bananas (Musa) in America

Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano bortiz at
Sun Aug 17 23:43:50 EST 1997

This is purely a preliminary response to Yuri’s recent post on _Musa_ in
the New World. I would really like to read the original and check the
sources. This may be difficult because the journal GEOSCIENCE AND MAN:
pretty obscure. Neither of two big libraries Wayne State University and
the University of Michigan carry it. The article is 3 pages long so that
it cannot be a thorough exploration of the subject. I’ll try to get it
through interlibrary loan. Or one of you who can find it and has
scanning capabilities could send it to me since it is short (hint :-)).

Yuri, as usual, puts his unique spin on things, “ Bernard
already investigated in some detail the sources dealing with
Brazil which he found quite confusing.” I did NOT find them confusing;
my analysis showed that they most assuredly did not prove the presence
of pre Columbian bananas.  Yuri also erred mischaracterized my
evaluation of Lathrap’s gourd proposal recently. There too, I proved to
the satisfaction of most reasonable observers that Lathrap was in error.
See a copy of my posting the FAQ for the sci.archaeology.mesoamerican.
Yuri only finds data confusing or uncertain when it does not support his
predilections, whereas the sheerest tissue becomes irrefutable proof if
it fits his thesis.

Prof. Smole also needs to be checked. 1) Why published in this journal
(and is it refereed)? 2) what is his disciplinary training? or is he an
amateur in the area of botany? 3) his citations, as provided by Yuri,
are all paraphrases-- one needs to see the original wording in the
sources. I’m not particularly impressed with Smole’s idea that _Musa_
was in the New World in the Cretaceous and then survived till the
present. If such a good food source had been here all along one would
have expected it to be an important component of diets all over the New
World and clearly named in Andean and Mesoamerican languages.   

The problem, as usual, is that people-- is it Smoles or just Yuri, keep
using common names, i.e. plantain, which only confuse the issue. If
Smoles is not using the proper nomenclature, that is another marker of
incompetence. What this discussion has to be about is whether *Musa
paradisiaca* was here in pre columbian times. Smoles says:
“... 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)” 

This is not really a good indication of competence and muddies the
water. Smoles is not up-to-date even in 1980. Let me quote from one of
the standard references at the time, J.W. Purseglove. 1972. *Tropical
Crops. Monocotyledons 2* Ny: John Wiley p. 343.

“... the family Musacea of the order Zingiberales, is restricted to two
genera only, _Ensete_ and _Musa_.... The family Strelitziaceae, which
was formerly, and still is sometimes in included in the Musacea,
consists of four genera: _Heliconia_ with about 100 spp/ confined to the
American tropics and sometimes raised to family rank; _Ravenala
[misspelled by either Smoles or Yuri] with one species only, _R.
madagascariensis* J.F. Gmel, traveller’s tree in Madagascar [BOM not a
good candidate for the Yanomamo];_Strelitzia_ with five spp. in south
Africa [BOM not a good candidate for the Yanomamo, either];..”

D.J. Mabberly. 1987. *The Plant Book* Cambridge:Cambridge University
Confirms what Purseglove says about _Ravenala_ and _Strelitzia_ and also
that in the Zingiberales Musacea, Strelitziaceae, and Heliconaceae are
different FAMILIES.

Bottom line. Smoles either is throwing in red herrings by claiming that
plants of species that don’t exist in south America are there, or he
doesn’t know anything about botany. Smoles is also muddying the water by
claiming that “These four constitute the most common genera within the
entire family of musaceous plants.” 1) These are not all musaceous
plants; 2) These are families with lots of different genera; 3) He is
babbling if he claims that these are the most common-- Musa has 2
species, Ravenala has 1, Strelitzia has 5, but Heliconia has 100. Smoles
numbers are nonsensical. As I have often said-- most recently with
respect to Heyerdahl-- Check statements that are easy to check or those
in which you have expertise. If the author, Smoles or Heyerdahl, are in
error, then one is justified in doubting the entire body of claims
because people who are sloppy in one thing will be sloppy in all.

Sorry, Yuri. No smoking gun--or plantain-- here.

Yuri end with, “In any case, it seems to me that the old thesis of
Bernard that the archaeologists of old were so wrong when they thought
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?” 

Certainly not. Kelley supported Van Sertima’s assertions about bananas
in Peruvian graves on the basis of a worthless nineteenth century
reference alone, thus showing a distinct lack of critical academic
judgment. Even is Smoles is right, which at this moment is questionable,
it has nothing to do with Kelley’s judgment. Kelley did not cite Smoles,
or any one else, and was probably not aware of him so it is irrelevant
to my judgment of his standards of evidence or his competence.
Bernard Ortiz de Montellano

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