Australia’s First People Were “Hunter-Banana Cultivators”
Archaeologists from the Australian National University excavating at Wagadagam, on the island of Mabuyag, in the western Torres Strait, have published new evidence of early Indigenous communities having managed and cultivated crops 2,145 years ago suggesting these people who for so long have been called “hunters” were also “cultivators”.
Mabuyag History is Bananas
The island of Mabuyag is part of the Bellevue Islands located about 100 kilometers (62 mi) north of Arnolds Passage in the Torres Strait, but the island was originally called “Jervis Island” on English maps having been named by Vice-Admiral William Bligh FRS of the Royal Navy who was an 18th century colonial administrator.
A new paper published in the journal Nature, Ecology and Evolution explains that previous archaeological excavations have shown that people arrived on Mabuyag at least 7300 years ago and survived by fishing and hunting, and that waves of small communities arrived on the island over the subsequent 5000 years. The archaeological site was found to contain “retaining walls” which have been associated with gardening activities, and the excavators also found a network of “stone arrangements, shell arrangements, rock art and a mound of dugong bones,” which are all evidence of banana cultivation.
Terraced ancient banana cultivation earthworks at the Wagadagam site. (Australian National University)
Complex and Diverse Ancient Horticultural Practices
Terrace cultivation was a method of growing crops on mountains and hillsides by planting seeds on graduated terraces built into the gradient of the slope, to maximize arable land area and to reduce soil erosion and water loss. Suspecting the terraces on island of Mabuyag had been used for the controlled growing of “something”, the archaeologists took soil samples which showed “definitive evidence for intensive banana cultivation in the form of starch granules, banana plant microfossils and charcoal.”
The charcoal was radiocarbon dated to at least 2,145–1,930 cal yr BP (Before Present) and it indicated “burning for gardening activities,” and furthermore, “stone flake tools” were analyzed and found to have microscopic plant residues along their cutting edges. Lead researcher, indigenous Kambri-Ngunnawal scholar Robert Williams, says that this new research establishes that the ancestors of his Goegmulgal people of Mabuyag had developed “complex and diverse cultivation and horticultural practices,” helping to dispel the incorrect view that Australia's first peoples were “only hunter gatherers,” showing that indigenous cultures over the Torres Strait, in modern day New Guinea, also practiced agriculture over 2000-years-ago.
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Lead researcher, Kambri-Ngunnawal scholar and Robert Williams. (ANU)
An Ancient Island of Agri-Innovations
What this all means is that the traditional anthropological models holding the Torres Strait as a sort of cultural barrier, are flat wrong, and that it actually served ancient people groups as an information channel through which innovations in cultural and horticultural practices flowed both north and south. And being a descendant of the Kambri Ngunnawal peoples, Mr Williams said that traditionally it had been non-indigenous archaeologists and anthropologists who had studied the island, but he is assuring his people that this new research really belongs to them.
Mr Williams said that the evidence of early Indo-Pacific horticultural tradition points towards the growing of yams, taro and banana, and that the people got their fats and proteins from fish, dugong and turtle,” meaning the ancient people had “a very high-quality diet.” Co-researcher Dr Duncan Wright said that this realigning of the accepted age of the banana propagation is “very significant,” but he admits it was not something the team had expected to see in continental Australia, or in the Torres Strait, which the scientist now describe as “a place where local innovations took place.”
Photomicrographs of individual banana starch granules. a–c, Modern reference samples (Musa sp.) under PPL (a,c) and XPL (b). d–f, Comparative images for archaeological granule (S86) recovered from stratigraphic unit XU13 (48–55 cm) under PPL (d) and XPL (e,f) showing features (shape, eccentricity, extinction cross, lamellae, longitudinal ridges and protuberance) consistent with banana reference samples. (Robert Williams et al / Nature)
Early Farmers Or Ancient Nutritionists?
While the new paper doesn’t look at how banana consumption benefited the ancient community, today we know that this fruit is a respectable source of vitamin C and that manganese in bananas is good for the skin. Furthermore, banana contains slow release carbohydrates that are perfect for long distance canoeing, minus the fats and cholesterol, but there is one lesser known aspect to bananas that simply cannot have been overlooked in prehistory, “potassium”. Potassium is a powerful mineral and an electrolyte that regulates the muscles that control heartbeat and breathing. Potassium is not good for human heart health and blood pressure, but rotting banana skins are perhaps the best fertilizer on the planet for use in the cultivation of flowering plants or fruit trees.
I know this because I am a vegetable cultivator and when the weather gets cold prematurely and my tomatoes are not yet ripe, or my plants have failed to flower, I drop three-week old black banana skins around the base of the plants and within four or five days the fruits redden and ripen, and plants blossom, all thanks to the high potassium levels in bananas. Septics among you that might shun my anecdotal gardening evidence might read this article from the Micro Gardener explaining how bananas helps plants “build up resistance to pest and disease, develop fruits,” and how the potassium regulates around 50 enzymes in plants and builds “turgor,” the uprightness of stems and the thickness of cell walls - plant strength.
Writer, Ashley Cowie and his plant boosting banana soup. (Courtesy Ashley Cowie)
While ancient people didn’t have microscopes to understand the mechanics of potassium fertilization what they would have experienced after every banana crop was a surge in other plant growth around their decaying banana trees, and many species of plants would have grown to gigantic proportions, and that they too could paddle much further, and farm a lot longer while eating bananas. And what this means is that the indigenous people on Mabuyag island might have not only supercharged themselves with bananas, but also their entire crop matrix, so these new found early farmers with their banana technologies, were perhaps more so: “Ancient horticultural engineers”.
Top image: Ancient banana cultivation site at Wagadagam, Mabuyag. Source: Australian National University
By Ashley Cowie
Williams, R.N., Wright, D., Crowther, A. et al. Multidisciplinary evidence for early banana ( Musa cvs.) cultivation on Mabuyag Island, Torres Strait. Nat Ecol Evol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1278-3
Wright, D. and G. Jacobsen. 2013. Further radiocarbon dates from Dabangay, a mid- to late Holocene settlement site in western Torres Strait Australian Archaeology Association 76:79–83.