New Evidence Suggests Existence of Proto-Pumpkin-Spice Dates Back 3,500 Years

An archeological excavation on the Banda Islands found evidence of nutmeg, sago, and purple yam on pieces of pottery.
October 5, 2018, 3:19pm

On July 31, 1667, the Dutch and the English signed the Treaty of Breda, and the representatives from the Netherlands thought they’d made a pretty good deal, trading a colony called New Amsterdam for a tiny property called Run in the Banda Islands. That newly Dutch speck on the map was part of the Spice Islands, and that wasn’t just a clever name: the Banda Islands were the place for nutmeg, and the Dutch wanted as much of that action as they could get.

Fast-forward three-plus centuries, and everyone who read their 4th-grade history homework knows that New Amsterdam was renamed New York, and you no longer have to go through Dutch traders to get nutmeg. But according to a newly published paper, nutmeg was being used as a food ingredient in the Banda Islands 3,500 years ago, almost 2,000 years before previous estimates. (It’s rare that archaeology news overlaps with pumpkin spice news, but here we are.)

According to the University of Washington, anthropology professor Peter Lape led two excavations at an archaeological site on Pulau Ay in the Banda Islands. He and his team found nutmeg residue inside shards of ceramic pots on the site, which was occupied between 2,300 and 3,500 years ago. In addition to nutmeg, those broken pieces of pottery also contained residue from six other plants, including sago—a kind of starch extracted from a palm tree—and purple yam. (We like to think that those late-Stone Age inhabitants LITERALLY COULDN’T EVEN without having a Purple Yam Spice latte first).

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Lape was also the lead author of a paper about those unexpected findings, “New Data from an Open Neolithic Site in Eastern Indonesia,” which was recently published in the journal Asian Perspectives. “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,” Lape said. “It’s also fascinating to see such early use of nutmeg, a spice that changed the world a few thousand years later.”

Despite this new start date for the Spice Islands’ nutmeg-related timeline, there’s still a lot that archaeologists don’t know about the Banda Islands, their inhabitants, and their history. For starters, the island has no indigenous land animals and no surface water, so it probably didn’t have a permanent human population; instead, Lape believes that it was first visited by skilled sailors from nearby islands, who coveted its marine reefs. (The Banda Islands are still coveted for their rich underwater environments; according to NBC News, it’s the home of the “world’s fastest growing and most resilient reefs.”)

Another unanswered question is why that site on Pulau Ay was abandoned about 2,300 years ago—and why no one returned for roughly 800 years. Lape and his team hope to dig deeper (PUN COMPLETELY INTENDED) into that mystery in future studies.

And, just in case you want to throw a lot of aromatic shade in the direction of the Netherlands, the United States is currently the biggest importer of nutmeg from the Banda Islands. How’s that Treaty taste now?