Fragrant finds in Vietnam

A recent study of food preparation tools from Vietnam has identified the remains of a variety of spices used c.2,000 years ago.

The researchers analysed microscopic plant remains from 12 grinding stone tools found at the site of Óc Eo in southern Vietnam, which was an important overseas trading port for the ancient kingdom of Funan between the 1st and 8th centuries AD. The tools include pestles and mortars, mullers, and footed grinding slabs, and come from contexts dating to between 2,000 and 1,300 years ago. Similar tools have been found at sites in South Asia dating to between c.500 BC and AD 300. Their sudden appearance in southern Vietnam, where they had never been found before, suggests that they were introduced to South-east Asia from South Asia through Indian Ocean trade and migration around the start of the 1st millennium AD.

Analysis of stone tools from Óc Eo, like this footed grinding slab, has revealed that a variety of spices – many of which are still popular in the region today – were being used in Vietnam thousands of years ago. Image: Khanh Trung Kien Nguyen 

Analysis of the micro-remains on these tools from Óc Eo identified eight different spices: turmeric, ginger, fingerroot, sand ginger, galangal, clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Some of these plants are indigenous to South-east Asia, but others (such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove) originated in South Asia and eastern Indonesia, and may have travelled a considerable distance (although it is also possible that they were grown from seeds somewhere closer to Óc Eo).

This discovery is significant for several reasons, not least because spices rarely survive in the archaeological record: it is remarkable that these examples have been identified at all. The research also tells us more about South-east Asia’s important role in the global spice trade, both as the place of origin of some products, and as a geographical intermediary between China and the Indian subcontinent. The impact of these international maritime trade networks is clearly reflected in the adoption of non-native ingredients and new food preparation tools in Óc Eo in this period. The discovery offers a tantalising insight into the development of modern culinary traditions as well. All of the spices identified are central ingredients in the curries still cooked across Asia today, particularly the curries of South-east Asia, which feature ingredients such as galangal, fingerroot, and sand ginger, rarely found in Indian curries.

The research has been published in Science Advances (