Residue on ceramic potsherds found at an archaeological site on the island of Pulau Ay (Ai), Indonesia, shows the nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) was used as a food ingredient 2,000 years earlier than thought.
The Pulau Ay 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,” said excavations director Professor Peter Lape, an anthropologist 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.”
It was on the pottery where the archaeologists 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,” the scientists explained.
“However, we 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 km 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.”
The research is published in the journal Asian Perspectives.