Herbs and spices taste great and do an incredible job of enhancing the flavor of our food. However, spicy seasonings can do so much more than just make food taste better. Each spice has its own chemical makeup, giving it unique properties that humans have utilized in cooking, medicine, and personal care for thousands of years.
The History of Spices: In the Beginning
Ancient man ( the hunter/gatherer) was known to wrap food in the leaves of certain spice plants, mostly as a preservative. They would later even use these methods for embalming.1 Upon eating these wrapped meats, they discovered the flavors were quite delicious. This newfound desire for flavorful foods gave birth to the worldwide trade of herbs and spices. Medicinal use would not enter the picture for thousands of years, but this was an integral step towards the eventual use of spices for medicine and personal care.
Read on for a geographical history of spices, from ancient times to today.
Ancient Chinese myth suggests the medicinal use of herbs and spices began as early as 2700 B.C. However, in 1596 the first comprehensive printed book of spices, along with their medical use, was printed in China. It was titled “Pen-ts’ao kang mu” or “Systematic Pharmacopoeia” and was authored by Li Shih-Chen. Li was a pharmacist and the son of a medical practitioner.2
Some of the most common spices used in ancient China were:
While many believe that cinnamon and cassia are native to Egypt, they are in fact native to China.3 Nutmeg and cloves were brought to China by way of the Moluccas. The Moluccas, also known as the “Spice Islands,” are an archipelago of Indonesian islands. They are particularly known for growing cloves, and the indigenous people historically planted a new clove tree for every child born.4
Courtiers in the 3rd century B.C. were known to carry cloves to freshen their breath before speaking to emperors. By the 5th century A.D., ginger was widely utilized and even grown in pots to take on sea voyages for fresh food, as well as to prevent scurvy.
Nowadays, traditional Chinese five-spice powder is a favorite all over the globe. It contains cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, and peppercorns. Some recipes will add other ingredients like ginger, nutmeg, and licorice.
Of course, spices were heavily utilized in ancient Egypt for food preservation, as well as health and wellness reasons. Ancient Egyptian documents dating back to 1555 A.D. noted the classification and use of fennel, cumin, coriander, juniper, garlic, and thyme to enhance health or to use for various ailments and/or injuries. Other records suggest that the slave laborers who built the Great Pyramids of Cheops used garlic and onion to support overall health.5
Egypt was nestled right at the crossroads of the “ancient spice road” or the spice routes used during this time.
Historically, this meant that ancient Egyptians had easy access to an abundance of spices from many regions. They used local spices heavily, as well as spices from the East and even Greece and Rome, collecting these from merchants along their trade routes.
Coriander is known to have been used as an aphrodisiac in ancient Egypt. Evidence suggests they left coriander in tombs to signify undying love and passion. Cinnamon was more expensive in these times and was used largely as a preservative as well as in the embalming process. It was used sparingly and often mixed with other, more readily available herbs and spices.
Cumin was believed to help with stomach issues and help digestion of food. It was also carried by soldiers in their pockets as a sign of faithfulness to those left back home. Coriander, cinnamon, cumin, salt, pepper, and toasted nuts were often used on or in bread in ancient Egypt. The bread they consumed then could be very coarse with a bad taste. This common spice mix helped to make it much more edible and enjoyable.6
The Tigris and Euphrates Valleys (modern day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey) offered lush and fertile soil for the cultivation of ancient spices in Mesopotamia. Clay tablets from Sumeria, dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C. note the medical use of spice plants like thyme. Also, a cuneiform scroll from around 668-633 B.C. was found containing a lengthy list of spices used in cooking and medicine. These included:
By the 6th century B.C. in Persia, garlic, onions, and shallots had gained huge popularity and widespread use. Ancient Persians also cultivated potent essential oils from many plant species, including spice plants. Some of the most common essential oils used in Persia during these times were coriander, rose, saffron, and lily. Vegetable and sesame oil were also used by the ancient Assyrians.7
During the 7th century B.C., King Merodach-Baladan II kept very detailed records of the 64 various plant species that grew in his royal garden.
These records included details about how to cultivate thyme, cardamom, cumin, poppy seeds, and many others.
During this time in Babylonia, religion claimed that there was a god of the moon that held power over the medicinal plants of the Earth. For this reason, they harvested many potent spices in the middle of the night by moonlight.
When we think of Indian food, we think of spice and lots of it! Indian cuisine is known for its bold use of aromatic spices. Many of these are incredibly healthy for humans, particularly turmeric (one of the many spices in traditional curry spice mix).
However, many other spices are commonly used in India and have been for thousands and thousands of years. These include:
- Black pepper
- Cayenne pepper
- Bishop’s weed … and the list goes on.
Furthermore, scientists have researched many of these ancient spices and have found antimicrobial properties that are ideal for various uses like preservatives, antiseptics, and disinfectants.8
Indians began cultivating spices around the 8th century B.C. in Babylon.
These spices were used in surgical procedures as far back as the 4th century B.C. White mustard was used on bed sheets toward evil off spirits alongside poultice from sesame applied to fresh surgical wounds. It’s now known that this poultice may have carried antiseptic properties that aided in wound healing. Many other spices were used in medicine like turmeric, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon.
Medical writings from India in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. note heavy use of spices and herbs for medical and healing practices. Ayurvedic medicine is still practiced today in holistic approaches, even in Western societies. Ayurveda utilizes spices, herbs, and other natural approaches to overall health and healing.
Rome and Greece
The Mediterranean Sea gave the ancient Greeks and Romans easy access to many exotic spices of the world. They imported many from neighboring countries as well as far away ones. They were known to use poppy seeds and caraway for bread. Fennel was used in vinegar sauces. Coriander was used to enhance the flavor of, both, food and wine. Garlic was heavily used in cooking by many ancient Romans and Greeks. They also wore crowns of marjoram and parsley to feasts, as they believed it would help to stave off inebriation from the mass consumption of that delicious coriander-infused wine.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C., Hippocrates wrote about the use of spices in medicine. He made sure to note the great care that should be utilized in the cultivation and preparation of herbs for medical use. He utilized over 400 herbal remedies, and over half of them are still used today.
About 500 years later, the “Father of Botany,” Theophrastus, wrote 2 books that recorded the current knowledge of about 600 known herbs and spices of the time.
Later in the 1st century, De Materia Medica was printed. Written by Dioscorides (a Greek Physician), this book contained information for the use of botany in medicine and was used in, both, the East and West for about 1,500 years. Dioscorides created a more systematic catalog based upon the evidence of others as opposed to claiming that magic or the gods were behind the powers of these plants.9
Romans were known to heavily and extravagantly employ ancient spices for a variety of uses from flavoring to preserving and even personal grooming. They used them widely in, both, cooking and wine. They bathed with spices and essential oils. They used spice-infused balms and oils after baths to keep skin moisturized and smelling fresh and clean. They used them in medicine by oral consumption and for topical use on burns, lacerations, or other types of wounds.
Arabian and Muslim Use
Spices played a huge role in trading for Arabs early on. Many of the traded goods in the early Roman Empire came from Arabian merchants. These merchants told tall tales about the origins of their goods and created a monopoly on many of them, like cinnamon and cassia. This worked for them until around the 1st century when Roman and Greeks realized there was huge inflation due to the deception.
Muhammad, the founder of Islam, co-owned a shop that sold various spices like frankincense, myrrh, and many of Asian origin. His followers in the Middle East continued this way of utilizing and cultivating cinnamon, cassia, and other spices for sale and trade. They improved processes for extracting the scent from flower blossoms as well as distillation techniques for essential oils. Around the 9th century, Arab physicians started using herbs and spices to create medicinal syrups and flavoring extracts.10
Europe & the Middle Ages
In the early Middle Ages in Europe, spices from around the world, particularly Asia, were quite expensive. Only the wealthy used ones that were not easy to come by locally. Spices were often used as trade and a means to make money.
But by the time of the Crusades in 1096, international trade became much more common and goods from all over became much easier to obtain. Spices from all over the world became widely available at prices that most could afford. They were used in cooking, wines, medicine, and for personal care. The aromatic scent also helped to mask the stench of bodies that weren’t regularly bathed.
The Age of Spice Discovery
The time between the late 1200s to just after 1500 has been referred to as the “age of spice discovery.” During these centuries, explorers like Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus traveled the world, trading and trying the local fare and way of life. They sailed across seas all over the world, bringing back cargo ships of local goods. They noted the varying scents, aromas, and flavors of the cuisine from the different parts of Europe, the East Indies, Asia, and around the world. They discovered different medicinal methods of utilizing ancient spices in healing and health. Exotic spices were brought to the Americas, and the entire globe was being exposed to goods from the rest of the world.11
Plant-based medicine paved the way for modern medicine in the Western World. Even before Europeans came to the Americas, the indigenous peoples were using herbs and spices for medicine, food, and personal use. Settlers from Europe and the natives alike were using them for a variety of reasons. After the Boston Tea Party, Americans started using alternative herbs and spices for drinking when it became quite unpopular to be seen drinking tea.
Around the 18th century, America officially entered the world spice trade without the burden of British taxes and trade restrictions. The use of these plants eventually led to the discoveries of modern medicines that doctors prescribe today.
Spices in the Modern World
Spices are still heavily used in our world today. We use them for cooking, cleaning, aromatherapy, health, and yes, even still in medicine. People all over the world have access to plants from hidden corners on the other side of the globe. Technology allows us to cultivate herbs, spices, and seeds more easily in adverse conditions and even in our own homes. Scientists and doctors continue to engage in cutting-edge research with chemical compounds found in spices like turmeric, frankincense, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, black peppercorns, and others.
Spices have so much to offer us on so many levels. They have helped humans greatly throughout the ages. And they still help turn our simple meals into savory and flavorful cuisine. There are innumerable health benefits from a wide variety of spices that are also tasty and enjoyable to consume. The history of spices lives on as we continue to successfully use them for various purposes. Why not try growing your own, today?
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