It’s fairly safe to say that in 1000 AD, most of Northern Europe was unfamiliar with sugar. But within 500 years, there were kingdoms whose wealth was increased exponentially by the sweetened cane. So, a question – How did sugar take over Europe?
To answer that, one has to go back and find exactly when and where sugar cane came from. (Sugar Beets didn’t become a viable alternative to the cane until Napoleon’s era, for fascinating reasons that aren’t pertinent to the subject of this post). The best evidence we have of sugar cane in the ancient era comes to us from 9000 miles away from Europe, in the small island that we know of today as New Guinea. As to when? 10,000 years ago.
It’s important to note here that this does not mean that white, granulated sugar was making the rounds in the Pacific Ocean Islands and Oceania before the age of the Pharaohs. The technology to extract the sucrose crystals from the cane simply did not exist at that time.
What we can trace is the the lineage of the cane itself. Sugar cane is part of the grass family known as Poaceae, and underneath that is a genus that contains sugar cane, referred to as Saccharum. On that branch there are six known species of the cane, including Saccharum officinarum, the one that we’re most interested in.
As a side note, Saccharum officinarum has also been known as “sugar of the apothecaries”, which gives us a great big clue as to how and why candy evolved from the medicine industries. But again, more on that in a later post.
So, if they weren’t making sugar from the cane, what were they doing with it? Anyone who has tasted a bit of cane can immediately tell you that there is a fair bit of liquid found within. There in lies the value. For cane juice would have been the commodity that sold the trading partners of the ancient Guineans on sugar cane. And it is, once again, the trade routes that helped propagate the cane throughout the Oceanic regions.
This didn’t happen all at once. Evidence suggests it took at least two millennium between the domestication of the cane on New Guinea around 8000 BC, and its arrival to the Philippines, Indonesia, and India.
Again, evidence of this is limited, based mostly upon whatever remnants of ancient farms can be found. And as most of these areas are quite tropical, such evidence is viewed with a bit of a raised eyebrow.
The important bit to know? Sugar cane first came to the attention of the world ten thousand years ago in what is today New Guinea. And then, two thousand years later (give or take), for means we cannot explain without using circumstantial evidence, the cane ended up in India.
It was in India that things really became interesting. For one, we start to find documented evidence of the existence of both granulated sugar, and even a bit of confection. But that’s a story for another time.