October 4, 2018
Contact

For high-resolution photos, interviews, and more information please contact:

Burke Museum Public Relations
burkepr@uw.edu
206.543.9762

3,500-year-old pumpkin spice?

Archaeologists find the earliest use of nutmeg as a food ingredient and evidence of the transition to early farming practices in Indonesia

Burke PR

Seattle, WA – In a timely coincidence with the annual rise of pumpkin-spice lattes and other favorite fall foods, a new study published in the journal Asian Perspectives describes the earliest-known use of nutmeg as a food ingredient. Found at an archaeological site on Pulau Ay, a small island in the Banda Islands, central Maluku, Indonesia, the nutmeg was found as residue on ceramic potsherds and is estimated to be 3,500 years old—about 2,000 years older than previously known use of this delicious spice.

The study and two excavations in 2007 and 2009 were both led by Dr. Peter Lape, curator of archaeology at the Burke Museum and professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, in collaboration with colleagues from Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, University of New South Wales, Australia and others. The Pulau Ay archaeological site was occupied from 3,500-2,300 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 adapted for storage of liquids that may have allowed people to survive on this water poor island. A few hundred years later, thicker-walled pottery better adapted for cooking appears along with pig bones.

“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.” 

It was on the pottery where Lape’s co-authors Judith Field and Adelle Coster found not only the nutmeg, but also residue from six other plants including sago and purple yam. These plants could have been collected from wild plants, or possibly cultivated 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.

However, by surveying additional archaeological sites, the study’s authors suggest that the island was regularly visited by people targeting its rich marine reef resources for several thousand years before more permanent populations were established in the early Neolithic (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.

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 Island Southeast Asia. The results from this site show that these changes did not happen all at once, but rather were gradually adopted and adapted to allow people 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.

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. Pass the pumpkin pie, please.

For high resolution photos and interviews, contact burkepr@uw.edu

Study Information: New Data from an Open Neolithic Site in Eastern Indonesia. Peter Lape, Emily Peterson, Daud Tanudirjo, Chung-Ching Shiung, Gyoung-Ah Lee, Judith Field, and Adelle Coster. In Asian Perspectives, Vol. 57, No. 2 © 2018 by the University of Hawai‘i Press.

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

 ###

The Burke Museum is the Washington State Museum of Natural History and Culture. The Burke is an active research museum that cares for 16 million geology, biology and cultural objects from Washington state and around the world, preserving natural and cultural history and generating new discoveries.

Founded in 1885 and designated the State Museum in 1899, the Burke Museum is the oldest public museum in Washington. The Burke Museum is located on the University of Washington campus, at the corner of NE 45th St. and 17th Ave. NE. Hours are 10 am to 5 pm daily, and until 8 pm on first Thursdays. Admission: $10 general, $8 senior, $7.50 student/ youth. Admission is free to children four and under, Burke members, UW students, faculty, and staff. Admission is free to the public on the first Thursday of each month. UW parking fees are $3 per hour up to 4 hours or $15 all day on weekdays, $5 flat fee on Saturdays before noon, and free parking after noon on Saturdays and all-day Sundays. Call 206.543.5590 or visit www.burkemuseum.org. The Burke Museum is an American Alliance of Museums-accredited museum and a Smithsonian Affiliate.

Picturesque view of the sea and sky

The Banda Islands, Indonesia is home to a recently-described archaeological site that sheds light on the transition to early farming practices in Indonesia.
Photo: Andrew Lawless

Brick pathway surrounded by greenery

Benteng (Fort) Nassau was built in 1609 and was the first Dutch fort built on Banda Naira Island. It was built to control the trade of nutmeg which was only available from the Banda Islands at the time.
Photo: Andrew Lawless

Two male archaeologists digging

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

Contact

For high-resolution photos, interviews, and more information please contact:

Burke Museum Public Relations
burkepr@uw.edu
206.543.9762

Back to Top