Date:

3,500-year-old pumpkin spice? Archaeologists find the earliest use of nutmeg as a food

As all things pumpkin spice arrive in grocery store aisles and on restaurant menus, a new study published in the journal Asian Perspectives describes the earliest-known use of nutmeg as a food ingredient.

Found at an archaeological site on Pulau Ay, a small island in the Banda Islands, central Maluku, Indonesia, the nutmeg was found as residue on ceramic potsherds and is estimated to be 3,500 years old — about 2,000 years older than the previously known use of the spice.

- Advertisement -

The study and two excavations in 2007 and 2009 were led by Peter Lape, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and curator of archaeology at the Burke Museum, in collaboration with colleagues from Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia, the University of New South Wales in Australia and others.

The Pulau Ay archaeological site was occupied from 2,300 to 3,500 years ago, with animal bones, earthenware pottery, stone tools, and post molds of possible housing structures found. The variety of artifacts discovered provides evidence of changes in how people utilized marine food resources, pottery and domestic animals over time.

Over the first 500 years at the site, people shifted from a predominately fish-based diet to primarily eating domesticated pigs. In addition, pottery was initially thin-walled vessels adapted for storage of liquids that may have allowed people to survive on this water-poor island. A few hundred years later, thicker-walled pottery better adapted for cooking appears along with pig bones.

“This site shows us how people adapted to living on these small tropical islands in stages, from occasional use as fishing camps to permanent occupation,” Lape said. “It’s also fascinating to see such early use of nutmeg, a spice that changed the world a few thousand years later.”

- Advertisement -

It was on the pottery where Lape’s co-authors Judith Field and Adelle Coster found not only the nutmeg, but also residue from six other plants including sago and purple yam. These plants could have been collected from wild plants, or possibly cultivated through farming.

Pulau Ay is a small island lacking both indigenous land mammals and surface water. It likely would not have supported a permanent human population that did not have the technological advantages of domestic animals and water storage.

However, by surveying additional archaeological sites, the study’s authors suggest that the island was regularly visited by people targeting its rich marine reef resources for several thousand years before more permanent populations were established in the early Neolithic, the later part of the Stone Age. The most likely homeland for these visitors is the nearest large island of Seram, 100 kilometers to the east. People who possessed sufficient knowledge of Pulau Ay and the seafaring skills to make regular return trips there would seem to be likely candidates for the first Neolithic settlers as well.

Sometime around 2,300 years ago, the site was largely or totally abandoned, and no other sites in the Banda Islands have so far been found that date to the period between 2,300 and 1,500 years ago. Future work aims to answer why these remote islands, which attracted the settlement of people who were quite connected to other places before and after this period, would have been abandoned for 800 years.

Studies of sites like this one can help illuminate the complex cultural processes at work during the Neolithic period, which saw the introduction of many new plants, animals and technologies to the islands of Southeast Asia. The results from this site show that these changes did not happen all at once, but rather were gradually adopted and adapted to allow people to utilize these tropical island seascapes in new ways.

As for the nutmeg, understanding its earliest origins of human use helps connect the dots to later international trades. By the 14th century (and possibly earlier), long-distance traders were traveling to Banda to obtain nutmeg; this valuable spice brought the Banda Islands international renown during the early modern era.

The find provides a new perspective on a key ingredient that is still a valuable commodity today–especially in a multi-billion dollar industry of fall-themed foods and beverages.

UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON

Header Image – A potsherd artifact found at the Pulau Ay archaeological site. It was one of several pottery pieces containing traces of foods, including the earliest-known use of nutmeg. Credit : Peter Lape/University of Washington

- Advertisement -
spot_img
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
spot_img

Mobile Application

spot_img

Related Articles

Archaeologists find missing head of Deva from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom

Archaeologists from Cambodia’s national heritage authority (APSARA) have discovered the long-lost missing head of a Deva statue from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom.

Archaeologists search crash site of WWII B-17 for lost pilot

Archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology are excavating the crash site of a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress in an English woodland.

Roman Era tomb found guarded by carved bull heads

Archaeologists excavating at the ancient Tharsa necropolis have uncovered a Roman Era tomb guarded by two carved bull heads.

Revolutionary war barracks discovered at Colonial Williamsburg

Archaeologists excavating at Colonial Williamsburg have discovered a barracks for soldiers of the Continental Army during the American War of Independence.

Pleistocene hunter-gatherers settled in Cyprus thousands of years earlier than previously thought

Archaeologists have found that Pleistocene hunter-gatherers settled in Cyprus thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Groundbreaking study reveals new insights into chosen locations of pyramids’ sites

A groundbreaking study, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, has revealed why the largest concentration of pyramids in Egypt were built along a narrow desert strip.

Soldiers’ graffiti depicting hangings found on door at Dover Castle

Conservation of a Georgian door at Dover Castle has revealed etchings depicting hangings and graffiti from time of French Revolution.

Archaeologists find Roman villa with ornate indoor plunge pool

Archaeologists from the National Institute of Cultural Heritage have uncovered a Roman villa with an indoor plunge pool during excavations at the port city of Durrës, Albania.