Pottery gunk offers earliest sign of humans eating nutmeg

(Credit: Getty Images)

Researchers have discovered the earliest-known use of nutmeg in food.

At an archaeological site on Pulau Ay, a small island in the Banda Islands, central Maluku, Indonesia, researchers found nutmeg residue on ceramic potsherds and estimate that it’s 3,500 years old—about 2,000 years older than the previously known use of the spice.

People occupied the Pulau Ay archaeological site 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 people adapted for storage of liquids that may have allowed them to survive on this water-poor island. A few hundred years later, thicker-walled pottery better adapted for cooking appears along with pig bones.

A potsherd artifact found at the Pulau Ay archaeological site. It was one of several pottery pieces containing traces of foods, including the earliest-known use of nutmeg. (Credit: Peter Lape/U. Washington)

Spicy find

“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,” says 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.”

It was on the pottery where Lape’s coauthors Judith Field and Adelle Coster found not only the nutmeg, but also residue from six other plants including sago and purple yam. People could have collected these ingredients from wild plants, or possibly cultivated them 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.

Peter Lape at dig site
Peter Lape (left) and Daud Tanudirjo (right) excavate a layer at the site with the earliest known cooking use of nutmeg. (Credit: Andrew Lawless)

By surveying additional archaeological sites, however, researchers suggest that people targeting its rich marine reef resources regularly visited the island for several thousand years before more permanent populations established themselves 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 kilometers 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.

Gradual changes

Studies of sites like this one can help illuminate the complex cultural processes at work during the Neolithic period, which saw the introduction of many new plants, animals, and technologies to the islands of Southeast Asia.

The results from this site show that these changes did not happen all at once, but rather people gradually adopted and adapted them to utilize these tropical island seascapes in new ways.

As for the nutmeg, understanding its earliest origins of human use helps connect the dots to later international trades. By the 14th century (and possibly earlier), long-distance traders were traveling to Banda to obtain nutmeg; this valuable spice brought the Banda Islands international renown during the early modern era.

The find provides a new perspective on a key ingredient that is still a valuable commodity today—especially in a multi-billion dollar industry of fall-themed foods and beverages.

The research appears in the journal Asian Perspectives.

The residents and government officials of Pulau Ay and Banda Naira supported the fieldwork. The National Geographic Society supported the 2007 fieldwork. Researchers conducted the fieldwork with permission from Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia, as well as Maluku provincial and local governments. The fieldwork was a collaborative effort between the Universitas Gadjah Mada, the University of Washington and Balai Arkeologi Ambon. The 2009 fieldwork included the same partners working with support from the Henry Luce Foundation and permission from Kementarian Riset dan Teknologi.

Additional researchers from Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia, the University of New South Wales in Australia, and others contributed to the work.

Source: University of Washington