Subject: bananas (Musa) in America From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Yuri Kuchinsky) Date: 1997/08/16 Message-ID: <email@example.com> Newsgroups: sci.archaeology.mesoamerican,sci.bio.botany,sci.bio.misc, bionet.general,sci.agriculture,sci.anthropology,sci.archaeology THE VERY PUZZLING SOUTH AMERICAN BANANA. By Yuri Kuchinsky. As any good reference book will indicate, it is generally believed by our botanists that bananas and plantains, the plants of the genus _Musa_, were native to South-East Asia, where they were first domesticated in ancient times. It is also believed that they were brought to the Americas in post-Columbian period. But now, I have found the following interesting article that challenges some of these ideas. MUSA CULTIVATION IN PRE-COLUMBIAN SOUTH AMERICA, William J. Smole, in GEOSCIENCE AND MAN: HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF LATIN AMERICA (Vol. XXI, 1980, pp. 47-50). In this article, Prof. Smole, of the University of Pittsburgh, states: There exists convincing evidence that some _Musa_ were cultivated in the New World in pre-Columbian times. (p. 47) In his article, he tells us how his interest in this subject was stimulated by a visit, in 1964, to the areas in Venezuela, up the Orinoco river, where Yanoama Indians live. He discovered at that time that the plantain was in fact the primary food crop for the Yanoama, and central in their diet. This stimulated his interest in the history of this plant in S. America. Smole writes this about the plants in this category, The musaceous plants, whose edible fruits are best known to us, are the bananas and the cooking bananas, or plantains: they belong to the genus _Musa_. It is commonly held that they were not present in the New World until the early Spanish colonial period. (p. 47) In his article, Smole presents evidence that some of these plants were pre-Columbian in S. America. His evidence is based on the observation among the Yanoama, and on the analysis of the historical sources available to us. Smole investigated the role of plantains among the Yanoama peoples. The Yanoama had very few contacts with the Europeans, or with the rest of the modern world up until quite recently. They are also very tradition-oriented and resistant to borrowing new things and ideas from outsiders. I knew that the Yanoama were renowned for their extreme isolation, for their so-called "primitive" level among tribal Indians in general, and for their extreme hostility toward cultural innovation and change. (p. 47) Their isolation from the outside world was such that they borrowed very few cultural innovations until quite recently, and faithfully preserved their ancestral way of life. In a cultural context, many Yanoama groups are known not to have received metal tools from the outside world until recent decades. (p. 49) Smole also writes that the Yanoama are extremely conservative, All but the most acculturated groups [of Yanoama] absolutely refuse to incorporate new sources of food into their horticultural system -- they will not eat tomatoes, beans, or other non-traditional crop plants. (p. 50) In the past, the Yanoama were often mistaken for hunter-gatherers by some researchers, but in fact they are horticulturalists. In other words, the Yanoama cultivated gardens where they planted useful food and medicinal crops. And plantains are their main crop. ... I was surprised to learn that the basic staple of this horticultural system was the cooking banana, or plantain. (p. 47) Plantains play an extremely important role in the life of the Yanoama, and in their culture, as Smole indicates. While the bulk of the surviving tropical forest peoples of S. America rely on the native manioc (Manihot) as a staple, among the Yanoama a similar role in their traditional native economy was, and still is, played by the plantain. Both manioc and plantain are starchy crops, and are vegetatively reproduced. According to Smole, as a food crop, plantains provide a number of advantages compared to manioc. So Smole concludes, Intensive study of the horticulture practised by ... Yanoama provides rather convincing evidence that their ancient ancestors might well have cultivated certain _Musa_ in pre- Columbian times. (p. 50) Smole also considers the evidence from the historical sources that may clarify this situation. This evidence has already been considered rather extensively in these ngs discussions. Bernard already investigated in some detail the sources dealing with Brazil which he found quite confusing. On this Smole agrees, It must be remembered that eyewitnesses during the early colonial period -- as well as those who copied from them -- used a plethora of confusing terms when confronted with tropical flora and fauna foreign to them. Particularly frustrating is the confusion inherent in the use of _platano_ (plane tree) and _figo_ (fig) in erroneous references to musaceous plants. (p. 50) Smole states, As a group, chroniclers of the early colonial period seem to be ambivalent insofar as they deal with the possibility of pre-Columbian cultivation of musaceous plants. (p. 50) In particular, he looks at the somewhat difficult to interpret statement by Oviedo, mentioned already by Bernard, that the friar Tomas de Berlanga brought the first _platanos_ from the Canary Islands in 1516. Smole notes that the first edition of Oviedo's book (1526) includes no such statement. Not for the first time in such cases, when a certain crop is supposed to have been introduced by the Europeans to a new area, often we see amazed comments by early observers (in this case, by Oviedo, as Smole notes on p. 50) about how quickly it has spread far and wide in the land since its "recent European introduction". I think we should be careful with such statements, because they may tend to mask the fact that the crop was in fact NOT introduced by the Europeans in the first place, but was present in the area before. We have this situation with plantains in this case, most probably. Smole, however, also finds quite a few early historical sources that are very supportive of pre-Columbian musa in America. One of them is Garcilaso de la Vega ([1609-1617], 1943, COMENTARIOS REALES DE LOS INCAS: v. 2, Buenos Aires, Emece Editores, p. 185). [Garcilaso]...was insistent about the presence of the platano among the lowland Peruvian Anti in pre-Columbian times. (p. 50) Also, Jose Acosta (, 1962, HISTORIA NATURAL Y MORAL DE LAS INDIAS: 2nd ed., Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Economica, p. 178) ... discussed a _platano de Indias_ that he considered to be very different from those of the Old World. (ibid.) Smole also mentions Andre Thevet (1558), and Jean de Lery (1578), who ... asserted independently that the _pacoba_ type of plantain was commonplace among Brazilian "savages" in the mid-sixteenth century. (ibid.) Full citations are given by Smole. He also mentions our old friend Gabriel Soares de Sousa (1599) who ... carefully distinguished between the Brazilian pacoba and the bananas that were introduced from overseas. (ibid.) In reference to the relevant nomenclature, investigated by Bernard previously, Smole states, ... _banano_ and _guineo_ can be more clearly associated with a west African origin. The American origin of the word _pacoba_ and its variants does not seem open to challenge. (ibid.) I should mention here, of course, some very relevant information supplied to us recently by Lawrence, a fellow ng poster, who, in the course of researching unique early colonial archival documents, found very strong evidence to indicate that the plantains were a pre-Columbian crop in S. America. And now, for the really unexpected evidence that I found in this article by Smole. Quite obviously, this very subject of early bananas became a subject of discussion in these ngs, in the first place, because we were discussing trans-oceanic contacts in ancient times. Those who investigate these contacts, and who are trying to prove that these contacts were very real and important, point to agricultural plants that, at this time, provide perhaps the best indication and proof of very early transoceanic contacts. We have discussed quite a few of these plants in these ngs already, including maize and sweet potato. It should not be a secret that I, myself, believe transoceanic contacts in ancient times were very real. So I investigated this question of musa in the Americas in order to provide additional evidence for this hypothesis. But sometimes -- yes, indeed, it happens sometimes -- in the course of our investigations, we happen to find evidence that is ...contrary to what we expect and hope for. In other words, we manage to prove ourselves wrong... I believe it is the mark of a true scholar, perhaps the ultimate test of being reliable and faithful to your data, to come out in the open with such unexpected and perhaps personally dispiriting discoveries, and to make it known to the public that the data uncovered, or discovered, was actually contrary to what the researcher held previously. I remember how this recently happened to Greg Keyes, one of our active contributors (who is absent on a field trip currently). He uncovered some evidence, in some quite obscure recent sources, that an important ancient maize researcher, Prof. Sachan, previously believed to have opposed precolumbian maize in India, is actually currently in support of this hypothesis. This, no doubt, came as an unpleasant surprise to Greg, and yet he made his findings public, and this indicated how reliable a researcher he is. To put the interests of scholarship above your own personal interests and desires is indeed commendable. In any case, to cut to the chase, as if were, I will now state that I've uncovered some evidence in Smole's article that perhaps detracts from musa as solid evidence for transpacific contacts in ancient times. Namely, Smole cites some quite obscure sources indicating that some musaceous plants may actually be _indigenous_ to S. America, and therefore, domesticated in S. America independently. This evidence, and at this time it is as yet hardly definitive, will indicate, of course, if confirmed, that our current mainstream botanical consensus about musa is quite wrong, and is in need of revision. Smole presents two types of evidence for his thesis. On the one hand he writes that certain plants, that seem like wild relatives of the plantains cultivated by the Yanoama, grow in the adjacent territory of the jungle. ... musaceous plants cultivated by the Yanoama are taxonomically similar to various wild plants native to their territory. Certain of these wild relatives are classified as _Musa_, while others are _Heliconia_, _Ravenalia_, and probably even _Strelitzia_. These four constitute the most common genera within the entire family of musaceous plants. (p. 49) And Smole also writes that some interesting fossils found many years ago may indicate that musa was native to America, ... some botanists support the authenticity of certain banana seeds and a fossil banana reported for Colombia in 1925 and 1951 (Berry, 1925; Huertas and van der Hammen, 1954). In themselves, these finds could be taken to prove a pre-Columbian existence for American _Musa_ because they are dated as Cretaceous. (p. 49) What can I say about all this stuff? Obviously more research is needed badly to prove or to disprove the thesis that musa was domesticated independently both in Asia and in America. Certainly we should be able to determine by rather simple laboratory testing whether or not, and how, the plantains of the Yanoama are related to Asian plantains, and, if so, when they diverged. What is the true relationship between the Asian and the American plantains? Very curious questions... And, also, could have musa really come _from America_ _to Asia_ in ancient times, carried by seafarers? I don't think we should exclude this possibility, necessarily. Is it really possible that botanists may be wrong so badly about the true original centre of domestication? Now, if this is indeed the case, this would be quite stunning... In any case, it seems to me that the old thesis of Bernard that the archaeologists of old were so wrong when they thought they uncovered banana remains in Inca tombs can be now finally put to rest. And Bernard will probably have to admit that his rather unkind comments about Prof. David Kelley, whose mentioning of this matter in his recent article precipitated this discussion, were perhaps quite unjustified? Best regards, Yuri. Yuri Kuchinsky | "Where there is the Tree of Knowledge, there -=- | is always Paradise: so say the most ancient in Toronto | and the most modern serpents." F. 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