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Ancient Precursor to Pumpkin Spice Latte? Archaeologists Uncover Earliest Human Use of Nutmeg

Shards of ancient ceramics on Pulau Ay reveal nutmeg’s early history

Pottery shards from Pulau Ay site (Peter Lape/University of Washington)
smithsonian.com

In the year 2018, nutmeg has established itself as the love-to-hate seasoning that feeds the autumnal beast that is the Pumpkin Spice Latte. But long before Starbucks got into the nutmeg game, new archaeological findings reveal that the earliest human use of nutmeg dates back at least 3,500 years.

During site excavations on Pulau Ay, a member of Indonesia’s Banda Islands, a team of researchers led by Peter Lape, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, discovered several shards of ancient ceramics that contained traces of nutmeg, as well as residue from several other plants, including purple yam. The research appears in the journal Asian Perspectives.

Archaeologists believe the tiny island of Pulau Ay hosted only infrequent visitors prior to 3,500 years ago, including fishermen from the nearby island of Seram who frequented its shoreline, as a University of Washington press release details. But according to Lape and his colleagues, during the Neolithic Era, humans began to establish a more permanent residence on Pulau Ay that lasted over a millennium, until about 2,300 years ago.

The researchers found that, over the course of the first 500 or so years of settlement, these early inhabitants started to trade a primarily pescatarian diet for domesticated pigs ferried in from afar, utilizing stone tools and vessels for water storage to enhance the habitability of the sparsely populated island. Yes, that means that long before it graced pumpkin and other gourds galore, nutmeg just might have flavored some of the earliest instances of spice-rubbed pork tenderloin.

Nutmeg is derived from the fruit of an evergreen tree called Myristica fragrans, which is native to the Banda Islands. When split open, these orb-like fruits reveal a brown seed with a reddish coating called an aril. The aril itself actually produces the more delicately flavored spice called mace—in order to strike nutmeg gold, the naked seed must be dried and ground. Because only a sparse residue was found on these pottery artifacts, the researchers remain unsure whether early nutmeg was used for medicine, fruit or seasoning. It’s also unclear whether the fruits were purposefully farmed by eager spice mongers, or fortuitously plucked from nearby trees when the mood struck.

What’s also mysterious is what happened to the early settlement of Pulau Ay. Researchers don't know why the population suddenly vacated around 2,300 years ago—and the island and its neighbors would not be inhabited again for another 800 years.

Whatever the reason, their use of nutmeg served as a precursor to its future fame. In the 1300s—or perhaps even earlier in light of these new findings—traders started flocking to the Banda Islands to purchase the prized spice. How valuable was it at the time? Shedding some perspective on this is Becky Little at History.com, who quotes one economics professor who called it a “more valuable commodity than gold” in the 14th century. Something to think about the next time you take a sip of a PSL.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a PhD student in Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard University and Co-Director Emeritus of Science in the News, a graduate student organization that trains young scientists to communicate science to the general public. She is also a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine. Website: katherinejwu.com

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