Early Bananas in Africa: The state of the art

Katharina Neumann, Elisabeth Hildebrand


Because the genus Musa is not indigenous to Africa, remains of bananas in African archaeological or geological contexts indicate cultivation of domesticated forms. During the past 10 years, at least two claims have been made for discovery of banana phytoliths in middle to late Holocene African contexts (Lejju et al. 2005, 2006, Mbida et al. 2000, 2001, 2006). These finds have not met with universal acceptance (cf. Mbida et al. 2005, Vansina 2003), in part because application of phytolith studies to African archaeology is just beginning. In this paper, we examine current evidence for bananas in Africa, and discuss its implications for African prehistory.
We first consider how various scenarios for the arrival of bananas in Africa relate to broader questions about prehistoric social and economic change. We then explore requirements for archaeological identification of bananas in light of evolutionary, morphological and environmental relations between Musa and its sister taxon Ensete, which grows wild in Africa. Finally, we evaluate existing evidence for Musa in prehistoric African contexts and suggest ways in which future research might help consolidate current claims.

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