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Pre-Austronesian dispersal of banana cultivars West from New Guinea: linguistic relics from Eastern Indonesia.


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. 2003; Kennedy and Clarke 2004; Kennedy 2008, in press).


Unusually, chloroplast DNA (cpDNA) and mitochrondrial DNA (mtDNA) in bananas are inherited through the maternal and paternal lines, respectively (Carreel et al. 2002: 680), thereby enabling the contributions of different species and subspecies from different geographical regions to be traced. Of most relevance for the present discussion is the tracking of banana cultivars originating in the New Guinea region westward to Africa, particularly for two major cultivar groupings, AAA (East African) and AAB (West African) (following Carreel et al. 2002; Kennedy in press).

East African Highland AAA bananas are descended from M. acuminata ssp. banksii from the New Guinea region that hybridised with M. acuminata ssp. zebrina, which is native to Indonesia. West African AAB plantain cultivars are partially descended from AA diploids from New Guinea; indeed they exhibit 'exactly the same cytotype pattern as some Musa acuminata ssp. banksii accessions still present in New Guinea' (Carreel et al. 2002: 689). The AA diploids hybridised with M. balbisiana populations, which are ultimately of mainland or insular Southeast Asian origin (Figure 1), most likely in island regions to the west of New Guinea (De Langhe and De Maret 1999). The resulting AAB cultivars are predominantly sterile, although some may produce seed if pollinated, and after a presumed introduction to East Africa dispersed vegetatively, i.e. under cultivation, to West Africa (De Langhe 2007).


The genetic histories of both African cultivar groupings indicate similar trajectories: a westward movement of M. acuminata ssp. banksii from the New Guinea region; subsequent intraspecific (AAA) and interspecific (AAB) hybridisation with species native to Indonesia and primarily mainland Southeast Asia, respectively; and, dispersal to, and inland from, East Africa. Archaeobotany is beginning to shed an intriguing, albeit partial, light on the time-depth for these processes.

The archaeobotany of 'wild', managed and cultivated bananas

Although the archaeobotanical record is spatially and chronologically fragmentary, several general patterns illuminate human-banana domesticatory relationships through time (Figure 1 and Table 1; see Vrydaghs and De Langhe 2003; Vrydaghs et al. 2003; Kennedy 2008 and in press for reviews). For regions with natural populations of banana species and subspecies, it is not always possible to clearly differentiate between the presence of wild, managed and cultivated bananas in the past. Interpretative limitations arise in part from a methodological inability to discriminate microfossils of some banana genera, species, subspecies and cultivars (from Wilson 1985 to Ball et al. 2006). Other limitations are intrinsic to the domestication process; except for predominantly sterile triploid cultivars, bananas can interbreed with other species, subspecies and cultivars thereby generating a complex array of hybrids. At present, cultivation and domesticatory relationships can be inferred from the archaeobotanical record in two ways: the presence of a Musa sp. banana beyond its natural range, e.g. in Africa (Vrydaghs and De Langhe 2003); and, the frequency and archaeological associations of bananas, e.g. with cultivation at Kuk Swamp (Denham et al. 2003).

The time-depth of phytogeographic distributions for a few banana species and subspecies is attested in the archaeobotanical record. Musa acuminata ssp. banksii and Musa ingens phytoliths are present at Kuk Swamp in the highlands of New Guinea approximately 10,000 years ago (Denham et al. 2003), while Musa balbisiana and cf. Musa acuminata seeds have been identified in Terminal Pleistocene contexts in Sri Lanka (Kajale 1989). Other Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene records of bananas from China (potentially; Zhao and Piperno 2000), Malaysia (Bowdery 1999) and New Guinea (Denham et al. 2003) are equivocal in terms of human management (Table 1), since the low frequencies of undifferentiated phytoliths in wetland sediments might just reflect bananas growing wild in the landscape, as opposed to a form of human management. Only the Beli-Lena finds are directly associated with human exploitation (Kajale 1989), although the use of the fruits or seeds there is uncertain.

The earliest evidence for banana cultivation derives from Kuk Swamp at 7000/6500 years ago in highland New Guinea (Denham et al. 2003). High Musaceae phytolith frequencies are recorded in feature fills associated with mound cultivation in an anthropic landscape along the wetland margin. The archaeobotanical evidence at Kuk circumstantially corroborates genetic and phytogeographic interpretations for the early cultivation and domestication of Musa acuminata ssp. banksii in the New Guinea region.

Claims for later banana cultivation in the New Guinea region are of variable significance and certainty. Finds in Island Melanesia and the Torres Strait have been interpreted to represent cultivation (Parr and Carter 2003; Lentfer and Green 2004), but other explanations are equally plausible, including dispersal of wild populations and human introduction of plant parts, i.e. fruit for consumption and leaves as food wrapping or lining for cooking. Of relevance, 'wild' populations of Musa section bananas occur in northern Australia (Pollefeys et al. 2004). Similarly, the 5000 year-old Musaceae phytoliths at Yuku rockshelter in highland New Guinea may only represent bananas growing, as opposed to being cultivated, in the landscape (cf. Horrocks et al. 2008).

Evidence for banana cultivation and cultivar diffusion for the vast Southeast Asian region between New Guinea and Africa is largely indeterminate. There is no published archaeobotanical evidence of bananas in Island Southeast Asia, which reflects a lack of research rather than the distribution of the species, given the natural range of Musa bananas (Pollefeys et al. 2004) and the inferred domestication and diffusion of cultivars (De Langhe and De Maret 1999). On mainland Southeast Asia, most finds occur within the natural range of some banana species (e.g. Kealhofer 2003) and are late (e.g. Laotian finds in Bowdery 1999), but others are suggestive of human agency. Could the higher and more persistent frequencies of Musa-type phytoliths at Poyang Lake in the Middle Yangtze River Valley between c. 4000 and 1200 years ago represent cultivation? Although originally interpreted as reflecting vegetation movements concomitant with climatic changes during the middle and late Holocene in the catchment, the Musa-type phytolith signal could potentially represent the northward anthropic expansion of M. balbisiana beyond its natural range. Poyang Lake is currently 200 km north of the lowland evergreen tropical rainforest to which M. balbisiana is native (Zhao and Piperno 2000: 205; Wang et al. 2007). Of similar potential significance is the phytolith-based evidence for Musa sp. at Kot Diji, which represents the anthropic diffusion of unknown bananas to Pakistan by 4000 cal BP (Fuller and Madella 2001; Kennedy in press). These two continental Eurasian cases are tantalising because both sites are beyond the imprecisely known margins of the natural range of wild Musa bananas (Figure 1; Pollefeys et al. 2004) and both potentially represent the mid-Holocene diffusion and cultivation of Musa populations beyond their natural range.

Of major significance are records from Africa. African Musa cultivars are triploids, vegetatively propagated and beyond the natural range of the genus. Assuming that the genus-level discrimination of phytoliths between Musa and Ensete is correct, Musa phytoliths are indicative of cultivation--whether for food, fibre or fodder--and can be used to track agriculture across the continent (Vrydaghs and De Langhe 2003; Vrydaghs et al. 2003). Significantly, the Nkang finds represent the diffusion of AAB cultivars, which are descended in part from New Guinea, to Cameroon by at least 2500 years ago (Mbida et al. 2000, 2001). These are the only known Musa bananas in the region and must have dispersed under cultivation from a presumed point of introduction in eastern Africa (De Langhe 2007).

More recently, putatively earlier evidence of banana cultivation dates to c. 5000 years ago at Munsa in Uganda (Lejju et al. 2006). The security of these findings is problematic; there is a 3000 year-old hiatus near the base of the core and radiocarbon dates are derived from bulk sediment organic carbon from the same contexts containing banana phytoliths. Taken critically with respect to orthodox arguments for the introduction of bananas to Africa from AD 600 (e.g. Vansina 2003; cf. Mbida et al. 2004, 2005), the Munsa evidence on its own is not definitive. However, taken contextually with respect to the Nkang (2500 cal BP), Pakistani (c. 4000 cal BP), and New Guinean (c. 7000/6500 cal BP) evidence, a much longer chronology for banana domestication and dispersal is emerging. Thus, despite shortcomings, the claims for the Munsa evidence are unsurprising.

In sum, the timing and nature of dispersal accords with scenarios of initial domestication of some species and subspecies in the New Guinea region with subsequent complex processes of hybridisation and dispersal westward reaching Africa potentially via the Indian subcontinent during the mid-Holocene. This timeframe suggests that the dispersal of bananas from New Guinea to Island Southeast Asia predates Austronesian influence (see Denham 2004; Denham et al. 2004; Kennedy and Clarke 2004; Kennedy 2008, in press), given that Austronesian speakers arrived in the New Guinea region around c. 4000 cal BP, and had only limited influence on the island of New Guinea until after c. 3000 cal BP (Bellwood 1996). As mentioned above, however, there is a major gap in the archaeobotanical record from Island Southeast Asia, which can now in part be addressed by linguistic evidence for the pre-Austronesian dispersal of bananas westward from New Guinea.

Linguistic evidence for a Melanesian source

Several strands of linguistic evidence bear on the question of the dispersal of bananas and its approximate date. Although by themselves they are more suggestive than definitive, taken together with the macrohistory of the region and the history of banana domestication they comprise a compelling argument for the early anthropic dispersal of bananas west from New Guinea. We examine attested terms for bananas, within the context of the linguistic ecology of New Guinea and eastern Indonesia.

In this region we currently find languages that are discussed as two entities: the Austronesian languages, relatively recent arrivals in the area sharing a common ancestor in Taiwan; and the languages referred to as 'Papuan', a term that does not imply relatedness but simply designates a language not belonging to the Austronesian family that is spoken in the vicinity of New Guinea. While Papuan languages are geographically restricted, Austronesian languages are found as far away as Madagascar, Formosa, Easter Island and Hawai'i.

The Papuan linguistic sphere

Today, Papuan-speaking populations extend as far west as the Timor area, although they may have been formerly more extensive given that humans inhabited the archipelago for tens of millennia before the arrival of Austronesian language-speakers. For example, to the west, Sumbawa was home to the trading kingdom of Tambora until the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815 (Oppenheimer 2003), and there is good evidence that the language there was Papuan (Donohue 2007a). Given the survival into historical times of at least one socially prominent Papuan population with a reported maritime tradition, and the significantly changed character of the Austronesian languages east of Sumbawa, it is almost certain that other, now vanished, Papuan languages were present in more of the islands west of New Guinea than is the case today, and that these populations were socially significant during the period in which Austronesian language-speakers arrived in the region. We shall argue that these Papuan-speaking peoples were responsible for the dispersal of banana cultivars west from New Guinea before the arrival of Austronesian languages in the region.


Evidence for these now-vanished Papuan populations is found in the structure and distribution of contemporary Austronesian languages of eastern Indonesia, with particular reference to the western border of the so-called Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian languages (Figures 2 and 3), a grouping that has been proposed as a major subgroup within the Austronesian family (Blust 1993). A number of structural changes have been cited to support this division, including: (a) subject agreement prefixes on verbs; (b) a distinction in possessive marking, typically distinguishing body parts and family from the rest of the natural world; (c) a couple of verbal suffixes of ill-defined function; and, (d) three irregular morphological developments in the words for 'four', 'yawn' and 'shy' (Blust 1982, 1983/1984, 1993). However, these morphological developments are not found in all of the languages of the eastern region, and various of them are found in some of the more westerly languages in Indonesia that are not claimed to be part of this subgroup (Donohue 2007b, Donohue and Denham 2009). This makes their value as innovations that define a Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian subgroup problematic. The verbal suffixes, point (c), have antecedents further west and, crucially, they are not present in their eastern Indonesian form further east in the Pacific. This implies they represent multiple local innovations, rather than developments of great antiquity. Points (a) and (b) are more robust, although problematically their distribution extends significantly west of the line generally accepted as the border of the subgroup. Importantly, prefixal agreement is also found in the languages of Sumatra, where ancient contact with now vanished Austro-Asiatic languages must be suspected for other reasons (e.g. Sidwell 2004). Since prefixal agreement and alienability contrasts are also features of the island Papuan languages of this region, and since Papuan influence is independently required to explain a number of additional traits of these eastern Austronesian languages (Reesink 2002; Donohue 2004, 2005, 2007b; Arka 2007; Mbete 2007), the simplest explanation is that Papuan influence has shaped the construction of an internal division in the Austronesian family tree, and that the 'Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian' label represents those languages that display a strong Papuan substrate rather than a linguistic split.


Furthermore, given new evidence of a more western extent for this Papuan substrate (Donohue 2007b) than has previously been assumed (Capell 1975), the border of the so-called Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian languages matches exactly the past distribution of Papuan languages, providing strong support for the idea that there was, until relatively recently, a significant seafaring Papuan presence across eastern Indonesia. In addition to these structural features, there is some lexical evidence for a maritime population in the Sulu Sea-eastern Indonesia area, a population that Mahdi (1994a) refers to as 'Australoid' Austronesians that acted as a substrate to, and preceded, the 'main' Austronesian dispersal. In addition to Tambora we note the persistence of prominent Papuan language-speaking maritime communities into modern times; for example, the Sultanates of Ternate and Tidore from North Halmahera were Papuan-speaking polities which held sway over an area reaching from North Sulawesi to western New Guinea. We suggest, based on the appearance of *muku in non-Austronesian and Austronesian languages, and the geographically restricted attestation of this lexeme, that these 'Australoid' populations were simply preAustronesian Papuans indigenous to the area. The two hypotheses are not incompatible, but there is no need to posit two waves of 'Austronesian advance' when there is ample evidence of a pre-Austronesian Papuan substrate in eastern Indonesia.

The distribution of banana terms

In considering linguistic traces of Papuan-Austronesian interaction, the term *muku is significant because it is the only term for banana found in a large number of both Papuan and Austronesian languages. Based on our dataset comprising banana terms in 950 languages across Southeast Asia and Melanesia, including over fifty reflexes of *muku, we reconstruct *muku as the protoform (Tables 2 and 3; Figure 4), matching a reconstruction previously discussed in a more restricted eastern Indonesian context by Verheijen (1984) (note that we are dealing, in most cases, with generic terms for bananas, not specific species names). Properly, *muku is a 'false' protoform; this is what Mahdi (1994b) terms a maverick protoform, referring to a word that appears to be part of a language's inherited history, but might be an early loan from an external source. The ultimate source of the *muku term is not yet apparent. The term has not been reconstructed to Proto-Oceanic (Ross 1996) and so cannot unproblematically be assumed to be etymologically Austronesian. To shed light on its origins, we examine reflexes of *muku in eastern Melanesia (Figure 2) and then in eastern Indonesia (Figure 3).


There are attestations of *muku in Papuan languages in the extreme south-east of New Guinea (although there are sampling limitations to our data), and there are occasional attestations in Island Melanesia--in New Britain, the Solomons, southern Vanuatu and northern New Caledonia (Figure 2). The Austronesian languages of these last two areas exhibit 'aberrancies', which have been interpreted to represent a Papuan substrate (e.g. Ray 1926; Capell 1954; Lynch 1981; Tryon 1982; Donohue and Denham 2008; for a dissenting view, see Pawley 2006). It is not unreasonable to suppose that the appearance of *muku in these 'aberrant' languages represents a lexical retention from an earlier Papuan substrate. Both languages that attest *muku in the Solomons use it to refer to (unidentified) species names and not the generic term, a well-known fate for earlier terminologies. The terms from Maiadom and Kaulong, Austronesian languages closer to the New Guinea mainland, are less changed from *muku (or the modern south-east Papuan term), while the southern Vanuatu terms (Anejom, Ura and Sye) all show the accretion of an old case marker or article that typifies many etymologies in languages of the region (e.g. na/mek in Anejom). The overall picture from eastern Melanesia is of *muku exhibiting a limited distribution, restricted to areas with a Papuan substrate and to areas close to the New Guinea mainland where Papuan languages predominate.

Upon examining the distribution of *muku in eastern Indonesia, we find a striking pattern (Table 3; Figure 3). While affiliations of Tambora are unclear and unlikely to be resolved, the Papuan languages of the Timor area are almost certainly related to languages of the mainland of New Guinea. They have been variously affiliated with the widespread Trans New Guinea languages that are said to span New Guinea from east to west (Stokhof 1975; Voorhoeve 1975), and to the West Papuan languages of the Bird's Head in north-west New Guinea (Capell 1975; Donohue 2008). There is a mainland base for the term among Papuan languages on the north-western fringe of New Guinea, and then a spread south and west, following the area in which we see a Papuan substrate in the grammar of the languages (Capell 1975; Donohue and Grimes 2008; Donohue and Schapper 2008). The area in which *muku is found in the Austronesian languages of Maluku connects the New Guinea beachhead to the Timor area, where Papuan languages are still spoken today. The distribution of *muku through Sawu and Sumba, and across central and western Flores represents an aspect of a Papuan substrate in these islands--a substrate which is independently evidenced by the unusual analytical nature of these languages (Arka 2007) and the unusual numeral systems they display (Mbete 2007)--to just short of Sumbawa, where the Papuan-speaking kingdom of Tambora was located (see also Capell 1975).

The distribution of modern reflexes of *muku is highly constrained west of New Guinea. None of the languages of Asia, including the vast reach of Island Southeast Asia in which Austronesian languages are found, are known to show a reflex of *muku. In other words, the area defined by the distribution of *muku banana terms traces out the southern distribution of attested Papuan-speaking populations west of New Guinea. Different explanations can be invoked to account for the presence of a similar word in two languages: both languages could have inherited the word from a shared ancestor; one might have borrowed the word from the other; both might have borrowed the term from an external source; or, the similarity could be due to chance. In the case of the distribution of *muku terms we know that not all of the languages involved are related, and so a common ancestor cannot explain the distribution. The contemporary social situation in eastern Indonesia, and the fact that we are dealing with more than 50 widely-dispersed languages means we can discount recent borrowing or chance similarity as explanations. Given that *muku does not occur in Austronesian languages away from the area of known Papuan contact or known historical Papuan distribution, an Austronesian source for the term is not supported by the data.

In eastern Melanesia *muku appears in a small number of Papuan languages, in areas suspected of having had an earlier Papuan presence, and in a couple of languages of the Solomons and New Guinea where Papuan languages are still attested. Consequently, taken together, the eastern and western distributions strongly implicate a Papuan, pre-Austronesian source: the term is found nowhere in Micronesia, Polynesia, or, as noted above, in Island Southeast Asia away from areas of Papuan contact. Despite the great time depth we are proposing, predating the Austronesian dispersal into Southeast Asia, the presence of the maverick cognate form in at least two unrelated language families leads us to believe that this lexical trace has persisted into the modern languages. Given the current distribution of the term in Flores and Sumba, where there is no modern Papuan population, but linguistic and genetic persistence of a pre-Austronesian Papuan presence (e.g. Lansing et al. 2007), we conclude that the Austronesian languages borrowed the word from a pre-existing Papuan language, namely, they inherited *muku as part of a Papuan substrate.

Significantly, the geographical distribution of *muku, which is applied generically to banana cultivars today, crosses a botanical boundary. It extends from the natural ranges of Musa and Callimusa (those formerly termed Australimusa) section species (see Figure 1) to regions where cultivars were introduced, i.e. Timor, Flores, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Although various banana species are native to many areas in Island Southeast Asia and Melanesia, we argue that *muku is associated with the anthropic dispersal of (some) utilised bananas eastwards and westwards from New Guinea. In eastern Melanesia, bananas referred to as *muku were spread to Vanuatu and New Caledonia; the term is a lexical retention of an earlier Papuan substrate in these now Austronesian languages. In eastern Indonesia, bananas referred to as *muku were spread westward by a pre-Austronesian culture with a maritime component. Maritime cultures flourished in the eastern Indonesian region (O'Connor and Veth 2005) and in Near Oceania (Torrence and Swadling 2008) in pre-Austronesian times, namely pre-dating c 4000 years ago. Thus, the distribution of the Papuan-derived term *muku tracks the pre-Austronesian spread of cultivars, most probably AA or AAA hybrids, westward from New Guinea. The term has been lost further west, where local and more widespread processes of Austronesian replacement have increasingly obliterated earlier Papuan traces--largely due to the expansion of Indian and Islamic influences and states of the last 1500 years.

The linguistic evidence fills a major gap in the archaeobotanical record, thereby allowing us to both map and date (approximately) the early dispersal of bananas from New Guinea. Since *muku has a Papuan origin, we can date the dispersal of bananas as preceding the arrival of Austronesian language-speakers in eastern Indonesia and New Guinea, namely, earlier than c 4000 years ago. The dispersal of *muku bananas accords with evidence for a maritime culture in the area from the early Holocene (White 2004; O'Connor 2007) and the timeframe accords with archaeobotanical evidence for the domestication of bananas in the New Guinea region, subsequent dispersal to Indonesia and onwards eventually to Africa.


Archaeobotany provides a pre-Austronesian timeframe for banana domestication in New Guinea and, possibly, for the dispersal of cultivars to Africa and the Indian subcontinent by 5000 and 4000 years ago, respectively. However, there is no archaeobotanical evidence tracking the mid-Holocene dispersal of banana cultivars across Island Southeast Asia westward from New Guinea. Linguistic data demonstrate that the term *muku is restricted to some Papuan languages of the western and eastern fringes of New Guinea, and in locations where a Papuan substrate persists. The Papuan substrate extends through Sawu and Sumba, and across central and western Flores. The appearance of this term in widely separated Papuan languages, and its extremely strong substrate in the area indicated, tracks and demonstrates a pre-Austronesian timeframe for this dispersal. Further linguistic research that will most likely prove useful in elaborating our understanding of early maritime society in eastern Indonesian will include investigation of other cultivars that are found both in New Guinea and in islands to the west. Preliminary investigations in the field of tubers have not been fruitful (Hays 2005), but the examination of cultivars closely integrated into the symbolic life of the communities that utilise them offers a promising avenue for research (following e.g. Chlenov 1980). The complex processes of banana cultivar dispersal and hybridization across Island Southeast Asia, particularly in regions west of eastern Indonesia where linguistic traces of pre-Austronesian speaking peoples have been removed, are yet to be elucidated, but clearly indicate the existence of a seafaring society, or societies, practicing cultivation, extending at least from New Guinea to Sumba. These complexities will only be revealed following the systematic application of plant microfossil techniques during archaeological investigations across these regions and following the advent of more refined methods to discriminate banana phytoliths and starch grains to the species and subspecies taxonomic levels.


Edmond De Langhe, Dorian Fuller, Lisa Kealhofer, Jean Kennedy, Carol Lentfer and Robin Torrence are thanked for addressing queries raised during the writing of this paper. Our understanding of the distribution of banana terms was aided by Austronesianist colleagues, too numerous to be named individually. The final product was greatly improved by comments from Edmond De Langhe and Luc Vrydaghs, as well as by reviews and countless valuable suggestions from Jean Kennedy and Waruno Mahdi.


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TD: School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Clayton VIC 3800, Australia. Tim.Denham@ MD: Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, ACT 0200, Australia.
Table 1. Summary table of archaeobotanical evidence for bananas from
New Guinea to Africa (cf. Figure 1). The list is not exhaustive and
focuses on archaeobotanical finds in New Guinea and regions to the
west (see previous reviews in Vrydaghs and De Langhe 2003; Vrydaghs et
al. 2003; Kennedy 2008, in press), rather than Pacific regions to the
east (included in Kennedy in press)
Notes: 1 'Inferred' indicates interpretation in original article,
whereas comments following 'although' represent the views of the
current authors. 2 Pasveer (2004: 191) mentions the identification of
banana seeds at cave sites on the Bird's Head Peninsula of West Papua,
Indonesia; however, they are excluded from the table as no further
information on identification, age, site or cultural association is

Site            Country      Map    Earliest/          Banana type
                             Ref.   Associated
                                    date (cal. BP)

Nkang           Cameroon     1      c. 2500            Musa sp.

Bunyakiri       D.R. Congo   2      post 200?          Musa sp.

Munsa           Uganda       3      pre 5400-5000      Musa sp.
                                                       Ensete sp.

Kot Diji        Pakistan     4      c. 4000 (in        Musa sp.
                                    Kennedy            (AB hybrid?)
                                    in press)

Beli-Lena       Sri Lanka    5      c. 11,500-13,500   M. balbisinna
                                                       M. cf.

Nong Thalee     Thailand     6      c. 5000            Musa sp.
Song Hong

Lao Pako        Laos         7      c. 2500-1500       Musa sp.
Plain of Jars

Gua Chawas      Malaysia     8      c. 10,700          Musaceae

Poyang Lake     China        9      post c. 11,500?    Musa-type
                                    post c. 4000

Ormi, Dauar     Australia    10     c. 2200-1900       Musa sp.

Yuku            Papua        11     c. 5200            Musa sp.
                New Guinea

Kuk             Papua        11     c. 10,000          Musaceae
                New Guinea          c. 7000/6500       M. acutnittatn
                                                       asp. banksu
                                                       M. ittgens
                                                       Ensete glaucum

Garua Island    Papua        12     post 1100 BP       Musa sp.
                New Guinea

Reber-          Papua        13     c. 2400-1350       Musa spp.
Rakival,        New Guinea


Site            Evidence     Reference           Comments (1)

Nkang           Phytoliths   Mbida et al.        Discrimination of
                             20,002,001          Musa sp. from Ensete
                                                 sp. Inferred
                                                 cultivation of
                                                 sterile triploids

Bunyakiri       Phytoliths   Runge 2001          Recent origin based
                                                 on chronostratigraphy

Munsa           Phytoliths   Lejju et al. 2006   Problematic
                                                 between Musa, Ensete
                                                 and undifferentiated
                                                 Inferred cultivation
                                                 of Musa sp. cultivars

Kot Diji        Phytoliths   Fuller and          Uncertain
                             Madella 2001        identification
                                                 If hybrid confirmed,
                                                 introduced cultivar

Beli-Lena       Seeds        Kajale 1989         M. balbisiana, M.
                             tentative           acuminata
                                                 Exploitation of wild

Nong Thalee     Phytolith    Kealhofer 2003      No subgenus
Song Hong                                        discrimination

Lao Pako        Phytoliths   Bowdery 1999;       No subgenus
Plain of Jars                Vrydaghs and        discrimination
                             De Langhe 2003

Gua Chawas      Phytoliths   Bowdery 1999        No subgenus
                                                 Dating uncertain in
                                                 Bowdery 1999

Poyang Lake     Phytoliths   Zhao and            'Musa-type'
                             Piperno 2000        Problematic
                                                 pre-4000 cal BP,
                                                 afterwhich increased
                                                 frequencies Musa-

Ormi, Dauar     Phytoliths   Parr and Carter     Also note Musa sp. at
Island                       2003                another site on
                                                 Dauar, Sokoli, at
                                                 1600-1400 BP.
                                                 Inferred to represent
                                                 introduced cultivars,
                                                 although possibly
                                                 introduced plant
                                                 parts (i.e. via

Yuku            Phytoliths   Horrocks et al.     Problematic
                Pollen       2008                chronostratigraphy
                                                 Inferred to represent
                                                 suite of exploited
                                                 plants, although
                                                 potentially present
                                                 in the landscape

Kuk             Phytoliths   Wilson 1985;        Discrimination of
                             Bowdery 1999;       species, sections and
                             Denham et al.       subspecies using
                             2003                phytoliths from seeds
                                                 and other plant parts
                                                 Inferred cultivation
                                                 of Musa at 7000/6500

Garua Island    Phytolith    Kealhofer et al.    No subgenus
                             1999;               discrimination,
                             Parr et al. 2001    extracted from
                                                 Identified in
                                                 sediments associated
                                                 with settlement

Reber-          Phytoliths   Lentfer and         Discrimination of
Rakival,                     Green 2004          Eumusa section
Watom                                            Tentative
Island                                           interpretation of
                                                 human introduction of
                                                 cultivars, although

Table 2. Representative examples of * muku in Island
Melanesia (for locations see Figure 2).

Map    Language         Location           'banana'   Source

i      Yareba           SE New Guinea      mo         SIL survey
i      Nawaru (Sirio)   SE New Guinea      mo         SIL survey
i      Moikodi          SE New Guinea      mo/o       SIL survey
i      Aneme Wake       SE New Guinea      mo/o       SIL survey

ii     Maiadom          Milne Bay          mo'e       SIL survey
iii    Kaulong          New Britain        muhuk      Tryon 1995
iv     Oroha            Solomons           makara     Palmer nd.
iv     Kokota           Solomons           muku       Palmer nd.
v      Anejom           Southern Vanuatu   nalmek     John Lynch pc.
v      Ura              Southern Vanuatu   yalmek     John Lynch pc.
v      Sye              Southern Vanuatu   yalmo'     John Lynch pc.
vi     Nelemwa          New Caledonia      mugic      Tryon 1995

Table 3. Representative examples of * muku in eastern
Indonesia and East Timor (for locations see Figure 3).
As noted in the text, not all 'Papuan' languages are
related to each other. The languages in this table have the
following affiliations: Tehit: West Papuan family;
Mor (isolate); Oirata: East Timor family; Bunak,
Tanglapui, Teiwa: Timor-Alor-Pantar family. Not all
languages reflecting * muku are shown in this table;
a further 13 Papuan and 15 Austronesian languages,
shown in Figures 2 and 3, attest this lexeme in eastern
Indonesia and East Timor.

Map    Language    Location                 'banana'   Source

1      Tehit       western Bird's Head      oga        Erin Hesse pc.
2      Mor         Bomberai Peninsula       moga       Anceaux 1958
3      Oirata      eastern Timor            mu         De Josselin de
                                                       Jong 1937
4      Bunak       central Timor            mok        Stokhof 1975
5      Tanglapui   eastern Alor             maka       Stokhof 1975
6      Teiwa       Pantar                   muxul      Stokhof 1975

a      Teor-Kur    eastern Maluku           muk        Wallace 1962
b      Kola        southern Maluku (Aru)    muk        Nivens pc.
c      Batuley     southern Maluku (Aru)    mug        Nivens pc.
d      Karey       southern Maluku (Aru)    mogo       Nivens pc.
e      Fordata     southern Maluku          mu'u       Nivens pc.
f      Ili'uun     Wetar island, southern   mu'u       Hinton 2000
g      Mambai      central Timor            mu         Capell 1944
h      Lamaholot   eastern Flores           mugo       Donohue (own
i      Sika        eastern Flores           mu'u       Tryon 1995
j      Palu'e      north-central Flores     muku       Donohue (own
k      Ngadha      central Flores           muku       Tryon 1995
1      Manggarai   western Flores           muku       Verheijen 1990
m      Sawu        Sawu island, southern    womu'u     Wijngaarden
                   Indonesia                           1896
n      Kambera     eastern Sumba            muku       Onvlee 1984
                   (muku refers to a
                   particular species)
o      Uma         central Sulawesi         moku       Martens pc.
                   (moku refers to a
                   particular species)
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Author:Denham, Tim; Donohue, Mark
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Apr 1, 2009
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