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Sci-Tech

Key ingredient in your pumpkin spice latte goes back 3,500 years

The modern pumpkin-spice apocalypse can trace some of its origins to a time of stone tools.

University of Washington's Peter Lape (left) and archaeologist Daud Tanudirjo (right) excavate a layer at the site.

Andrew Lawless

As the year nears its end, we must battle our way through a heady taste mixture as pumpkin-spice everything invades our lives. But pumpkin spice just wouldn't be the same without nutmeg, a spice harvested from a tree seed. 

It turns out the story of nutmeg reaches much further back into history than scientists expected. An archaeological team investigated a site on the island of Pulau Ay in Indonesia and discovered nutmeg residue on pottery fragments estimated to be 3,500 years old. 

This potsherd was one of several with traces of food on it.

Peter Lape/University of Washington

The research team, led by anthropologist Peter Lape from the University of Washington, says the find pushes the earliest known use of nutmeg back by about 2,000 years. 

"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.

The nutmeg find is fascinating, though it doesn't mean the long-ago residents of Pulau Ay were mixing up pumpkin-spice lattes or squash-based pies. The researchers did find traces of purple yam and sago, a starchy food extracted from some types of palm.

Pulau Ay is part of the Banda Islands, which were once the only source for nutmeg. According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, they were known as the Spice Islands and hosted a Dutch-built nutmeg plantation system in the 17th century.

The excavations took place in 2007 and 2009. The researchers published their findings in the journal Asian Perspectives in late September.