A new study has revealed Indigenous people cultivated bananas more than 2,000 years ago, contrary to the long-circulated myth that they were exclusively hunter-gatherers.

The study, Multidisciplinary evidence for early banana (Musa cvs.) cultivation on Mabuyag Island, Torres Strait, by Robert N. Williams, Duncan Wright, Alison Crowther and Tim Denham, found evidence of extensive low-intensity forms of plant management from at least 2,100 years ago, and intensive forms of cultivation from at least 1,300 years ago.

The research, published in the journal Nature Research, found evidence of terrace construction, banana cultivation, and “dramatic transformations” to the local environment at Wagadagam on Mabuyag Island in the Torres Strait.

Researchers found banana microfossils, stone tools, charcoal and a series of retaining walls at the Wagadagam site.

The study detailed “robust evidence for the antiquity of horticulture in western Torres Strait”, providing what the authors described as an historical basis for understanding the spread of cultivation practices across the country.

The research also provided a template for the investigation of plant management, “potentially including forms of cultivation that were practiced in northern Australia before European colonisation”.

The findings from Mabuyag Island were recently released by a team from the Australian National University and the University of Sydney.

First author Robert Williams, a Kambri-Ngunnawal man and PhD candidate, paid his respects to the Goemulgal people of Mabuyag Island, the custodians of the land, as well as the material and results gained from the research.

“Due to their support and only from their permission, field work and subsequent archaeobotanical research at Wagadagam was permitted,” Williams told NIT.

“[The study is] important because it broadens our knowledge base regarding the spread of agriculture/horticulture, in particular banana, into Australia—a continent that is still largely believed to be one of ‘hunter gatherers’.”

“It demonstrates that Torres Strait Islanders have an entangled history with horticulture and banana going back thousands of years.”

“It also has implications for neighbouring Cape York and provides the methodology for investigating [emerging] forms of horticulture practiced by Aboriginal Australians. Perhaps Aboriginal Australians experimented with vegetative propagation of banana and yam? The problem is, no one has done the work to check.

“This research corrects the pervasive historical narrative … that Australia was solely a continent of only hunter gatherers. This research has shown that isn’t correct, and that there were groups practicing horticulture for thousands of years in the Torres Strait.”

Williams said he pursued early agriculture in the Torres Strait because although first European records showed horticulture was variably practiced by Indigenous people, the questions of at what point cultivation became important and why it was only variably practiced had been under-researched.

PhD candidate Robert Williams. Photo supplied.

Williams and his team processed sediments excavated from one of the area’s abandoned terraces, microscopically scanning the samples for microfossils and microcharcoal.

“The aim of the research was to look for evidence of ancient gardening using methods adopted from paleoenvironmental sciences,” Williams said.

“I was looking for crop microfossils, specifically starch and phytoliths … I compared the starch I found in the archaeological samples with banana starch extracted from our reference archive.

Throughout his research, Williams said he studied thousands of microfossils and hundreds of starch grains. He estimated he spent at least 100 hours looking through a microscope.

“I’ve always been fascinated with cross-cultural interactions and the implications for [the] groups involved,” he said.

“The Torres Strait is one of the few regions in the world where Australian ‘hunter-gatherers’ and Torres Strait horticulturalists co-existed in frequent maritime contact.”

“We know through oral traditions and ethnographic observations that canoes, weapons, and religious ceremony moved through trade/exchange in both directions across the Torres Strait. However, the adoption of horticulture, at least at the time of early European exploration, did not seem to have taken hold in Cape York.”

Williams said he was “absolutely” excited by the findings.

“After tens of hours spent searching on the microscope just hoping for something interesting to appear, I was over the moon when they did! Once I securely identified the starch and phytoliths as belonging to banana, then I knew I could tell an interesting story.”

The study also found that plant processing was happening at the site because of plant fibres found stuck to material excavated from the terrace and that fire was, and still is, an important element of land management and was likely used to clear the landscape for gardening.

“Innovations like terrace construction around 1,300 years before today resulted in soil accumulation, increased fertility and better crop yields,” Williams said.

“More crops mean a larger population can [be] supported and surplus traded with neighbouring groups on Mabuyag or neighbouring islands.”

This research adds to the growing body of work pointing to the existence of Indigenous peoples’ early use of complex technologies.

Author and historian Bruce Pascoe examined journals of early explorers and found evidence of a complex Indigenous civilisation on mainland Australia that was using sophisticated technologies to live, farm and manage the land while researching his 2014 work, Dark Emu.

The work elicited a hostile response from some sectors who have sought to discredit studies that show Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples cultivated land.

By Giovanni Torre