruins likely came from a strain originating in Southeast Asia.
As only a tiny amount was discovered, it is believed that basil was not cultivated in the area. In addition, the deteriorated colors of the specimen suggests that it is not pollen from a newer era that slipped into the ruins at a later date.
Basil, a herb belonging to the mint family, boasts more than 40 species that originated in India and Southeast Asia.
The strong-scented kind used in Italian cuisine was introduced into Europe from India. In China, basil became an ingredient for medicine, and was ingested in the belief it improved blood flow. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), the seeds of the plant, which become gelatinous when soaked in water, were used as eyewash in Japan.
According to the Gishiwajinden (Biography of the Wa people) chronicle in "Wei Zhi," the official history book of the Wei Dynasty, a number of Chinese missions were sent to Japan in the mid-third century via the Korean Peninsula.
Tsukaoto, Kazuto. 2015. “Japan's oldest basil pollen found in Nara ruins may have been 'medicine' from China”. The Asahi Shimbun. Posted: May 14, 2015. Available online: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201505140060