28. Cultivated Plants: Old World Cropping Up in the New
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28 Cultivated Plants Old World Cropping Up in the New The plant must spring again from its seed. —Percy Bysshe Shelly, 1821 As seen in the previous chapter, an impressive number of New World species of cultivated plants were taken to the Old World before the Great Age of Discovery . We now look at the evidence for such exchange in the reciprocal direction and shall find, perhaps surprisingly, that fewer species are involved. Additional Domesticated Plant Species in the “Wrong” Hemisphere Planting Plantains The cultivated plantain is a seedless, starchy, nonsweet vegetable-­banana hybrid (Musa x paradisiaca) and apparently was anciently domesticated in the Assam-­ Burma-­ Thailand area of Asia. It is propagated via cuttings. The plantain is a strong candidate for pre-­ Columbian carriage to the Americas. Most scholars have taken the position that genus Musa—plantains and bananas —were unknown in the New World before Columbus. Based on a statement of the Spanish Colonial chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, a Spanish priest is supposed to have been the first to introduce the plantain to the Americas, from the Canary Islands in 1516. However, as Carl Sauer early pointed out, followed by others—especially, by the Ameri­ can cultural geographer/­ anthropologist William J. Smole and the Australian historian Robert Langdon—­ strong circumstantial evidence exists for the plant’s New World antiquity.1 These include a plethora of native names for plantains, at least two of which appear to have been widely adopted into Ameri­ can Spanish and Portuguese, respectively (Arawakan plátano and Tupian pacova). Further, there are many sixteenth-­ century reports of the fruit’s indigenous use, of­ ten intensive, from Mexico’s Jalisco to Brazil, too early for post-­ 1516 diffusion plausibly to account for the existence of several early noted varieties, especially in light of the plant’s clonal Cultivated Plants / 315 nature, slow maturation, and difficulty of transporting and propagating. Its becoming thoroughly integrated into native horticulture on Cuba and Hispaniola as well as in Central America in seven or eight years’ time—as the early reports would require—would be the envy of modern agricultural-­ aid workers and was probably a cultural, physical, and bio­ logi­ cal impossibility. Too, the plantain is a ritually embedded staple among certain isolated groups in Venezuela, Ecuador, and north­ ern Brazil that are extremely hostile to outside influences, in­ clud­ ing foodstuffs. In fact, the plant is generally associated primarily with Ameri­ can Indian, not Euro-­ Ameri­ can, subsistence agriculture and especially with remote, marginal peoples. It even appears to be in some sense naturalized in places in northwest South America. These facts imply that plantain-­ based horticulture preceded other types of farming such as that stressing bitter manioc, which characterize less remote tropical Ameri­ can societies. Nevertheless, direct archaeo­ logi­ cal evidence of pre-­ Columbian plantain is equivocal, as a result of incomplete documentation and possible confusion concerning the identification of plant remains.2 If the plantain is, indeed, pre-­ 1492 in tropical America, its ancient introduction seems most likely to be accounted for by pre-­ Christian Era migrations from Malaysia that I have hypothesized, although other south­ ern Asian possibilities certainly exist.3 Africa is also a potential source, since Musa phytoliths cultivated circa 500 BC have been found in Cameroon, suggesting much earlier Indonesian influence in West Africa than previously proposed. Dried plantain suckers can be conserved in viable condition for many months and then be replanted, so transoceanic transport of carefully protected cuttings is far from inconceivable. World Traveler: The Bottle Gourd Despite the general rule that cultivated plants do not cross oceans without being carried by humans, two sorts of plants shared by the two hemispheres since great antiquity, the bottle gourd and the New World cottons, plus a possible third of uncertain pre-­ Columbian age in America, the coconut, are somewhat more ambiguous in this regard. The domesticated bottle gourd vine produces fruits that have a variety of nonfood uses. Gourds are buoyant, and they resist saltwater. Whereas the species , almost certainly of Af­ ri­ can origin, is not a strand plant, if one of its large, hollow, spherical, seed-­ filled fruits fell into a river, that fruit could be carried to the sea and be transported by ocean currents to far, far shores. The question is, did these plants survive marine organisms and manage to establish themselves on the other sides of the oceans, or at least to be tossed up on beaches there, then to be...


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