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How cinnamon changed the world

One of the reasons I got interested in plant specialized metabolism is spices. Being born and brought up in India, spices were and are an indispensable part of my life. Back in school, we had learnt about how the Britishers and Portuguese came to India seeking spices and how they ended up ruling India for 150 long years. But only recently did I start investigating the backstories of these events. And they are fascinating!

I will start here with the spice cinnamon, which is actually the inner bark of some trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum.

The primary active ingredient of the spice is a compound called cinnamaldehyde, which is produced from the same compounds -- phenylpropanoids -- that give rise to polymers like lignin in the same bark of the tree. Cinnamaldehyde accumulates to high levels in the bark of the tree and is volatile, and hence the bark gets its characteristic fragrance. Two species Cinnamomum verum and Cinnammomum zeylanicum -- native to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar -- are supposed to be "true cinnamon" and taste more "cinnamony" than other species in the genus found in China, Vietnam and Indonesia. I take this to be true at face value, but I can indeed say that cinnamon we used in India growing up certainly smelled a whole lot better than cinnamon we get in the US.

Cinnamon was very popular since ancient times. Well, it was not just cinnamon, but many aromatic plants (many of which produce volatile terpene or low molecular weight benzenoid compounds). The Assyrians who lived on the shores of the Tigris river ~3000 BC, for example, knew of cardamom, cumin, dill, fennel, oregano, thyme, saffron, and sesame. Recently, evidence was found for cinnamon trade between India and Israel as early as 3000 BCE. Researchers of the paper linked in the figure below tested remnants of compounds found in these flasks (see below) using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and found abundance of cinnamaldehyde compounds in these flasks.

Cinnamon was so popular in ancient Egypt that it was considered as a gift for pharaohs, and even used for their mummification. The Egyptian port city of Mosylon (current day Basaso in Somalia) was one of the central trading post for cinnamon for the Middle-East, Africa and Europe.

The trade was so profitable that according to Pliny, the Elder, a pound of cinnamon cost 1500 denarii -- equivalent of fifty months' labor for a commoner. Following are exerpts from Pliny's Natural History, wherein he also coined the name Solanum.

Coming before Pliny, another historian Herodotus -- who is sometimes known as the Father of History and sometimes as a crazy person -- wrote about how cinnamon was obtained by throwing large stones at the nests of Cinnamulgus or Cinnamon bird, which makes its nests out of cinnamon trees growing high in the mountains. The logic was this is necessary because the trees themselves are inaccessible, which was a bogus story which Herodotus never bothered to verify.

The Egyptians and the Romans (at the first port of entry through the Suez Canal) totally controlled the spice trade to Europe, which led to West European countries such as Portugal, Spain and England to explore alternative sources of these spices and/or alternative routes to India for economic reasons. The Spaniards sent their ships westward to explore new routes hoping they would get to India, but instead found the Americas.

Out of the many stories surrounding exploration of the Americas, there is one very interesting story regarding cinnamon.

Everyone knows about El Dorado -- the city of gold popularized by the namesake Disney movie. Well, the existence of this city itself is a myth, that originated from an ancient initiation practice of a tribe in the Colombian jungles.

However, another rumor at the time surrounded cinnamon. One of the Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro -- while looking for El Dorado -- heard about a large plantation of cinnamon deep in the Amazonian jungles from his fellow Spaniard Captain Gonzalo Pineda. Economic reasons, familial struggles for land and power, information obtained from tortured natives, and will of his financial backers led him to assemble a small army of over 4000 "Indians" and 4000 livestock to follow him into the jungles of Amazon from the Ecuadorian city of Quito to find La Canelas (Valley of Cinnamon). Astonishingly, only 80 people returned with no sign of cinnamon. This expedition -- perhaps one of the most disastrous ones in history -- is very well documented in this article in Gastronomica, an excerpt of which is shown below.

Although this expedition was a colossal wastage of time, money and lives, one good thing to come out of it (and the search for El Dorado) was the first maps of the Amazon river basin.

A similar faux pas happened in North America with Christopher Columbus, but was not as much of an unmitigated disaster as Pizarro's expedition. Mr. Columbus' scientific officer on his first voyage misidentified Canella winterana (white cinnamon, which grew in Jamaica and Florida) as cinnamon, due to the smell of the bark and other foliar features. However, North America was not India, and cinnamon didn't have a global distribution.

More wars were fought over cinnamon between the British, the Dutch and the Portuguese, who controlled cinnamon plantations in India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia respectively. When I say wars were fought between these colonists, it was probably not over the high seas like the Pirates of the Carribean, but probably on land and port using the enslaved local populations as pawns in their expansionist games.

This little compound -- cinnamaldehyde -- most likely existed for tens of millions of years, arising out of a possible biochemical mistake but then helping protect the trees against some bark fungus or insect. In the last three millenia, however, this tiny compound has affected the trajectories of millions of human lives across all continents, simply because it tastes and smells good to us.

How did all the craziness around spices eventually stop? It is thought that as the Age of Exploration ended and Europeans got a better sense of where the different spices really came from, the magic of spices ended. There were no exotic lands, no serpents guarding black peppers, no giant cinnamon birds. And then suddenly around 17th-18th century, coinciding with the French Revolution, the European preference for spices ended. The lands they conquered for spices still continued to serve them spices, and probably that brought down the supply crunch, leading to prices dropping. However, the lands the Europeans conquered would continue to remain subjugated for another 150-200 odd years, till the Second World War really destroyed Europe's capacity to hold them.

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