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‘Pumpkin Spice’ Has Been a Thing for 3,500 Years

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

A key ingredient in the flavor was discovered on ancient pottery shards in Indonesia, revealing it has been around for a long, looooong 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.

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

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.

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.

“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 rating company Nielsen, it’s clear that the ancient people in Indonesia were onto something.

Pumpkin is a thoroughly American flavor that many people love for both its taste and relation to the fall holidays. But here’s the thing about pumpkin spice – it doesn’t contain any pumpkin. Up until 50 years ago, pumpkin spice was virtually unheard of. That’s when McCormick began selling their blend of nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and allspice, which they dubbed ‘Pumpkin Spice’.

The modern-day pumpkin spice craze can largely be attributed to coffee. In the late 1990s, coffee flavored with pumpkin spice became the hot new beverage in cafes. Coffee fans may be familiar with the Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte. It’s been 13 years since the seasonal latte was introduced to coffee fanatics around the country. By Forbes estimates, this bestselling beverage has made Starbucks $100 million.

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