Tracing the Origins of Cannabis, Banana, and Sweet Potato

This article explores the deeply interwoven history between mankind and useful plants, tracing the origins and journeys of three plants: cannabis, banana, and sweet potato.

Tracing the Origins of Cannabis, Banana, and Sweet Potato
Bananas have a deep and complex history, with their domestication and dispersal across the world. Image by Stable Diffusion

The fascinating stories of useful plants and the people who rely on them are intimately intertwined. It all begins with the origin of these plants, followed by the discovery of their various uses by people, whether for food, medicine, or building materials.

As these plants and their parts are given names, the word of their benefits spreads across vast distances through explorers, traders, and migrants, crossing seas, rivers, and mountains. Throughout the ages, these plants have been intentionally or accidentally cultivated, selected, and combined, with many still making their way between continents today.

To fully uncover these plant origins and their intertwined history with humanity, a multitude of disciplines must work together. While written records offer insight into recent history, oral accounts provide valuable clues, and to trace their complex paths, we must turn to the fields of archaeology, linguistics, and genetics.

Advanced archaeological techniques make it possible to trace plants that leave no obvious remains. By using powerful microscopes, scientists can look for traces of pollen and phytoliths, which are hard organelles with unique shapes. DNA comparisons of different varieties used in various places enable the assembly of family trees.

When cultivated plants are innovative, their name is preserved and can be used to trace back through time to determine the sites of domestication, cultivation, trade, and use. Linguists can then use these transformations of names to reconstruct the paths that crops followed.

This process allows us to guess the itinerary of plants, including their expansions, exoduses, ecological transformations of entire regions, the existence of vanished peoples, colonization of uninhabited lands, technologies, relationships between people and animals, and ultimately, the deep history of mankind. As an active field of science, it is full of hypotheses, opinions, and debates.

Discoveries in unexplored archaeological sites and new readings of old historical writings can alter what was already thought to be elucidated. To explore this topic, we will focus on three plants that changed the course of history: cannabis, banana, and sweet potato.

Cannabis: History and Properties

Cannabis, a member of the Cannabis sp. family, is one of the oldest domesticated plants in human history. Its multifunctional properties, including its strong fibers, nutritious seeds, and perfumed resins with medicinal and psychotropic effects, make it an incredibly valuable plant. Throughout history, it has grown spontaneously in waste piles, along roadsides, and in clearings near human encampments.

Cannabis originated in Central Asia and was first cultivated 12,000 years ago. It was domesticated in China and Eastern Europe. Over time, it spread through various regions and cultures, carried by nomadic tribes such as the Yamnaya people and Scythian warriors.

It traveled along the Silk Road, through the Roman and Arab empires, and made its way to southern Africa and Spain with Arab traders and Moors, respectively. Later, it arrived in Brazil with Portuguese settlers, in Chile with the Spanish, in Mexico with the army of Hernán Cortés, and in the United States with English settlers.

Plantain: History and Uses

Plantain, scientifically known as Musa × paradisiaca, is an essential crop for the world's food supply, alongside corn, rice, and wheat. While it is a heavily commercialized product, 85% of the plantain grown globally is still consumed locally. The word "banana" can be traced back to the Latin word "musa", and the name's linguistic root in New Guinea is "*muka".

Plantains come in various varieties for different purposes, such as dessert, cooking, and brewing. Additionally, the plant has countless uses, including feeding animals, producing medicines, making textiles, building shelters, ropes, and paper, and even for magical and ceremonial purposes.

The plantain's history dates back 7,000 years ago in New Guinea, and its domestication was a complex process, involving hybridization between various species of the Musa genus. Domestication occurred at different times in Melanesia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The plantain's dispersion can be traced to 4,000 years ago in South and Southeast Asia, followed by Java, Indonesia, 3,500 years ago, and Africa, 3,000 years ago.

Although historical sources suggest that the plantain was brought to America via Easter Island before the arrival of Europeans, there is still no archaeological evidence to support this. The Portuguese introduced it to the Canary Islands in the 15th century, and the Spanish brought it to America in the 16th century.

Sweet Potato's History

The Sweet Potato, scientifically known as Ipomoea batatas, is a plant native to Tropical America. Its fascinating history suggests pre-Columbian contact between the inhabitants of Polynesia and South America. Through ethnobotanical, archaeological, and linguistic evidence, we know that this plant was dispersed among the peoples of the Pacific thousands of years before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean.

Polynesian travelers were the first to take the Sweet Potato from the west coast of South America some 3,000 years ago, spreading it to Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. In the 16th century, Spanish galleons transported it from Mesoamerica to the Philippines, and the Portuguese brought it to Indonesia. Sweet Potatoes also reached Europe during this century.

Full Citation: Lombardo, Mir Rodríguez. “Rutas Vegetales | Mir Rodríguez Lombardo.” Rutas Vegetales | Mir Rodríguez Lombardo,