The history of spices.......a trip back to ancient times

The history of spices goes way back to as early 50,000 BC, it is almost as old as human civilization, but the spice trade developed throughout the Middle East around 2000 BC with pepper and cinnamon. In 3500 BC ancient Egyptians used different spices to flavour their food, embalming their dead, and in cosmetics. Spices and herbs were very demanding in those days because technology wasn't known then, so to preserve food, that was basically the most effective way. These early and expensive spices includes black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and cumin. It is quite certain that spices played a very important role then in man's life because archeologist discovered spices in tombs as early as 3000 BC.

bowl of spice

Interestingly, in those days spices were said to have strong connections or affiliations with different gods. So when someone dies different spices were used on them, the fragrance was thought to increase favour of the gods to that person, offering them a better chance of celestial travel in the afterlife. Even though the history of spices is so important, thank God for giving man the knowledge to make modern technology work today.

Soon, European explorers like Vasco de Gama, Bartholomeu Dias and Ferdinand Magellan started sea voyages to discover a sea route of spices, which eventually would be cheaper. Eight years later the Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama discovered a sea route around the southern tip of Africa.

The spice trade was a very big trade then, not only did many men gain fortune, spice also served as currency in the very early days. Pharisees in Judea paid tithes using cumin seeds. When Alaric the Visigoth held Rome under siege in the fifth century, the ransom included 3000 pounds of peppercorns. In the fourteenth century in Germany, one pound of nutmeg could be traded for seven oxen.


Spices were so very important in those days that if you were a wealthy king, you would have beautiful maidens sprinkling you with the most expensive spices. It was also used to perfume a room and the people in it. When knights returned from battle and have an audience with their king, they would sit with rosemary and thyme around them.

Spices can be grouped as:

Dried flower buds, such as cloves

Dried fruits or seeds, such as fennel, back pepper and mustard

Arils, such as mace

Barks, such as cinnamon and cassia

Resins, such as asafoetida

Roots and rhizomes, such as tumeric, ginger and galingale

Stigmas, such as saffron

So next time you use ginger in some breads or vanilla in your ice cream, perhaps you will reflect back on the history of spices and how you came to be using what you are using. It may come from a bottle or plastic in the supermarket, but it took a long way to be where it is today, to be so easily accessible.

Whew, that was quite a lot to learn their about the history of spices, don't you think a drink or some tea would be good at this point? We still have lots more to learn.

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