Plant Diffusion

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Plant Diffusion

Postby jerrid1 » Mon Oct 04, 2010 12:43 pm

Voyaging Between Early Civilizations Reawakened

By Professor Carl L. Johannessen

Let us examine some of the most closely held hypotheses in Social Sciences. For centuries now, it has been believed that prior to Columbus and his Voyages of Discover there was little if any contact between the Old World and the Americas. If there was any contact it was said to have been through an accidental incident resulting in a mariner being marooned on the coast of the Americas due to a storm or other mishap. Given the data at the time this was a possible and even though it was a somewhat unacceptable theory. In fact, until the advent of DNA testing and Carbon-14 dating there was really no definitive way to prove an alternative theory. There was some indication through linguistic similarities and literary references that there may have been more early contact than was generally accepted. But linguistically similar labels for flora and fauna could have developed independently across oceans without the two cultures having ever interacted, even through intermediary cultures.

Plant, animal, and disease evolution is a more thorny matter. Dr. Stephen Gould (1994) once observed that the chances of a living species evolving in two places independently were so astronomically low as to be impossible. In other words, the process of evolution is so complex and dependent on specific conditions that no two places on the planet would ever compare closely enough, for a long enough period of time to allow a species to develop identically in both locales. Therefore, hard evidence for early interaction between cultures living across the vast stretches of ocean that separate the Americas from the Old World would have to come from showing that living species somehow traveled between them prior to the Voyages of Discovery and after the time of the first migrations to the Americas from East Asia.

After my early studies in Geography at Berkeley under Carl Sauer, I became fully convinced that there had been a much richer and more dynamic interaction between the Americas and the Old World long before the Columbian Voyages of Discovery. I saw referent art and sculpture in India, unusual chickens in Mexico, Guatemala, Chile and Bolivia, and then learned of the existence of two species of hookworm in South America. This, at first, was all explained under the traditional rubric of the Geographical and Historical theories of trade happening extensively after the Voyages of Discovery. When, however, I learned that the sculptures of corn in Indian temples within the Pradesh of Karnataka dated from the 5th to 13th Centuries C.E., I began, as would any good researcher, to question many prior assumptions. Just what evidence did we actually have to say that prior to Columbus there was no transoceanic voyaging between the Americas and the Old World? Was the evidence actually factual or simply accepted because there had been no previous reasonable opposing theory to the general one? What would be required to bring a new theory to the table and have it accepted?

I already knew that anecdotal evidence would not suffice. There were too many variables in it. Literary references were considered good supporting evidence but could not stand without solid, physical evidence of transference. Even the artistic and sculpture evidence that began my own quest for the truth would only stand in the shadow of physical evidence. The physical evidence would have to come from showing that numerous plants, animals, and diseases were transferred between the Americas and the Old World prior to 1492. Moreover, I would have to be able to reasonably infer that these plants were intentionally transferred by mariners as they plied the ocean waters between the continents. Trade was the most obvious reason for the transfer of plants and some animals. Another possible reason for the appearance of plants and animals on a continent upon which it had not evolved was settlements and exploration. When people travel to a far land to settle, they bring things from their homeland to remind them of their roots.

Often these settlers would return home from the new colonies or continental explorations, and if they had found plants or animals that would be useful to their homeland they would have packed them up and delivered them to their homelands. Since the travel across both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans would have used up most, if not all, of the resources on early rafts and small ships, the explorers and early settlers would have been helped by the inhabitants of the new continent. This is how they would have been able to decide what plants and animals would have been helpful to their homelands.

Dr. John Sorenson had begun a massive annotated bibliography of the available literature published in the professional books and journals to see if there was sufficient evidence of pre-Columbian transoceanic diffusion to warrant a new look at this theory. In 1990 and a second edition in 1996 he published multivolume bibliographies detailing many articles that have been published that either infer or directly state that certain species were transferred prior to 1492. If only one or two plants or animals could be discovered, then the generally accepted explanations for transference would likely still be accurate with a few exceptional travels. However, Dr. Sorenson found that there were many species that fit into the category of interest for further research. We came together and have now identified 125 or more species including 98 plant species that have evidence of Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Diffusion. Eighty-five of the plant species actually originated in the Americas and were transported across the oceans to various locations in the Old World.

We indexed and researched each of these plants to decide how good the evidence actually was, categorizing them as decisive, indicative, or interesting based on the amount and types of evidence available for early diffusion. Our standards were very high. A decisive species was one for which we had strong data from archaeology or from at least two different fields of research: literary, artistic, linguistic, chemical or biological. In the decisive category we ended up discovering that more than 90 of our target species qualified as having been transported across the ocean. This constitutes a far larger number than can be explained away by accidental transference, especially since the dates of arrival in the transplant land vary so widely between the species. Evidence for fourteen of these decisive plants that have been discovered archaeologically follows.

Grain amaranths (Amaranthus hypochondriacus and Amaranthus caudatus specifically) are natives to the Americas, yet there is a vast amaranth growing region that stretches from Eastern China through the Himalayas as far a Persia . The species grown in this vast region of the Old World are A. hypochondriacus and A. caudatus. The vast amount of grain amaranth grown across the Southern Asian region gives the impression that the plant has been there since very early times. They are well-established among some of the most remote peoples of the region. However, the diversity of grain amaranth species in the Old World is miniscule compared to the diversity of grain amaranths in the Americas, solidly placing the origin of the genus in the latter region. It is also important to note that the uses of the plant in food processes are very similar between the cultures of the Americas and the cultures of the Old World, indicating that there was at least some communication between the farmers of the Americas and the farmers of China. This communication could have come only if there was a regular form of communication between the people of the cultures.
Since grain amaranths are so widely spread across the Southern Asian region, it is safe to infer that they have been in the region for quite some time. We are able to show that this length of time extended back prior to the Voyages of Discovery. We looked at the very complete and extensive official literature from the many empires and states within the region. We found that the 14th Century author, Zhou Ding Wang, who died in 1425 C.E., definitely mentions grain amaranths in his writings. It is more important here to note that Zhou was quoting from a 9th Century text in some of his works.
Lastly, archeology bore out our suspicions of Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Diffusion for grain amaranth. Archeologists have discovered the seeds of A. caudatus and another amaranth, A. spinosus, a spiny weed amaranth that was also widely distributed in the Americas, in temple complexes in India. These seeds date from the 8th to 10th Centuries C.E. This date very neatly fits into the expected distribution patterns in South Asia and Persia.

The agave (genus Agave) plant is important as caulking in early shipbuilding, used to make the hull of early wooden vessels water tight. This was done by soaking the Agave fibers in a resin of pine pitch and other ingredients then stuffing this mixture into the cracks between the boards of the hull. Since the Agave is most definitely a plant of American origins, it would seem highly unlikely that any European ships would use this technology prior to the Voyages of Discovery and the beginning of trade by the Spaniards. Even with the diffusion of the Agave in India being so widespread that a traveler to India at the end of the Seventeenth Century C.E. noted that it was almost impossible to believe that the plants came over to India after Columbus’s voyages; this could not be firmly established, therefore did not constitute any more than anecdotal evidence.

That said, over the last hundred years there have been several shipwrecks of European or African origin and ship design, although only one researcher was brave and honest enough to publish the discovery, found on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea north of Cyprus and in other places close to the European and African coasts that were caulked with the Agave/pitch mixture to seal a lead covering to the bottom of the ships to reduce Toredo Worm damage to make them more seaworthy. It is important to note that these were ships in the Phoenician and Roman design; ships that were dated accurately to long before the Voyages of Discovery . Some researchers insist that there was a source of Agave in the Mediterranean Basin, and it is possible Agave had been brought over and planted, although there is no archaeological-botanical evidence for this assertion. More likely is that he ships either were traders who were repaired and refurbished in the Americas before a return voyage, or that they had been sent to the Americas specifically to undergo this treatment. By checking the type of pine pitch it should be possible to determine from where the pine resin came.

The custard apple (Annona squamosa) is another plant that originated in the Americas and has been transferred across the Pacific Ocean as far as India. Seeds of the annona were found in caves on Timor. These seeds date to a time prior to 1000 C.E. when these caves became uninhabited by human populations. Since the plant was found on an island in the Eastern Pacific, it is not difficult to infer, especially given the rest of the Indian evidence, that it was transferred to the subcontinent at some time after it was introduced on Timor. Rough carbon dating of the annona seeds on the island of Timor show that they were harvested between prior to 1000 C.E. Remember that radio carbon dating cannot date when a plant or other living thing was actually buried, just when it died and no longer took in Carbon 14 from the atmosphere. Seeds of the annona have also been found in archeological strata dated by C14 to 700 B.C.E. in the iron using culture at Raja Nal-Ka-tila in the Sonbhadra District of Utar Pradesh, India by Pokharia and Saraswat (1999,101).

The peanut (Arachis hypogaea) is another American species that has been extensively discovered in East Asia and South Asia. It has been found in cavesites on the island of Timor in Indonesia. This plant is definitely of American origin, as shown in very early archeological data from Peru and other South American sites. The archeological evidence of the peanut in China is vast and difficult to ignore. Radio carbon dating of the peanuts in Chinese tombs show that peanuts were harvested at least by 2000 B.C.E. The peanuts in Timor were prior to 1000 C.E. when the caves are known to have become unoccupied. It is important to note as well that the peanuts in Timor were found along side the plants of American origin, Annona squamosa and Zea mays; both plants can be shown to have been transported transoceanically from the Americas . Further, the peanuts found in ancient tombs and archeological sites in Peru look the same as those still harvested to this day; however, not in Peru but in South China.

The Mexican or Prickle Poppy (Argemone Mexicana) is indigenous and native to the Americas. However, it is so common in India that it is considered a wild weed. This weed, however, is easy to date as it is used in medical treatments, therefore Prickle Poppy was part of the funeral ceremonies of earlier sub-continent Indian societies. Charred seeds of this plant have been found in India and accurately dated to the 10th Century C.E., the 5th Century C.E., and the 1st Century C.E. These seeds could have been charred as a result of medicinal treatments or the tradition of burning the dead with important items. To add further to the indication an early transoceanic diffusion, we have only to look at traditional medical uses for the plant in both the Americas and the Old World; they are very similar in many respects of their use as hallucinogens. The drugs of this type seem to have attracted many of the sailors to transport their seeds.

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) and the coca plant (Erythroxylon novagranatense) are both native plants of the Americas, while Marijuana (Cannabis sativa) is a native plant of Western Asia. These three plants have been used for millennia in the Middle East, Egypt, and Peru. Marijuana is widespread across the entirety of the Americas, therefore it was obviously transferred to the Continents at some point in time in the past. Traditional wisdom postulates that it was brought over by the early colonial settlers, possibly even by Columbus himself, and as it grows so quickly and is so successful in numerous climates, spread across the continents during that time. Tobacco is grown throughout the Old World and distribution shows that it was transferred early. Although the Coca plant is not grown in the Old World, its use by Old World cultures is known with absolute certainty. These three plants, taken together, are strong evidence of trade between early cultures. Each plant would be used for medicinal or religious purposes, therefore would have a high sales value for the sailors trying to maximize their profits and still fit the cargo into their ships.

Archeological data disagrees with the Post-Columbian Diffusion hypothesis. Many of the natural mummies found in Peru have been tested for the use of the native tobacco and coca plant leaves. In the process of these tests, they were also tested for THC, the active ingredient in Cannabis sativa, and the residue of nicotine chemicals . In many of the mummies, 60 of the 70 studied, one or more of these chemical traces were discovered. To understand the significance of this we have to understand that the chemicals were discovered in the hair, teeth, and tissues of the mummies. In 20 of the mummies researchers discovered cannabinoids, or the chemicals to which THC breaks down upon ingestion. This indicates that the people who were later mummified were using the plant prior to their deaths. These mummies have been accurately dated to a range of years between 115 C.E. and 1500 C.E. It is possible that the last of the mummies used a form of the plant that was brought over by Columbus, but none of the earlier ones date young enough to explain Post-Columbian usage.

Since Marijuana would have been a trade plant, one brought over to the Americas to trade for other plants, animals, and products, the discovery of cannabinoids in these mummies, enough to indicate sustained use, allows researchers to infer a rather robust trade between the Americas and the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East. Since the chemicals related to Coca and Nicotine were found in several Egyptian mummies, dating to a period of 1400 years, and both of these latter plants are of American origin, we can see that an active and robust trade in medicinal plants has existed between the Old World, specifically the Mediterranean Basin, and the Americas, specifically the Peruvian peoples.

For both tobacco and coca, we simply turn to the mummies of Egypt. After extensive testing of several New Kingdom mummies in a German museum, researchers discovered the digested residue of both plants. The relevant chemicals associated with the ingestion and the use of the coca plant have been found in numerous Egyptian mummies of the New Kingdom. These mummies date from approximately 1070 B.C.E. to 395 C.E., significantly before the Columbian Voyages of Discovery. This could not have been contamination as the residues were found in the tissues of the mummies, showing that the living person partook of the plants prior to their deaths. The three plants all show marked use in the highest levels of Peruvian and Egyptian societies. They would not have been used at this level of a culture without a steady supply and understanding of the effects of the plants on the persons using them.

The thorn apple, datura plant, or Jimsom weed (Datura species) are species with a definite American origin. However, they have been used from ancient times in the Eurasian region as a drug, medication, and hallucinogenic compounds. There are also reports of the use of datura by the Greeks and Romans in their oracles. The earliest archeological evidence of datura appearing in India is from a dig in the Punjab at the site of Sanghol . At this site researchers discovered a small piece of a datura plant among the ruins.

The phasey bean (Macroptilium lathyroides) is a plant of American origin. It is a renaming of a species once known as Phaseolus lathyroides and is similar in many respects to the other Phaseolus members of the genus discussed later in this article. It has been found in numerous archeological sites around India, dating from as far back as 1800 B.C.E. and moving forward through 600 C.E. It is known to have been present (perhaps as a weed) and may have been used on the Indian subcontinent throughout its many empires and kingdoms.

The carpetweed (Mollugo verticillata) is a garden-dependent weed that has been found in both the Americas and the Old World. Although no one is quite sure which direction the weed traveled when it was transferred between continents, it has been discovered archeologically in ancient China and in the Americas as far back as 1000 B.C.E.

The basil plant (Ocimum species) is likely a species of the Old World, native to the Indian subcontinent. There are three species of basil that we are interested in: O. americanum, O. basilum, and O. sanctum. Evidence shows that the sweet basil (O. sanctum) was growing widely in the Americas when the Spanish arrived. A carbonized branch (species undetermined) was excavated from the Sanghol site in each of Periods I and II (1300–800 B.C.E. and 800–600 B.C.E. respectively) .

The kidney bean and lima bean (Phaseolus vulgaris and Phaseolus lunatus) are native to the Americas and had been taken to India at some time before second millennium B.C.E.. Phaseolus vulgaris, P. lunatus, and the phasey bean, Phaseolus lathyroidesn (now reclassified as Macroptilium lathyroides) have all been discovered in multiple archaeological sites in India of the second millennium B.C.E.. It has been shown that beans of American origin have been encountered from early sites in India. P. vulgaris was recorded from the pre-Prabhas and Prabhas cultures at Prabhas Patan, Junagadh Dist., Gujarat, dated from 1800 B.C.E. to 600 C.E.. They also came from Chalcolithic Inamgaon (about 1600 B.C.E.), Pune Dist., Maharashtra, and from Neolithic Tekkalkota, Bellary Dist., Karnataka, with a radiocarbon date of 1620 B.C.E.. P. vulgaris, P. lunatus, and the phasey bean have also been recorded in deposits of the Malwa and Jorwe cultures (1600–1000 B.C.E.) at Diamabad in Ahmednagar District, Maharashtra. The phasey bean was also found at the Sanghol site dated in early C.E. times.

Corn (Zea mays) is most generally hypothesized to have originated in the Americas where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Although there is already a vast amount of literature written about this particular species it is important to quickly summarize the main archeological evidence for its early diffusion across the oceans to Asia. In digs on the island of Timor, researchers have discovered evidence of the corn stalk and seeds dating from as far back a 1000 C.E.

With these fourteen plants showing decisive archeological evidence of having been grown on continents separated from one another by either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, it is unreasonable to think that there was no contact between the early cultures of the Old World and the early cultures of the Americas. Since four of the twelve plants we have enumerated in this article are not foodstuff, in fact, are plants that would have been reserved for trade. These four plants are what we would consider modernly to be drugs. In the early cultures these plants would have been used as medications, in religious rituals, or for recreational use.

We highlighted these twelve plants as they all have strong archeological evidence of existing in both hemispheres long before the Voyages of Discovery. If only one or two plants showed transference, then we might conclude that the contact between the cultures of the Old World and the Americas was accidental or occasional at best. With these twelve plants, plus the numerous other plants and animals for which there is strong evidence, it is unlikely that there was anything less than regular, sustained, and open contact between these two hemispheres.


Sorenson, John L., and Martin H. Raish. 1996. Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography, 2nd edition, revised. 2 vols. Provo, UT: Research Press.

Sauer, Jonathan D. 1950. “The grain amaranths: a survey of their history and classification,” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 37: 561–632.

Steffy, J. Richard. 1985. “The Kyrenia ship: an interim report on its hull construction,” American Journal of Archaeology 89 (1 Jan.): 71–101.

Glover, Ian C.. 1986. Archeology in Eastern Tinmor, 1966-67. Terra Australis, vol. 11. Canberra, Australia: Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra.

Parsche, Franz, Svetlana Balabanova, and Wolfgang Pirsig. 1993. “Drugs in ancient populations,” The Lancet 341 (Feb. 20): 503.

Pokharia, A.K., and K. S. Saraswat. 1999. “Plant economy during Kushana period (100–300 A.D.) at ancient Sanghol, Punjab,” Pragdhara [Journal of the U(ttar) P(radesh) State Archaeology Department] 9:75–104.

Saraswat, K. S., N. K. Sharma and D. C. Saini. 1994. “Plant economy at ancient Narhan (ca. 1300 B.C–300/400 A.D).” (Appendix IV in) Excavations at Narhan (1984–1989), by Purushottam Singh, 225–337. Varanasi: Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology, Banaras Hindu University.

Pokharia, A.K., and K. S. Saraswat. 1999. “Plant economy during Kushana period (100–300 A.D.) at ancient Sanghol, Punjab,” Pragdhara [Journal of the U(ttar) P(radesh) State Archaeology Department] 9:75–104

Vishnu-Mittre, Aruna Sharma, and Chanchala [sic.] 1986. “Ancient plant economy at Daimabad,” (Appendix II) in Daimabad 1976–79, S. A. Dali, ed., 588–627. Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India 83. Calcutta: Government of India Central Publication Branch.

Note : This data is a summary of material from the book by John L. Sorenson and Carl L. Johannessen entitled: World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492, being published by iUniverse Inc. John L. Sorenson has given permission for me to utilize our data to stimulate interest in our topic by scholars and the general public.
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