Although the origin of sugar cane is still unknown, thoughts are that it may have originally been found in the modern day Indian states of Bangal and Assam. Some say that it originated from the South Pacific. The Anglicized form of the word sugar comes from the Sanskrit word śarkara, coming from the root words sre- to tear and kara- forming. The earliest references to sugar were believed to be made by officers under Alexander the Great during the Indian campaign in 327 B.C.. Historians believe, however, that the first authentic reference to sugar was the Bower manuscript dating back to A.D. 375. Although sugar was discovered long before the Christian Era, it took about 1,000 years before sugar was cultivated and produced outside of the walls of India.
Some highlights of the early development of sugar are as follows:
Around 8000 BC, wild sugar cane was planted on the island of New Guinea. It wasn’t until 1000 years later that the plant eventually reached the Philippines and India, although the spread to India is disputed(1).
From around 1500 BC onward the Hindu religion used sugar during their rituals. The main ritual concerned is called Puja. During Puja, the practitioner is trying to get in touch with the Divine power and to make a spiritual connection. Food, like sugar, fruit, and butter, is offered to the deity and after they bless the food everyone takes a little bit(1).
In 286 BC sugar makes its first appearance in China thanks to the help of the Indians and Persians along with the Egyptians. Although sugar was present as early as this, the practice of refining sugar didn’t make its way into China until around the seventh century AD. Although the Persians originally began refinement of sugar, in China it is thought that it was an independent invention because the Chinese civilization was already very progressive for the time period. Around the time that Marco Polo visited China in 1270-1275, the sugar industry was at its peak. The Chinese were also the first to use porous clay molds in refining because the end result was a much more pure looking sugar. This was a result of the properties of the clay that the sugar was strained through being absorbent(1).
During the time when the practice of turning sugar cane juice into solid sugar was being perfected in India, the Arabians were spreading the uses of sugar eastward to China and westward to Egypt. Eventually the entire Mediterranean was cultivating sugar. In the lands occupied by the Arabs, they encouraged the use of sugar as a confection and also as a beverage, the same thing the Indians did(2).
The Egyptians after learning about sugar from the Arabians, refined their sugar products through constant re-boiling of the raw sugar to remove impurities. Although the Persians were given credit for this technique, the Egyptians were the ones who really perfected it. Egyptian artisans were masters at presenting sugar to be eaten. Confections, pastries, candies, and beverages were all decorated and presented like a colonial version of Cupcake Wars. In some cases snow was used to garnish dishes that included sugar, an amazing feat for the Egyptian heat, which quickly made it a delicacy. In Egypt, all of the sugar used was all grown along the Nile River which runs through the capital of Cairo. This helped the industry to thrive for centuries and for a long time the sugar grown in Egypt was the principal source for the entire world(2).
The medicinal and pharmaceutical properties, being good for disorders of the stomach, kidneys and intestines, were recognized and later exploited. The medicinal qualities of sugar were first mentioned by a Persian physician named Phazes in the tenth century. The spread of sugar to Western Europe and North Africa were also first introduced as a sweetener then eventually for pharmaceutical purposes(2).
(1) Aronson, Marc, and Marina T. Budhos. Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science. Boston [Mass.: Clarion Books, 2010. Print.
(2) Van, Hook A. Sugar: Its Production, Technology, and Uses. New York: Ronald Press Co, 1949. Print.