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History of Spices and Trade Routes

From ancient times to modern day, spices have been used in every culture for various purposes. The history behind spices is as long and varied as it is interesting. Since hunters and gatherers began wrapping food in leaves to preserve it only to realize that it provided flavor, people have been using spices and herbs in their food and even shifting their use for natural and herbal medicine.

Spices And The Ancient World

Ancient Egyptians used spices for a variety of things, including, food, cosmetics, and embalming. In their cuisine they used spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, garlic. Spices were such a crucial aspect of their culture that King Tutankhamen was buried in his tomb with garlic cloves.

For medical purposes, the Egyptians used caraway, coriander, garlic and more in treatments for ailments. In addition to using spices to treat illness, they used it to embalm those that had passed. Cinnamon was an important spice for this task, but as it was scarce and expensive back then, it was mixed with other spices to retain its antibacterial properties while using it sparingly.

In India, a culture that uses an abundance of spices in their everyday food, spices such as cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom have been used for thousands of years. Similar to the Egyptians, they also used spices in their medicine. Cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, pepper, turmeric, and more were all used as part of their healing methods, with some of these practices still in use today!

These customs weren’t unique to Africa and Asia though, and soon spices began to spread throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Europe. For 5000 years, spice trading was controlled by the Arabs, delivering spices via donkey and camel, but things changed as Europe came into the picture.

From Cuisine to Currency During the Middle Ages

In the beginning of the middle ages, spices were expensive, as they were scarce and the route to acquire them was long and arduous. This meant that typically only the wealthy could afford spices. As progress was made on spice routes, and international trade became more common, this started to change and everyday people were able to use them more and more.

At a time when hygiene was poor and there was no refrigeration, food spoiled quickly. One way people dealt with food spoilage was by adding spices to their spoiled food in order to enhance the less than ideal flavor.

In addition to adding spices to food, some spices were even used as currency. At this time, they were as precious as gold and there is even evidence of price tables that compared spices to livestock for trading purposes. A pound of ginger was considered equal to one sheep!

Various spices, such as peppercorns, were also used for taxes and rent. Peppercorns were scarce enough in Europe during this time that they were a valuable commodity and a massive force in the economy.

The Age of Exploration Changed Spice Trading

Because of the value of spices, multiple European countries sent out explorers in the late 15th and early 16th century with the hopes of finding a sea route that would be quicker than the current system of getting the spices by land.

Spain sent out both Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan to try and find the Spice Islands, with little success. Christopher Columbus never reached Asia, ending up in America instead. Ferdinand Magellan died before he could complete his ambitious sea voyage, although one of the ships in his fleet did make it back with the spices.

One Portuguese explorer, Vasco De Gama, achieved Europe's goal in 1497 when he went around the southern tip of Africa and up to Asia. When he returned he brought spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and peppercorns with him. De Gama’s exploration  paved the way for Europe, specifically the Portuguese, to take control of the spice trade and cut out the middlemen. Since then, various countries competed for control over the international trade of spices.

Spices and Modern Day Health Benefits

Although modern day medicine has replaced most of the ancient remedies, there has been trending activity recently about spices and their health benefits. Still used around the world for their natural healing properties and health benefits, one can never underestimate the power of some yummy spices. Some research even suggests spices can be used to treat inflammation, nausea, indigestion, and blemishes. For all these reasons and more, it might be worthwhile to add a little spice to your day.

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