Subject:      bananas (Musa) in America
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/08/16
Message-ID:   <5t520m$1sf$>
Newsgroups:   sci.archaeology.mesoamerican,,,


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.

AMERICA (Vol. XXI, 1980, pp. 47-50).

In this article, Prof. Smole, of the University of Pittsburgh,

     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

     ... 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 ([1590], 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),

     ... 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.

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 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. Nietzsche
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