The History of the Banana: Ancient Origins to the 1800s
    The origins of the banana are as complex and convoluted as the nature of the banana’s taxonomic origins themselves.  Archeologists have focused on the Kuk valley of New Guinea around 8,000 BCE (Before Common Era) as the area where humans first domesticated the banana.  Additionally, though this is the first known location of banana domestication, other spontaneous domestication projects may have occurred throughout the Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.  Therefore, Kuk is the first known instance of banana domestication, but it is probably not the cradle from which all other domesticated species sprang.  
    From New Guinea, the Kuk domesticated variety appears to have spread to the Philippines, and then radiated widely across the tropics.  Researchers find it difficult to trace the diffusion of the banana after its arrival in the Philippine islands, and in many cases, it appears the banana was introduced into areas only to be reintroduced, and in a sense, rediscovered, hundreds or thousands of years later.  Adding to the confusing tangle of banana proliferation is the parallel development of hybrid fruits.  Human ingenuity manipulated the seedless, and thus asexual, forms of domesticated bananas into hybrids by careful techniques of culling and planting that fused and refined different domesticated varieties.  Thus, the origins of the banana have been difficult at best to pinpoint.  In general, however, it can be said that bananas originated in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific around 8,000 to 5,000 BCE.
    From New Guinea and the Philippines, bananas dispersed far and wide across the tropics, in all directions.  It is probable that bananas arrived in India, Indonesia, Australia, and Malaysia, within the first two millennia after domestication.  Plantains may have been grown in eastern Africa as early as 3000 BCE, and in Madagascar by 1000 BCE.  The plantain had certainly reached the African continent between 500 BCE and 500 CE.  Buddhist literature notes the existence of the banana in 600 BCE, and when Alexander the Great’s expeditions led him to India in 327 BCE, he stumbled across the fruit.  Perhaps most surprising, the banana may have arrived in South America well ahead of Europeans, as early as 200 BCE, carried by sailors of Southeast Asian origin.  By the 3rd century CE, plantains were being cultivated on plantations in China.  
    Bananas were redistributed and rediscovered for a second time around the Indian Ocean world carried by the wave of Islam.  Referenced in Islamic literature in the 11th century BCE, muslim merchants carried the banana along trade routes to and from various places in South Asia and the Middle East.  By the 1200s, the banana had reached into North Africa and in Moorish-controlled Spain.  It is also likely that Islamists carried the banana from eastern to western Africa.
    A third wave of banana diffusion occurred in both Asia and in Europe.  By the 1200s, Japanese cultivators harvested specific banana varieties for their fibers, to forge into textiles for clothes and other fabrics.  Through selective use of banana fibers and processing techniques involving lye soaks, Japanese textile production from bananas could be either soft enough for use in the creation of prized kimonos and other traditional wear, or coarse enough for use as table cloth.  In Europe, meanwhile, the Moorish invasions had likely brought the banana for the first time into the continent.  By the 15th and 16th century, Portuguese sailors were establishing the crop throughout Brazil, where it likely spread to the sugar plantation economies of the New World and the Caribbean.  
    Banana production and consumption in the ancient and early modern world was mostly geared towards small-scale operations.  Though individual fingers, hands, and bunches were more than likely available for sale through commercial exchanges, most banana production occurred as a small-scale operation for local consumption.  The banana’s importance as a staple crop would have been well established, and its major use was likely as either the main starch consumed, or, given its non-seasonal nature, as an important buffer crop between other staple harvests.  However, large-scale operations were certainly evident, as China’s plantation complex and the presence of bananas in colonial New World attests.  
    For colonial plantations, plantains had two major uses.  The first use was as a valuable intercropping plant.  Coffee, cacao, and pepper plantations relied upon indirect or varied times of sunlight, and the banana plant, with its towering leaves, offered the perfect crop to shade the valuable commodities.  Thus, bananas were valuable not for their fruit, but rather for the shelter their leaves provided other, more important plantation commodities.  Secondly, New World sugarcane plantations relied upon bananas to feed their slave populations.  Not only did bananas provide a non-labor intensive crop for plantation workers, the fruit’s easy digestibility and high energy content provided the perfect source of calories for the brutal manual labor of the cane fields.  Plantains had become thoroughly ubiquitous in Central and South American countries, and had even been “naturalized,” that is, adopted and integrated into local cultures so much so they became synonymous with certain countries’ cuisines, such as Cuba.  
            Thus, the plantain’s major importance as a crop during the ancient and early modern world, whether on large-scale or small-scale farms, was a major staple for local consumption.  Even in the case of Japanese production, where banana plants were cultivated for use in textiles and not as a foodstuff, the banana was grown for local markets.  By the 1800s, and especially into the early twentieth century, shifts in modes of production and consumption moved the banana from a local to a global commodity.
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The History of the Banana: In the Beginning...