Phytolithsplant Fingerprints

The mighty microscopic phytolith

Fingerprints as identification devices have been used as far back as ancient China and of course are an infallible method of tracking law-breakers in modern criminology but only recently has anyone even asked if plants, which have no fingers of course, might have something just as unique. In the world of paleo-botany, understanding how certain plants could have been transplanted from one part of the world to another is one strong clue into early civilizations and their cultures. Enter the ‘banana’ tree of Africa.
Africa is known for it’s wildlife and in particular for the gorillas popularized by stories like Burrough’s TARZAN and films ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. As baseball is to the hot-dog so is the gorilla to the banana but every indication is that the African banana isn’t African at all but a transplant from New Guinea more than 7500 miles away. So how long has the banana been in Africa and how came it there?
Early eyewitnesses attest to well developed banana ‘orchards in Africa around 500 AD and the earliest botanical evidence pushes that date back to 500 BC thanks to ongoing archeological efforts in Cameroon. The fossil record can offer little. With such high humidity and large amounts of yearly rain the odds of a soft bodied – soft fruit bearing plant like the banana having the opportunity to fossilize is beyond any reasonable calculation. Add to this the way in which the banana is cultivated, cutting and re-rooting shoots that come up around the base of an existing tree, and we have an unexpected problem of uncovering both a functional time period and answering the subsequent questions of who, and why and how.

In 1997, while working in Uganda along the edge of a papyrus swamp, David Taylor, a professor from Trinity College in Dublin, discovered in some of his earth core samples a little known microscopic ‘fingerprint’ of what is now believed to be the first banana trees ever planted in Africa. If his findings prove to be correct then the first banana eaten by a gorilla probably happened around 5000 BC. Research scientists in Belgium first discovered the microscopic and nearly indestructible silica bodies called phytoliths in the stems and leaves of indiviual plants and were then able to identify key differences in their size and shape that were plant-family-specific. Taylor’s core samples were studied by the experts in Belgium and their findings were that the phytoliths were not from the banana’s relative plant, the plantains, or from the Ensette (also a relative sometimes called the ‘false banana’) but were truly banana.
In light of the discovery the next question was ‘who’. Was there an ancient ‘Johnny Appleseed’ who took it upon him/her self to plant banana plants as far and as wide as they could? The ancient inhabitants of Africa were believed to have been hunters and fisher-folk, not cultivators or planters but the presence of the banana demands that someone planted it. The ramifications of this reality has forced a reassessment of what life at the dawn of pre-history was like and a broadening to include the probability that along with their hunting and fishing there were some who tilled the ground and established orchards of edible fruit trees. With an ever-broadening scope of understanding that sea travel and trade has been an on-going endeavor for as long as man himself has been on the planet, Taylor has concluded that the first bananas came to Africa by boat and were trade goods along the coast of Tanzania near Zanzibar. These were then carried inland and ultimately planted near, but not necessarily adjacent, to any settlement or camp. In other words, man sprang from the cradle of civilization ready to plant and tend the earth.