Tracing antiquity of banana cultivation in Papua New Guinea

A project undertaken at the Centre for Geoarchaeology and Palaeoenvironmental Research, School of Environmental Science and Management, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW, and supervised by C Lentfer and W Boyd

Several wild bananas are endemic to the Papua New Guinea region. Included are Eumusa and Australimusa species, the giant banana of the highlands, Musa ingens, and the drought tolerant species Ensete glaucum (Argent 1976, Simmonds 1956). Additionally, there are hundreds of banana varieties grown in plantations and village gardens: triploid banana varieties, originating from wild Eumusa bananas, hundreds of Eumusa diploids, Australimusa/Eumusa diploid and polyploid crosses and Australimusa Fe’i type bananas (MacDaniels 1947, Sharrock 1988,1989, Daniells 2001). Therefore, given the significance of bananas in both natural and cultural landscapes in Papua New Guinea, it is perhaps not so surprising that there is a growing body of evidence in support their early cultivation there (Bowdery 1999, Wilson1985). Indeed, new evidence arising from archaeological and palaeoenvironmental studies at Kuk Swamp in the Western Highlands Province suggests a very long history of banana cultivation in Papua New Guinea dating back to at least 7000 years ago and possibly as long ago as 10 000 years (Denham et al. 2003). This is the longest record for banana cultivation in the world. Also, other archaeological sites such as Watom Island in East New Britain have additional evidence of banana cultivation dated to approximately 2300 BP, a time when people making Lapita pottery lived on the island. In view of the significance of these findings, therefore, especially with regard to origins of plant domestication and agriculture, it has been important to try to find out what kinds of bananas people were growing in the past, and indeed, determine whether these early bananas were cultivars or whether they were just growing wild.

Phytoliths (i.e. biogenic silica bodies deposited in plants) are the ideal way for finding out about the prehistory of bananas and tracing patterns of dispersal. Preliminary studies showed there to be some degree of difference between phytoliths from different types of bananas but more work with additional modern reference material was needed to be certain. The aim of this project was to collect more material to add to the modern reference collections to facilitate further study. Jeff Daniells from the Queensland Department of Primary Industries had helped to compile the Musalogue for the ‘International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain’ and was invited by Lentfer to participate in the fieldwork. As well as helping with banana identifications he was able to pursue some of his banana disease and nutrition interests, documenting incidence of disease and collecting suckers with potential use for breeding resistant and/or vitamin rich banana varieties.

With financial support given by the Pacific Biological Foundation, fieldwork commenced in August 2002. Over 100 new accessions of wild and cultivated bananas were obtained from a wide geographic region including West New Britain, East New Britain, New Ireland, Western Highlands, East Sepik, Madang and Milne Bay. (Figures 1 to 13). Some new distributional records in addition to many interesting cultivars were obtained. Much assistance was given by the staff of Papua New Guinea Government Institutions and village farmers.

The plant material collected is now lodged in the Quarantine Laboratory at the School of Environmental Science and Management, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW, Australia. Analysis of the phytolith assemblages extracted from the additional banana samples have been very useful for clarifying some of the palaeoenvironmental issues associated with the archaeological studies. Following a more extensive examination of banana seed phytoliths the difference between Eumusa, Australimusa, Ensete and Musa ingens was confirmed (Figure 14). It was also found that Musa ingens was growing at Kuk together with Eumusa bananas about 10 000 years ago. Now, given the affirmation of Eumusa presence at Kuk and corroborative evidence from other archaeological and genetic studies, there is very strong evidence for early agriculture at the site (Denham et al. 2003). Furthermore, the banana cultivation of Eumusa bananas on Watom has been verified (Lentfer and Green in press).

At this stage there is still much more morphometric analyses of banana phytoliths to be completed and the results from these analyses have the potential to throw even more light on the issue of banana cultivation and domestication in Papua New Guinea and regions beyond. Indeed, with the discovery of more sites with banana microfossils, the outlook is very promising for future research.

Our sincere thanks goes to the PNG government officials and staff  (NARI, DAL, DPI, CCEA and CCRI) in particular Valentine Kambori, Rosa Kambuou and Jeff Wiles for their support and kind assistance with getting the project up and running, and Janet Paofa, Martin Gunther, David Minemba, James Maima, Moses Woruba, Will Akus, Joseph Wasem, Marcel Tokorewaga, Kauwe Murley, Luke Nama, Louis Kurika, March Tovue, Joy Penias, Scola Singit, Nick Eki and Manau Peni for their kind assistance that ensured the success of the project. We also thank Nick Lyons for his kind hospitality and all the people who showed us around their gardens and allowed us to take samples. A full report of the banana project has been issued to the Pacific Biological Foundation (Lentfer et al. 2003). It includes a list of accessions and sampling locations as well as a section commenting on banana disease and the need for germplasm conservation in Papua New Guinea.


Argent, G. C. G. (1976)  The wild bananas of Papua New Guinea. Notes from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh 35, 77-114.

Bowdery, D. (1999) Phytoliths from tropical sediments: Reports from Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea. Indo-Pacific Prehistory: The Melaka Papers 2, 159-166.

Daniells, J.,  Jenny, D., Karamura, D. and Tomekpe, K. (2001) Musalogue: a catalogue of Musa germplasm. Diversity in the genus Musa. (E. Arnaud and S. Sharrock, compil.). International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain, Montpellier, France.

Denham, T., Haberle, S. G., Lentfer, C., Fullagar,  R.,  Field, J., Porch,  N., Therin,  M., Winsborough  B., and Golson, J. (2003)  Multi-disciplinary Evidence for the Origins of Agriculture from 6950-6440 Cal BP at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of New Guinea. Science June Issue.

Lentfer, C. J. (2003) Tracing antiquity of banana cultivation in Papua New Guinea: Report on collection of modern reference material from Papua New Guinea in 2002. Unpublished report prepared for the Pacific Biological Foundation, Sydney, NSW, Australia.

Lentfer, C. J. and Green, R. C. (in press) Phytolith evidence for the terrestrial plant component at the Lapita Reber-Rakival site on Watom Island, Papua New Guinea. In V. Attenborough and R. Fullagar (Eds.) A Pacific Odyssey: Archaeology and Anthropology in the Western Pacific. Papers in Honour of Jim Specht. Records of the Australian Museum. Supplement.

MacDaniels, L. H. (1947) A study of the Fe’i banana and its distribution with reference to Polynesian migrations. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 190. Honolulu, Hawaii.

Sharrock, S (1988) Report on banana germplasm collecting mission to Papua New Guinea  27 February 1988 to 22 March 1988. Unpubl. report for the Queeensland Department of Primary Industries and the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources.

Sharrock, S (1989) Report on banana germplasm collecting mission to Papua New Guinea  22 October to 27 November 1988. Unpubl. report for the Queeensland Department of Primary Industries and the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources.

Simmonds, N. W. (1956)  Botanical results of the banana collecting expedition 1954-5. Kew Bulletin 11 (3), 463-489.

Wilson, S. M. (1985) Phytolith analysis at Kuk, an early agricultural site in Papua New Guinea. Archaeology in Oceania 20 (3), 90-97.

Captions to Figures

Figure 1. Ensete glaucum showing bract retention on bunch. The large seeds in the fruit are used to make necklaces.

Figure 2. Carol Lentfer and Bill Boyd with Luke Nama and Louis Kurika from the Lowlands Agricultural Experimental Station, Kerevat, East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea.

Figure 3. The erect bunch of Musa maclayi a wild Australimusa banana species.

Figure 4.  Fruit of  Musa maclayi showing seeds.

Figure 5. Wild Australimusa species Musa peekelii with a pendulous bunch.

Figure 6.  Seeds in the fruit of  Musa peekelii.

Figures 7 and 8. The wild giant banana of montane forests, Musa ingens.

Figure 9. Bunches of wild Eumusa bananas and hybrids. From left to right, M. shizocarpa, AS, AS, M. acuminata ssp. banksii and M. acuminata ssp. banksii.

Figure 10. Bunch of Musa peekelii ssp. angustigemma.

Figure 11. Fruit of an AS hybrid with pointed apex collected from the Madang region. This variety is named after the snail shown in the picture. Like the banana, the snail shell is distinctly pointed.

Figures 12 and 13.  Wild Australimusa banana species, Musa maclayi growing in sheltered gully and bunches showing differences in bract retention.

Figure 14. Articulated phytoliths from seed of Musa acuminata ssp. banksii QH067962 showing distinct dorsal ridging of Eumusa seed phytoliths. B: Articulated phytoliths from seed of Musa peekelii LH82751 with distinctive tabular dorsal surfaces found in Australimusa seed phytoliths. These were not found in the Kuk assemblages. C: Seed phytolith from seed of Musa ingens. D: Dorsal and lateral views of Ensete glaucum seed phytoliths QH356652. E: Fossil Eumusa seed phytolith with distinct dorsal ridging found in the phytolith assemblage from Kuk. F: Facetted phytolith seed morphotype of Musa ingens found in the phytolith assemblage from Kuk. Lateral view of Ensete seed morphotype found sediment from Kuk. H: Articulated chain of Musa leaf phytoliths found in sediment from Kuk.

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