Coffee and Its Mysterious Origin

A research by Dhani Irwanto

Historic Distribution of Coffea Arabica
(Source: Specialty Coffee Association of America)

The earliest credible evidence of either coffee drinking or knowledge of the coffee tree appears in the middle of the 15th century, in Yemen’s Sufi monasteries. Al-Jaziri (1587) reported that one Sheikh Jamal-al-Din al-Dhabhani, mufti of Aden, was the first to adopt the use of coffee (circa 1454). He traces the spread of coffee from Arabia Felix (the present day Yemen) northward to Mecca and Medina, and then to the larger cities of Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Constantinople.

Yemen is recognized as the world’s first commercial coffee producer and the land of coffee’s discovery, but the origin of coffee in this southern part of Arabian Peninsula is mere speculation. Nothing was actually written about the origins of coffee until the 16th century, but by this time the truth seems to have been lost. There are many tales, which are often cited with great authority, saying that coffee was originated in Ethiopia, but with no factual evidence. The tales did not appear in writing until 1671, more than two centuries after the first known use of coffee.

Archaeological excavations in 1998 in the Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, situated close to Dubai on the coast of the Arabian Gulf, have revealed coffee beans in soil layers dated to the early 12th century, pushing back the date at which coffee is believed to have first been drunk and traded by 250 years. Imported Chinese and Islamic pottery sherds were found in the same layers as well as wheat, barley, olive, watermelon and chickpea seeds. The beans themselves owe their preservation to the fact that they were carbonized through roasting. It is quite obvious that the crop had already become a tradable commodity in the early 12th century.

So far there is no comprehensive and global genetic study in regard of the origin of coffee. The existing studies fail to prove in which part of the world coffee was originated.

Coffee in Indonesia

Indonesia is the fourth-largest producer of coffee in the world today, after Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia. Commercial coffee cultivation in Indonesia began in the late 1600s and early 1700s, in the early Dutch colonial period. Nevertheless, the Dutch was not the one who introduced coffee in Indonesia. Historical records reveal that there have been uses of coffee in Indonesia before the Dutch implemented the coffee cultivation system (“cultuurstelsel”).

Coffee beans are among the contents in a ‘peripih’ (a stone container located at the base of a temple) of the 9th-century Plaosan temple compound in Java, together with rice, corn and Job’s tears seeds (Sumijati Atmosudiro et al 2008 and Central Java BPCB). It reveals that coffee was an important crop in the area in the 9th century.

Coffee is mentioned in an inscription written on a copper plate in Kawi (Classical Javanese) language, found in Surabaya dated to 856 AD, as reported by Norbert Pieter Berg in “Historical-statistical Notes on the Production and Consumption of Coffee” in 1880. It is stated that coffee beans was known as “wiji kawa” (meaning “the kawa seed”).

Coffee was a type of banquet for guests during the Majapahit Empire (1293 to circa 1527) as reported by Constantinus Alting Mees in “De Kroniek Van Koetai” in 1935. It is said that when the king of Kutai visited the Majapahit palace, a beverage called “kahwa” is served in an evening banquet, which is later known that it is coffee.

Coffee had been extensively cultivated in western Sumatra before the Dutch came to implement the coffee cultivation system in the area, as reported by William Marsden in “The History of Sumatra” in 1784. The people did not use the berry but the leaves to be brewed with water in a tradition called “coffee leaf drinking”, which is still being continued today. This tradition is also reported by Eduard Douwes Dekker (Multatuli) in “Max Havelaar” in 1860.

200 – 300 year old coffee trees were discovered in the south of the Sulawesi Island in 1920, that is before the Dutch introduced the coffee there in the 1830s (Antony Wild 2019 in the Srilankan “Sunday Times”).

The Name

The word “coffee” entered the English language in 1582 via the Dutch “koffie”, borrowed from the Ottoman Turkish “kahve”, in turn borrowed from the Arabic “qahwah”. The origin of the Arabic word “qahwah” is unknown and the etymologies have all been disputed. The name is not used for the berry or plant (the products of the region), which are known in Arabic as “bunn”. So, “qahwah” is apparently not an original Arabic word. There is a suggestion that it came from the name of the Kaffa Kingdom in Ethiopia, but it is debated because there is no historical record and could be the opposite way.

Referring to the “coffee leaf drinking” tradition in Sumatra, where they did not have knowledge about the use of coffee beans as a beverage, this tradition can be considered older than that practiced by the Arabs. Currently there is an assumption that this tradition was due to the Dutch era of forced cultivation that all coffee products had to be handed over to the Dutch so that they could only use the leaves. However, this assumption is rejected by some historians because of no factual evidence.

The local name for the berry or plant is “kawa” or “kawoa”. People suggest that it came from the Arabic “qahwah”, but seeing that their tradition of using the plant is older it could be the opposite way. The Arabs had been exploring Sumatra since the 7th century or earlier. Their main goal was to find exotic produce, such as camphor, incense and spices, to sell at a high price when brought home. Among those, coffee could be one of them.

Coffee was known as “kawa” in the Classical Javanese or “kahwa” in the era of Majapahit Empire. Thus it can be assumed that “kawa”, “kawoa” or “kahwa” is a Classical Javanese or Malay word. The Arabs later wrote it as “qahwah”.

In conclusion, the opportunity for scientists to conduct research on the origin of coffee is still widely open.

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