Scientists have plucked clues from genetics, archaeology and linguistics to reconstruct a history of the domestication of bananas, showing that some of India's cultivated bananas have 4,000-year old genomic roots from Southeast Asia.
Their studies suggest that the earliest cultivation of bananas was in the Kuk Swamp area of Papua New Guinea about 6,600 years ago, and that bananas were ferried by small groups of people from Southeast Asia moving westward into India and beyond.
A Southeast Asian banana species known as Mlali, a short and yellow variety, was carried from the Indonesian islands into India around 4,000 years ago where its genome is still found in three varieties ' Pome, Nendra Padithi and Nadaan, their studies show.
The findings appeared this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"It probably arrived 4,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years. We don't have enough archaeological data to narrow things down," said Mark Donohue, a linguist at the Australian National University who was involved in the study.
The researchers combined genetic, archaeological and linguistic information to trace the domestication of the Musa family of bananas, which includes the standard yellow bananas sold around the world. The researchers assumed that any cultivated plant would travel with people along with its name, and when a plant is culturally new, its name would be retained in the places where it had been introduced.
Linguistic data supports the long route of dispersal from Indonesia to India.
Many present-day words for bananas appear to root from the word qarutay that researchers believe had its origins in the Philippines. As the bananas moved, so did their names, slightly tweaked at each new land where it was absorbed.
"Agutay, arutay, kelutay, kalu and the Hindi term kela are all derived from qarutay," said Xavier Perrier, a systems biologist and research team member at the Centre for Agricultural Research and Development in Montpellier, France. "The word travelled from the Philippines across Vietnam, Thailand and Burma into India," Perrier told The Telegraph. "This is exactly the route that the Mlali variety took into India," he said.
"This study confirms that the Indo-China region was the centre of origin of bananas," said M. Mohamed Mustaffa, the director of India's National Research Centre for Banana, Tiruchirapalli, who was not associated with the study.
"India has wild bananas native to the northeastern region and some in the Western Ghats, but the bananas cultivated today are products of the crossing of species with part of the genomic makeup coming from Southeast Asian varieties," Mustaffa said.
Archaeology also supports the westward flow of bananas into South Asia from Southeast Asian islands. Residues of Musa dating back to about 4,000 years have been observed at a site named Kot Diji in Pakistan.
Donohue said the studies also provided clear evidence for movement of people from the east to the west. "We know that the inhabitants of Madagascar are at least in part the descendants of an east-to-west movement about 1,200 years ago," Donohue told The Telegraph.
"We also have some records of people from Java and Malaysia trading with India about 2,000 years ago," he said. "It could have been a minor movement in terms of the number of people, but a big transformation in terms of culture."
Mudur, G.S. 2011. "4000-year-old banana roots in Southeast Asia". Yahoo News. Posted: July 17, 2011. Available online: http://in.news.yahoo.com/4000-old-banana-roots-southeast-asia-000000938.html