Re: trans-Pacific contacts

Yuri Kuchinsky (
26 Aug 1996 06:31:18 GMT

Jeffrey L Baker ( wrote:
: On 13 Aug 1996, Yuri Kuchinsky wrote:
: No, the majority of scholars believe that the sweet potato was a
: postcolumbian phenomenon, though there is still some debate on this issue.


You're absolutely and without doubt wrong about this. See further down in
the post.

: > : ... The bottle gourd has been found in the new world in contexts :
> : dating back to 7000 b.c. There is no reason to argue for the
transpacific : > : contacts to explain these plants.

Precisely. It came from Africa. See later.

: I would not be surprised if the coconut made its appearance in
: Prehispanic times, but, as I said before, I am unaware of any evidence
: for its appearance. Could you provide the names of the sites where it
: has been found?


: As with the bottle gourd, the coconut can propagate after long ocean


: Perhaps you should try examining some of the botanical literature on the
: bottle gourd's ability to survive long periods of immersion in salt water.

Yes, and I have already.

The following follows closely SEED TO CIVILIZATION, by Charles Heiser (New
edition, 1990, Harvard U. P.). He is quite a famous scholar of the origins
of agriculture.

It should be noted that Heiser is no diffusionist. In fact he's often a
significant _opponent_ of diffusionists. Yet he accepts human-assisted
diffusion for the sweet potato! Significant. For other plants in question
he's careful to hedge his bets and to qualify his language.

As far as coconut is concerned.

The place of origin of the coconut has been the subject
of some controversy in the past. There were some who
held that it was a native of the New World, primarily
because all of its close relatives are American. ...
While it is true that the coconut does have most of its
closer relatives among the American palms, there is now
general agreement among botanists that it originated in
the Indo-Pacific region. ...

The coconut was present in both Asia and the Americas
previous to 1492. At that time, however, it was known
only from western Panama in the Americas, and its wide
distribution in the New World came about in historical
times. Its presence in Panama previous to the arrival of
the Spanish can _probably_ be explained without invoking
human aid, for coconuts are able to float in sea water
... It was grown in India by 1000 b.c. but it may not
have been first domesticated there. (p. 166) [underline

Of course, diffusionists counter these arguments. They point to the fact
that coconuts will have extreme difficulty propagating on their own. But I
will not get into this discussion -- too technical, and the case is too
close to call. I will only note that if coconut came to the Americas on
its own, it should have spread far wider than Panama. The fact that it was
established in such a narrow area before Columbus points to its rather
late arrival to the Americas, hence, human-assisted diffusion.

And now, let's come back to sweet potato. Heiser is very clear on this.

At the time of the European discovery of the New World,
the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) was widely cultivated
in tropical America and was also being grown on some of
the Pacific islands. ... The presence of the plant on
either side of the Pacific at such an early date poses
several interesting questions -- among them, how and when
did it get across the ocean? ... While either the
introduction of seeds by some natural means or an
independent domestication remain a possibility, it
seems _far more likely_ that people were responsible for
the introduction of the sweet potato from the Americas
to the Pacific region. There are two ways in which this
might have occurred. ... (p. 139)

I hope this answers your objections satisfactorily. He has a lot more on
this, so refer to the book if you're interested.

About the bottle gourd.

I base the following on the work of Donald Lathrap.

Lathrap is an anthropologist and archaeologist with a strong
interest in paleo-ethno-botany -- the study of the origins of
domestication of earliest agricultural plants. In 1977, he published
included in the important volume, ORIGINS OF AGRICULTURE, C. A.
Reed, ed., Mouton (Proceedings of the IX International Congress of
Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences). This volume includes
many more important works about diffusion, including the article by

Lathrap proposes the idea of human-assisted diffusion of bottle
gourd from Africa into S. America at a very early date. This plant
was extremely important for earliest societies around the world.

What I will attempt is a model relating to the events
which brought _Lagenaria siceraria_ (bottle gourd) to
Ayacucho by 13,000 b.p., and to various points in
Mesoamerica by 9,000 b.p. (op. cit, p. 725)

The importance of the bottle gourd is generally little known outside
of the narrow circle of specialists. It was probably the earliest
domesticated plant ever. It was important for both its utilitarian
and its symbolic/ritual value. The earliest peoples (besides the
important symbolic use) used it for food, and also made containers
out of it. It is interesting that much of the earliest pottery was
modelled on the bottle gourd shape.

In his article, Lathrap provides a detailed analysis of various
modes of diffusion for bottle gourd.

... Schwerin (1970), Whitaker (1971), and Richardson
(1972) have all discussed the various agencies which
might have effected the trans-Atlantic crossing of
_Lagenaria_. ... While the gourd will reach the beaches
of northeastern Brazil with its seeds still quite
capable of terminating, the plant will not grow on the
salt sands and some mechanism must get the seeds off the
beach and into a more favourable environment. Man is the
most likely mechanism.


These considerations leave me with a most reluctant
acceptance of the third alternative as the most
probable: that a viable group of fishermen made the
canoe voyage from western Africa to eastern Brazil
bringing with them not only the bottle gourd and the
leguminous fish poisons (Quigley 1956), but also the
African linted cotton, _Gossypium herbaceum_ L., var.
_africanum_. (pp. 726-7)

These are only small excerpts from a long article. I think the balance of
evidence for the case of the bottle gourd clearly points to human-assisted
diffusion. (Heiser inclines to the opposite view in this case, but his
discussion of this in his book is quite brief, and he carefully qualifies
his language so as to leave the possibility of a different

Now, you bring up the case of the peanut.


: My sentance should read "precolumbian Old World". My mistake. Again, I will
: ask this question (and correctly) "where in the precolumbain Old World has
: the peanut been found." Please provide a reference to the site report where
: the peanut was found.

This is a rather obscure matter. What we have (and Needham provides the
refs) is at least one clear case of peanut being found in ancient China
during a professional archeological dig. There's also some other
circumstantial evidence of peanut being known in the Old World before

I see that you still haven't gotten hold of Needham's book. Is it so
difficult to find? Or are you still being reluctant to give up your
obvious (and totally unjustified) preconceptions about him? So far I've
been the one who went out and got and provided here all the relevant



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Students achieving Oneness will move on to Twoness === W. Allen