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Food traditions and landscape histories of the Indian Ocean World: theoretical and methodological reflections.


Environmental histories of plant exchanges have largely centred on their economic importance in international trade and on their ecological and social impacts in the places where they were introduced. Yet few studies have attempted to examine how plants brought from elsewhere become incorporated over time into the regional cultures of material life and agricultural landscapes. This essay considers the theoretical and methodological problems in investigating the environmental history, diversity and distribution of food plants transferred across the Indian Ocean over several millennia. It brings together concepts of creolisation, syncretism, and hybridity to outline a framework for understanding how biotic exchanges and diffusions have been translated into regional landscape histories through food traditions, ritual practices and articulation of cultural identity. We use the banana plant--which underwent early domestication across New Guinea, South-east Asia and peninsular India and reached East Africa roughly two thousand years ago--as an example for illustrating the diverse patterns of incorporation into the cultural symbolism, material life and regional landscapes of the Indian Ocean World. We show that this cultural evolutionary approach allows new historical insights to emerge and enriches ongoing debates regarding the antiquity of the plant's diffusion from South-east Asia to Africa.


Plant exchanges, landscape history, food traditions, banana, Indian Ocean


When the intrepid Moroccan world traveller and theologian Ibn Battuta visited Mogadishu in 1331, his host was the town qadi. Upon disembarking on the beach, one of the qadi's students advised Battuta that they should first visit the Shaykh, as the sultan was called. '"It is the custom that whenever a theologian, or shariff, or man of religion comes here, he must see the sultan before taking his lodging".' So Ibn Battuta, always eager to meet with prominent men of authority wherever he went, followed his guide to the sultan's place. 'When we reached the palace and news of my arrival was sent in', he writes, 'a eunuch came out with a plate containing betel leaves and areca nuts. He gave me ten leaves and a few nuts, the same to the qadi, and the rest to my companions and the qadi's students'.(1) Later on, after his travels to other places on the East African coast, Ibn Battuta departed from Kilwa Kisiwani (an island off the southern coast of present-day Tanzania) and sailed on to his next destination of Dhofar, the frontier region between the Hadramawt and Oman. In Dhofar, he noted the cultivation of an especially large variety of banana, as well as both 'betel-trees and coco-palms, which are found only in India and the towns of Dhafari'. He then describes the properties and uses of each of these two food crops. Of betel he writes that they have no fruit and are used only for their leaves. 'The Indians have a high opinion of betel, and if a man visits a friend and the latter gives him five leaves of it, you would think he had given him the world, especially if he is a prince or notable. A gift of betel is a far greater honour than a gift or gold and silver.' He includes details about how betel is used. 'First, one takes areca-nuts, which are like nutmegs, crushes them into small bits and chews them. Then the betel leaves are taken, a little chalk is put on them, and they are chewed with the areca nuts.'(2) In a word, what Ibn Battuta describes is paan, the two main ingredients of which are leaves of the betel (Piper betle) and the dried drupe of areca (Areca catechu). As Battuta travelled on to India and visited the court of Muhammad bin Tughlaq of the Delhi Sultanate, he found paan served at the end of elaborate meals, and noted the presence of pavilions in the city where any native or stranger could help himself for free to sherbets, betel leaves and areca nuts.(3)

Although the custom of chewing paan is primarily associated with the Indian subcontinent, both the betel leaf and areca nut originate from South-east Asia, with some sources suggesting the possible home of the areca nut as the Philippine islands and of the betel leaf as central and eastern Malaysia.(4) The traditional mode of chewing paan that Battuta describes--of smearing a dab of slaked lime on the betel leaf (which releases the alkaloid that develops the red colour while chewing) with pieces of areca nut formed into a quid--is likely to have been very old; mandibles dating back to almost 4000 bce with the tell-tale signs of red stained teeth are reported for Peninsular Malaysia, with slightly later finds from the Philippines.(5) The betel leaf vine and areca nut palm have been present in the Indian subcontinent for a very long time; aboriginal Indian words for both plants point to their longstanding presence as well as their introduction from South-east Asia perhaps over 4,000 years ago.(6) It has been suggested that both plants may have first arrived in southern India and subsequently spread across to other parts of the subcontinent,(7) and later across the Indian Ocean to East Africa around 1000 ce.(8) During the time of Ibn Battuta's travels in the fourteenth century, the areca nut palm and betel leaf vine were being cultivated in Zanzibar, Socotra, Madagascar,(9) Rasulid Yemen(10) and even as far north-east in mainland Asia as Guangdong and Taiwan.(11)

Much of the literature on early human migrations and agriculture has been based on the assumption that social groups moved with their domesticated food plants to secure their subsistence in new places of settlement and that the cultural identities of these migrants remained closely tied to their original foodways.(12) Late nineteenth and early twentieth century European notions of environmental determinism assumed that the essential cultural traits and behaviours of native peoples were determined by the physical environment, climate and subsistence patterns that remained stable over time.(13) Theoretical concepts such as 'culture areas' and 'food areas' in historical anthropology and traditional regional geography linked civilisational identities and places to the cultivation of major staple crops such as wheat, maize, rice and potatoes. (14) However, as Ibn Battuta's encounters with betel and areca nut indicate, not all food plants moved as part of grand human migrations or civilisational expansions or were transferred with the full corpus of cultural information, tradition or symbolism associated with their places of origin. In many cases, food plants moved with peripatetic traders by land and sea, showing their presence along well-travelled routes;(15) some staples, like African rice (Oryza glaberrima) and yams (Dioscorea spp.), were carried on ships as provisioning for crew and slaves bound for sale in the New World.(16) Other condiments like turmeric or ginger may have arrived as curiosities or as valuable herbal remedies for exchange between guests, friends or kin.(17) Such frequent and overlapping movements between places and intermingling of people from different cultures resulted in innumerable food plants being introduced and incorporated into regional food traditions over time. Thus if, as the well-known saying goes, 'You are what you eat', then the notion of food plant exchanges and diffusion in environmental history requires fundamental rethinking to make sense of 'national' or 'regional' landscapes and associated gastronomic identities.(18) New theoretical and methodological frameworks are needed for linking the histories of food plant exchanges and diffusions with regional landscape histories, evolving food cultures and traditions.

This article explores some of the analytical complexities of tracing the environmental histories of exchange and diffusion of food plants that have little or no evidence of introduction in archaeological or archival records. While there is a growing body of innovative research that combines methods from disciplines like genetics, linguistics, archaeobotany, climatology and ecology to trace geographical origins and possible pathways of diffusion of food plants,(19) it is still limited in its ability to provide an historical understanding of their presence and importance in regional landscapes. The purpose of this essay is to look beyond conventional archival sources and archaeological accounts of the spread of agriculture and find new ways of reconstructing the environmental history of introduction and diffusion of food plants across different regions of the Indian Ocean World. We propose an approach that considers cultural sources such as oral histories, origin stories, mythological accounts, food traditions, ceremonial events, rituals and customs for developing a sense of temporal depth, spatial variability and significance of introduced food plants in regional landscapes. Although the relative chronologies emerging from such sources are unlikely to provide precise dates of when particular food plants may have arrived in particular places, we argue that they can, in conjunction with linguistic, archaeobotanical and genetic analysis, provide a more nuanced understanding of the environmental history of their presence, diversity and distribution in regional landscapes.

In the following sections, we discuss the concepts of diffusion and tradition and show that the interaction between the two is critical for understanding how food plant introductions and exchanges become incorporated into regional foodways and cultural practices. We outline an analytical approach that draws on theories of creolisation to develop ways of gauging the relative temporal depth and spatial presence of introduced plants through their appearance in oral histories, myths, ceremonies and rituals. We then use this approach to explore the historical presence and importance of food plants exchanged between Africa and other parts of the Indian Ocean World. In particular, we focus on the banana, a food plant of considerable significance for regional cultures around the Indian Ocean, as a key example for assessing the antiquity of its presence by looking at how it has been incorporated into different cultural legends, ritual practices and food traditions in Africa.


Diffusion and tradition are concepts rarely considered together. Diffusion as a concept conveys the sense of movement and permeation through space, the spreading out from one place to many others, particularly of ideas, innovations or technologies, into diverse cultures and societies.(20) It is the messenger and medium of change. Tradition, in contrast, conveys a sense of social stability, cultural habit and enduring attachment to place. It is the anchor of permanence and guardian of continuity. When human mobility brings them together, both are altered and modified through the encounter.

The process of diffusion has been intensely scrutinised by a wide range of disciplinary perspectives and we do not intend to reproduce these here. What interests us is how this expansive process that operates across space-time can be unpacked to reveal its marks on the palimpsests of landscape histories. The demic or population diffusion model which commonly underlies explanations of the spread of agriculture approaches this in terms of dispersal, whereby a group of people move out of a particular place to settle in another area, either uninhabited or with low population densities, carrying their farming technologies and languages with them.(21) The history of such dispersals is retraced through analyses of genetic, linguistic and technological evolution and divergence from the putative source of origin.(22) Cultural approaches, in contrast, seek historical evidence of diffusion by identifying the presence of particular cultural elements and patterns in ideas, artefacts, technologies and symbolic practices in different places, but with the recognition that these rarely represent intact transmissions.(23) This is because, as Alfred Kroeber observed, cultures interact and evolve in a variety of ways through diverse patterns of coalescence, syncretisation, anastomosis, assimilation and acculturation.(24) Diffusions form an integral part of these processes, as materials and elements transferred or exchanged between places are inevitably modified by different cultural groups according to their needs and interests.

From a cultural perspective, therefore, diffusions require, and rely on, translation. Translation--which in essence means 'bearing across'--may not always convey the full corpus or 'package' of knowledge produced in the place of origin, nor is the translated element likely to be received or understood according to the original intent in its new place of introduction. As diffusing elements arrive in new places, receiving societies are likely to translate, i.e., modify, adapt, and redefine, the 'packages'--food plants, recipes, ideas, technologies --through terms and traditions familiar to them.

The concept of 'tradition', as we noted earlier, appears to convey a sense of stability and predictable continuity of the past into the present. However, the sense of timelessness or longevity of cultural practice invoked by tradition is often misleading, because many 'time immemorial' traditions associated with symbolic forms, artefacts or ceremonial events have been fairly recent 'inventions' for representing or asserting political power, social authority and unique cultural identity.(25) Kaori O'Connor's biography of the King's Christmas pudding illustrates how this 'traditional' dish containing ingredients from different parts of the British Empire was deliberately reinvented as a symbol of unity and pride to spur empire trade during the economically constrained interwar years.(26) Similarly, Simon Schama's recollection of an old Jewish festival --which 'had originated in an arbitrarily established date that separated one year's tithed fruit from the next' but reinvented in modern Israel as Zionist Arbor Day--illustrates how a nationalist project was ritualised as a tradition that symbolised a return 'to the beginning of the world, the nursery of the nation' by creating a 'Jewish forest' in the Levantine landscape.(27)

Just as tradition conveys a sense of timeless and unchanging continuity, the notion of custom also conveys a sense of social practices that have, through routinisation and repetition over long periods of time, become established as cultural rules and norms embedded in place. Bourdieu's concept of 'habitus' offers a different way of thinking about tradition and custom. According to him, habitus represents 'systems of durable, transposable dispositions'(28) that subconsciously structure the practices of everyday life in societies. Bourdieu observes that habitus is 'history turned into nature' because routinisation and repetition make such practices appear as 'natural laws', unaffected by historical processes and events. (29) However, what seems like natural and routine may be illusory because customary practices can radically change during periods of upheaval and subsequently emerge in new forms under different socio-political conditions. The arrival of maize from the New World to various parts of Africa serves as an example of this transformation. The plant's introduction into that continent during the sixteenth century occurred alongside radical upheavals of social structures associated with the escalation of the Atlantic slave trade and European mercantile expansion around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. By the nineteenth century, maize had become the staple food across much of Africa and incorporated into everyday life and traditions of peasant communities as though it had been there forever. (30) Maize also entered Italy in the sixteenth century but, rather than replacing other staples, became essentially a cheap food grain cultivated and consumed as polenta by poor people.(31) Custom, too, is 'a field of change and of contest, an arena in which opposing interests made conflicting claims'. (32) James Scott illustrates this point in his account of how Zomian tribal communities in South-east Asia resisted the custom and authority of padi rice states by cultivating 'escape staples' such as maize, cassava and sweet potato. (33)

Diffusion and tradition are, therefore, not as opposed as they might seem in conceptual terms. Although the former appears as a dynamic force and the latter as a stable equilibrium, the encounter between the two does not mean that diffusion completely transforms tradition or that the weight of tradition resolutely resists being changed by diffusion. The encounter between the two changes both. Just as a diffusing 'package' is translated in cultural terms and practices familiar to receiving groups, so also are their traditions and customs translated in new ways and reconfigured to accommodate different elements of the 'package' that has arrived at their place.

How, then, do we approach historical analysis of food plant diffusions and exchanges that enable us to understand how these plants have been translated into the cultural landscapes of arrival? What can these translations into agricultural and food traditions and customary practices tell us about the temporal depth of their presence in these environments? While biological evolutionary models are often used to trace the root and the time of origin of a species and explain intraspecies variation or divergence over long time periods, such models are ineffective for understanding the translations or metamorphoses of cultural landscapes and identities through mixture, exchange, transaction and interpretation between social groups. Although it is possible to argue that selection, drift and mutation operate in both biological and cultural contexts, they do so differently, producing biological divergence and speciation on the one hand and cultural crossbreeding and mixing on the other. (34) In the former case, history is revealed as a family tree clearly defined by lines of descent from an ancestor, while in the latter it seems hidden within a tangle of multiple roots of influence.

Given the difficulties of using biological evolutionary models in contexts where cultural movement, diffusion and mixing have occurred frequently and over longer time periods, we have found the concept of 'creolisation' to be a useful alternative framework for tracing how introduced food plants have been translated into new landscapes and traditions. (35) Creolisation as a theoretical concept and field of inquiry has been developed and most fully explored in linguistics, where the term refers to the particular aspect of language evolution under European colonialism that forcibly uprooted and displaced large numbers of people from Africa and Asia to work as slaves or indentured labourers in colonial plantation economies. (36) The term has a clear historical reference to regions of the Atlantic New World and the Mascarenes in the western Indian Ocean where contact between European masters and African slaves from numerous language groups in plantations resulted in the emergence of new mixed or 'creole' languages and related identities. (37) Recent popularisation of the term as a synonym for metissage, syncretism, hybridity and the fluid identities emerging from globalisation (38) has been criticised for ignoring the historical specific processes and conditions in which creolisation occurred, (39) or for assuming it to be equivalent to 'borrowing' vocabulary from other languages and cultures to craft a cosmopolitan identity. (40) The robust debates between linguists, anthropologists and historians regarding the use of the concept of creolisation have been critically important for challenging conventional notions of boundedness of culture and identity by drawing attention to the restructuring, modification, and innovation--and translation--of cultural identities and spaces through uprooting, transplanting, dispersal, exchange and mixing over time. (41)

As a theoretical framework, creolisation not only reveals cultural mixing in language and social practices, but also the ways in which different experiences of displacement and interaction create new patterns of change and stability in people's life-worlds and landscapes. Eriksen points out that cultural diffusion, interactions and transplantations can produce a range of outcomes, from the integration of 'borrowed items' into pre-existing cultural repertoires existing side-by-side or in hierarchical relationships, to the creation of wholly new symbols and practices that produce 'creole' cultural forms of varying degrees of stability. Thus, from this perspective, terms like pluralism, hybridity or syncretism are not synonymous with creolisation, but need instead to be considered alongside creolisation as representing distinctive forms of cultural mixing arising from movements of people, substances, ideas and meanings between societies. (42)

With respect to historical analyses of food plant diffusions and exchanges, the theoretical framework of creolisation directs attention towards regional traditions encompassing ceremonies, rituals, idioms, parables and legends that incorporate these food plants. The anthropological and sociological literature on foodways and symbolism, eating practices and hierarchies of taste (43) can be drawn into the creolisation framework to surmise the relative social importance of introduced food plants in the regions of arrival. Concepts such as syncretism, hybridity and creolisation may be useful to distinguish between specific patterns of mixing and modes of integrating the plants into existing practices and invention of new traditions. The symbolic roles they perform in different ceremonies and rituals can offer additional insights regarding their relative cultural importance and longevity of presence in regional landscapes. For example, ceremonies and rituals marking key biological events in the life-cycle of individuals such as birth, puberty, pregnancy and death have high symbolic value and are moments for re-enacting powerful social memory and reinforcing cultural identity and hence likely to be performed with as little deviation as possible from 'original' tradition. The food plants incorporated into these ceremonies and rituals may be imbued with similarly powerful symbolic value and signal long-term presence in the landscape. Although such analyses are primarily interpretive, they can provide richer insights of food plant exchanges across regions and--when combined with available archaeological, biogeographic, political-economic and gender relations evidence (44)--offer new interdisciplinary means for tracing their environmental histories of arrival and accommodation within regional landscapes.


The Indian Ocean World has been one of the earliest arenas of human migrations and food plant exchanges, extending back over five millennia. (45) Many of the food plants and crops were transferred by land and sea and have been part of the cultivated landscapes extending from West to East Africa, Arabia and the Indian subcontinent all the way to South-east Asia and New Guinea. The banana (Musa spp.) is one such plant. It is an important cultivar in East Africa, the Indian sub-continent, mainland and island Southeast Asia and New Guinea, as well as in West Africa, the Caribbean, tropical Central and South America and several Pacific islands. It is also found in the tropical rainforests of north-eastern Australia. (46) Ibn Battuta encountered banana cultivation in Dhofar during his travels through coastal southern Arabia, and the ubiquity of banana cultivation across the Indian Ocean World was noted by subsequent European traders and functionaries entering this oceanic region during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The origins and spread of the banana plant across the Indian Ocean have evoked considerable interest and debate, particularly centred on questions regarding the antiquity of its arrival and mode of transfer to Africa. Due to its importance as a global commodity crop, a substantial amount of genetic research has been done on the plant to identify species, sub-species, derived cultivars and strains for expanding commercial production. (47) This work, combined with archaeobotanical and linguistic research, has been very important for reconstructing the history and patterns of domestication and transfer of the plant to the African continent.

Several major cultivar groups have been identified, resulting from multiple and diverse hybridisations among and between different banana species, subspecies and derived cultivars of Musa acuminata (A genome) and Musa balbisiana (B genome). The origins of Musa acuminata have been traced to Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea, and Musa balbisiana to eastern peninsular India and mainland Southeast Asia. (48) The earliest record of banana cultivation comes from the highlands of New Guinea roughly between 4500 to 5000 bce. (49) Existing archaeobotanical and genetic evidence indicates that hybridisation of major cultivar groups had already occurred in Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea before being transported elsewhere. (50) These form the basis for subsequent varieties of edible banana and plantain cultivars eaten across most of the world today. Seeds of wild Musa balbisiana and potentially Musa acuminata found in Sri Lanka were dated around 8000 bce. A later record of a banana phytolith comes from the Indus Valley during the Late Harappan phase (2000-1700 bce). (51)

Edible bananas and plantains (Musa cultivars) are not native to Africa, although the genus Ensete of the Musaceae family is considered native to the Ethiopian region, as well as regions eastward to New Guinea. Many important cultivar groups, including the West African plantains (AAB) and East African highland bananas (AAA), trace part of their ancestry to New Guinea and are likely to have been introduced at different times. (52) Despite the difficulties of obtaining phytolith and microfossil remains of these plants in the humid tropics, there is evidence that triploid AAB banana cultivars in Africa may have been present in Cameroon in West Africa roughly between 850 to 350 BCE. (53) The presence of AAA cultivars in the East African Great Lakes region is less well established, with contentious evidence from before 2000 bce and more evidence emerging in the first millennium ce. (54) However, both West and East Africa have a high number of their respective AAB and AAA cultivars, which indicates long periods of selection and cultivation, in turn suggestive of earlier and differing pathways of arrival across the Indian Ocean. (55)

Although archaeobotany provides limited evidence of the early arrival of banana in Africa, Roger Blench, following Murdock, (56) has used ethno-linguistic evidence to suggest that bananas, taro and the greater yam (Dioscorea alata) may have arrived as a 'package' from South-east Asia to West Africa around 1000 bce and their gradual diffusion by cultivation may have enabled communities to move into and exploit equatorial rainforest areas more effectively. (57) Several other scholars have favoured this hypothesis by linking the arrival of banana-taro-greater yam package with the southward and eastward expansion of Bantu speakers from their linguistic homeland in Cameroon through the central African rainforest and eastward to the African Great Lakes region from 1000 bce onwards. (58)

The association between the ancient arrival of the banana-taro-yam package to West Africa from the 'eastern Indian Ocean' and the subsequent expansion of Bantu speakers appears plausible in the context of the symbolic importance and roles accorded to these plants in the cultural practices of Bantu communities across these regions. Many of the myths and legends of Bantu communities extending from Lake Victoria to Mount Kilimanjaro in the east and Lake Malawi to the south and beyond refer to taro and banana as key elements that connect protagonists with ancestors, ghosts or the upper world in the sky. (59) A Chagga tale from near Mount Kilimanjaro describes the story of a boy who nurtured a taro tuber that transformed into a child; but when his mother discovered the child and snatched it from him and killed it, he sat on a stool which flew up into the sky and took him to another country where banana trees grew in abundance and people cultivated millet and beans. (60) Among Rwanda and Buganda communities near Lake Victoria, there are stories of culture-heroes who brought banana, fowl and millet in to their country. (61) Yao tales from around Lake Malawi mention hills belonging to ancestor spirits where bananas grow; the ancestors allow these to be eaten on site and not taken away by people to their villages or homes. (62)

While such myths and legends highlight the importance of banana and taro for these communities, the ways in which these have been incorporated into cultural practices can provide additional insights about the relative time-depth of presence in their landscapes. In regions such as New Guinea, South-east Asia and southern India where banana and taro cultivars originated and were developed over many millennia, the plants have been incorporated into significant ceremonies and rituals that commemorate ancestors. For example, the Kalam, an ethno-linguistic group living in the interior of New Guinea, use the taro and banana as key food offerings for ancestor ceremonies. (63) Similarly, there is an explicit articulation of strict custom among many communities in southern India which requires that only 'indigenous' or 'native' vegetables, grains, and spices be used by households for ancestor ceremonies; both the plantain banana and taro are regarded as 'native' vegetables that must be included in the foods offered to the ancestors on such occasions. (64) In present-day Ghana, which lies well beyond the linguistic homeland of Bantu speakers, several communities offer banana and taro along with various local yams in rituals commemorating the deceased. (65)

Another indication of greater time-depth of presence is the extent to which the plants or their different parts are used in rituals performed for marking life-cycle events. For instance, in southern India, the banana plant has enormous cultural symbolism because of its distinctive physical and biological characteristics; there is a use for every part of the plant and its ability to produce fruits without seed and regenerate multiple plants from the root without seeding are considered as symbolic of its magical powers in ensuring the continuity of life. These qualities render the banana as both a symbol and material to be used in every significant ceremony associated with birth, fertility, reproduction and death. (66)

The most detailed evidence for East African traditions incorporating bananas comes from three highland societies where it serves as the most important staple food crop: the Ganda, who inhabit the area bordering the north-west shores of Lake Nyanza; (67) the Chagga, who settled the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; (68) and the Nyakyusa-Ngonde, whose mountainous lands stretch across the north end of Lake Malawi. (69) The banana plant features in these traditions in a variety of ways. Banana groves are regarded as the centres of family identity and the resting place of family ancestors; (70) the banana is valued as a food given to humans by a high god, as a vehicle for warding off evil spirits, as holding magical and curative powers (71) and as a component in various ceremonies; (72) different parts of the plant are used in rituals associated with sterility and fertility, and for occasions marking birth, puberty, marriage and death; (73) the banana is substituted for humans in different contexts,(74) and used to symbolise human sexuality and gender differences, with particular association of sweet bananas with women. (75)

One of the most extensive accounts of the use of bananas in eastern Africa is provided by Sir Apolo Kaggwa, an important political figure in the kingdom of Buganda (part of present-day Uganda) from the late nineteenth through the first quarter of the twentieth century. Kaggwa served as Prime Minister (katikkiro) from 1890 to 1927 and as Regent from 1897 until 1914. His Ekitabo Kye Mpisa za Baganda [The Customs of the Baganda] was published in the Luganda language in 1918 and expands upon the earlier ethnography published in 1911 by John Roscoe of the Church Missionary Society. (76) Mashed banana and plantain (green banana varieties) were the staple foods of the Baganda and constituted the central dish of most meals. The plant was used in specific ways for a variety of customary ceremonies.

Kaggwa records that when the mythical king Kintu founded the kingdom of Buganda, 'six piles of cooked bananas were a central component of food left in the forest where they were eaten by Kintu's children'. (77) The most important of the Buganda gods was named Mukasa. Describing the ceremonies surrounding his worship, he writes that a temple was built and 'the priests stripped the bark of several plantain trees and made a gutter from the temple to the harbor'. This gutter then carried the blood of several sacrificed cows into Lake Nyanza (pp. 114-15).
 During royal pregnancies,
 There was a custom of cutting a bunch of fruit off a plantain tree
 which was known as 'to steal'. It was done very secretly and
 symbolised the strict confinement in which the woman was kept...
 When the child was born the maid servants went down to cut a bunch of
 bananas to indicate the sex of the child born. Should it be a girl
 one from the left was cut, for a boy one from the right. The tree was
 carefully trimmed so that those watching might know (pp. 69-70).

If the woman gave birth to twins, the man who shut the door to her hut 'had a special shave after the ritual stealing of the bananas'. Following the birth of twins, the man's father presented gifts to his son, went to the son's house where he hung withered plantain leaves on the door and afterwards entered the house and shut the door. The grandfather congratulated his daughter-in-law by giving her 'a lump of plantain food' and she, in turn, gave her mother-in-law 'the second lump of plantain food' (pp. 105-07). For the naming of the children, 'The father and his elder brother had their meal inside, and food was sent out to the mothers. A lump of plantain food was set down on the mat, and only after this was eaten was the legitimacy test performed.' (p. 103) The harvesting of plantains also required specific rituals. 'When a woman went out to cut down a bunch of plantains she scraped the bloom or powder on the young stems of the cluster and rubbed this at the spot where she had cut the tree. This was supposed to insure the continuous growth of the plantain tree.' (p. 108)
 Kaggwa notes that when the king fell ill,
 A plantain tree was split into two parts and then put in front of a
 house door, supported by two men. The king with a spear would then
 pass through it. The spear and his barkcloth were left on the tree
 and he re-entered the house naked. The sections of the plantain tree
 were then cast upon the crowded section of a road and there pierced
 with reeds. In this way the disease was handed on to a chance passer.
 This was known as okunabula, to strip of bad spirits. Chiefs and
 even peasants were treated in this fashion. (p. 124)

The banana plant was an important feature of death ceremonies. When the king died, all the walls of his house were torn down, and after his body was washed, it 'was covered with raw plantain leaves, and the body placed in the centre' (p. 109). In other cases, during the final anointing of the body, 'the eldest brother washed the face of the dead man with a sponge made of plantain'. Finally, after the burial, a feast followed and each of his children and their mothers took a piece of the plantain prepared 'and the rest was trampled underfoot. For this meal a type of plantain food usually used only for beer making, was used. This signified that the dead man would never eat or drink of it again.' (p. 110)

Kaggwa's ethnography includes many more examples of the use of banana in rituals for resolving conflict between blood brothers, in punishment, games of competition (pp. 134-6) and for framing the entala, a traditional xylophone with unfixed keys (p. 140). Other accounts of the Baganda written around the same time offer more examples of the uses of different parts of the banana plant for food, and the leaves for wrapping, storage, and protection from rain. (78)

The diverse uses of bananas in the customs and rituals of the Baganda offer an insight into how the plant has been 'indigenised' over a long period of time and how it occurs in the landscapes occupied by these Bantu communities. Although these historical accounts of cultural practices cannot provide accurate estimates of the time of introduction of the banana into East Africa, its inclusion in founding myths, important life-cycle ceremonies and other symbolic cultural and kinship rituals reflects great antiquity of presence. This presents an interesting contrast to Madagascar which, despite being settled by Austronesian language speakers from Island South-east Asia where banana cultivars originated, has fewer accounts of folklore and traditions that involve the banana plant. The commonly used term for banana in Malagasy is akondro, which shows stronger links to *-konde, -kondo in proto-Bantu languages than to Malay or Javanese terms for the plant. (79) Based on linguistic evidence of Malay terms, Beaujard identifies four crops--rice, coconut, saffron and water yam--that were brought by the first Austronesian settlers to Madagascar. He then uses linguistic evidence of Bantu terms to identify the introduction of banana, taro, cowpea and Bambara pea to the island from continental Africa. (80) An early Malagasy dictionary identifies the banana as an old crop among the Betsileo community (in south central Madagascar) and refers to slaves that were specially appointed by princes as guardians for banana and taro. (81) The Betsileo also use the banana in death-related rituals, in which the corpse is laid out on a bed whose legs are made of banana tree trunks. (82) Although the sources do not identify the lineage of these practices, they may represent a syncretisation of Malay/Malagasy and eastern African customs and rituals.

There are a few myths and rituals among other cultural groups in Madagascar that invoke the banana as a symbol of fertility. One of these is a Betsimisaraka story in which the Creator asks the Malagasy people whether they would prefer to die the way the banana dies or the way the moon dies. The Malagasy choose the banana's way of dying rather than the moon, the reason being that when the banana dies it leaves behind many small plants growing from the base; but when the moon dies, it leaves no children behind. (83) The circumcision rituals of the Merina include the banana and sugarcane, both of which symbolise prolific reproduction from a 'living mother', i.e., regenerating from the root instead of sprouting from seed. (84) These ethnographic accounts of rituals need to be compared with similar rituals from eastern Africa and South-east Asia to gauge the relative time-depth of the plant's presence in the landscapes of Madagascar.

Reunion Island offers the clearest insight into the link between the duration of presence of the banana and its incorporation into the cultural practices of communities. The banana is most likely to have been introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as slaves from eastern Africa and Madagascar were brought to work on French colonial sugarcane plantations. (85) Here, as in other European dominated creole societies of the New World, the experience of forced migration, labour and encounter between slaves from different cultural traditions and their French masters produced the conditions where the banana would have been viewed primarily in French terms of its utility in the functioning of the colonial plantation economy. The Reunionnaise creole terms for the banana tree are Pye fig or Pye banan, (86) neither of which shows any etymological links with terms for the plant in eastern African or Malagasy languages. There is a variety of invented terms for various stages of growth, parts and fruit varieties--as, for example, baba fig for the budding fruits still covered by leaves; gogo for the leftover dried flower at the end of the fruit stalk or for the trunk that is cut to feed animals; fey fig or pay fig for the leaves that are cut up and used as plates; fig zezli, fig bla, fig min'on, fig gabu, fig valri, fig se zosef, and banan kare for different fruit characteristics and cooking purposes (87)--which focus on utility and do not appear to convey any cultural symbolism or association with rituals or traditions of eastern Africa or Madagascar that incorporate the banana plant.


The foregoing exploration of the cultural traditions, stories, customs and rituals incorporating the banana offers two interesting analytical insights that can be used for reconstructing the histories of diffusion and translation of food that lack evidence of introduction in archaeological or archival records for particular localities or regions. First, it shows that there is a strong relationship between frequency of occurrence or incorporation of an introduced food plant in customs and rituals of the region and temporal depth of its presence. In other words, the more an introduced plant is integrated into these cultural traditions, the more likely it is to have been present for a long time and considered as 'indigenous' or 'native' in the landscape. Second, it shows that the cultural values accorded to the physical and biological characteristics of the introduced food plant such as its aesthetic appearance, nutritive qualities, flavour, quantity of yield, processing and cooking time, are likely to determine the type of ceremony or ritual into which it is incorporated. An introduced food plant that has many of these values may become 'syncretised' into particular customs and ritual practices. The relative importance accorded to these practices may provide some indication of the temporal depth of the food plant's presence and the extent to which it has become 'naturalised' or 'creolised' in the cultural landscape.

Looking beyond food plants, we would argue that a theoretical framework of creolisation offers a nuanced cultural approach that complements material evidence for tracing the environmental histories of plant diffusions and exchanges across regions. It allows us to move beyond the prevailing paradigm of biological invasion or imperialism and examine environmental change and landscape transformation as historical processes emerging from the interaction between plant movements, diffusion and tradition. Most importantly, the framework offers the exciting opportunity for studying the histories of changing environments and cultural landscapes across oceanic regions in a way that would make sense to a fourteenth century traveller like Ibn Battuta and to travellers and sojourners in the globalised world of the twenty-first century.


The authors are grateful to Dr. Phoebe Musandu, Dr. Kwasi Osei Agyeman and Harini Ranjan for exceptional research assistance in collating information on the banana plant and associated food rituals of diverse communities in East Africa, Ghana and southern India respectively; and to Susan Kus and Victor 'Kim' Raharijaona for information about bananas and rituals in Madagascar.


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Monash University Centre for Geography and Environmental Science Monash University, VIC 3800, Australia



Department of History University of California Los Angeles Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA



School of Archaeology and Anthropology Australian National University Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia



School of Geography and Environmental Science Monash University, VIC 3800, Australia and Institut de geographie et durabilite Universite de Lausanne, Geopolis Lausanne, CH 1015, Switzerland



Department of Geography University of California Los Angeles Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA


(1) Gibb 1983, p. 111.

(2) Ibid., p. 114.

(3) Achaya 2009, pp. 9-10.

(4) Burkill 1966, p. 223.

(5) Bulbeck 2005; Zumbroich 2008; Burkill refers to Beccari's research on the betel leaf, and cites Sands for its origins in the Philippines, p. 225.

(6) Achaya 2009, p. 7.

(7) Ibid., p. 7.

(8) Burkill 1966, p. 223.

(9) Ibid., p. 225.

(10) Varisco 1991

(11) Burkill 1966, p. 225.

(12) Bellwood and Renfrew 2002; Diamond and Bellwood 2003; Bellwood 2005. See Donohue and Denham 2010 for critiques of this perspective.

(13) Semple 1911.

(14) Mintz 2008; Braudel 1979, pp. 104-182.

(15) Schafer 1985 [1963].

(16) Carney 2001; Carney and Rosomoff 2009.

(17) Achaya 1994; Hoogervorst 2013.

(18) O'Connor 2009.

(19) See for example, Fuller 2007; Fuller and Madella 2009; Donohue and Denham 2009; Denham 2010; Perrier et al. 2011; Bostoen et al. 2013.

(20) Kroeber 1940; Sauer 1952; Hagerstrand 1967[1953].

(21) See, for example, Diamond and Bellwood 2003; Bellwood 2005.

(22) Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994.

(23) Kroeber 1940.

(24) Kroeber 1963.

(25) Hobsbawm 1983.

(26) O'Connor 2009.

(27) Schama 1996, p. 6.

(28) Bourdieu [1972] 1993, p. 72.

(29) Bourdieu, ibid., pp. 78-79.

(30) Miracle 1966; Juhe-Beaulaton 1990; McCann 2005.

(31) Roe 1973. Roe notes that the Amerindian combination of maize and beans is said to provide a nutritious diet with all 10 amino acids, compensating for the two missing in maize. However, this 'package' or combination was not adopted in Italy and the dependence of the Italian poor on just maize led to repeated outbreaks of pellagra.

(32) Thompson 1993, p. 6.

(33) Scott 2009.

(34) Piazza 2009.

(35) Richards 1996.

(36) Eriksen 2007; Khan 2007; Verges 2007.

(37) Abrahams 2003; Baker and Muhlhausler 2007.

(38) Hannerz 1987.

(39) Mintz 1996b; Palmie 2007.

(40) Baker and Muhlhausler 2007.

(41) See Stewart 1999, 2007; Khan 2007 for overviews of the debates.

(42) Eriksen 2007, p. 172; also Baron 2003.

(43) See, for example, Bourdieu 1989; Elias 1978; Goody 1998; Higman 2008; Levi-Strauss 2013; Mintz 1985, 1996a, 2008; Mintz and DuBois 2002; Super 2002; Wilk 2013.

(44) See, for example, Carney 2001; Carney and Rosomoff 2009; Dawdy 2000, 2010; Singleton 1995; Voss 2008.

(45) Achaya 1994, 2009; Burkill 1966; Sidebotham 2006; see Rangan, Carney and Denham 2012 for an overview.

(46) Denham et al. 2009.

(47) See Perrier et al. 2011 for an overview.

(48) Perrier et al. 2011.

(49) Denham 2004; Denham, Haberle and Lentfer 2004.

(50) Fuller 2007; Fuller and Madella 2009; Donohue and Denham 2009; Denham 2010.

(51) Kajale 1989; Fuller and Madella 2009; Perrier et al. 2011.

(52) de Langhe 1995; Perrier et al. 2011.

(53) Mbida et al. 2000; Neumann and Hildebrand 2009.

(54) Lejju et al. 2006; Vansina 2004; van der Veen 2011.

(55) de Langhe and de Maret 1999; de Langhe et al. 2009; Perrier et al. 2011.

(56) Murdock 1959.

(57.) Blench 2009.

(58.) Ehret 1998, 2002; Kleiman 2003; Carney and Rosomoff 2009.

(59.) Werner 2007 [1968].

(60.) Werner, 2007, pp. 62-64.

(61.) Ibid., pp. 116-117.

(62.) Ibid., pp. 78-80.

(63.) Bulmer 1967.

(64.) Information gathered by Harini Ranjan in southern India for the authors; 'foreign' vegetables that are proscribed from being served for ancestor commemoration ceremonies include potato, cauliflower, cabbage and carrots. Also see Achaya 1994 for accounts of foods that are included and proscribed among regional culinary traditions and religious groups in India, and Uchiyamada 2000 regarding foods used for appeasing ancestral spirits.

(65.) Surveys conducted by Dr. Kwasi Agyeman for the authors.

(66.) Information gathered by Harini Ranjan for the authors.

(67.) Kaggwa 1934.

(68.) Whitlamsmith 1955.

(69.) Wilson 1954, 1959, 1963 [1951].

(70.) Kaggwa 1934.

(71.) Wilson 1963 [1951], pp. 244-245.

(72.) Dundas 1968 [1924].

(73.) Mackenzie 1925.

(74.) Wilson 1954, p. 231.

(75.) Wilson 1959, pp. 143-144. Wilson's book includes other references to bananas and banana groves.

(76.) Kaggwa 1934.

(77.) Ibid., p. 9.

(78.) Fisher 1911, pp. 3, 12-15, 35, 37, 41, 50.

(79.) Beaujard 1998, p. 85; Ravelojaona et al. 1937, p. 157.

(80.) Beaujard 2011.

(81.) Ravelojaona et al. 1937, pp. 164-165.

(82.) Raharijaona and Kus 2001, p. 58.

(83.) Keller 2008.

(84.) Bloch 1986, pp. 55, 63, 71-72, 79.

(85.) Verges 2007.

(86.) Chaudenson 1974, p. 214. Pye is from the French pied, foot, commonly used to refer to an individual tree.

(87.) Ibid., p. 214.
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