Pumpkin Spice
B. Hofack 2/Getty Images

Every fall, grocery stores line their shelves with pumpkin spice-flavored products that range from traditional pumpkin pies to the more questionable pumpkin spice candy corn. The flavor is a mixture of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves—all spices that humans have enjoyed in their food for a long time.

In fact, researchers have discovered that humans have been using nutmeg as food for 2,000 years longer than previously thought. On Pulau Ay, one of the Banda Islands in Indonesia, archaeologists found ancient nutmeg residue on ceramic pottery shards that they estimate to be 3,500 years old.

Piecing together the history of nutmeg can help frame how the global spice trade evolved later on. Thousands of years after people on Pulau Ay mixed nutmeg in their pots, this and other spices became extremely valuable commodities that people all over the world used in food and medicine. Asia sold spices to the Middle East and North Africa. From there, they trickled into spice-starved Europe.

Oldest Use of Nutmeg
Peter Lape/University of Washington
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.

By the 1300s, and maybe earlier, traders traveled to the Banda Islands—which were among the so-called “Spice Islands”—because they were the only place nutmeg was known to grow. “At one point in the 1300s, when tariffs were at their highest, a pound of nutmeg in Europe cost seven fattened oxen and was a more valuable commodity than gold,” wrote the late John Munro, an economics professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.

A desire for spice is part of what drove European seafaring and contact with the Americas. In fact, the Dutch were so hungry for nutmeg that in late 1600s that they traded their colony of New Amsterdam to Britain in exchange for Pulau Run, a nutmeg-producing Banda Island over which Britain claimed control. The British renamed the colony “New York,” the name it bears today as part of the United States. Pulau Run remained part of the Netherlands’ colonies until the mid-20th century, when it became part of the new, independent nation of Indonesia.

“[It’s] fascinating to see such early use of nutmeg, a spice that changed the world a few thousand years later,” said Peter Lape, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington who co-led the recent archaeological dig in Pulau Ay, according to a university press release

Considering that nearly a half-billion dollars in pumpkin-flavored products were sold in the United States over the past year, according to the ratings company Nielsen, it’s clear that the ancient people in Indonesia were onto something.