Subject:      ancient bananas (Musa)
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/06/30
Message-ID:   <5p8mr7$rls$>
Newsgroups:   sci.archaeology,sci.archaeology.mesoamerican,,
sci.misc, 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
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,
      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.

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 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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