Traces of 2,000-Year-Old Banana Farm Found in Australia

The discovery contradicts conceptions of early Indigenous peoples as exclusively hunter gatherers

Ancient banana farm
The newly discovered banana cultivation site Australian National University

New research suggests Australia’s Indigenous communities have cultivated bananas for at least 2,000 years. The findings challenge the once-predominant view that these early humans were exclusively hunter gatherers, says lead author Robert Williams, an archaeologist at Australian National University, in a statement.

As detailed in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, Williams and his colleagues unearthed an array of artifacts indicative of banana farming at the Wagadagam site on Mabuyag Island, which is located in the Torres Strait between the northern tip of Australia and Papua New Guinea. Finds included fossilized traces of fruit, stone tools, charcoal and retaining walls.

Per BBC News, modern historians argue that British colonizers intentionally ignored evidence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural systems in order to claim what they deemed “unsettled and unoccupied” land.

“The significance is we’re helping to change the narrative of what people were doing was more complex than what mainstream historical records had shown,” Williams tells Andrew Brown of the Canberra Times. “People wouldn’t have known that people in the Torres Strait had quite a complex and intensive agricultural system.”

In neighboring Papua New Guinea, evidence of banana farming dates back even earlier, with excavations yielding signs of roughly 7,000-year-old cultivation, according to a 2003 study published in the journal Science.

“The Torres Strait has historically been seen as a separating line between Indigenous groups who practiced agriculture in New Guinea but who in Australia were hunter gatherers,” says Williams in the statement. “ … [R]ather than being a barrier, the Torres Strait was more of a bridge or a filter of cultural and horticultural practices going both north and south.”

Archaeologists discovered the artifacts while investigating ceremonial sites located on Mabuyag Island, reports Cathy Van Extel for the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC). Some of these sites included terraces that looked like they could have once hosted gardens, leading Williams to analyze their soil in search of fossilized traces of ancient crops.

After examining thousands of microfossils, the researchers identified granules of banana starch and traces of microscopic structures known as phytoliths, notes the Times.

Williams tells the ABC that bananas are not native to the Torres Strait; he suggests that Mabuyag’s Indigenous Goegmulgal people acquired the fruit through trade with Papua New Guinea—whose horticultural history of banana cultivation was, at the time, already thousands of years old—and grew it alongside such staples as yam and taro.

The discovery holds special resonance for Williams, who is himself a descendant of the Kambri Ngunnawal peoples. In the statement, the archaeologist says he felt a responsibility to ensure his work reached the Torres Strait’s local Indigenous community.

“Historically, culture has been appropriated by non-Indigenous archaeologists and anthropologists, so it was really important for me to make a connection with the people in this community and ensure they understood the research really belongs to them,” explains Williams. “I hope this work is something the community can be really proud about. It demonstrates through clear evidence the diversity and complexity of early horticulture in the western Torres Strait.”

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