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going bananas

daya dissanayake

As I listened to the presentation by Prof. T. R. Premathilake on 'Sri Lanka's Earliest Bananas? Evidence from FaHien Cave', my thoughts wondered about the earliest hominids, agriculture and domestication. Did man domesticate plants and animals, or did plants force human beings to be domesticated where the food crops thrived, because plants would not grow where man wanted them?

Anthropologists, archaeologists, paleoenvironmentalists may not agree, but it would be interesting speculation, if man was domesticated by plants. Then we could look at human cultural evolution in a different way. Then it is nature which is controlling and manipulating man's destiny and his evolution. Then it would always be futile for man to try to meddle with and try to destroy the natural environment. If the paleoenvironmentalists could look at their findings with a more open mind, instead of going bananas with their present anthropocentric mindset, we could understand our life better.

Coming back to real bananas, Prof. Premathilake told us that man had been using wild bananas for the past 40,000 years, in Sri Lanka, based on the evidence found at the FaHien caves. We could only speculate they were species of banana. Was it used as a food item, and if so was it the ripe fruit, or was it the pith or the tuber that was eaten? Banana could have been a staple food in our part of the world too, like it is today in some parts of Africa.

As a food crop it would have been of real importance to early humans, and their ancestors too, if it had been a food source available throughout the year, and if planting and harvesting was not a chore like with cereals, where man had to breakup the topsoil, plant or scatter the seed, wait for the ripening, harvest the seed, and do it all over again during the next season. Anyway because it would grow on its own, man would have used and consumed banana long before he felt a need to cultivate it, which could mean that domestication could have happened very much later than speculated. It could have been the same with the coconut, which spread around the world on its own, often without the aid of man.

Was the banana leaf and the pseudo-stem used for decorative purposes or did they use the leaves to sleep on, like Prof. Premathilake speculated. May be the leaves and peeled stem were used for wrapping other food items, or as plates.

There could have been other uses. The stems could be tied together to float or row across waterways. Because the stems, once the outer dead layers were peeled off, would have appeared so pure white in colour and so soft, man could have used it for decorative work. Perhaps in the worship of whatever powers they believed in, during the stages of proto-religions, if we could use the term religion for the faith the ancients had on their environmental forces.

From the Vedic India, we too had inherited the use of banana trees heavy with fruit for decoration during festivals. Or was it from pre-vedic times, since banana phytoliths had been found at Kot Diji during the Indus civilization.

Prof. Premathilake used the term banana throughout his presentation. As we have bananas and bananas, we also have plantains. The Food and Agricultural Organization itself is confused using the outdated nomenclature Musa paradisiaca for plantains and Musa cavendishi for banana.

At the end of the presentation a question that was raised was about the names for banana, in different countries, and where the name used in Lanka had come from. Languages had developed long after man began to use banana, and the origin of the names would not have any relevance to the origin and spread of the plant. Like the speculations of the spread of the plant itself, some of the Lankan names for banana could have originated independently in our country. In a world where everything under the sun and even beyond are subjects for research, this presentation opens up many more topics, like the origin of the names, the origin of real indigenous domestication, the various uses for which the banana plant was used and the future of the banana, with the looming curse of human interference in genetical modifications.

It is also time we got out of the mindset that every thing we have in our country have been borrowed from other countries. Often scientists come to a conclusion and then try to find evidence to prove it. Could it have happened about the banana too? What I gathered at this presentation was that people who lived in Lanka 40,000 years ago had used or consumed banana and had continued to use it. However the line drawn between the wild varieties and the domesticated varieties appeared very vague and artificial. Could that line have been drawn for the express purpose of proving a point that the banana plant was taken by human beings from the East Asian islands, first to Lanka, then to the Indus valley and then to Africa? Another question would be about the East Asian islanders who came to this country with the banana plants. Did they settle down in this country and could we trace their descendants?

If we can accept that coconut was not introduced by man to other countries, that they had been carried from one country to another by the sea, perhaps that is how banana too could have spread. If banana had been brought to Lanka from the East Asian islands, then man would have conquered the sea 6000 years ago. Man also would have introduced other plants to Lanka and then from Lanka to the Indus Valley, along with the banana.

Thinking about domestication, perhaps man was domesticated by woman, another topic for another day.

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