How Spices Moved Markets since Ancient Times

Today, spices are an economical way to season our foods; but in ancient times, spices were their own form of currency, serving multiple purposes. From treating ailments to warding off spirits to scenting fragrances, spices were one of the most important – and sought after – commodities from the Eastern world. At one point, a horse could be traded for a pound of saffron and peppercorn was so valuable it could be exchanged for rent!

Just as we have trade agreements with other countries and a systematic import/export structure today, Easterners’ mercantilism was driven by trade, and greatly centered around the spice markets from Asia to Africa to Arabia and Europe. Spices were a primary currency to connect different cultures and a tool to spread imperialism.

As far back as 3500 BC, the ancient Egyptians were some of the first to recognize the multiple purposes of spices. Spices spread through the Middle East to the eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. For nearly 5000 years, Arab middlemen controlled the spice trade in which spices from China, Indonesia, India, and Ceylon were transported overland by donkey or camel caravans. Due to robbers these land routes were dangerous.

In a search for a cheaper and safer way to acquire spices from the East and other spice producing regions, European explorers such as Magellan, da Gama, Cabral, and Dias set out to sea. Also hoping to find the spice capital, Christopher Columbus headed west, but found the Americas instead. Not long after, Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route around the southern tip of Africa, and eventually reached the southwest coast of India. Da Gama returned from his voyage with an abundance of nutmegs, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorns. The search for spices ultimately led to The Age of Exploration and the discovery of the New World.

The expanded global investment choices of today are reminiscent of the old world’s search for valuable assets that can be exchanged and traded around the world. So whether it is spices, food, silk, oil, real estate, stocks & bonds, currencies or other desirable commodities, international transactions and capitalism will be “seasoning” our multicultural world for decades well into the future.

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