Humans Loved Nutmeg 3,500 Years Ago

A recent discovery finds nutmeg has been used by humans thousands of years longer than originally thought. (Photo: pilipphoto/Shutterstock)

As confusing at it may seem, there's no pumpkin in a pumpkin spice latte. What is in that famous latte are various flavors often used in pumpkin dishes such as pumpkin pie spice, which includes nutmeg. Until recently, food historians believed nutmeg's culinary use began about 1,500 years ago, but new evidence shows they were off by a couple thousand years.

On one of Indonesia's small islands, Pulau Ay, archeologists found residue of nutmeg on pieces of a ceramic pots that they estimate are 3,500 years old reports UW News from the University of Washington.

So, why does it matter?

nutmeg plant
3,500 years ago, humans were using the spice inside this nut to flavor their food. (Photo: Shyne Devasia Kochuveed/Shutterstock)

The discovery has nothing to do with lattes or even pumpkin pie spice, but stay with us for a minute. When archeologists make discoveries like this, they offer a glimpse into how human culture developed.

Like the 14,500-year-old bread recently found in Jordan that was 5,000 years older than what we thought was the oldest loaf, the nutmeg discovery can provide answers — and raise new questions. The bread discovery brought into question the generally accepted timeline of when humans first stopped living a nomadic lifestyle. The nutmeg discovery raises questions about when people began to put down roots in Pulau Ay all those millennia ago.

The small island is part of Indonesia's Banda Island's, also known as the Spice Islands, and for good reason: Hundreds of years ago, the Spice Islands were the only source of nutmeg, mace and cloves, so they played a outsized role in trade and the establishment of the spice routes. But thousands of years ago, people wouldn't have lived on Pulau Ay because it didn't have indigenous land mammals or surface water. When people eventually did settle on the island, they would have needed to have been advanced enough to understand drinking water storage and to know how to raise domestic animals for food.

The shards of pottery with the remnants of nutmeg, along with pottery shards that also contained evidence of other foods such as sago and purple yam, prove humans spent time on Palau Ay much sooner than we believed. It may have been that those first humans were just visitors, not inhabitants, who were there "to target its rich marine reef resources" before permanent populations inhabited the island much later on.

From visitors to residents

Evidence shows the site may have been populated but then "largely or totally abandoned" about 2,300 years ago. Archeologists haven't yet found any site in the Banda Islands that has evidence of a human population from the period between 2,300 years ago and 1,500 years ago.

The archeological excavation that unearthed these findings was led by Peter Lape, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, along with colleagues from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia and the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Lape believes the discovery of the site gives further insight into "how people adapted to living on these small tropical islands in stages, from occasional use as fishing camps to permanent occupation."

The question archeologists want to answer next is why did people abandon the Banda Islands for 800 years?

This study and others like it also show the early use and appreciation of the spices that eventually led to the spice trade routes that brought nutmeg, mace and cloves to other parts of the world — and eventually leading us to the famed pumpkin spice latte.

I can only imagine archeologists 3,500 years from now unearthing evidence of the latte — and the frenzy around it — by piecing together its origins and popularity, and scratching their heads when they discover that a pumpkin spice latte never contained any pumpkin — just good ol' nutmeg.