bananas (Musa) in America

Yuri Kuchinsky yuku at
Sat Aug 16 15:19:34 EST 1997

[Replies (follow-ups) to this article are set to go only to
sci.archaeology.mesoamerican and]


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) 

[part 2 to follow in this thread]

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
 ----- my webpage is for now at: -----

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