Varieties of Peruvian Maize

Plant Evidence for Contact Between Africa and the New World

Claims for contact between the Old World and the New World often involve the diffusion of domesticated plants. In this paper I will deal primarily with claims involving Mesoamerica. The Olmecs area is a favorite target of diffusionists claiming influence from Egyptians, through Phoenicians, Chinese, and various others. My comments will be limited to claims that certain domesticated plants were brought by Africans to the New World. Often these discussions launch directly into examining claims for diffusion, but there is a need to provide some basic information to set the parameters and to provide context for the discussion. Prior to 10,000 B.C., there were no domesticated plants, agriculture, or the population densities supported by them, anywhere in the world. Thus, any claims such as Barton’s (2001: 33) that:

… according to Mobetter News, (South Holland, Illinois) as early as 15,000 B.C., the Zingh Empire ruled by Emperor Tirus Afrik, existed in the region which became ancient Ghana (where Mauretania is today)

have no basis in fact. Plant domestication and agriculture began in the Fertile Triangle (Zohary and Hopf 1993, Heiser 1990, Diamond and Bellwood 2003, Salamini et al. 2002). Kernels of domesticated einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum) were found there circa 8500 b.c. (calibrated B.C.) (1),and domesticated emmer wheat (T. Dicoccoides) was found in Tell Aswad around circa 8800 B.C. (Salamini et al. 2002).

Some extreme Afrocentrists claim that Africans not only brought domesticated plants, but agriculture itself to the New World:

the first civilization to appear in America, called the Olmec culture, was founded by Africans. The Olmecs spoke one of the Mande languages… The Olmecs script had its origin in the Western Sahara… In addition to teaching the Indians how to grow crops, the Olmecs also taught them how to make calendars and build step pyramids… (Winters 1982).

One of the problems with the claim that agriculture or domesticated plants were brought to the New World by Africans is that plants were domesticated in Africa at a relatively late date. A confounding factor is the loose way in which the term “African” is used by proponents of diffusion. Although Egypt is geographically in the continent of Africa, its agriculture is derived from Southwest Asia. The Sahara constitutes both a cultural and an ecological barrier to Sub-Saharan West Africa. In the United States, the word “African” first brings to mind Sub Saharan West Africans, the ancestors of African-Americans. We need to remember that Africa is a continent with a great variety of morphological types and ecozones. For much of tropical African history the predominant lifestyle was a hunting/gathering. During the time when the Sahara was wetter, fishing became important and pastoralism with domesticated cattle may have occurred as early as 7000 B.C. (Marshall 1998) However, this did not lead to plant domestication as Marshall (1998) states:

… There is no morphological evidence of plant domestication, which I am using sensu stricto to mean morphological change resulting from human selection… Associated with early hunter-fisher or even early hunter fisher-pastoral groups in Africa.

Plants domesticated in Southwest Asia were introduced into Egypt in the 5th millennium B.C. And eventually became the basis for the Egyptian economy. Wetterstrom (1998:35) points out that:

The Nile Valley cultures apparently played no role in the evolution of sorghum. Indeed, sorghum was not even grown in Egypt until Roman times … The Near East complex (emmer wheat, barley, lentils, peas, and flax), was ideally suited to the Nile Valley’s flood regimen; as winter crops they were planted in the fall, after the flood waters drained and grew through the winter months.

The crops domesticated in Africa proper were sorghum and pearl millet, bottle gourd, watermelon, earth pea, black beniseed, jute, a number of vegetables, and a variety of encouraged but not fully domesticated plants domesticated in the savanna-forest ecotype (Wetterstrom 1998). Marshall (1998) points out that:

The principal grains were pearl millet and sorghum. The evidence points to a late domestication of these species. The oldest remains of domesticated pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) dating to 3460 +/-200 BP [1980-1520 cal BC] and 2960 +/-370 BP [1620-795 cal BC] were found at the archaeological site of Birimi in northern Ghana. This site is associated with the Kintampo cultural complex (D’Andrea, Klee and Casey 2001).

The Nabta Playa site in the Sudan near Khartoum aroused a lot of interest in the past because the remains seemed to be quite old. However, the plant material was all carbonized and difficult to identify. Wetterstrom (1998) points out that: “On the basis of modern sorghum distribution, the Nabta Playa sorghum would most likely belong to the wild sorghum race virgatum, which is probably not a progenitor of domestic sorghum…..It now seems most likely that sorghum was not domesticated until much later— late in the 1st millennium BC.

McNeish (1992:311-312) alludes to the Dhar Tichitt region of south-central Mauritania as another area of interest. There were several periods of foraging bands and an occupation about 2000 B.C. that had pottery. McNeish points out that about 1500 B.C. impressions of pearl millet on pottery “suggest the people were either picking wild millet or planting small amounts of it in gardens.” Recently, these Dhar Tichitt sites with domesticated pearl millet impressions were directly dated by AMS (accelerator mass spectrometry) to 3500 +/- 100 BP [1500 B.C] and a shard from another village, was dated to 3420 +/- 120BP [1420 B.C.]. Domesticated pearl millet therefore, was grown in the area as early as 1500 B.C. (Wetterstrom 1998). Wetterstrom (1998) concludes that:

On the basis of our present archaeological evidence, we would expect that domesticated pearl millet populations were established between 4000 BP and 3500 BP [2000-1500 B.C.] and sorghum between 3000 BP and 2000 BP [1000-AD 0].

Burenhult (1993:46) summarizes:

What is clear is that wherever various African plants were domesticated, plant cultivation was largely, if not entirely, restricted to the northwestern and southeastern parts of sub-Saharan Africa until between 500 BC and 300 BC.

The domestication of plants in Africa should be compared to plant domestication in the New World. The most important food plants in the New World were maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus sp.), and squash (Cucurbita sp.). The oldest domesticated maize was found at Guilá Naquitz cave in Oaxaca, Mexico and was directly dated by AMS to 4300 cal B.C., but, according to Flannery and Piperno (2001), the actual domestication was earlier than this. Matsuoka et al. (2002) confirm this claim on the basis of genetic analyses. They propose that maize was domesticated in a single area about 7000 B.C. Flannery and Piperno also found domesticated squash (Cucurbita pepo) that was AMS dated at 8025 cal B.C. Piperno and Stothert (2003) have found evidence of an older domesticated (cucurbita sp) in Ecuador which were dated from 10,000 to 8,000 B.C.

Smith (2001) using a combination of archaeology and biology traces the diffusion of squash, maize and beans to northern latitudes from their source of domestication [b.c. = cal B.C.; YA = years ago]

Southwest (USA)
2100 cal YA

Southwest (USA)
150 b.c.
350 b.c.
650 a.d.
250 b.c.
4350 b.c.
3550 b.c.
2350 b.c.
1550 b.c.
8050 b.c.
5950 b.c.
4350 b.c.
1550 b.c.

The conclusion about the status of agriculture and type of settlements in presented in a recent authoritative text (Piperno and Pearsall 1998:312) is that:

It is clear from the evidence that people living in simple hamlets and moving their living sites often utilized slash-and-burn techniques of agriculture with fully domesticated plants in the lowland and mid elevational forests throughout tropical America between 7000 and 4500 radiocarbon years ago [5050- 2250 B.C.]. Some small-scale clearing of forest for the preparation of plant-growing plots probably commenced during the middle of the ninth millennium B. P. in Panama…. By the seventh to sixth millennium B.P. [5th to 4th millennium B.C.] Significant modification of primary forest for fields is evident in Panama, the Cauca Valley, Colombia and western Amazonia (the Ecuadorian Ayauch sequence). Maize is present in all these sequences…. We believe that beginning during the seventh millennium B.P. [5th millennium B.C.], there was a shift in agricultural techniques as maize, and, most likely, other crop plants, such as manioc and sweet potato, became increasingly available to populations in southern Central America and northern south America…

Since claims are often made that the Gulf Olmecs rose “suddenly,” it is interesting to point out that there are long occupational sequences with agriculture and settled hamlets in San Lorenzo and La Venta. Piperno and Pearsall 1998:310) say:

The site of La Venta was a major Olmec center and one of two (San Lorenzo being the other) that has seen considerable archaeological study (Fig. 5.6). Analysis of botanical remains from deep test pits at la Venta revealed the presence of Zea pollen and charred maize cobs in strata dating to ca. 4200-3800 B.P. [2250-1850 B.C.] (Rust and Leyden 1994). At this time, called the early Bari period, people were making agricultural clearings in mangrove vegetation near their sedentary settlements located on river levees, and they were exploiting the rich aquatic resources of the mangrove swamps and coastal rivers. The maize pollen grains of this period are small, suggesting a small-eared variety of maize. During the subsequent middle and late Bari periods (3700-3000 B.P. [1750-1050 B.C.]), macromaize remains became much more common.

One of the most fundamental rules in establishing the existence of diffusion is that the trait or artifact to be diffused has to be shown to exist in the place from which diffusion takes place prior to its existence in the place presumably diffused to. It is abundantly clear from the above the implausibility ab initio of diffusion from Africa to the Olmec area. Agriculture and domesticated plants flourished in Meso and Central America thousands of years before anything was domesticated in most of Africa, particularly in Sub-Saharan West Africa, the home of the Mande and the genetic ancestors of most African-Americans. Civilizations require agriculture and settlements– these precursors were present in the American tropics while most of Africa was still populated by nomadic pastoralists or hunter-gatherers.

Another topic that needs to be covered at an early stage is a question which is too often rapidly passed over. All these foreign visitors to the Olmecs magically arrive at their shores, but sailing across the Atlantic in 1500 B.C. was not easily done. The topic needs to be treated in a thorough and lengthy manner. I will only make a few points here. Claims of great African prowess in sailing must be set in context, as Mauny (1969) points out. The Azores, the Madeiras, and the islands just off the coast of Africa São Tomé (150 miles) and Cape Verde Islands were uninhabited until after they were discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century. The island of Madagascar (300 miles) from the east coast of Africa was first settled by people coming from Indonesia thousands of miles away. Egyptian captains only sailed within sight of land and put in to shore every night (Mertz 1990: 24). In the Mediterranean visibility was so important at a time when no compasses were available, that the sea lanes were practically deserted during the winter months when visibility was compromised and storms occurred; all normal sailing activities were packed into the summer months (Casson 1971: 270-271).

Much is made of Thor Heyerdahl’s replica voyages using papyrus reed boats, RA I and II . Frost (1993) points out that replica voyages only demonstrate feasibility, but that in Heyerdahl’s logic “possible soon came to mean probable– even inevitable.” Santiago Genovés, one of the participants in the Ra expeditions acknowledged the fallacy of that type of reasoning:

In trying to cross the Atlantic at its widest point in a papyrus raft, we were not trying, in the least [italics in original], to prove that an ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian papyrus raft, actually crossed the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of years ago in order to influence in a fundamental way the development of the high Mesoamerican cultures (Genovés 1972: 19-20)


The crossings of the Atlantic in themselves have not proved anything in terms of concrete anthropology. (Genovés 1973).

Replica voyages are problematic. The passengers on the replica voyages knew that the Canary Current and the North Equatorial current existed and where they were; that the prevailing winds were favorable; that a destination really existed and how far away it was; how much food and water might be needed; and that a radio was available to call for help. It would have been quite a different matter for an ancient Egyptian accustomed to the quiet waters of the Nile or the Mediterranean to venture out into the apparently endless Atlantic with no knowledge of the existing currents or where to find them, with no knowledge of the existing winds, with no concept that if sight of land were lost one might sail into the vacuum. Or if the voyage was accidental, a boat caught by the current, which is more likely, why would people accustomed to sail only along the coast have the kind of provisions aboard that would last a couple of months? Heyerdahl fans also omit mentioning that the reed boat, which had started in Safi, Morocco, disintegrated 500 miles before Barbados after traveling 3890 miles. However, a true replica voyage would have set out from the mouth of the Nile NOT from Morocco. The distance from Alexandria to Casablanca (as the crow flies and thus an underestimate) is 2195 mi. A true replica voyage would have disintegrated 1700 miles into the Atlantic with the loss of all hands. There are more problems with Heyerdahl’s replica voyages, but that would require another paper.

The most important and influential proponent of African influence on the New World is Ivan Van Sertima (1976,1992a,1992b,1992c,1995,1998). Since other proponents such as Barton (2001), Obenga (2001), and Asante (1988:48; 1990: 158, 197 n.43;1993: 136-137; Asante and Matson 1991: 15-19), among others, derive their information from Van Sertima, I will focus on his work. During the 1960s and 70s, botanists and anthropologists discussed the possible diffusion of plants, culminating in a symposium in 1968 at a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (Riley, Kelley, Pennington, and Rands 1971). Papers advocating diffusion by George Carter (1977) and Donald Lathrap (1977) were presented at a World Congress on the Origins of Agriculture. However, this period seems to have been the high water mark for scholarly discussion of the topic. Baker (1970: 62) summarizes his discussion of possible contacts thus, “on present evidence it can hardly be said that cultivated plants of the New World provide a foundation for the belief that there were important cultural exchanges between the Americas and the Old World in pre-Columbian days.” The conclusions of a volume devoted specifically to the question of pre-Columbian contacts, in which a number of proponents of contact, including several upon whom Van Sertima relied for botanical evidence, participated, stated:

The consensus of botanical evidence given in the symposium seems to be that there is no hard and fast evidence for any pre Columbian introduction of any single plant [emphasis in the original] across the ocean from the Old World to the New World, or vice-versa. This is emphatically not [emphasis in the original] to say that it could not have occurred (Riley, Kelley, Pennington, and Rands 1971: 452-453).

Carter (1977) and Lathrap (1977) were published in mainstream publications, but it was apparent that consensus had been reached that the evidence for all these allegations was weak (Reed 1977) and diffusionist claims of this nature are no longer being considered seriously. Recent reviews of New World diffusionist controversies (Fingerhut 1994; Fritze 1993) offer little on this subject after the 1970’s. Mainstream texts on the origins of agriculture (Burenhult 1993; Cowan and Watson 1992; Harris 1996; Shaw, Sinclair, Andah, and Okpoko 1993; Zohary and Hopf 1993) ignore the matter completely.

Proposed Plants for African Diffusion

The plants that Van Sertima claims prove that there was diffusion from Africa are: the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), jack bean (Canavalia sp.), New World cotton (Gossypium barbadense and G. hirsutum), and the banana (Musa paradisiaca). These will be individually discussed below.

Lagenaria siceraria (bottle gourd)

The bottle gourd is assumed to be African in origin because Africa is the home of the genus although truly wild populations may not exist (Smartt and Simmonds 1995:108). Remains of L. siceraria, which may have been brought as a curiosity because the habitat is in tropical Africa, were found in Egyptian tombs dated about 3300 – 3500 B.C. (Whitaker and Bemis 1976). Specimens were found in Zambia and South Africa dated at about 2000 B.C. and in Kenya dated about 800 B.C. (Sauer 1994: 51). However, the archaeological record for cultivated bottle gourds begins in the New World many years before any evidence of its being cultivated in Africa. The earliest of these dates (7970- cal. B.C.) was for AMS dated specimens at Guilá Naquitz. The oldest AMS date north of Mexico (6125 cal B.C.) was a small bottle gourd recovered from a burial at the Windover site in eastern coastal Florida (Smith 2000: 29). Gourds older than 7000 B.C. were found in the Ocampo caves in Mexico (Whitaker, Cutler, and MacNeish 1957; Whitaker and Bemis 1976), while the oldest cultivated specimens in South America are dated to about 3000 B.C. (Whitaker 1971). Smith (2000) points out that, due to the fact that no historically documented or modern Lagenaria siceraria either in Africa or the New World has been proven to be “truly wild,” determining whether these early specimens represent wild, domesticated or something in-between gourds has been difficult. Usually, if the gourds are found archaeologically in places where L. siceraria does not grow wild, it is assumed that they were taken and husbanded by humans and in some sense “domesticated” (Smith 2000). The disparity in the dates of archaeological presence and the antiquity of bottle gourd in the New World versus Africa means that, even if the bottle gourd originated in Africa, its transmission to the New World would not involve human transport. The problem was solved by the demonstration by Whitaker and Carter (1954; 1961) that gourds can float for as long as a year and then be stored for six years without the seeds losing the capacity to germinate. If a gourd on its arrival to the New World was tossed up on the beach by storm and broken so that the seeds could escape, or if it were picked up by a curious person and transported inland, the gourd would spread. This seemed to be a requirement because bottle gourds grow usually inland. However, Heiser (1993: 115) reports that the botanist Henri Pitier collected a specimen that was growing along a beach at Viento Frio in Panama. There is no need to posit a human transport for this plant to the New World. Additionally, it makes little sense for persons accidentally making a sea voyage to load up the boat with these bulky, nearly inedible fruits (Baker 1970: 49-50). The presence of the gourd in the New World predates any domestication in West Africa.

Ivan Van Sertima (1976: 205; 1998:138) agrees with this consensus that human agency was not needed for the transmission of Lagenaria siceraria to the New World. One scholar, who strongly advocated human transmission from Africa to the New World was Donald Lathrap (1977). In order to account for the antiquity of the bottle gourd in the New World), he proposed that a form of agriculture existed in Africa about 14,000 B.C., and that a float made from gourds, together with African cotton, and fish poisons were brought to Brazil by a boatload of African fishermen. Reed (1977), the editor of the volume containing Lathrap’s article, pointed out, at the time, that there was no archaeological evidence to support Lathrap’s ideas. Heiser (1993:105-117) discusses Lathrap’s hypothesis at length before rejecting it, although he points out that the thesis would be strengthened if it were shown that humans also transported cotton to the New World from Africa. As we will see below, this did not happen. As pointed out above, agriculture was not practiced anywhere in 14,000 B.C.

Gossypium hirsutum and G. barbadense (New World Cotton)

There are four species of cultivated cotton in the world. African cotton (Gossypium herbaceum) and Asian cotton (G.arboreum) have 13 large chromosomes (AA). The New World species G. hirsutum and G. barbadense originating in South America are diploid and have 26 chromosomes (13 large and 13 small chromosomes- AADD). Because no AA monoploid cotton is found in the New World and no DD monoploid cotton is native to the Old World, the New World tetraploid cottons must have arisen from a hybridization of a New World species (DD) with an Old World species (AA) leading to a doubling of the chromosome number (Baker 1970: 57-61). The essential question is how and when this hybridization took place. Van Sertima (1976: 180-191; 1992) argues based on Stephens (1966), that cotton seeds would not float and retain their viability long enough to cross the Atlantic or the Pacific, although they could make journeys of up to 1000 miles. He then argues that the

seeds of the African diploid cotton could not [emphasis original] have drifted by themselves across the ocean but had to come to the New World in the hands of African men…. that African man, bearing cotton, made a drift journey to the Americas in the fourth millennium B. C. (Van Sertima 1976: 190). (2)

If we are to consider diffusion, the temporal sequence is again important. The earliest archaeological cotton (G. arboreum) textiles in the Old World were found in the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley about 2000 B.C. (Sauer 1994: 100). The earliest cotton (G. Herbaceum A) in Africa was found in Afyea, Egyptian Nubia dated at 2500 B.C. Cotton seed and lint hairs intermediate between those of wild forms and those of cultivated species were found, but there was no sign of weaving at that time (Zohary and Hopf 1993: 128). In the New World, the oldest tetraploid G barbadense (AADD) cotton textiles were found in Quiani, Chile, a Chinchorro site that was dated to 3600 B.C. (Sauer 1994:101). Junius Bird found evidence for the long use of cotton textiles at Huaca Prieta, Peru dated at 2500 B.C. (Hutchinson 1962; Phillips 1976). In the case of tetraploid G.hirsutum (AADD), the oldest archaeobotanical remains begin about 3500 B.C. in the Tehuacan caves (Sauer 1994:103; Wendel 1995:362-363). Phillips (1976) and Wendel, Brubaker, and Percival (1992) point out that this cotton was fully domesticated and does not represent the earliest domestication of G. hirsutum. Thus, the domestication of New World cottons took place before domestication of Old world cottons militating against human diffusion as a vehicle for hybridization. Baker (1970: 61) points out that wild tetraploid G. hirsutum has been found in islands in the Caribbean and the Yucatan, and that tetraploid G. barbadense is found on the coasts of Ecuador and Peru as well as the wild form of the Galapagos islands. Baker concludes that:

all of this evidence suggests that man had nothing to do with the origins of tetraploid cotton, but that he domesticated hirsutum and barbadense separately in the New World.

Although Van Sertima relied heavily on Stephens, he does not quote Stephens’ (1971: 407) conclusion that:

Because of the possibilities of natural and accidental dispersal, one is forced to the conclusion that the geographical distribution of the “wild” forms of cotton per se cannot be used critically as supporting evidence for early transoceanic cultural contacts. Archaeological evidence of spindle whorls, cordage, fabrics, or any other artifact indicating the use [emphasis original] would be far more satisfactory.

No such artifact has ever been found.

In an earlier paper (Haslip-Viera, Ortiz de Montellano, and Barbour 1997), we presented extended evidence for the possibility of cotton seeds arriving to the New World without human intervention. However, work in the 1990’s completely eliminated any possibility of human involvement in the hybridization of New World cotton. Wendel and co-workers (Wendel 1989, Percy and Wendel 1990, Wendel and Albert 1992) have proved that the hybridization of diploid AA African cotton and diploid DD New World cotton to produce the tetraploid (AADD) cotton took place one to two million years ago, even before the evolution of modern humans. The current picture is as follows. Six to eleven million years ago, long distance dispersal from Africa led to the evolution of the New World DD diploid species. These 13 species originated in Mexico and radiated from that locus. Some time later, African AA diploids dispersed to the New World. One to two million years ago, these diploids combined to form the tetraploid (AADD). Molecular data suggests that this hybridization occurred only once (Wendel 1995). New World AA diploids have obviously become extinct during the long interval prior to human domestication. The antiquity of this hybridization obviously falsifies Van Sertima’s African voyage of the fourth millennium B.C. as well as Lathrap’s (1977) African fishermen’s trip about 14,000 B.C. As Reed (1977) pointed out, this also further weakens Lathrap’s claims of diffusion of the bottle gourd.

Canavalia sp. (jackbean)

Van Sertima relies heavily on a monograph by Schwerin (1970) as a source for his botanical arguments. Although others have proposed African diffusion of cotton and bottle gourd, Schwerin is the only source for the diffusion of jackbean. Schwerin’s monograph presents no original research and based solely on a review of the literature. In a scholarly fashion, he makes clear in his conclusion that there was little definitive evidence for his proposals:

This paper presents a hypothesis… Critics will note that there are numerous points which cannot yet be verified by firm data. The hypothesis is offered, however, as a stimulus to further scientific research. Obviously it will stand or fall on the basis of future genetic, botanical, ethnographic, and specially archaeological findings. This paper may be taken as an invitation to those best qualified to pursue such research…. (Schwerin 1970:26).

Van Sertima (1992a:34-35;1992d;1998 156), on the other hand, states these proposals as established facts, and praises Schwerin highly stating, with respect to diffusion of cotton, that:

… Dr. Karl Schwerin, who has done the definitive thesis on this subject…(Van Sertima 1998:139).

Due to the incongruity, I contacted Dr. Schwerin and asked about the genesis and purpose of the monograph. According to Schwerin, it began as a paper for the conference that produced the book Men Across the Sea, but revising it for publication took too long and it was published as an unrefereed monograph (Schwerin 2003). This is the way that Schwerin himself characterizes the monograph:

….my paper is hardly the definitive work on the subject. It was based on some ideas I began exploring while in graduate school at UCLA for a seminar with H.B Nicholson….The arguments of trans-Pacific diffusionists were just too unlikely (which I address in my monograph). Africa was closer, the time frame was right, and the currents run in the right direction. But I was also aware that the strongest arguments at the time depended on genetics (even that was weak), and there was (and still is) little or no archeological and only suggestive [sic] cultural evidence that might bear on the question. Thus my arguments were tentative and suggestive, hoping to stimulate more definitive investigation, but certainly NOT firm conclusions (Schwerin 2003).

Schwerin has not done any further research or published anything on these topics in the intervening 30 years. Schwerin’s proposals for Canavalia diffusion are based on one paper by Sauer (1964b), that says nothing whatever about diffusion. Thus, the proposal for diffusion through human intervention from Africa is purely Schwerin’s unsupported opinion. The facts are these. Sauer identifies four species of Canavalia domesticated in prehistoric times and their wild precursors:

Africa–(wild) Canavalia virosa domesticated to Canavalia regalis
Burma– (wild) Canavalia gladiolata domesticated to Canavalia gladiata
America-(wild) Canavalia brasilensis domesticated to Canavalia ensiformis
Andes– (wild) Canavalia piperi domesticated to Canavali plagiosperma

According to Sauer (1954b) the genus evolved in the New World, was probably spread by C. maritima, and that the various species developed by convergent evolution. All the species are diploid with 22 chromosomes, and no systematic experiments have been conducted in their ability to crossbreed or produce fertile hybrids. The New World species (C. ensiformis, and C. plagiosperma) are no longer cultivated, although they were some of the earliest domesticates and are known archaeologically. Canavalia sp. (probably ensiformis) was found in Tamaulipas, Mexico dated 7000-5000 B.C. (MacNeish, 1958; Whitaker, Cutler, and MacNeish 1957) and at various sites in the Southwest United States (Sauer 1964). C. plagiosperma has been “found archaeologically at various sites on the coast of Peru beginning with levels dated about 2000 B.C. (Sauer 1964).”

The antiquity of archaeological deposits of Canavalia ensiformis, Gossypium hirsutum, G. barbadensis, and Lagenaria siceraria in the New World required Schwerin to posit a domestication of their African precursors no later than the 5th millennium B.C. (Schwerin 1970:6). However, he admits that, although Canavalia regalis is used extensively on the West Coast of Africa, it has never been found in an archaeological context (Sauer 1970: 13,15). Given the very late dates of plant domestication in West Africa shown above, it is very doubtful that C. regalis was domesticated prior to the appearance of domesticated species in the New World.

Schwerin postulates a drift voyage by African fishermen in 4000 B.C. that transported domesticated plants to the New World. The sum total of Schwerin’s proposal and evidence for Canavalia follows (Schwerin 1970:22):

C. regalis (red seeds) or its ancestor of 4000 BC (perhaps C. virosa) hybridized with the endemic C. brasilensis (white seeds) of northern South America giving rise to the form known as C. plagiosperma (mottled seeds). This latter, when carried to the Amazon lowland, a habitat not unlike that of the ancestral C. virosa in Africa, gave rise by repeated back-crossing, to a wild form similar to C. virosa, what is that known as C. piperi (brown seeds).

This is pure assertion. Sauer (1964), Schwerin’s sole botanical source, says nothing about this process. In fact, Sauer contradicts Schwerin’s proposal because Sauer identifies C. piperi as the wild precursor to C. plagiosperma not as the result of some mysterious series of back crosses in which domesticated C. plagiosperma reverted to a wild form, C. piperi. To sum up, Schwerin presents no archaeological, cultural, maritime, or botanical evidence to support a presumed diffusion of Canavalia regalis to the New World.

Van Sertima (1976:205-207;1992d;1988:132 ) states that African fisherman brought the jackbean to the New World because:

Red seeds from Africa (canavalia [sic] virosa) hybridized around 4000 B.C. with white seeds (canavalia [sic] plagiosperma). These “mottled” seeds, when carried into the Amazon lowland, a habitat like that of the ancestral red seeds of Africa (c.[sic] virosa), gave rise through repeated backcrossing to brown seeds (c.[sic] piperi) (Schwerin 1970:22).

Although Van Sertima asserts this claim with great authority, he relies exclusively on Schwerin and presents no independent evidence for it. Actually Van Sertima misquotes Schwerin and makes his proposal even less credible. Van Sertima would have a wild African species (C. virosa) hybridize with an already domesticated American species (C. plagiosperma), not the wild species (C. brasilensis) proposed by Schwerin, to produce an unspecified “mottled” species. This, in turn, by repeated back crossings produced the wild ancestor C. piperi. Van Sertima gives no evidence, or reasons why he differs from Schwerin’s proposal.

Musa acuminata, M. balbisiana— (banana, plantain)

The family Musaceae has only two genera, Ensete and Musa with about 50 species. They are confined to the Old World from West Africa to the Pacific, but with most species in southeastern Asia. Ensete probably originated in Asia and spread in geologic times to Africa (Purseglove 1972: 344). Musa includes about 40 species of perennial treelike herbs native to South East Asia, the East Indies, the tropical Pacific and tropical Australia. The wild species are diploid and dispersed by seed. Edible bananas arose by independent domestication in antiquity of the diploid Musa maclayi and Musa acuminata. Domestication converted them to seedless fruits full of edible pulp. Asia is only location that has the wild ancestors of the domesticates. These were easily propagated as clones by sucker shoots. (Sauer 1994: 198). M. maclayi is the wild species of New Guinea and is the precursor of the cultivated fe’I banana of the Pacific islands. These species are diploids with 2n =20 chromosomes (Simmonds 1995; Sauer 1994: 199). The vast majority of cultivated bananas (Eumusa cultivars) originated by hybridization of Musa acuminata, native to the Malay region (2n =22 chromosomes) that produced seedless cultivars (A genomes). Musa acuminata is still found in the wild. Its cultivars hybridized with Musa balbisiana , a wild diploid (2n =22 chromosomes) native to a wide region from India to the tropical Pacific (BB genomes). Some of the resulting hybrids are diploid (AB) but most are triploids (AAB or ABB) (Sauer 1994: 199; Simmonds 1995). Pure Musa acuminata (AAA) clones are the sweet dessert bananas. Cultivars with a single M. balbisiana genome (AAB, or AB) are also usually sweet. The clones with the ABB genome are the starchy plantains although the names banana and plantain are used inconsistently and are ambiguous unless clearly defined (Sauer 1994: 199).

The earliest record of the banana is 500 BC in India, but it is agreed that domestication took place much earlier in Asia (Heiser: 1990: 155). Very recently, it has been shown that agriculture and domestication of Musa spp. took place independently in New Guinea, and that bananas were extensively cultivated there about 5000 B.C. (Denham 2003). Genetic evidence (Lebot 1999) suggests that Musa acuminata ssp. banksii was domesticated in New Guinea and afterwards dispersed to Southeast Asia, where it hybridized with local varieties. Bananas were spread from Southeast Asia to Polynesia. They were also taken from Indonesia to Madagascar about the fifth century AD together with other Asian domesticates (like sugar cane, Saccharum officinarum, and Asian yam, Dioscorea alata). From there they spread through the Zambezi valley and the Great Lakes and the across the Congo to West Africa (Purseglove 1972: 349; Simmonds 1975). Plantains and bananas were well established in Africa before the Portuguese arrived and they took bananas and plantains to the Canary Islands and Sao.

The name Musa is derived from the Arabic word mouz. The plants were first heard of in Europe in a report from Alexander the Great. They were known to the Arabs and appear in the Koran as the ‘tree of paradise’, which is equivalent to the ‘tree of knowledge’ of Christian tradition. Pliny wrote that it was the “plant of the wise”, which may be the source of Linneaus’ name Musa sapientum. The name ‘banana’ was introduced from the Guinea coast of West Africa by the Portuguese; the Spaniards used the name platano from which the term plantain is derived (Purseglove 1972:350).

Bananas were introduced into the island of Hispaniola by Fray Tomás de Berlanga in 1516 (Oviedo 1959:vol. I, p. 292; Purseglove 1972: 349; Hall 1991; Simmonds 1995). Simoons (1995: 232) states that:

Though Alexander von Humboldt, relying on early Spanish accounts and native traditions, argued that bananas of some forms were cultivated in the Americas in pre-Columbian times, that idea has long since been rejected (de Candolle, 1886: 304-11; N.W. Simmonds 1966: 313). Most telling among evidence to the contrary, wild members of the genus Musa are not found in the Americas, but in Asia…

Heizer (1990:155) puts it this way:

From Africa, the banana was carried to the Americas in 1516 and became so well established in a short spread of time that some early travellers thought that it was an indigenous plant.

It is worth quoting Jonathan D. Sauer at length because he is the son of Carl O. Sauer, a favorite source for advocates of botanical diffusionism:

Bananas were introduced to the Canary Islands early in the 15th century, perhaps both by the Portuguese from West Africa and from Spain. The first known cultivations in the New World were in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico by some of the first Spanish settlers. Bananas were abundant in Hispaniola by 1520, reportedly brought from both Granada and the Canaries. Back in the rainy tropics, they flourished and immediately became a much more important food than they had been in Spain. During the early 16th century, one of the first things Spanish colonists did when founding new settlements was to make substantial banana plantings. Before 1530, bananas were a significant food crop on both the Caribbean and Pacific sides of Panama. By 1550, they were being grown on both sides of Mexico, in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and again under heavy irrigation in Peru. By then, the Portuguese had begun growing bananas on the tropical coast of Brazil. Initially linked to Spanish and Portuguese colonies, bananas soon spread inland among escaped African slaves and among Indian tribes. The first Spanish explorers of the Amazon basin found no bananas among the Indians in the mid-16th century, but Amazon Indians had the crop soon after 1600. It is evident from 16th century accounts that the early Spanish banana introductions to the New World involved several clones, including both AAA and AAB-types. A Spanish expedition evidently brought additional clones, probably AAB, from Tahiti to Lima in 1775 (Sauer 1994: 200).

Diffusionist claims

As we have pointed out (Ortiz de Montellano, Haslip-Viera, and Barbour 1997), Van Sertima relies heavily on outdated sources and primarily on the work of Leo Wiener in the 1920’s. Leo Wiener, a self-taught professor of Slavic Languages at Harvard, became a convinced hyperdiffusionist. Because the Olmecs had not been rediscovered at the time, Wiener’s hypotheses dealt with the Aztec and the Maya as follows:

The major part of the religious concepts of the Mandingos, hence of the Maya and the Mexicans, arises from linguistic speculations bequeathed from the Arabs in their astrology and astronomy, as derived from a Hindu source, hence it is now possible to maintain that the American civilizations were derived from Africa after the ninth century [A.D.], since it is only in the ninth and tenth centuries that the Hindu study of the sky became the preoccupation of the Arabs (Wiener 1926: xxvi).

Wiener’s linguistics were quite simplistic, even at the time, and linguists have roundly condemned his attempted correlations (Fritze 1993:271-272), and Van Sertima (1992b: 53) seems to acknowledge that they are in error. However, Van Sertima continues to use Wiener’s as a principal source and adopts or rejects Wiener’s linguistics in particular cases without providing a rationale for doing so as we will see below.

Van Sertima makes essentially three arguments in favor a pre-Columbian introduction of bananas into the New World by Africans: 1) a variety of Indian names for banana derive from the African name for the plant; 2) banana leaves were found in pre-Columbian graves in Peru; 3) Orellana, the first explorer of the Amazon found bananas growing along its length. Claims (1) and (2) are copied from Wiener and claim 3 is derived from Thor Heyerdahl’s works. Looking into these claims will, once more, emphasize the need to use primary sources in research.

Van Sertima (1976: 195-196; 1992b: 34-35;1995:70-71;1998:155-156; 187-188) claims that the banana was brought to the New World in pre-Columbian times because both banana leaves and fruit were found in excavation in the cemetery of Ancon, Peru. The only citation provided for this is in 1976 citing Wiener (1920-1922: 73), who, in turn, cites Rochebrune (1880). Thor Heyerdahl, who argues that Caucasians, rather than Africans, brought bananas before Columbus to the New World via Polynesia also cites Rochebrune as his authority. Apparently neither Van Sertima nor Heyerdahl read Rochebrune’s paper because it clearly does not claim that the bananas found at Ancon were pre-Columbian.

… Hamy, in a conference in the provisional ethnographic Museum in Paris on February 19, 1878, expressed the view that the graves did not date back further than the first half of the 16th Century, and that only a few would belong to an earlier epoch. This is not self-evident, rather it only means that the Flora of the cemetery of Ancon cannot be used to determine the age of the graves (Rochebrune 1880, BOM translation).

Although Van Sertima (1976: 195-196) uses Wiener’s references he omits the fact that, after reviewing his evidence, Wiener concludes that the banana was NOT imported in pre-Columbian times. Wiener (1920-1922: vol.2, 71-75) cites Tello (1917) and others reporting that tombs were reopened periodically and that the mummies were dug up and reburied. Thus, artifacts found in graves cannot automatically be considered pre-Columbian. Wiener points out that there is clear evidence that bodies were disinterred as late as 1621. Van Sertima (1976: 195; again using Wiener as the source of his references) claims that:

Among the sixteenth-century chroniclers and historians who claimed the presence of pre-Columbian banana/plantain in Peru were Father Montesinos Guaman Poma (citing Heyerdahl 1971:136), Father J. de Acosta, Blas Valera and the half-Inca historian Garcilasso de la Vega.

However, Wiener (1920-22: vol. 2: 73-74) states that Garcilasso de la Vega nowhere says that the banana was known to the Incas.

Van Sertima (1976:201) claimed that:

The explorer Orellana encountered the plantain variety of the species in great abundance all along the upper reaches of the Amazon when de drifted down this river (the longest jungle river in the world) to its mouth in 1540-1541 (Heyerdahl 1971: 136).

This claim is expanded and made bolder in subsequent publications:

There was no native South American banana. That has been very clearly established. Its appearance in pre-Spanish Peruvian graves and the ubiquity of its sister, the plantain along the Amazon, in 1513, cannot be explained by an introduction after Columbus (Van Sertima 1995: 70-71; 1992b:34-35).
The early sixteenth-century explorer Orellana tells us that he saw the plantain in ubiquitous cultivation along the Amazon (Van Sertima 1976: 199). But there was no native South American banana. That has been very clearly established. Its appearance in pre-Spanish Peruvian graves and the ubiquity of its sister, the plantain, along the Amazon in 1513 cannot be explained by an introduction after Columbus (Van Sertima 1998: 187-188).

Van Sertima is quoting Heyerdahl incorrectly– Heyerdahl did not say that plantains had been the species seen in the Amazon. Even worse, Van Sertima is not quoting himself correctly. Orellana’s trip took place in 1541. In 1513, Orellana was 2 years old. Heyerdahl makes this Orellana claim repeatedly. However, he provides no source for this claim in the chapter cited by Van Sertima (Heyerdahl 1971:136). In a subsequent publication Heyerdahl (1978:79 80) eloquently described for half a page the importance of Orellana’s sighting of bananas “under cultivation all along the upper reaches of the Amazon.” Again, no citations are provided. Heyerdahl provides a source for the Orellana claim, although not a primary source, in his “academic” book (1952: 481) attributing the claim to Hagen (1939: 33). Hagen, in his turn, does not provide a primary source either; he cites an obscure history of bananas (Worth 1917).

I, then, attempted to find a possible primary source for this claim. In 1894, Jose Toribio Medina carried out an exhaustive search for all documents pertaining to the Francisco Orellana expedition of 1541. Medina found 29 petitions, letters, declarations, royal orders, and judicial inquiries concerning the 1541 expedition and subsequent requests in 1543-44 by Orellana to the king for permission to explore the Amazon in the Archives of the Council of the Indies. Orellana, himself, never wrote an account of his experiences in 1541, although he may have spoken to Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo about it (the relevant sections of Oviedo’s General History are included in Medina’s tome). The only and most authoritative account of the events was written by a participant, Fray Gaspar de Carvajal. The first complete version of Carvajal’s account was published by Mendoza, and the 1934 edition also includes the version of Carvajal’s account published by Oviedo (1851-1855: vol 4. Ch. 24)). There is no mention at all of bananas or plantains in any of the sources and documents collected by Mendoza. The entire quote has been fabricated somewhere between Oviedo (1535-1557) and Hagen (1939).

This is a short summary of the Orellana expedition. In late 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro, Governor of Quito, took 230 men with horses and dogs on an expedition to the “Land of Cinnamon.” The trees found were too sparse to be economically useful. After some time the expedition was extremely short of food and Orellana, with 54 men in a boat, was sent ahead to scout for food to supply the main body. Orellana’s boat navigated some 200 leagues of uninhabited territory in three days without finding any food. Orellana had promised Pizarro to return in 2 to 3 days, but the men concluded that trying to return upstream would take a long time and instead voted to continue by themselves to the mouth of the river. When Orellana did not return, Pizarro considered him a traitor and turned back in a desperate condition. By the time Pizarro got back to Quito his men had eaten more than 100 of their horses and many of the dogs (Medina 1934: 390-395; Oviedo 1851-1855: vol 4, pp. 381-386, Bk. XLIX, ch 1,2). Carvajal’s description of Orellana’s expedition is almost a continuous lament about the scarcity of food and the starvation of the members of the expedition. For example:

[when they decided to go forward]… We reached a [state] of privation so great that we were eating nothing but leather, belts and soles of shoes, cooked with certain herbs (Carvajal 1934: 172).

By February 2, 1542 conditions were desperate:

The task [building a boat] being finished, and in view that seven of our companions had died from the hunger, endured, we departed on the day of Our Lady of Candlemas (Carvajal 1934: 178).

In early May 1542, Carvajal (1934: 189) writes:

Proceeding along, harassed by our usual suffering and great hunger…

In early June, conditions were still stressful:

… We came upon another village of the same sort, and, as we were in need of food, we were forced to attack it… (Carvajal 1934: 210).

Near the end of June, Carvajal (1934: 218) writes:

…This province of San Juan, whose length, as I have said, is one hundred and fifty leagues, all of which we covered while enduring much hardship from hunger…

Carvajal (1934: 182, 203, 211, 232-233) describes in great detail the various foodstuffs they consumed, when they were able to obtain them, apart from staples such as maize and cassava,they ate monkeys, tapirs, parrots, snails, manatees and a variety of fruits (pineapples, plums, custard apples, and avocados). Bananas or plantains were not mentioned once, and it is inconceivable, given their continuous state of hunger, that if “[the] ubiquity … of the plantain along the Amazon” were true 1) Carvajal would not have mentioned them or 2) that they would have starved in the midst of such an abundant and nutritious food.

To leave no stone unturned, one remark in Oviedo must be discussed. After Orellana’s failure to return, Pizarro stated:

…that Francisco Orellana had shown the greatest cruelty…. In abandoning Gonzalo Pizarro [i.e. him] and the others in those wildernesses among so many rivers without food, for they had none other but some heads of “bihaos” and a few palm kernels; and the shortage of food was so great that they were obliged to eat a large number of dogs and more than a hundred horses and thousands of little beasts of the lizard family and poisonous victuals, in consequence whereof a number of companions died and others came out of it weak and ill (Mendoza 1934: 403-404; Oviedo 1851-1855: vol. 4, 393-394, Bk. XLIX, Ch. 6).

A footnote by Mendoza (1934: 403) refers to bihaos:

In the glossary of ‘American terms used by Oviedo,’ compiled by the Academy of History’s editor and inserted near the end of the volume from which the present extracts are taken, “bihao” is defined as “a certain plant whose leaves were used by the Indians to cover their houses or “huts.” Furthermore, the word appears to be identical with “bijao,” which is defined in modern dictionaries as “a musaceous plant,” i.e. a plant belonging to the banana and plantain family.

Several points should be made: 1) This remark was made by Pizarro not Orellana; 2) bihao was a very poor food since Pizarro complains about it, therefore it is not a banana or plantain; 3) “bihao” may not be “bijao” and, in any case, it is one of many other species of the Musa species; and 4) This statement cannot possibly be construed as showing that bananas were in abundant cultivation along the Amazon in 1542.

There is no need to invoke either an American origin or a pre-Columbian importation to explain the reports by chroniclers, in the late 16th and 17th centuries, that bananas were widely cultivated in the New World. The plant proved to be very nutritious, easy to cultivate, and adaptable. In 1526, only ten years after their importation to Hispaniola, Oviedo (1969: fol. xliii, p. 85; 1953:109-110) says:

“There are some plants which the Christians call platanos….. These platanos are available all year. They are not native to these parts, but the first were brought from Spain, and they have multiplied to such an extent that it is a marvel to see their abundance in these islands, and on the mainland, wherever there are settlements of Christians.”

In the edition of 1535 he describes several varieties stemming from the banana and plantain and says (Oviedo 1944: vol. 2, p. 207; bk. 8, ch.1):

These plants produce all year. As I have said, it is not native to these parts, nor do they [the natives] know their name….. According to what many people have told me, this plant was brought from the Great Canaries Island in 1516 by Fray Thomas de Berlanga of the Order of the Preachers to this city of Santo Domingo. From here they have spread to the other settlements of this island and in all the other settlements of the Christians, and were taken to the mainland. Everywhere they have been planted they have done very well, and in the farms owned by [Santo Domingans] there are countless platanos because they are very nutritious, and the people consume them all. They are very profitable for the owners because it costs nothing to grow them.

Linguistic arguments

Wiener’s linguistic arguments are not very convincing, but since Van Sertima relies so heavily on Wiener as a source we will discuss them. Van Sertima (1998: 187-188 also 1995: 70-71 and 1992b) claims that:

Now the banana is not African. Africans did not have bananas originally. The Arabs introduced a specific banana into Africa and the Africans gave it a specific name. They called it ba-ko-ko. I have gone through half a dozen South American languages, tracking down the African connection. (3) In the South American language Galibi, we find the African banana word baccuccu, in the Oyapoc language, the banana word baco: in Oyampi, the word baco, in Tupi the word pacoba, in Apiacas, the word pacowa, in Puri the word bahoh, and in Coroada, the word bacoeng (1998:156).

The Arabs introduced the Asian banana in their trade with Africa from the twelfth century on. They took it out of Asia and introduced it to Africa. (4) All the African, as well as the Arab-African words for banana run through the South American languages in recognizable form. Consider, for example, the indigenous African word for banana unrelated to the more popular Arab-African word platano (5) and platena, which had been introduced a century earlier into Spain through Moorish trade (1998: 187-188 also 1995: 70-71 and 1992b).

The line of argument alleged here is that 1) the predominant (or most authentic) African word for banana is bacoco ; 2) the banana was introduced to South America by Africans and the predominant names of the banana in Indian languages are clearly derived from it; and that 3) Indian words derived from platano are not relevant. There are serious problems with these claims as well as with Wiener’s approach in general. Neither Van Sertima nor Wiener provide citations for their attributions so that it is almost impossible to verify whether they are correct. Since most of the words in the lists generated by Wiener were obtained from linguistic studies and dictionaries compiled in the 19th century or later, there is no evidence that these banana words were already present by the time the Spanish arrived, or that they were not borrowed from escaped African slaves in the 16th century or later. We do have evidence for some 16th century usage, but that is to be found in 16th century primary sources. As we will see, bacoco is not the most common, or even a clearly attested, African name for banana.

Wiener’s survey of banana names in African languages (not quoted by Van Sertima) follows:

Unquestionably the banana was early known in Africa, even if it was not native there. In the Sudan and in the Congo we find, however, that the large variety becomes widespread through Spanish or Portuguese influence, since corruptions of platano are found over a large territory. We have Mwi balanda, Agni Guimini baranda, Abe, Afema, Agni, bonda, Baule, Agni manda, Teui, Mande, banana, Zema, Afema, bana etc. The small variety, known as “plantain,” (5) spread from India eastward to the Congo, hence northward, as the linguistic development shows. Sanskrit, kadali, which is also found in several Dravidian languages, and as kela, kala, kula in modern Hindu languages, for the banana, occurs as akondro in Malagassy, whence comes the Swahili mkungu, Bangi, lo-komo, Lolo ngunda, Poto ingunda, Kongo di-kondo, pl. man-kondo, etc. From the Bantu languages it goes north among the Negro languages and we get Ewe akadu, Tchi kwadu, Ga akwadu, Yoruba oggyedeh, Dahome kokwe, Goua mgogo, Meky-ibo Abure, Kyama koko. These latter languages are on the Guinea Coast, and many of these form their plural of names by prefixes. The most common prefix seems to be some form of ma. We find, however, a large number of Guinea Coast languages displaying a b prefix, whether this has a plural value or not. We found this in bosro for the usual asara or sara “snuff”, but unfortunately the material is scant for the word “banana.” Indeed, Kongo makondo would be expected somewhere in the neighborhood to produce the form bakoko ” (Wiener 1920-1922: vol. 1, pp. 127-128).

The most important point to make is that Wiener has, in fact, provided NO attestation of the use of bakoko in any language. He has extrapolated that it should exist, but has not provided a specific example of a language where bakoko means banana. Van Sertima grossly exaggerates when he proposes that this is the African word for banana and therefore is the marker to be used to trace African contact– in fact it does not exist. Further, even if you believe Wiener’s derivation of the precursor to bakoko, (makondo from Kondo), but Wiener errs because the attested word is the plural man-kondo not makondo) coming from akondro in Malagassy, which is not an African language at all but rather belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian language family.

I did a further search for African words for banana. Since Wiener does not provide the countries where the languages he cites are used, I did a search in Ethnologue (6) for these. The following languages listed by Wiener were not listed in Ethnologue and thus are unsure: Afema, Dahome, Goua, Guimini, Meky ibo, Tchi, Teui, Zema. I found an additional 16 languages- all of them listed in Ethnologue. Nupe ((Banfield 1916: 29, 177); Abua, Kolo, Ogbia, Kugbo, Odual (Wolff 1969: 14); Duala (Helmlinger 1972: 550); éwé (Rongier 1995:36); efik (Goldie 1964: 388); Hunde (Shigeki 1992: 43); Kikuyu (Gikuyu) (Barlow 1975: 25); Macua Makhuwa (Valente de Matos 1974: ?); Swahili (Snoxall 1958:19); Mongo-Lomongo Hulstaert 1952: 44); 3 dialects of Ifumu Calloch 1911: 138); BantuBotatwe (Torrend 1967: 41); and Rundi-Kirundi (Van der Burgt 1904: 64).

Both my group of languages as well as Wiener’s all belong to the Niger-Congo language family, except the language from Madagascar, as we have noted. A more useful and informative approach is not to list languages willy-nilly, but by country and divided into West and East Africa because the most likely sources for the New World are languages from the West coast of Africa.

Banana names West Africa

Ivory Coast
Abe banda
Abua okuñam
Kongo di-kondo
Agni baranda
Odual isákpú
Poto ingunda
Abure koko
Kolo òsókpó
Bangi lo-komo
Kyama koko
Ogbia obààmí
Ifumu ko, tuo
Baule manda
Kugbo ule
Hunde mushaba, mishaba
Nupe yaba; yaba anasara
Mongo linko
Yoruba oggyedeh
Mande banana

Baule manda
Duala dikábé
Lolo ngunda
Ewe akadu,ákodu; amáda
Macua enika, enka
Ga koko

Mandinka banana
Mandinka banana
banansa banansa
baranda baranda
Dyula banana
Wolof banana
Dyula banana
Fulfulde banana
Bambara banana

Banana names East Africa

Swahili mkungu
Kikuyu irigu
Mwi balanda
Bantu-Botatwe i-bbanana
Rundi-Kirundi ndizi

Not Classified

Afema banda, Meky-ibo koko, Tchi mgogo, Teui banana, Guimini baranda, Goua mgogo, Dahome kokwe, Zema bana.

It is clear that there are many “African” words for banana but bakoko is not one. Banana words are the most widely used group of cognates. They are found in 7 countries (Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mali, Senegal, Burkina-Faso and Somalia) and in 14 languages (Abe, Afema, Agni- bonda; Zema, Afema- bana; Agni, Guimini, Mandinka,Dyula,Bambara- baranda; Mande, Teui, Mandinka,Bambara,Dyula, Wolof, Fulfulde- banana; Mwi- balanda; and Bantu Botatwe- ibbanana). The next closest competitor is koko found in Ivory Coast and in 3 languages (Abure, Kyama, and Meky-ibo).

We have similarly displayed the South American languages cited by Wiener with additional information from Ethnologue (see note 6) and Sullivan (1988:appendix):

South American banana names by country:

Bara parana
Piapoco paratuna
Guajibo pratano
Maco palulu
Saliba platuna
Mandauaca parana
Cocaima panara
Maquiritare padurru
Carijona balalu, paru
Macusi baluru
Piapoco paratuna
Carib balulura,paru
Piaroa paruru
Cuiba balatuna
Cuiba balatuna
Carib balulura,paru
paluru, baccuccu
Yabarana padurru
Yabitero Jaratan
Puinave tootpalot
Puinave tootpalot

Apiacas pacowa
Arawak prattana,platena
Bare banda
Oyampi palanu,bacome
Cocamas panara
Oyapock baco
Coroada bacoeng
Roucouyenne paruru
Culino banara
Carib balulura,paru
Manao banala
Puri bahoh
Roucouyenne paruru
Tupi pacoba
Macusi baluru
Carib balulura,paru
paluru, baccuccu

Arawak prattana,platena
Carib balulura,paru
paluru, baccuccu
Cocamas panara
Roucouyenne paruru
Carib balulura,paru
paluru, baccuccu

South American banana names by language family

Tupi-Guarani fam
Apiacas pacowa
Cocamas panara
Oyampi palanu,bacome
Oyapock baco
Cocaima panara

Cariban fam
Carijona- balulu, paru
Carib – balulura, paru, paruru and baccuccu
Roucouyenne- paruru
Maquiritare- padurru
Yabarana- padurru
Guajibo- pratano
Maco- palulu
Macusi baluru

Arawak fam.
Arawak- prattana, platena
Piapoco- paratuna
Manao- banala
Mandauaca- parana
Yabitero- jaratan

Macro-Ge fam
Tupi- pacoba
Puri- bahoh
Coroada- bacoeng

Saliba- platuna

Bara – parana

Culino- banara

Guahiban fam
Cuiba balatuna

Language isolate
Puinave tootpalot

South American banana names

Carib (Galibi) (Brazil, Fr. Guiana) Cariban fam.
Oyapock (Fr. Guiana) Tupi-Guarani
Oyampi (Fr. Guiana) Tupi-Guarani
Coroada (Brazil) Macro-Ge
Puri (Brazil) Macro-Ge
Tupi (Brazil) Macro-Ge
Apiacas (Brazil) Tupi-Guaran

7 languages, 2 countries, 3 language fam.

paru Carijona (Colombia) Cariban fam.
Carib (alt Galibi) (Antilles, Brazil, Venezuela, Fr. Guiana, Guyana)Cariban fam.
paruru Piaroa (Colombia) Salivan-piaroan fam.
Roucouyenne (Brazil, Fr. Guiana, Surinam) Cariban fam.
Tamanaco (?)
Otomaco (?)
padurru Maquiritare (Venezuela) Cariban fam.
Yabarana (Venezuela) Cariban fam.
paluru Carib (alt Galibi) (Antilles, Brazil, Venezuela, Fr. Guiana, Guyana)Cariban fam.
parana Bara (Colombia) Tucanoan fam.
Mandauaca (Venezuela) Arawakan fam.
Caruzana (?)
panaraPebas (?)
Passe (?)
Baria (?)
Cocamas (Brazil, Peru) Tupi-guarani
Cocaima (Colombia) Cariban fam.
paratuna Piapoco (Colombia, Venezuela) Arawak fam
paranta Conobo (?)
parianta Chontaquiro
parianti Campi (?)
tiparantan (?) Mirripu
banala Araicu (?)
Manao (Brazil) Arawak fam.
panala Uirina (?)
pratan Ayamau (?)
pratano Guajibo (Colombia) Cariban fam.
prattana Arawak (Surinam, Fr. Guiana)- Arawak fam.
platena Arawak (Surinam, Fr. Guiana)- Arawak fam.
platuna Saliba (Colombia) Salivan fam.
palulu Carianaca (?)
Maco (Venezuela) Cariban fam
palanu Oyampi (Fr. Guiana) Tupi-Guarani
balalu Carijona (Colombia) Cariban fam.
baluru Macusi (Guyana. Venezuela, Brazil) Cariban fam.
balulura Carib (alt Galibi) (Antilles, Brazil, Venezuela, Fr. Guiana, Guyana) Cariban fam.
banda Bare (Brazil)
banäura Coeruna (?)
banana Uuaicura (?)

37 languages, 7 countries, 7 language families

It is clear that, as Wiener points out, that here we have names for bananas and plantains. My interpretation is that the Carib word- baccuccu for plantains (as opposed to paru, paluru, or balulura– banana)- became the general word for banana in languages of the Macro-Ge and Tupi-Guarani of Brazil and Fr. Guiana. The overwhelming names in a variety of countries and language families as well as in Brazil and French Guiana are derived from the African banana or the Spanish platano. (7). Wiener’s conclusion (1920-1922: vol. 1, p. 130-131), which Van Sertima disregards and contradicts with no additional evidence, is that the banana was brought to America by the Spanish and not many years previously by Africans.

Jack D. Forbes

Jack Forbes (1993:17-18) also claims that the banana was a pre-Columbian import from either Asia or Africa. Forbes argues that bananas were so widespread in the New World that early travelers thought they were native and that this is evidence of bananas being brought over from Africa before Columbus. He concludes (1993: 18) “The problem of the dispersal of the banana pacoba by human action demands more thorough study, but, in any case, it stands as strong argument for ancient maritime contact between the Americas and either Indonesia, southeast Asia, Africa, or all of these.” Forbes’s quoted claims are followed by my comments:

Bananas asadas (roasted bananas) were eaten by the Jesuits in 1561 when the wheat supply failed in Bahia, while the Jesuits at Espirito Santo in 1562 had many fruits, especially that which is called bananas, which last all the year and is a great aid to the sustenance of this house (Leite 1956-1960: vol. III, pp. 406, 463). When lands were donated for the college of Bahia in 1563 one of the first tasks was to plant bananas on them. (Leite 1956-1960: vol IV, p. 33).

This only shows that Europeans ate and planted bananas calling them by the Spanish name. Remember that bananas were brought to the Hispaniola from the Canary Islands in 1516, many years before this and Spaniards had known of this fruit for a hundred years from its introduction by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Forbes cites other works published in the 1640’s, but these are far too late to be of probative virtue.

Forbes’s (1993:17) different and more significant claim is that:

…The spread of banana-plantain-pacoba is of special significance, since it could not remain viable if carried in salt water. The pacoba, a banana was clearly indigenous to South America. A Brazilian author states that if the banana was known in Asia and Africa, what the first chroniclers called the pacoba, i.e., the golden banana, was not (Rodríguez 1965: 103).

Here we have two claims (1) pacoba equals banana and (2) that it was indigenous to South America. It has been clear for years that bananas were not indigenous to the New World. All the botanical evidence above shows that the origin and domestication was in Africa. Rodríguez, in fact, contradicts Foster’s first claim. The Brazilian pacoba was NOT the banana familiar to Asia and Africa. Here we get to the most problematic aspect of Forbes’ argument and evidence.He provides no botanical identifications or botanical names. Common names in this kind of questions are useless. Pacova has become a generic name for bananas similar to the use of Scotch tape or Kleenex for adhesive tape or tissues of any kind. Pacová is the name of a different indigenous plant that resembles banana plants. Bananas may have been called that by the natives by similarity. In Nahuatl, for example, armadillos were called ayotochtli (“gourd rabbit”) because of they have pointy ears like rabbits. Unfortunately, Forbes was sloppy in the details. He does not distinguish between pacoba and pacobá in his citations. A Brazilian dictionary (Freire 1957: vol. 4, 3769) contains the following:

PACOVA s.f. O mesmo que imbira 2. O mesmo que *banana*.
(BOM- 1- the same thing as imbira; 2nd meaning banana)

Pacova catinga, s.f. Planta da flora brasileira, também chamada soroquinha (Heliconia psittacorum)
(BOM- Brazilian plant also called soroquinha)

Pacova de mácaco, s.m. Arvore da familia das leguminosas-cesalpiniaceas, também chamada *patrona (Swartzia langsdorfii, Radl)*.
(BOM- Tree of leguminosae-cesalpinia family also called *patrona*)

Pacova sororoca, s.f. Planta da familia das musáceas (*Ravenala guianensis*, Benth).
(BOM plant of the Musacea family)

PACOVÁ, s.f. Planta da familia das zingiberáceas (*Alpinia aromática*). 2. Erva da familia das zingiberáceas, também chamada *cana de macaco* (*Costus spiralis*, Rosc.). 3. Erva da familia das zingiberáceas, também chamada *cardamomo da terra (Renealmia occidentalis*, Sweett).
(BOM -1. Plant of the zingiberacea family (*Alpinia aromatica* 2. Herb of the zingiberacea family also called “monkey reed” (*Costus spiralis*), 3) Herb of the zingiberacea family also called “ground cardamom” (*Renealmia occidentalis*).

The name, pacoba is used elsewhere for different plants as the following quotes show :

Renealmia aromatica (PACOBA, PACOVA) a herb 1 to 3 meter high with thick creeping fleshy rhizomes forming clumps….native throughout much of South America, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico…In Alta Verapaz, Guatemala and Panama Indians use the fruit pulp to flavor soups and stews (Morton 1981: 104)

The zingiberaceous Renealmia exaltata, L.f. occurs from the Serra do Mar to the Hylea, wherever there is rain forest. It bears seeds displaying carminative properties similar to those of cardamom fruits (Elettaria cardamomum mat., of the same family. Pacová is a tall rhizomatous herb (1.5 to 2.5 m), producing gaudy red flowers which measure 4 to 5 cm. The fruits are polyspermous capsules measuring about 1.5 cm… (Mors and Rizzini 1966)

Forbes continues:

In the 1580s Gabriel Soares de Sousa stated of Brazil: Pacoba i uma fruta natural desta terra, a qual se da em uma arvore muito molle e facil de cortar… na India chamam a estas pacobeiras figuieras e as frutos figos… e a estas pacobas chama o gentio pacobuzú, que quer dizer pacoba grande. Ha outra casta, que as indios chaman pacobamirim que quer dizer pacoba pequena (Soares de Sousa 1938: 207-9). [BOM- Pacoba is a native fruit of this land. It is produced in a soft tree that is very easy to cut… in India they call these pacobeiras fig trees and their fruits figs…. the common people call these pacobas, pacobuzu which means big pacoba. There is another type which the Indians call pacobirim which means “little pacoba.”]

Again, this is quite late, 1587, is more than 50 years after the introduction of bananas into the New World. This quote seems to support Forbes, but Forbes continues citing Soares de Sousa:

Brazil also had by the 1580s, bananas derived from Sao Tomé of Africa, which in India were said to be called figos de horta. ‘Os negros de guiné sao mas affeizados a estas bananas que as pacobas, e dellas usam mas suas rozas…’ [BOM The Negroes from Guinea (meaning imported African slaves in Brazil) prefer the Sao Tomé bananas to the pacobas, and only used the flowers of the latter..] In the 1640s George Marcgrave, the young naturalist, described the Brazilian varieties botanically (Marcgrave 1942: 137, 141,274).

Soares de Sousa contradicts Forbes; pacoba is different from African bananas. The African slaves prefer the clearly African San Tomé banana and only use the flowers of the pacoba. Forbes also cites Marcgrave for support but, actually, Macgrave contradicts Forbes’s claim that pacoba is a native banana.

PACOEIRA (in Portuguese) is not native to Brazil [italics BOM]. It is
called Quibuaaquitiba in the Congo, and its fruit is called Quitiba. The
natives call it Pacobete, and the Portuguese call it Pacoba (Marcgrave 1942: 137).

BANANA (The natives call it Pacobucu; the Congolese call it
Quibuca quiancacala…) This plant is similar to Pacoeira…[BOM a
different kind of non-native banana] (Marcgrave 1942:138) .

Other early well qualified observers also support an importation of bananas by the Spanish. Diego de Landa, who wrote the best and earliest description of the Maya in Yucatan after serving as bishop and burning most of the Maya manuscripts, wrote that, “There are many bananas and the Spanish brought them for there were none before (Landa 1941:199). In 1570, Francisco Hernandez, one of the royal doctors, was sent by King Philip of Spain to write a definitive Natural History of New Spain. Hernandez, with the extensive collaboration of native healers and artists, spent 7 years and produced a massive work which included plants from the Far East that had been imported to the New World. The appropriate sections read:

Chapter CLXII of the second QUAUHXILOTL which others call banana.
It is a medium size tree that grows in the hot parts of New Spain, called recently by some *Musa*….They say that this plant is not native to New Spain and that it was brought from Africa or the East Indies where it is native (Hernandez 1959-1984: vol 2. p. 145).
Chapter CCI Abaca
The abaca is a type of banana similar to others but with numerous lenses and a triangular fruit… It comes from the Philippine Islands where there are other species (Hernandez 1959-1984: vol 2. p. 153). (8)

There a couple of points to be made. As Hernandez shows the existence of a native name for a plant does not automatically mean that the plant itself is native. By 1560, only 20 years after the final conquest of Yucatan there were many bananas there, and by 1570 a species of banana imported from the Philippines was growing freely in Mexico. The data cited by Forbes for Brazil was 1585 and the 1640s so there was plenty of time for bananas to be imported and cultivated.


Both a detailed survey of the particular plants claimed to have diffused to the New world from Africa, and general considerations such as priority in plant domestication and the lack of a proven method of transport in the relevant time period, clearly show that claims of human mediated plant diffusion from Africa to the New World are unfounded.

(1) Calibrated dates are radiocarbon dates corrected by dendrochronology. The can be expressed as cal BP (years before the present = AD 1950) or indicated by using lower case b.c. instead of B.C.
2) It is hard to see how a presumed voyage circa 3500 B.C. from West Africa supports contact with the Olmecs in by Nubians in 700 B.C. As Van Sertima proposed originally in 1976, or Egyptians circa 1200 B.C. in his latest revision (1995:74-75).
(3) Van Sertima did not do the research claimed, he lists exactly the same words used by Wiener (1920-1922: vol. 1, p, 130). Van Sertima has used the same words previously, and correctly attributed them to Wiener (1992b; 1995; 1976: 198-199).)
(4) As we have seen above, bananas came from Southeast Asia via Madagascar and were not introduced by the Arabs.
(4) The word platano derives from the Greek through the Latin platanus (Real Academia Española: 1970: 1036).
(5) Wiener is confused “plantain” is the larger not the smaller banana.
(6) ethnologue– lists 41,000 dialects and languages.
(7) The etymology of the word banana is given as borrowed by Spanish or Portuguese from the Bantu (Wolof, Fulani, or Mandingo) banana (American Heritage Dictionary 2000;; The word platano derives from the Greek through the Latin platanus (Real Academia Española: 1970: 1036).
(8) In the botanical commentaries CLXXII is identified as Musa sapientum banana and CCI is identified as Musa textilis (Hernandez 1959-1984: vol. 7, 84, 88).


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