Publication of the multidisciplinary study in the American scientific journal PNAS
Special issue, on the history of banana domestication, of the journal Ethnobotany Research and Applications
Bioversity International website
09/01/2012 - Press release
It was a multidisciplinary approach that succeeded in tracing the history of banana, through the ages and across continents. Biologists, geneticists, linguists and archeologists worked together to gain an understanding of the changes in banana, from the original forms, reproduced from seed, to today's edible forms that produce seedless fruits.
Many types of bananas grow wild in various parts of Southeast Asia. Man very quickly showed an interest in banana, not just for its fruit, which at best contained a small amount of flesh surrounding very hard seeds, but also for its fibres and medicinal properties, and the fact that it could be used as a packaging or building material.
When they went to explore neighbouring islands, people took the plants and animals they needed to survive, which of course included bananas. And it was the contact between previously isolated genetic forms that resulted in the sterile forms (diploids and then triploids) that were subsequently bred. Some of those forms were disseminated far and wide and are now grown the world over for the international dessert banana market, and above all as a staple food for millions of people.
However, these banana varieties are highly fragile, and founded on a narrow genetic base. In the near future, diseases, water shortages and soil salinity will be a major problem in most producing countries. Scientists from Australia, Belgium and France thus pooled their expertise to trace the processes by which the various banana varieties became domesticated and diversified, in order to ensure their sustainability.
"The hypothesis that it was moving primitive bananas between the islands of Southeast Asia, and as far as India, that resulted in the diversity of genomes among the forms grown nowadays was borne out by a study of the words relating to banana ", Xavier Perrier, a CIRAD researcher, explains.
Linguists studying the hundreds of languages spoken in Southeast Asia were able to pinpoint words referring to banana varieties. Their knowledge of the rules of how languages change enabled them to distinguish, within a given family, between primitive and derivative forms and thus trace the geographical spread of those words, and consequently of the people that used those words and grew those banana varieties.
Archaeological studies later served to date the major events in that history. For instance, people in Papua New Guinea were already growing bananas 7000 years ago, while there were already banana plants on the West coast of Africa 2500 years ago!
This multidisciplinary approach was launched at the 2008 World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, followed by a special issue of the journal Ethnobotany Research and Application, in 2009. The results of the study have just been recognized by being published in the journal PNAS. Most recently, the group met in Brussels to define and schedule future work on this topic, at the interface between biological and human sciences.