When did humans start transporting and growing bananas? It all began at least 3,000 years ago in South Pacific islands of Vanuatu. A University of Otago scientist, Dr. Monica Tromp, discovered this after spending hundreds of hours examining ancient teeth under a microscope.
In an article published this week in Nature Human Behaviour, Dr Monica Tromp, Senior Laboratory Analyst at the University of Otago’s Southern Pacific Archaeological Research (SPAR), found microscopic particles of banana and other plants trapped in calcified dental plaque of the first settlers of Vanuatu.
“One of the big advantages of studying calcified plaque or dental calculus is that you can find out a lot about otherwise invisible parts of people’s lives,” Dr Tromp says. Plaque calcifies very quickly and can trap just about anything you put inside of your mouth – much like the infamous Jurassic Park mosquito in amber – but they are incredibly small things that you can only see with a microscope.”
Teeth from 32 individuals from Teouma, is the oldest archaeological cemetery in the Remote Oceania region which includes the Hawaiian islands.
The first inhabitants of Vanuatu were the pre-historic Lapita people who arrived in canoes with domestic plants and animals.
There are many kinds of bananas, more than most people realize. Some are not ever sweet. Plantains, are an example. They are more like potatoes in banana form, but can be delicious.
Bananas are basically giant herbs, rather than trees, and there are approximately 50 species in the Musagenus, which includes the edible forms of bananas and plantains.
The earliest mention of bananas is found in writing from 600 to 501 BC.
Bananas were first referenced in sixth century BCE Buddhist writings in India. They were likely to have originated in Malaysia and transported by early explorers to India. Alexander the Great is said to have, after trying and liking bananas, brought the fruit back from India to the Western world.
Given that 3,000 year old teeth are from the year 980 BC, the earliest written mention of bananas at roughly 300 years after they originated as a human food crop.
Like coconuts, bananas were most widely spread as a result of the sea exploration of the Pacific by Lapita peoples ca 3000 BP, of extensive trade voyages throughout the Indian Ocean by Arab traders, and of exploration of the Americas by Europeans.
The phrase “ca 3000 BP” above means 3,000 years Before the Present, with the ca meaning the date was carbon dated, calibrated to adjust for known fluctuations in atmospheric carbon.
The air distance between Malaysia and Vanuatu is 4,647 miles (7,479 km). Some time in those 300 years, we can guess, bananas reached Malaysia, but the earliest history is constantly being re-written as we learn new things.
Vanuatu looks like a great place to visit, at least during times of good weather.