The spice trade refers to the trade between historical civilizations in Asia, Northeast Africa and Europe. Spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, pepper, and turmeric were known and used in antiquity for commerce in the Eastern World. These spices found their way into the Middle East before the beginning of the Christian era, where the true sources of these spices were withheld by the traders and associated with fantastic tales.

The maritime aspect of the trade was dominated by the Austronesian peoples in Island Southeast Asia who established the precursor trade routes from Southeast Asia (and later China) to Sri Lanka and India by at least 1500 BC. These goods were transported by land further on towards the Mediterranean and the Greco-Roman world via the Incense route and the Roman-India routes by Indian and Persian traders. The Austronesian maritime trade lanes later expanded into the Middle East and eastern Africa by the 1st millennium AD, resulting in the Austronesian colonization of Madagascar.

Within specific regions, Kingdom of Axum (c. 5th-century BC–AD 11th century) had pioneered the Red Sea route before the 1st century AD. During the first millennium, Ethiopians became the maritime trading power of the Red Sea. By this period, trade routes from Sri Lanka (the Roman Taprobane) and India were also largely controlled by Tamils who had acquired maritime technology from early Austronesian contact.

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