Because ginger is not found in the wild, its origins are uncertain. It is likely to have originated from India as ginger plants there show the most biological variability.
Potted ginger plants were carried on local vessels travelling the maritime trade routes of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea in the 5th century AD and probably before. The plants would have rapidly spread to many other countries along the way.
In the 16th century ginger was introduced to Africa and the Caribbean. It is now cultivated throughout the humid tropics.
Ginger has a long history of use in South Asia, both in dried and fresh form. The Hindu epic Mahabharata written around the 4th century BC describes a meal where meat is stewed with ginger and other spices. It was also an important plant in the traditional Indian system of Ayurvedic medicine. In the Manasollasa literature written in the 11th century AD ginger was mentioned as a flavouring for buttermilk drinks. Its use as a food became much more widespread by the 13th century AD with the advent of Muslim rule in India. It became popular to prepare meat dishes and drinks using ginger pastes. Fruit juices, tea, buttermilk and curd products were spiced with ginger.
Ginger was also highly important as an article of trade and was exported from India to the Roman empire 2000 years ago where it was valued more for its medicinal properties than as an ingredient in cookery. It continued as an article of trade to Europe even after the fall of the Roman empire, with Arab merchants controlling the trade in ginger and other spices for centuries. By medieval times, it was being imported in preserved form, to be used in sweets. Together with black pepper, ginger was one of the most commonly traded spices during the 13th and 14th centuries. Arabs carried the rhizomes on their voyages to East Africa to plant at coastal settlements and on Zanzibar. During this time in England, ginger was sought after, and one pound in weight of ginger was equivalent to the cost of a sheep.