3,500-Year-Old Pottery Reveals History's Earliest Sniff of a Pumpkin Spice

We've been basic for a very long time.

Unsplash / Pratiksha Mohanty

Thousands of years before pumpkin spice lattes and the notion of “basicness” existed, humans on a tiny Indonesian island were laying the groundwork for one of today’s most enduring and embarrassing trends. Digging deep in the reddish soil of tiny Pulau Ay, one of the Banda Islands, scientists recently discovered shards of pots bearing the unmistakable traces of a key pumpkin spice: nutmeg.

This 3,500-year-old residue, they write in a new Asian Perspectives study, is the oldest-ever evidence that people ate this spice long before Starbucks forced it into cooperation with cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Previously, scientists thought humans had hopped on the nutmeg train a little later, around 2,000 years ago. But perhaps we were basic long before we ever thought we could be.

“Nutmeg and other [southeast] Asian spices like cloves have been popular for a long time, so I’m not surprised that coffee companies have tapped into what people want,” lead author and University of Washington anthropology professor Peter Lape, Ph.D., tells Inverse.

The island of Pulau Ay: some of the earliest roots of the pumpkin spice trend.

Andrew Lawless

He and his colleagues were digging in the island sand to investigate how Neolithic people would have settled in such an inhospitable environment. Beautiful though it is, Pulau Ay doesn’t have any surface water or indigenous sources of meat, so it’s not the best place to set up shop. And yet, it’s clear from ancient animal bones, tools, and earthenware pottery that there were people there 2,300 to 3,500 years ago — and that they were the earliest known people who ate a spice we now associate with fall Frappuccinos and wearing Uggs.

The artifacts the team unearthed suggest that humans moved onto the island in stages, first using it as a temporary fishing outpost, then later, as they figured out how to store water and food in pots, as a permanent settlement. In the pots, they found evidence of common starchy goods like sago and yam, but when they found nutmeg, Lape says, “we were surprised!”

“[We] didn’t think nutmeg would be there, especially in these very old pottery sherds,” he continues.

Pottery shards like this one bore traces of 3,500-year-old nutmeg, the oldest known use of the spice as a food. 

Peter Lape/Burke Museum

Some 4,800 years later, in the 14th century, nutmeg helped rocket the Banda Islands from relative obscurity to valuable stop on the international spice highway. “My colleagues and I have found lots of evidence that Pulau Ay residents were well connected with many other islands in the region, some possibly hundreds of kilometers away, based on traded pottery, stone tools, even pigs,” explains Lape. “It’s possible that the global spice trade had its origins in these early regional trade networks.”

Today, nutmeg continues to increase connection among people, whether it’s the monsters responsible for putting pumpkin spice in beer or those who vehemently maintain the rumor that pumpkin spice causes constipation. That said, nutmeg wasn’t always associated with autumn gourds. “Pumpkins come from North America, so I’m pretty sure they were not available in Pulau Ay 3500 years ago,” Lape explains.

Nevertheless, you’d be hard-pressed today to find a culinary use for nutmeg that doesn’t also involve its pumpkin spice crew (though it’s a classic addition to a traditional béchamel). Lape, for his part, doesn’t buy into the PSL hype, but even anthropologists aren’t immune to the scent of warm, commercialized spices.

“I’m personally not a big fan of pumpkin spice lattes, he says, “but I might have to give one a try today!”

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