ancient gourd (Lagenaria)

Yuri Kuchinsky yuku at
Tue Jun 24 11:15:45 EST 1997

Greetings, all.

Below you will find material dealing with the history of the earliest
domestication of bottle gourd (Lagenaria), based on the work of Prof.
Lathrap. I've posted most of this before in assorted posts. I thought this
is relevant since Bernard is interested in this subject. 

We assume that bottle gourd was native to Africa and first domesticated
there. It was found in very early contexts in Asia and in America.

What can bottle gourd tell us about early cultures around the world? I
also try to tie this mateial in with some recent research about the
earliest pottery in the Americas. (I have files on this on my webpage, and
part of this article is taken out of these.)


Donald Lathrap is an anthropologist with a strong interest in
paleo-ethno-botany -- the study of the origins of domestication of
earliest agricultural plants. In 1977, he published a seminal work, OUR
FATHER THE CAYMAN, OUR MOTHER THE GOURD. It is included in the important
volume, ORIGINS OF AGRICULTURE, C. A. Reed, ed., Mouton (Proceedings of
the IX International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological

One should note that if theoreticians can argue about diffusionism vs.
parallelism forever, without the issues being ever resolved -- among the
botanists, the leeway for disagreement is a lot narrower. After all, a few
lab tests on the plants in question will prove which one comes from where
originally, what is the relationship of one to the other, etc.
Domestication of plants is something that can be studied with much greater
precision than the transmission of mythological motifs, or of artistic
traits. This is why the evidence from botany can be extremely important in
the matters of diffusion or non-diffusion. 

As regards the earliest Amazonian cultures, Lathrap proposed the
idea of the diffusion from Africa into S. America. He bases much of
his analysis on the case of the bottle gourd, the plant that was
extremely important for earliest societies around the world.

      What I will attempt is a model relating to the events
      which brought _Lagenaria siceraria_ (bottle gourd) to
      Ayacucho by 13,000 b.p., and to various points in
      Mesoamerica by 9,000 b.p. (op. cit, p. 725)

Further, he is saying that such an introduction of this plant was
the most likely to take place in northeastern Brazil (the Amazonian

      A glance at the map should be enough to convince one of
      this, and Schwerin (1970) has published an excellent
      discussion of the relevant winds and currents which
      facilitate a crossing at this point. (ibid, p. 726)

In his article, Lathrap provides a detailed analysis of various
modes of diffusion for bottle gourd.

      ... Schwerin (1970), Whitaker (1971), and Richardson
      (1972) have all discussed the various agencies which
      might have effected the trans-Atlantic crossing of
      _Lagenaria_. ... While the gourd will reach the beaches
      of northeastern Brazil with its seeds still quite
      capable of terminating, the plant will not grow on the
      salt sands and some mechanism must get the seeds off the
      beach and into a more favourable environment.

 He then considers three possible mechanisms, and concludes:

      These considerations leave me with a most reluctant
      acceptance of the third alternative as the most
      probable: that a viable group of fishermen made the
      canoe voyage from western Africa to eastern Brazil
      bringing with them not only the bottle gourd and the
      leguminous fish poisons (Quigley 1956), but also the
      African linted cotton, _Gossypium herbaceum_ L., var.
      _africanum_. (pp. 726-7)

These are only small excerpts from a long article. I think the balance of
evidence for the case of the bottle gourd does point to human-assisted
diffusion. (Charles Heiser [1990] inclines to the opposite view in this
case, but his discussion of this in his book is quite brief, and he
carefully qualifies his language so as to leave the possibility of a
different interpretation.)

The importance of the bottle gourd is generally little known outside of
the narrow circle of specialists. It was probably the earliest
domesticated plant ever. It was important for both its utilitarian and its
symbolic/ritual/religious value. Besides the important symbolic use, the
earliest peoples used it for food, and also made containers out of it. It
is interesting that much of the earliest pottery was modelled on the
bottle gourd shape. 

Now, we can also bring in here the recent work of Anna Roosevelt on the
Amazonian pottery (1995). One clear indication from her work is that the
ceramic stage at the sites that she studied in the Amazon seems to appear
on sterile levels.

      ... preceramic cultures have not yet been scientifically
      documented at these sites. (op. cit., p. 120)

The earliest pottery manufacturing settlers at those sites were
fisher-folk who were obviously familiar with navigation. If we take
the work of Lathrap into account, these people may well have arrived
from Africa. And Roosevelt accepts this.

      Having the earliest known American pottery in tropical
      lowlands at the eastern edge of South America fit
      neither the Japanese fishermen theory nor the Andean
      invasion theory but was consonant with independent
      invention or Lathrap's African origins hypothesis. (p.

There may have been many hearths (diffusion matrices) for pottery in
S. America.

      The distinctive differences in pottery from region to
      region suggest that there must have been several
      hearths. (p. 128)

This of course will be in parallel with the usual several hearths for
pottery in other regions of the world. So, as we can see, Meggers' theory
about the origins of coastal Ecuadorian pottery may still be valid if we
can suppose that the ancient Amazonians did not interact with the

And Roosevelt does not make the claim of knowing if the early
Amazonian pottery cultures have influenced the Andean Valdivian
pottery. Obviously a lot of work needs to be done in this area, in
tracing possible connections. For all we know, the two cultures may
not have come into any productive contact with each other. A
parallel case for this exists, clearly, in western Asia; I have
mentioned the apparent inability of the Babylonian area agricultural
societies to learn for about 2000 years from the north African
pottery traditions.

Anna Roosevelt makes the following critique of Lathrap in her

      ... Lathrap's idea that pottery-using horticultural
      people from Africa came into the Amazon at 13,000 years
      ago does not fit the fact that there is absolutely no
      pottery in the 11,200- to 9,800-year-old Paleoindian
      site. (p. 129)

True. But all we need to do here is bring Lathrap's dates closer to the
present. Lathrap's theories are not graven in stone. His is simply a
hypothesis that can be improved like any other.



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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