All humans move plants, most often by accident and sometimes with intent. Humans, unfortunately, are only rarely moved by the sight of exotic plants.
Unfortunately, the history of plant movements is often difficult to establish. In the past, the only way to tell a plant's homeland was to look for the number of related species in a region to provide clues on their area of origin. This idea was firmly established by Nikolai Vavilov before he was sent off to Siberia, thanks to Stalin's crank-scientist Lysenko, to meet an early death. Today, genetic relatedness of plants can be examined by comparing the similarity of DNA sequences (although this is apparently harder than with animals due to issues with polyploidy). Some recent studies on individual plants and their relatedness have provided insights into human history. A study on baobabs in India and their geographical origins in East Africa established by a study in 2015 and that of coconuts in 2011 are hopefully just the beginnings. These demonstrate ancient human movements which have never received much attention from most standard historical accounts.
|Inferred trasfer routes for Baobabs - source|
Unfortunately there are a lot of older crank ideas that can be difficult for untrained readers to separate. I recently stumbled on a book by Grafton Elliot Smith, a Fullerian professor who succeeded J.B.S.Haldane but descended into crankdom. The book "Elephants and Ethnologists" (1924) can be found online and it is just one among several similar works by Smith. It appears that Smith used a skewed and misapplied cousin of Dollo's Law. According to him, cultural innovation tended to occur only once and that they were then carried on with human migrations. Smith was subsequently labelled a "hyperdiffusionist", a disparaging term used by ethnologists. When he saw illustrations of Mayan sculpture he envisioned an elephant where others saw at best a stylized tapir. Not only were they elephants, they were Asian elephants, complete with mahouts and Indian-style goads and he saw this as definite evidence for an ancient connection between India and the Americas! An idea that would please some modern-day Indian cranks and zealots.
|Smith's idea of the elephant as emphasised by him.|
|The actual Stela in question|
"Fanciful" is the current consensus view on most of Smith's ideas, but let's get back to plants.
I happened to visit Chikmagalur recently and revisited the beautiful temples of Belur on the way. The "Archaeological Survey of India-approved" guide at the temple did not flinch when he described an object in the hand of a carved figure as being maize. He said maize was a symbol of prosperity. Now maize is a crop that was imported to India and by most accounts only after the Portuguese reached the Americas in 1492 and made sea incursions into India in 1498. In the late 1990s, a Swedish researcher identified similar carvings (actually another one at Somnathpur) from 12th century temples in Karnataka as being maize cobs. It was subsequently debunked by several Indian researchers from IARI and from the University of Agricultural Sciences where I was then studying. An alternate view is that the object is a mukthaphala, an imaginary fruit made up of pearls.
|Somnathpur carvings. The figures to the |
left and right hold the puported cobs in their left hands.
The pre-Columbian oceanic trade ideas however do not end with these two cases from India. The third story (and historically the first, from 1879) is that of the sitaphal or custard apple. The founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, Alexander Cunningham, described a fruit in one of the carvings from Bharhut, a fruit that he identified as custard-apple. The custard-apple and its relatives are all from the New World. The Bharhut Stupa is dated to 200 BC and the custard-apple, as quickly pointed out by others, could only have been in India post-1492. The Hobson-Jobson has a long entry on the custard apple that covers the situation well. In 2009, a study raised the possibility of custard apples in ancient India. The ancient carbonized evidence is hard to evaluate unless one has examined all the possible plant seeds and what remains of their microstructure. The researchers however establish a date of about 2000 B.C. for the carbonized remains and attempt to demonstrate that it looks like the seeds of sitaphal. The jury is still out.
|The Hobson-Jobson has an interesting entry on the custard-apple|
I was quite surprised that there are not many writings that synthesize and comment on the history of these ideas on the Internet and somewhat oddly I found no mention of these three cases in the relevant Wikipedia article (naturally, fixed now with an entire new section) - pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact theories
There seems to be value for someone to put together a collation of plant introductions to India along with sources, dates and locations of introduction. Some of the old specimens of introduced plants may well be worthy of further study.
- Pithecollobium dulce - Portuguese introduction from Mexico to Philippines and India on the way in the 15th or 16th century. The species was described from specimens taken from the Coromandel region (ie type locality outside native range) by William Roxburgh.
- Eucalyptus globulus? - There are some claims that Tipu planted the first of these (See my post on this topic). It appears that the first person to move eucalyptus plants (probably E. globulosum) out of Australia was Jacques Labillardière. Labillardiere was surprized by the size of the trees in Tasmania. The lowest branches were 60 m above the ground and the trunks were 9 m in diameter (27 m circumference). He saw flowers through a telescope and had some flowering branches shot down with guns! (original source in French) His ship was seized by the British in Java and that was around 1795 or so and released in 1796. All subsequent movements seem to have been post 1800 (ie after Tipu's death). If Tipu Sultan did indeed plant the Eucalyptus here he must have got it via the French through the Labillardière shipment. The Nilgiris were apparently planted up starting with the work of Captain Frederick Cotton (Madras Engineers) at Gayton Park(?)/Woodcote Estate in 1843.
- Muntingia calabura - when? - I suspect that Tickell's flowerpecker populations boomed after this, possibly with a decline in the Thick-billed flowerpecker.
- Delonix regia - when?
- In 1857, Mr New from Kew was made Superintendent of Lalbagh and he introduced in the following years several Australian plants from Kew including Araucaria, Eucalyptus, Grevillea, Dalbergia and Casuarina. Mulberry plant varieties were introduced in 1862 by Signor de Vicchy. The Hebbal Butts plantation was establised around 1886 by Cameron along with Mr Rickets, Conservator of Forests, who became Superintendent of Lalbagh after New's death - rain trees, ceara rubber (Manihot glaziovii), and shingle trees(?). Apparently Rickets was also involved in introducing a variety of potato (kidney variety) which got named as "Ricket". -from Krumbiegel's introduction to "Report on the progress of Agriculture in Mysore" (1939) [Hebbal Butts would be the current day Airforce Headquarters)
- Johannessen, Carl L.; Parker, Anne Z. (1989). "Maize ears sculptured in 12th and 13th century A.D. India as indicators of pre-columbian diffusion". Economic Botany 43 (2): 164–180.
- Payak, M.M.; Sachan, J.K.S (1993). "Maize ears not sculpted in 13th century Somnathpur temple in India". Economic Botany 47 (2): 202–205.
- Pokharia, Anil Kumar; Sekar, B.; Pal, Jagannath; Srivastava, Alka (2009). "Possible evidence of pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages based on conventional LSC and AMS 14C dating of associated charcoal and a carbonized seed of custard apple (Annona squamosa L.)" Radiocarbon 51 (3): 923–930. - Also see
- Veena, T.; Sigamani, N. (1991). "Do objects in friezes of Somnathpur temple (1286 AD) in South India represent maize ears?". Current Science 61 (6): 395–397.
- Rangan, H., & Bell, K. L. (2015). Elusive Traces: Baobabs and the African Diaspora in South Asia. Environment and History, 21(1):103–133. doi:10.3197/096734015x1418317996982 [The authors however make a mistake in using Achaya, K.T. Indian Food (1994) who in turn cites Vishnu-Mittre's faulty paper for the early evidence of Eleusine coracana in India. Vishnu-Mittre himself admitted his error in a paper that re-examined his specimens - see below]
Dubious research sources
- Singh, Anurudh K. (2016). "Exotic ancient plant introductions: Part of Indian 'Ayurveda' medicinal system". Plant Genetic Resources. 14(4):356–369. 10.1017/S1479262116000368. [Among the claims here are that Bixa orellana was introduced prior to 1000 AD - on the basis of Sanskrit names which are assigned to that species - does not indicate basis or original dated sources. The author works in the "International Society for Noni Science"! ]
- The same author has rehashed this content with several references and published it in no less than the Proceedings of the INSA - Singh, Anurudh Kumar (2017) Ancient Alien Crop Introductions Integral to Indian Agriculture: An Overview. Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy 83(3). There is a series of cherry-picked references, many of the claims of which were subsequently dismissed by others or remain under serious question. In one case there is a claim for early occurrence of Eleusine coracana in India - to around 1000 BC. The reference cited is in fact a secondary one - the original work was by Vishnu-Mittre and the sample was rechecked by another bunch of scientist and they clearly showed that it was not even a monocot - in fact Vishnu-Mittre himself accepted the error - the original paper was Vishnu-Mittre (1968). "Protohistoric records of agriculture in India". Trans. Bose Res. Inst. Calcutta. 31: 87–106. and the re-analysis of the samples can be found in - Hilu, K. W.; de Wet, J. M. J.; Harlan, J. R. Harlan (1979). "Archaeobotanical Studies of Eleusine coracana ssp. coracana (Finger Millet)". American Journal of Botany. 66 (3):330–333. Clearly INSA does not have great peer review and have gone with argument by claimed authority.
- PS 2019-August. Singh, Anurudh, K. (2018). Early history of crop presence/introduction in India: III. Anacardium occidentale L., Cashew Nut. Asian Agri-History 22(3):197-202. Singh has published another article claiming that cashew was present in ancient India well before the Columbian exchange - with "evidence" from J.L. Sorenson of a sketch purportedly made from a Bharhut stupa balustrade carving - the original of which is not found here and a carving from Jambukeshwara temple with a "cashew" arising singly and placed atop a stalk that rises from below like a lily! He also claims that some Sanskrit words and translations (from texts/copies of unknown provenance or date) confirm ancient existence. I accidentally asked about whether he had examined his sources carefully and received a rather interesting response which I find very useful as a classic symptom of the problems of science in India. More interestingly I learned that John L. Sorenson is well known for his affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and apparently part of Mormon foundations is the claim that Mesoamerican cultures were of Semitic origin and much of the "research" of their followers have attempted to bolster support for this by various means.