Spice cargo reveals historical trade patterns and shipping routes

Archaeobotantical study of organic material from a fifteenth century Indonesian shipwreck elucidates pre-European maritime spice trade in Asia

GBIF-mediated data resources used : 164 species occurrences
Star anise
The storage jars which contained the star anise (Images by Dr Michael Flecker)

Star anise (Illicium verum) is a spice widely used in Asian cuisine and traditional medicine. It was first brought to Europe in the late sixteenth century by Thomas Cavendish, an English explorer and a privateer, who acquired the spice in the Phillipines.

In this archaeobotanical study, researchers describe the findings of star anise samples inside ceramic jars found on the seabed near the Bakau, a fifteenth-century shipwreck in Indonesia. Radiocarbon dating of both hull and cargo placed the wreck in the period from year 1320 to 1430 CE.

To determine the potential origin of the spice (and thereby ship), the researchers used GBIF-mediated occurrences of star anise to map the known wild and cultivated distribution. Combined with the likely origin of the ceramics as well as linguistic data of the local names for the spice, the authors believe that the star anise originated in Southern China and that the destination of the Bakau would have been Indonesia, picking up Thai merchandise on the way.

With limited written historical references, this study shows the potential of using holistic archaeological approaches—including a novel use of GBIF-mediated data—and reinforces the concept of maritime spice trade in Asia, established prior to European involvement in spice trade in the region.

Castillo CC, Fahy B and Fuller DQ (2022) Star anise from a fifteenth century Indonesian shipwreck. Archaeology in Oceania. Wiley 57(3): 214–222. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/arco.5275