Way back in 1996, an international archaeological team made a discovery that ought to have changed the history of the coffee trade in the Indian Ocean, if not worldwide. As the planet’s most valuable trading commodity after oil, you’d think that a rare historical discovery in that world would merit some attention. But, after a [...]


The oldest coffee bean in the world and Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial coffee trade


The archaeological site at Kush with the writer seen at left

Way back in 1996, an international archaeological team made a discovery that ought to have changed the history of the coffee trade in the Indian Ocean, if not worldwide. As the planet’s most valuable trading commodity after oil, you’d think that a rare historical discovery in that world would merit some attention. But, after a brief mention in a US trade journal, this one sank back into anonymous obscurity, much like the undistinguished mound concealing the ancient port of Kush, in a scruffy suburb of Ras Al Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates whence it emerged.

What was this find? Two carbonised coffee beans, effectively totally incinerated, and devoid of perishable vegetable matter: an improbable survivor, considered a never-to-be repeated, a “miracle” find. And their significance? They were dated back to the end of the 11th century, at least 300 years before coffee conventionally makes its first appearance on the historical stage in Yemen, the home of coffee cultivation; but the beans were found not only over a thousand miles way from there, but carrying the tantalising suggestion of having been deliberately roasted, the earliest known consumption of what was to become the world’s favourite beverage. Almost certainly the beans came by sea, and were found alongside Chinese pottery, a well-attested maritime trade item in that epoch.

The hard evidence offered by this find threatened to completely overturn the fanciful tales of coffee’s origins that had greeted European traders in the 1500s who first came to trade in Yemen; tales of fabulous multi-coloured coffee birds, incurably diseased maidens and miracle-mongering shayks (Sufi saints) being foremost amongst them.

I found out about the remarkable find only shortly before my supposedly definitive history of coffee was published in the UK in 2003. I managed to squeeze the news into a hastily-added short chapter, writing that, when a final report was issued, the results might mean that the find could effectively turn the established history of coffee on its head. Then last year, after the book’s modest international success (published in the US and translated into seven languages), I was commissioned to write a new revised and updated edition, and naturally wondered what had happened to the momentous discovery of 20 years previously. In short, I discovered, nothing much: even after such a long time, the English archaeologist in charge of writing the final report had yet to deliver it, and carbon dating for the beans had been considered and rejected as certain to destroy the surviving evidence.

I took the opportunity when next on the way to Sri Lanka to visit the National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah, but the find appeared to have been all but forgotten. I felt that I had rediscovered the original discovery. I did eventually track down the beans themselves in Paris, at the Natural History Museum, where they were undergoing tests from the world’s foremost paleobotanist, Professor Margareta Tengberg. I wasn’t allowed to visit them, even though I was staying in that city at the time, but I learned that one of the beans had failed the identity test, whereas the other had passed. So we were down to one bean, its chance of survival twice as remote as the original find.

Europeans, traders and historians alike, tended (and still do…) to focus on feats of derring-do by their colonising forbears to account for the spread of coffee cultivation and consumption around the world. Sri Lanka is no exception to this Western bias. While the spread of coffee growing on the island during the British time until it became the third largest producer of coffee as late as the 1860s and 1870s is well documented, as is the infamous “coffee rust’ that devastated the crop, tea famously superseding it. But it is coffee’s pre-colonial history in Sri Lanka that deserves re-examination in the light of the discovery of those beans (now bean) in Kush. If coffee from Yemen has been discovered 1,000 miles from its origin dating back to 1100 A.D, along with possible consumption, why not 3,000 miles? In fact, why not sail an extra 500 miles to Sri Lanka, where, after all, Arab traders had been a familiar sight from the 7th Century? There is anecdotal oral history to suggest that Arab traders by the coast cultivated coffee for their own consumption. Certainly, having acquired the coffee drinking habit, you’d think that the idea would occur to them that the same plant they’d seen flourishing in the steamy highlands of Yemen could also be grown here, likewise in the humid lowlands where they lived at first, later introduced on up-country plantations by the British.However, early sightings of coffee at this end remain elusive, but then perhaps nobody has been looking for the evidence.

The find at Kush in faraway U.A.E offers hard archaeological evidence of the strong possibility, at least, of a previously little known pre-colonial coffee trade in the Indian Ocean. The idea is not as far-fetched as it might at first sight appear, particularly when one bears in mind the spread of Islam in the same wide territory. Islam is the supreme navigational religion: not only must the adherent’s daily prayers be directed at Mecca but they must perform the Hajj to that holy city at least once in their lifetimes. As the habit of coffee drinking spread to Mecca at the start of the 16th century, it could easily have been picked up by pilgrims, and taken back with them to their homeland – and the further that lay away, the more likely that they’d have taken care to provision themselves with the means of carrying on their newfound passion indefinitely which meant coffee seeds or plants. So it is that we find that the local word for coffee in Sulawesi (an Indonesian island right at the Eastern end of the archipelago) is “kaa”, thought to derive from the Arabic “quawah”,and that in the 1920s, 200-300 year old coffee trees were discovered in the south of the island. Since the Dutch are normally credited with the introduction of coffee there in the 1830s, this might seem a bit of amystery until it is remembered that from the early sixteenth century Indonesian pilgrims were regularly making the Hajj. A quick stopover on the way back at the port of Mocha in Yemen to pick up coffee seedlings would surely have been possible to arrange?

We’ve seen how the Brits grew the coffee plantations in Sri Lanka virtually from scratch using plants found in Kandy, but previous European colonists had not entirely neglected the potential. The Dutch had tried some desultory experimental plantings. But their lack of real application was because the VOC had taken the strategic decision early on (1740s) that their colony in Java would make a more suitable location for a coffee colony. Their predecessors, the Portuguese, probably observed rather than participated in coffee cultivation.We have to rely on Sir James Tennent’s Ceylon : An Account of the Island (1859) for the observations that “the plant had existed since time immemorial (having probably been introduced from Mocha by the Arabs), the natives were ignorant of the value of the berries, and only used its leaves to flavour their curries, and its flowers to decorate their temples.”

“Time immemorial” is the frustratingly vague term used by historians to suggest “a long time ago, at a date we are unable to ascertain”. It’s really only one step more helpful than the phrase “Legend has it…”, one which crops up with remarkable frequency in the early histories of coffee. But now that we know from the find at Kush that coffee was to be found in the hands of Arab traders in the late 1,000s, something remarkable happens. The swashbuckling stories of the earliest European traders in the Red Sea in the 1500s, which led to an European domination of both coffee’s trade and its history, can be placed in a different context, one in which those European traders were probably latecomers to an existing flourishing Indian Ocean trade in coffee, of which Sri Lanka could have been an active part. The Kush find opens the intriguing possibility that there lurks somewhere in the coastal ruins of this country a similar “miracle” archaeological find that would finally put an actual date on “time immemorial”.

The writer’s revised and updated edition of “Black Gold: the Dark History of Coffee” (4th Estate) is available on Amazon and in  leading bookhops.


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