Researchers discover oldest known example of nutmeg as a food ingredient

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The ancient inhabitants of a small island in an Indonesian archipelago may have had a 3,500 year jump on the pumpkin spice craze.

Researchers have discovered what’s said to be the earliest known use of nutmeg as a food, dating back to a period about 2,000 years before the example that previously held the title.

The millennia-old traces of nutmeg were found as residue on ceramic potsherds on Pulau Ay, in the Banda Islands.

Researchers uncovered the ancient spice during excavations at Pulau Ay in 2007 and 2009.

There, they also found animal bones, earthenware pottery, stone tools, and post molds of what may have been housing structures.

According to the team, Pulau Ay was occupied from 2,300 to 3,500 years ago.

The artifacts found at the site show how the lifestyles of the ancient people changed over time, at first relying on a fish-based diet before shifting primarily to eating domesticated pigs in the first 500 years.

While water was scarce, the island’s inhabitants built thin-walled vessels to store liquid.

Eventually, they developed better pottery skills to allow for more advanced cooking.

The researchers found evidence that the people cooked with a number of plants in addition to nutmeg, including sago and purple yam.

These could have been cultivated or foraged, they note.

‘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,’ said Peter Lape, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and curator of archaeology at the Burke Museum.

‘It’s also fascinating to see such early use of nutmeg, a spice that changed the world a few thousand years later.’

While the site shows sign of human activity, the researchers say settlements here could not initially have been permanent given the lack of surface water.

Instead, people visited the island to for its rich marine reef resources over the course of thousands of years.

It wasn’t until the early Neolithic that permanent populations were established, with more of this seen during the Stone Age.

These ‘visitors’ likely came from the nearby island of Seram, which sits about 62 miles to the east.

Around 2,300 years ago, however, the island was abandoned until at least 1,500 years ago, though researchers have no idea why.

The researchers say the discovery of nutmeg this early helps to piece together the timeline of international trade; in the 14th century, traders were traveling to Banda for the spice.

 

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