Travel, Teach, Live in Asia

Very Ancient Origins to Tropical Agriculture
By:Robin Day B.Sc. MSc. B.Ed. <[email protected]>

Researched and wrote this draft article while living in Asia. Readers may find it interesting.

The Very Ancient Origins of Tropical Agriculture

New theories find fertile ground

(Rural Delivery magazine, Canada. Jan./Feb. 2006, Sarracenia magazine, Canada, January 2006.)

My home in northeastern North America has few native plants with large, starchy reserves. Most seeds and tubers from our region are small. The local plant with the largest starchy seed would probably be Nuphar, the yellow water lily, and these are available only in late summer. The Osmunda fern has a starchy apical shoot tip. Neither of these is a reliable year round food source.
Accordingly, native peoples and early European settlers obtained concentrated protein and fat from animal sources in places where they gathered food on dry land. Near the shore, sea creatures and intertidal shell fish, especially the sedentary and easily harvested Blue and Horse Muscles, were a ready source of calories and protein.
When settlers introduced potatoes and fruit tree seeds to North America, they were continuing a botanical tradition that extends far back in time.

Not long ago, an article in National Geographic asserted the prevailing theory that agriculture began around 8,000 BC when Neolithic man, actually, some scholars say it was probably Neolithic woman, began farming. Women figured out that if they saved some of the grain they gathered, scattered it on the ground and waited around a few months, more grain would spring up. The first significant agricultural crops were grasses: barley, wheat, rice etc.(National Geographic, T.R. Reid, Oct. 1998.)
This is an outdated view. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The earliest forms of agriculture had nothing to do with cultivating annual cereals. Instead, early agriculture likely involved growing root crops and caring for individual trees and small orchards and this took place in tropical regions.

Until recently, it was thought there was no evidence remaining in ancient soil layers to support this new theory. However, diagnostic starch grains have been found in ancient soil layers that provide evidence of the plants that grew there in the distant past.
As well, botanists have identified characteristic crystals that come from inside living plants. Such crystals are calcareous, and are called raphides or cystoliths. These crystals (and starch grains), have been found in ancient soil layers and stuck to ancient stone tools. They help identify ancient food plants that were cultivated in the soil.
Crystals from an Aroid, probably taro (Colocasia esculenta), have been found in Kilu Cave on Buka Island, in the Solomon Islands, east of New Guinea. The remains have been dated to 29 thousand years ago.
Taro is also known as Elephant Ear, because of the size and shape of its leaf. The base of the stem swells, making an edible starchy tuber. Side shoots form other tubers with a brown scaly skin. The leaves are also edible when cooked (they must not be eaten raw). In regions where taro is commonly eaten as a dietary staple, the leaves are often used as a wrapping for cooking the tubers. Taro is usually grown in wet mucky soils.
Some have proposed that rice may originally have been a grassy weed that made its way into the ancient Taro plots. The oldest cultivated rice so far discovered has turned up in peaty soil layers in South Korea, near Taejon. I lived there from 1996 through -97. The carbonized or burned rice seeds were found with other evidence of agriculture, and surprisingly, date back to about 15,000 years ago, the Pleistocene Ice Age, when Mammoths still roamed the world.
Rice is believed to have come from tropical Southeast Asia, but really ancient remains have not yet been found, as there was massive flooding at the end of the last Ice Age, and lowland areas were covered by the sea. For this reason, archaeologists have focused on upland cave sites like Spirit Cave in Thailand, and Niahs Cave in Borneo, looking for early rice remains.

In addition to cultivating taro, sugar cane, and other tubers, tropical peoples in Southeast Asia depended on food resources from many trees. These include Coconut, Banana, Durian, Snake Fruit, Mango, Mangostene and numerous other trees producing lesser known fruits and nuts.
Oil palms produce oil, and the stems of some palms and cycads provide large quantities of sago starch. Many of these sago palms and cycads re-sprout from the base when the tree trunk is cut down to extract starch. Thus they provide a future harvest.
Banana and Coconut were especially important, and raphides or crystals of banana have been unearthed in Cameroon, West Africa, demonstrating long distance transport of these plants, probably by Austronesian speaking sea traders from Southeast Asia.

Just when did agriculture begin? Well, chimpanzee bands are known to defend certain fruit trees in their territory. Is this agriculture? Prairie dogs will weed the vegetation around their burrows, cutting inedible species with their teeth and letting the edible grow among their manure. Is this gardening?
Imagine root gatherers in the distant past, women and children digging edible roots, like Sweet potato and Cassava in Central and South America, Yams in Africa or wild Taro in Southeast Asia.
Sometimes the women would harvest all the tubers and take them away. But at some point in time, one of them would have cautioned the others, saying, "Leave one tuber, or the leafy mother plant, and more will grow back." I call this passive gardening. This would not have been such a great mental leap. In tropical areas plants grow quickly and seem much more animated. Food gatherers return to their favorite spots time and again, year after year. Even elephants and bears do this. They have good memories.
At some point, these early agricultural women would have moved tubers or whole plants from place to place and begun to clear away competing vegetation or weeds. Here came the great realization: consider the needs of the plant. Nurture nature and nature will nurture.
The first real gardens may have started this way, or may have simply sprouted from vegetable garbage. I saw this take place near Trinity, Newfoundland, from potato peelings at a roadside picnic spot. Although chimps don't tend gardens, it may still be that root agriculture is older than the human species. It is quite possible that Homo erectus practiced a sort of casual gathering and passive gardening.

Tending, defending or protecting valuable trees and bushes is, as mentioned, another form of agriculture, arboriculture. Its beginnings are lost in time.
When modern humans (or ancestors of modern humans, e.g. Homo erectus or Australopithecus) took an interest in eating fruit and nut trees, they were spreading the seeds, and leaving their dung, urine, and other organic wastes in the area. This begins an informal orchard, probably near traditional campsites. Presumably, they would have defended the orchards from other bands and from other animals.
They may have removed vines from the trees and snapped off competing saplings. They certainly trampled weeds with their gathering activities. In time, fruit and nut trees co-evolve with those who care for them, becoming larger, often less fibrous, more colorful, with more flavor. Family bands still live this way in tropical forests, especially in the Amazon. In fact, there need never have been intentional planting of these trees, it may have happened spontaneously.
Author Charles Mann discusses such jungle orchards and managed forests in his recently published book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. When you next dig a potato or pick an apple, consider your personal connection to the tropical forests. Think too, of all the tropical fruits and nuts, coffee too, we still consume, an endless desire for the diversity.

(Robin Day grew up in Clarenville, Newfoundland. He is author of The Atlas of Labrador Plants, and co-author of The Rare Plants of PEI. He currently teaches in China.)


Eden in the East
Joseph Campbell (Primitive Mythology, Penguin, New York, 1991) first pointed me toward ancient agriculture in New Guinea. Since then, I have found a wonderful book that also discusses earliest myths in human history, Stephen Oppenheimer Eden in the East,(Orion, 1999). Study it. Oppenheimer means us to take the title seriously. I found another book pointing in the same direction, and much earlier, The Book of Enoch, discussed at length at these internet discussion boards: [email protected] and [email protected]. Happy reading.

Copyright 2006 Robin Day

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