Subject: ancient bananas (Musa) From: email@example.com (Yuri Kuchinsky) Date: 1997/06/30 Message-ID: <firstname.lastname@example.org> Newsgroups: sci.archaeology,sci.archaeology.mesoamerican,sci.bio.botany, sci.misc,alt.folklore.science email@example.com wrote: : Let's see the recent evidence for New World bananas. Here we are, Bernard. =========== Banana in South America before Columbus? By Yuri Kuchinsky. ----------- It is generally believed that bananas are native to Asia, and were first domesticated there. The bananas had their origin in southeastern Asia, many in the Malay region. Our earliest record is an account from India in 500 bc., but it is generally assumed that the banana is a much more ancient crop, although its exact age is unknown. (Charles Heiser, SEED TO CIVILIZATION, Harvard U.P., 1990, p. 154) Heiser also says the following, The banana reached Africa at about the beginning of the Christian era, along with several other food plants from southeastern Asia. Some have thought that the introduction of these plants led to a population explosion in Africa. The plant was first heard of in Europe from a report of Alexander the Great, and Pliny wrote that it was the plant of the wise - - hence one of Linnaeus' names for the banana, _Musa sapientum_, "of the wise men". (p. 155) The English name _banana_ is apparently of African derivation. So let's now consider the question, When did the bananas make it to America? There have been some debates about this. Is it really possible that they were in America before Columbus, brought across the ocean by ancient seafarers? Old excavations of Inca tombs revealed that bananas were grown in South America in Inca times. (Bernard posted a bibliography on this.) And yet no _recent_ excavations revealed such finds. So perhaps the archaeologists of old were mistaken? Or is there some other reason why we don't hear much about any similar recent finds? The latter are curious questions, and I don't have ready answers for them. But in any case, recently I came across a book by quite a noted writer Jack D. Forbes, BLACK AFRICANS AND NATIVE AMERICANS, 1988, in which he considers the antiquity of the banana in Brazil and how banana may have diffused across the Atlantic. In this book, Forbes gives what seems like some pretty solid evidence that bananas were cultivated in Brazil before Columbus and Cabral. His evidence is based on historical sources, and has not been linked with the archaeological record. His treatment of the matter in this book is rather brief, but he gives quite a few sources for his theory. Unfortunately (for me), many of these sources are in Portuguese, which I don't read, and some of them are in Italian. Also, his sources may be quite rare and difficult to get hold of. Actually, Forbes apparently believes that some varieties of banana were brought _from_ Brazil to West Africa early in the history of Portuguese exploration of these lands. I will not make a judgement about this aspect of his theories, but, as far as I can see, what he says about the antiquity of banana in Brazil seems rather persuasive. According to Forbes, this early observer believed that bananas were native to Brazil (p. 17), In the 1580s Gabriel Soares de Sousa stated of Brazil: Pacoba e uma fruta natural d'esta terra, a qual se da em uma arvore muito molle e facil de cortar... Further on in this passage, de Sousa is providing a description of various varieties of bananas found in Brazil, and their names. Forbes gives his source in his endnotes (p. 275) as Gabriel Soares de Sousa, TRATADO DESCRIPTIVO DO BRASIL EM 1587, ed. Francisco Adolpho de Varnhagem (Sao Paulo: Editoria Nacional, 1938), pp. 207-208 So this seems to me like evidence that will be difficult to refute. Obviously, if an early observer of Brazil, writing in 1580, thinks that bananas were native to Brazil, how can we doubt what he says? Let's keep in mind that the first permanent European settlements in Brazil did not appear until 1532. So not much time has passed between then and 1580. It would have been quite difficult for de Sousa to have been wrong about this. And here's yet another interesting source cited in Forbes (p. 275). This time, it is also an account coming from a historian of early colonial period, this time in regard to Colombia: Juan de Castellanos, in writing of the 1530s, lists _platanos_ (bananas) as one of the fruits of the Cartagena region of Colombia, prior to Spanish settlement. Juan de Castellanos, ELEGIAS DE VARONES ILUSTRES, DE INDIAS (Madrid: Rivadeneyra, 1857), pp. 366-7 Cartagena, of course, was founded by the Spanish in 1533, so they must have found the bananas growing in that region already. And now, let's move to another area in the Americas. Here's Forbes: Varieties of the banana-plantain family were widely dispersed throughout the Caribbean region and descriptions of them date back to at least the 1530s. An early English visitor to Barbados (1650s) has drawn pictures of the native varieties on that island, while an English traveller among the Miskito people of Nicaragua found in 1681 that one of their main agricultural plants was the plantain (along with the yam). (p. 18) Forbes gives citations for all these comments in his endnotes. Let's come back to Heiser now for a moment. He also says in his chapter on bananas, From Africa the banana was carried to the Americas in 1516 and became so well established in a short space of time that some early travellers thought that it was an indigenous American plant. (p. 155) Of course Heiser, a leading mainstream historian of agriculture, expresses the currently held mainstream point of view on this. But is Heiser really correct here? He's probably referring to the somewhat later travellers in the Caribbean that Forbes also cites in his sources, and their English-language accounts. Heiser is probably not even aware of the very early Brazilian and Columbian sources. And his comment really can cut both ways. That many early travellers thought bananas were native to the Americas certainly cannot be cited as evidence that bananas were not native to the Americas. Or that the banana spread with lightning speed upon its arrival! We don't want to argue in circles, do we? Circular arguments, of course, are not valid. To conclude, I believe the accounts provided by early historians of South American agriculture. These are not the "travellers" that Heiser is referring to in his book. Until evidence is presented to the contrary, I think we should postulate that bananas were brought to the Americas by ancient seafarers. Whether they came there from Asia, as seems likely, or from Africa is difficult to say until more research is done. So these 19th century archaeologists in the Andes may have been correct after all. 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. Nietzsche ----- my webpage is for now at: http://www.io.org/~yuku ----- _________________________________________________________________Click here to go one level up in the directory.