Clues to cultivation in the Torres Strait

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had a history of skilfully resourcing food and managing the land long before Europeans arrived in Australia.

Questions remain, however, about their use of horticulture, which was practised north of the continent in Papua New Guinea.

Modern techniques, which are revealing progressively more about ancient Indigenous practices, have now found evidence of banana cultivation on Mabuiag Island around 2000 years ago, as reported in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

This island is part of the Torres Strait cluster dotted between the tip of northern Australia and New Guinea, which has crucial gaps in this part of its history, according to first author Robert Williams from the University of Sydney.

“In the early 1970s, the Torres Strait was characterised as a ‘bridge and barrier’, or cultural filter, separating horticulturalists on New Guinea and hunter-gatherers in Australia,” he writes, although the latter perception has since been whittled down.

Wagadagam village
The research site at Wagadagam on Mabuiag Island. Credit: Duncan Wright, ANU

Searching for evidence of ancient gardening practices with guidance from co-author Alison Crowther, from the University of Queensland, Williams found microfossil evidence of starch and phytoliths from bananas (Musa cultivars) in Wagadagam Village.

This converges with remains of agricultural terracing and ancient signs of substantial environmental changes.

It’s a labour-intensive process, he notes. “I counted over 5000 phytolith microfossils and studied hundreds of starch grains isolated from the archaeological/excavated soil. This probably worked out to one hundred or more hours on the microscope.”

Given lack of evidence of wild bananas, the fruit would have been transplanted as cultivars, most likely from New Guinea. And because they didn’t find evidence of banana seed microfossils, he says, it was probably propagated.

The terraces reflect intensified cultivation methods from around 1300 years ago.

These findings broaden insights into the ancient spread of agriculture, in particular bananas, from New Guinea into Australia, begging for more answers.

“This demonstrates that banana was grown at the site and adds a key piece to the puzzle that is the movement of banana and horticulture prehistorically,” says Williams.

It might help better understand the spread of agriculture in the Pacific region. “Perhaps Aboriginal Australians experimented with vegetative propagation of banana and yam,” he says; “the problem is, no one has done the work to check.”

It’s also relevant for present-day Indigenous people, for whom food is an integral part of their culture and identity, and an opportunity for archaeology to bridge new world connections with highly processed, disease-causing food.

“I hope that this new information [will] perhaps be the catalyst for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people interested in studying, revitalising and eating traditional foods,” says Williams.

The research was conducted with the support and permission of the Goemulgal people, ancestral and contemporary custodians of the archaeological site.

Banana starch
A clump of ancient banana starch in cross-polarised (left) and bright field microscopy. Credit: Robert Williams

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