The Complex History of the Banana

Here is an article that demonstrates my knack for thorough research. I deliberately chose a subject I knew nothing about  – banana history – and created an in-depth article that will leave you entertained and educated.

When you’re looking for a scrumptious, healthy snack, where do you turn? Many Americans will turn to the bright yellow banana for something quick, natural and convenient, but have you ever wondered where bananas come from?

It turns out that the fruit we take for granted actually began its historic diffusion through Western culture many years ago, all the way across the world in South East Asia.

A Long, Long Time Ago, in a Land Far, Far Away…

We don’t know exactly when bananas were first cultivated, but we do know where. The earliest archeological evidence of domestic cultivation can be found in the swampy highlands of New Guniea. Specifically, Kuk Swamp is estimated to be the first place of cultivation; there’s evidence of water irrigation systems dating back as far as 8,000 BC.

Furthermore, in ancient Buddhist lore we can find evidence in story form of bananas being cultivated and recognized as edible goods. For example, in the story of Vessantara Jataka – a tale used in Buddhist culture to demonstrate the ideal of immaculate generosity – there is one scene that details Prince Vessantara seeing ‘bananas the size of elephant tusks’ in the jungle. This indicates that bananas were recognized as edible fruit at the time of writing.

From New Guinea the banana seems to have spread quickly throughout the rest of the island belt found South East of Asia before making its way further Northeast of Africa.

Fast Forward 7,000 Years

Because banana cultivation originated in an isolated chain of islands, diffusion to the rest of the world was rather slow. Archaeologists aren’t sure whether the banana was introduced to North Africa by Asian farmers or if it was native to the land, but the next stepping stone in the widespread domestication of this delicious yellow fruit took place in Madagascar around 1,000 BC. However, Northern Africa is not the starting point attributed with Western diffusion of the banana fruit. Rather, the Middleast is attributed with spreading word and practice of banana cultivation westward.

Religious Cultivation – The Presence of the Banana in Islam

The diffusion of the banana throughout modern day Europe can be a attributed to Muhammed’s aggressive spread of Islam. The banana is referenced in many Islamic poems and hadiths, and still to this day banana consumption is greatest during the time of Ramadan (a holy period of fasting for the Islamic people).

As word and practice of the Islamic religion spread further west, so too did word of the banana. By 650 AD the banana was brought to Palestine by Islamic military powers. From Palestine to Egypt the banana saw widespread cultivation throughout this time period, and by 900 AD we can find clear textual evidence of domestic cultivation.
Bananas Go Medieval!

As Europe became more and more populated, banana cultivation became more and more widely practiced. By 1,300 AD the best bananas in the world were said to come from Granada, Spain, a testament to the widespread acceptance of this fruit as something worth growing and trading, and most importantly, eating.

By the time Columbus discovered America bananas were more frequently traded from Africa as opposed to Europe. Portugese traders are said to have brought the first bananas from West Africa to North America for domestic cultivation. In fact, the word Banana is rooted in the Wolof language, which is of West African origin.

Were Bananas Always Yellow?

No, not at all. Depending on the species, bananas can range in size from 1 inch long to 12 inches long (or longer), and in color from pure yellow to fuzzy pink to green and white stripes.

Today all bananas are from the Musa Acuminata species – the stereotypical yellow banana. What you’ll find at the grocery store today has been asexually bred to maintain a consistent strain and genetically altered to become sterile once introduced into cultivation.

There’s no doubt that the banana has played a major role in our world’s history. It’s certainly come a long way, and the bananas we eat today are nothing like the seed-filled bananas of 8,000 BC.

Now that you know a little more about the history of the banana, the next time you peel back that bright yellow skin to see a succulent fruit beneath, you’ll think: “Wow, this banana started it’s journey through history into my tummy all the way across the world on some island in East Asia – that’s crazy!”

Actually, now that I think about it, I think I’ll go peel one right now. Thanks for reading!