ANU Archaeologists have found the earliest evidence of Indigenous communities cultivating bananas over 2000 years ago.

Australian National University

© ANU | Australian Indigenous farmed bananas cultivation to back dates over 2000 years

The evidence of cultivation and plant management dates back 2,145 years and was found at Wagadagam on the small island of Mabuyag within the western sound.

The site comprised a series of retaining walls related to gardening activities together with a network of stone arrangements, shell arrangements, rock art, and a mound of dugong bones.

Soils from the positioning showed definitive evidence for intensive banana cultivation within the type of starch granules, banana plant microfossils, and charcoal.

Lead researcher, Kambri-Ngunnawal scholar Robert Williams, says the findings help dispel the view that Australia's first peoples were "only hunter-gatherers".

"The sound has historically been seen as a separating line between Indigenous groups who practiced agriculture on the island but who in Australia were hunter-gatherers," Mr. Williams said.

"Our research shows the ancestors of the Goegmulgal people of Mabuyag were engaged in complex and diverse cultivation and horticultural practices within the western strait a minimum of 2,000 years ago.

"So instead of being a barrier, the sound was more of a bridge or a filter of cultural and horticultural practices going both north and south.

"The variety of banana we found on Mabuyag appeared much earlier on Papua, which was a center of banana domestication."

The team also found stone flake tools with plant residues along their cutting surfaces.

"What we're seeing here is an Indo-Pacific horticultural tradition-based totally on things like yams, taro and banana, and important fat and protein elements within the type of fish, dugong, and turtle, these people had an awfully high-quality diet," Mr. Williams said.

"Food is a vital part of Indigenous culture and identity and this research shows the age and time depth of those practices. I hope it'll spark interest in these food traditions and might move people back towards them."

Mr. Williams said the charcoal found at the positioning indicated burning for gardening activities. Excavated charcoal provided dates for the finds through carbon dating.

Co-researcher Dr. Duncan Wright said the strait region was an area where local innovations happened.

"The age of banana propagation is additionally very significant. it is not something we expect to work out in continental Australia and this can be the earliest well-dated evidence for plant management in Torres Strait," Dr. Wright said.

"At the time I assumed it absolutely was odd to determine cultivation during a landscape otherwise put aside for ritual activities. Now we all know why the retaining walls were a part of a far older phase of activity at Wagadagam."

As a descendant of the Kambri Ngunnawal peoples, Mr. Williams said he was mindful of how his research could affect a primary nations' community.

"Historically, culture has been appropriated by non-Indigenous archaeologists and anthropologists, so it absolutely was really important on behalf of me to form a reference to the people during this community and ensure they understood the research really belongs to them.

"I hope this work are some things the community is often really proud of. It demonstrates through clear evidence the variety and complexity of early horticulture within the western Torres Strait."

Mr. Williams is the lead author on the research published in Nature, Ecology, and Evolution.

He did his Masters in Archaeology at ANU and is currently a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate within the Department of Archaeology at Sydney University.

"This paper is led by a primary Australian author. It's another big achievement for Robert, whom I think will play a very important role within the discipline of Archaeology," Dr. Wright said.

"His work makes an announcement that goes beyond academia, representing a much-needed shift for the discipline where research into First Nations' communities is led by First Nations' peoples.

This article was originally published at ANU.

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