Bananas 2,145 Years Ago

Torres Strait Islanders Cultivated

Torres Strait Islanders CultivatedNew research suggests Indigenous people on the tiny island of Mabuyag in the western Torres Strait, Australia, practiced banana (Musa cultivars) cultivation as long ago as 145 BCE.

Terraced banana cultivation site at Wagadagam, Mabuyag Island, Australia. Image credit: Australian National University.

Terraced banana cultivation site at Wagadagam, Mabuyag Island, Australia. Image credit: Australian National University.

Various historical accounts of voyagers, government officers and expeditions during the 19th and early 20th centuries detail widespread cultivation across the Torres Strait.

The timing and cultural associations of the introduction of agriculture to the Torres Strait islands are unknown, yet current archaeological evidence on cultivation practices did not spread southward to mainland Australia.

“The Torres Strait has historically been seen as a separating line between Indigenous groups who practiced agriculture in New Guinea but who in Australia were hunter-gatherers,” said Robert Williams, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sydney.

To clarify the history of cultivation practices in the region, Williams and colleagues surveyed and excavated an abandoned agricultural site at Wagadagam on Mabuyag Island.

The site comprised a series of retaining walls associated with gardening activities along with a network of stone arrangements, shell arrangements, rock art and a mound of dugong bones.

Soils from the site showed definitive evidence for intensive banana cultivation in the form of starch granules, banana plant microfossils and charcoal.

Photomicrographs of individual banana starch granules: (a-c) modern reference samples (Musa sp.) under plane polarized (a, c) and crossed polarized (b) light; (d-f) comparative images for archaeological granule recovered from the Wagadagam site under plane polarized (d) and crossed polarized (e, f) light showing features (shape, eccentricity, extinction cross, lamellae, longitudinal ridges and protuberance) consistent with banana reference samples. Image credit: Williams et al, doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1278-3.

Photomicrographs of individual banana starch granules: (a-c) modern reference samples (Musa sp.) under plane polarized (a, c) and crossed polarized (b) light; (d-f) comparative images for archaeological granule recovered from the Wagadagam site under plane polarized (d) and crossed polarized (e, f) light showing features (shape, eccentricity, extinction cross, lamellae, longitudinal ridges and protuberance) consistent with banana reference samples. Image credit: Williams et al, doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1278-3.

“The findings help dispel the view that Australia’s first peoples were ‘only hunter-gatherers’,” Williams said.

“Our research shows the ancestors of the Goegmulgal people of Mabuyag were engaged in complex and diverse cultivation and horticultural practices in the western Torres Strait at least 2,000 years ago.”

“So rather than being a barrier, the Torres Strait was more of a bridge or a filter of cultural and horticultural practices going both north and south.”

“The type of banana we found on Mabuyag appeared much earlier on New Guinea, which was a center of banana domestication.”

The archaeologists also found stone flake tools with plant residues along their cutting surfaces.

“What we’re seeing here is an Indo-Pacific horticultural tradition based primarily on things like yams, taro and banana and important fat and protein elements in the form of fish, dugong and turtle, these people had a very high-quality diet,” Williams said.

“Food is an important part of Indigenous culture and identity and this research shows the age and time depth of these practices. I hope it will spark interest in these food traditions and might move people back towards them.”

The charcoal found at the site indicated burning for gardening activities.

“The Torres Strait region was a place where local innovations took place,” said Dr. Duncan Wright, a researcher in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University.

“The age of the banana propagation is also very significant. It’s not something we expect to see in continental Australia and this is the earliest well dated evidence for plant management in Torres Strait.”

The research is published in the journal Nature, Ecology and Evolution.

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R.N. Williams et al. Multidisciplinary evidence for early banana (Musa cvs.) cultivation on Mabuyag Island, Torres Strait. Nat Ecol Evol, published online August 10, 2020; doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1278-3

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