Pre-Austronesian Dispersal of Banana Cultivars West from New Guinea: Linguistic Relics from Eastern Indonesia

Article excerpt


Against the backdrop of a comprehensive archaeobotanical review, we present linguistic evidence that allows us to develop a model of the dispersal of bananas westwards from New Guinea. This westward dispersal is a window on pre-Austronesian contact between New Guinea and regions to the west. The linguistically-derived model is compatible with archaeobotanical and botanical data. Our interpretation accords with evidence for maritime interactions from the early Holocene in western New Guinea and eastern Indonesia.


In the first half of this paper the history of banana domestication, which has been partially documented through archaeobotanical, genetic and phytogeographic research, is reviewed. On the basis of this multi-disciplinary and chronological context, the second half of the paper presents a detailed, linguistically-derived interpretation for the westward diffusion of bananas from New Guinea into eastern Indonesia. Apparently cognate terms for 'banana' in the modern languages of Melanesia and eastern Indonesia are reviewed and evaluated. The distribution of one particular cognate term correlates with the range of a linguistic substrate identified in western Melanesia and eastern Indonesia, and is argued to be associated with an early, pre-Austronesian diffusion of banana cultivars westward from New Guinea.

Banana domestication

Botanical classification and phytogeography

Bananas (Musa spp.) have one of the most complex domestication histories of any major food plant (Carreel et al. 2002). The domestication of bananas of Musa section is our focus because it includes the most important and widespread banana cultivars today and, presumably, in the past. As De Langhe and De Maret (1999: 378) comment: "the hundreds of banana cultivars form a very heterogeneous group and their phenotypes are the reflection of a ramified pattern of domestication more or less coupled with genome combinations, polyploidization and somatic mutations".

The domestication of Musa section bananas has been traced to the human management of two subspecies: Musa acuminata ssp. banksii that grows wild in New Guinea, Manus, northern Australia and some islands of eastern Indonesia and, Musa acuminata ssp. errans, which grows wild in the Philippines (Carreel et al. 2002; also see Kennedy 2008), although not all authors recognise these subspecific classifications (e.g. De Langhe and De Maret 1999). Parthenocarpy, the ability to produce fruit without fertilisation, was fostered in M. acuminata ssp. banksii first and nearly all food-producing cultivars across the world are descended from at least one of these subspecies (Lebot 1999; Carreel et al. 2002). It is likely that a partially domesticated M. acuminata ssp. banksii subsequently hybridised with M. acuminata ssp. errans to produce edible AA diploids (Edmond De Langhe 2007, pers. comm.).

The initial phase of the domestication of M. acuminata (genome A) subspecies, especially ssp. banksii, occurred in situ over several thousand years and involved the development of parthenocarpy, the suppression of fertility and subsequent generation of 'AA' diploid cultivars (De Langhe and De Maret 1999; Kennedy 2008, in press). Cultivation of AA diploids in the vicinity of other wild Musa spp. created intra- and interspecific hybrids. Hybridisation of banksii-derived edible AA diploids with other M. acuminata subspecies generated a range of edible AA diploids and AAA triploids. Cross-breeding with M. balbisiana (genome B) populations, a species considered native to mainland and, potentially, Island Southeast Asia (although wild populations of uncertain origin and antiquity are known in the Philippines and Melanesia; Kennedy 2008: Table 1), generated AB diploids and AAB and ABB triploids (De Langhe and De Maret 1999). Musa balbisiana is cultivated for materials, fibres, fodder, cooking and medicine.

Given the domestication sequence and natural ranges of wild populations, genetic and archaeobotanical evidence can shed some light on the generation and dispersal of cultivars in space and through time (see Vrydaghs and De Langhe 2003; Vrydaghs et al. …


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