How the banana evolved in prehistoric Australia and then spread across the globe the become the planets dominant fruit.

Today the Cavendish is the most popular banana variety, accounting for over 40% of all bananas consumed

We are taught in school that potatoes, pumpkins and tobacco originated in South America and were carried to Europe by the Spanish, while maize was from North America and grains like wheat from the middle east. Every region of the earth had its own plants and animals that were found useful, cultivated and eventually taken, adding to the growing world cuisine. So what was Australia’s contribution to the planetary table? Sure, there’s eucalyptus oil and macadamia nuts – but even today the latter are rare and considered a luxury item. There is, however, another planetary staple that originated in Australia, and it’s a real doozy.

Today the Cavendish is the most popular banana variety, accounting for over 40% of all bananas consumed
Musa sikkimensis, the ‘trunk’ seen here is actually just a leaf stalk.. Image by Daderot

I originally thought of several smarty pants titles for this article, but I kept coming back to the astonishingly simple fact that this truly wondrous fruit is Australian. Today the plant genus Musa includes around 70 species of bananas and plantains, and though they are harvested from the tops of tall ‘trees’, the trunk is actually the base of an enormous leaf stalk attached to an underground root system. This technically means banana trees are herbs and their fruit are berries.

The Corm is a large bulb that grows under the ground and from which the banana leaves sprout. It is generally a reserve the plant uses for nourishment when times are tough.

Banana’s are part of the spice trade

The banana is also one of the most important parts of the great spice interchange between the new and old worlds, joining other precious spices like nutmeg and cloves. It was the trade in these spices between China and Europe that helped create the Silk Road, and it was the severing of this trade by Islam in the Middle East that forced the Spanish to hire an Italian navigator called Columbus to seek out a new route to the East Indies. Columbus of course thought he had done exactly that when he sailed west across the Atlantic and found the islands that would eventually be called the West Indies.

The Landing of Columbus – the explorer was trying to reach the East Indies to reopen the spice trade (which bananas were a part of), instead he found the West Indies completed by American artist John Vanderlyn in 1847

Bananas are arguably one of the first fruits to be cultivated by humans, and all the popular eating varieties – including the Cavendish – are from one species, Musa acuminate. Bananas were known to the Romans, they were cultivated in Africa for well over 2000 years and are most famous for their presence in the Caribbean…but make no mistake, bananas are recent arrivals to these locations.

“Musa Uranoscopos” – an image from the 16th century German born naturalist, Georg Eberhard Rumphiu’s, Herbarium amboinensis. Today this banana species is called Musa troglodytarum and is the likely ancestral species that led to the Pacific Fe’i banana.

Prehistoric Australia’s Geography

During the Ice Age ocean levels were so low it was possible to walk from Queensland to New Guinea – and this greater continent was called Sahul. This is continental Australia’s technical name, and why Australia can claim to be an island as it’s the largest island of the former, larger continent of Sahul. This explains why modern New Guinea and Queensland share so many species. Both have echidnas, cassowaries and a variety of plants – including the oldest wild banana varieties in the world.

Map of the Ice Age continents of Sunda and Sahul. Bananas likely evolved on the prehistoric Australian continent, then were exported to the rest of the world. by Maximilian Dörrbecker

Ancient Banana use in New Guinea

Archaeology digs in several swamps and semi-fossil deposits contain evidence of bananas being cultivated on New Guinea for at least 10,000 years. These early varieties were not likely grown for their fruit, but for other uses. Their leaves helped make shelter and can be used for cooking, their fibrous stems shredded to make rope or weaved into cloth. At some point New Guinea was visited by traders from southern Asia, and one of the plants they took home with them were bananas. It was most likely in Indonesia where a hybrid version was grown with edible fruit, and from here this variation spread through Asia, the middle east, Africa and finally Europe.

This map shows how Austronesian people likely dispersed across the Pacific, and how the early banana varieties followed them Image by Obsidian Soul

Not all bananas are the banana

There are literally hundreds of wild banana species in New Guinea, with three more known to occur naturally in Queensland. Two of these are shared between both regions – Musa banksii and Musa jackeyi – but the third endemic Queensland species, Musa fitzalanii, is now considered extinct. The most likely species to originally be shared internationally was M. banksia, as genes from this wild species have been found in African bananas.

The Fe’i banana (M. troglodytarum). Though rare in the western hemisphere, the Fe’i is a staple on many Pacific islands.

This sort of research has also led to the opinion there were two separate immigration of banana species from Sahul – one east and the other west. The western migration led to the most prolific and eaten bananas, such as the plantains and the Cavendish, while the eastern migration led to a less common Pacific ocean variety, the Fe’i (M. troglodytarum). These are often an orange colour and were cultivated from a different New Guinea wild species like M. maclayi. The Fe’i likely traveled with Polynesian explorers as they moved throughout the Pacific, likely in the form of a corm.

Le Repas, painted by Paul Gauguin in 1891 and containing a hand of Fe’i bananas.

Darwin and the Banana

The presence of the Fe’i was recorded by the world’s most famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, who sailed through the Pacific in 1835 on the HMS Beagle. While visiting Tahiti Darwin noted “On each side of the ravine there were great beds of the mountain-banana, covered with ripe fruit. Many of these plants were from twenty to twenty-five feet high, and from three to four in circumference.”

William Parry’s painting of Daniel Solsander (left), Joseph Banks (middle) and the Pacific Islander Omai (Mai) that traveled back to Europe on the Endeavor. Solander and Banks both reported about banana use in the Pacific and South America.

Captain Cook and the Banana

It was the naturalists sailing with Captain Cook on the Endeavor voyage who recorded the Tahitians called the fruit Fe’i. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander also noted there were between 5 and 23 varieties of banana used on the island.

Bananas are the most cultivated fruit in the world, eaten by the young, the old and everyone in between. They can be found in bread, cereals, salads, roasted or eaten plain by almost every human society on the planet. Not bad for a little inedible berry that once grew in prehistoric Australia.

A longer version of this article will appear in Phil Hore’s upcoming book, The Australian Mammoth and other bizarre Natural History stories from Australia.