Academic journal article Environment and History

Elusive Traces: Baobabs and the African Diaspora in South Asia

Academic journal article Environment and History

Elusive Traces: Baobabs and the African Diaspora in South Asia

Article excerpt


The history of botanical exchanges between Africa and the Indian subcontinent reaches back in time over 5,000 years. Recent advances in archaeobotany have revealed these connections through evidence of food crops of African origin found at various archaeological sites in the subcontinent. However, little is known about the people that brought the crops to these places and other parts of the Indian Ocean world. This is also the case with other plants from Africa such as the charismatic baobab tree (Adansonia digitata L.) that appears to have had a longstanding presence in South Asia. Most scholarly accounts assume that 'Arab traders' were responsible for introducing baobabs to this region but do not offer any reasons for their doing so. Few scholars, if any, have sought to relate the dispersal of baobabs with the history of African migrations to the region. This paper reveals the elusive traces of their entwined environmental histories by linking baobab genetics with historical accounts and cultural evidence of the presence of African diasporic communities in South Asia.


Adansonia digitata, baobab genetic diversity, Africa, Indian subcontinent, inferred ancestry, cultural symbolism


The role of Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic World is now a well-recognised dimension of global history. There is a vast and rich body of literature on the diverse work and cultural contributions of enslaved and bonded Africans who laboured in the plantation economies established by European commercial and colonial interests in North and South America and the Caribbean from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Within this oeuvre, an important strand of historical geographic research has looked beyond the work performed by enslaved Africans in plantations to identify their agency in the introductions of African plants, cultivation technologies and food processing practices that reshaped the physical and social landscapes of the New World. (1) In comparison, the literature on the role of Africans in the making of the Indian Ocean World is minuscule. Most well-known histories of the Indian Ocean trade and commercial networks centre on the activities of Arab, Indian, Chinese and European traders but rarely refer to Africans as agents within these circuits. (2) Even the few collections of historical studies of African diaspora in the Indian Ocean provide no insights about how their movements may have shaped landscapes in other parts of this oceanic world through the introduction of plants and associated cultural knowledges and practices. (3)

Recent advances in archaeobotany have revealed that human movements and biotic exchanges between Africa and the Indian subcontinent extend far back into prehistory. Evidence for these movements has been found at sites in the Indus valley, western and peninsular India, where food crops originating from Africa such as sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), finger millet (Eleusine coracana), hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus) and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) appear in the archaeological records between 3,500 and 4,500 years ago. (4) The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica), which is said to originate from the Sudan, is estimated to have been introduced even earlier and dispersed across the subcontinent into South-east Asia. (5) In addition to these widely cultivated food plants, there are other plants of African origin such as the doum palm (Hyphaene thebaica) (6) and the baobab (Adansonia digitata) which have limited or disjunct geographical distribution in this region and do not appear to be cultivated in any significant way. Although there are no archaeological records or archival accounts that establish when and from which regions of Africa these plants were brought to various places in the Indian Ocean world, it is possible to trace the historical connections and role of African migrants by combining genetic and cultural evidence associated with the plants between places of origin and introduction. …

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