Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 61.djvu/501

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
495
THE AMERICAN ORIGIN OF AGRICULTURE.

potatoes and sugar-cane in eastern New Guinea and the adjacent islands, among Polynesian tribes who had never been visited by Europeans and who were ignorant of salt, iron and rice. Tobacco was also known among many primitive peoples of the Orient before they came in contact with Europeans, though these and many similar facts have remained obscure because the European discoveries of the East and the West Indies were practically simultaneous. Moreover, nearly a century elapsed between the discovery of America and the realization that it was indeed a new world and not merely an eastward prolongation of Asia, so that the community of food plants did not at first appear remarkable.

 

The Agriculture of Ancient America.

The most important food-plants of the Polynesians were seven in number, the taro, yam,[1] sweet potato, sugar-cane, banana, breadfruit and cocoanut, of which six, or all except the breadfruit, existed in pre-Spanish America, and of these, five, or all except the cocoanut, were propagated only from cuttings.

From the botanical standpoint the breadfruit is as distinctly Asiatic as the cocoanut is American, but although many seedless varieties of the breadfruit were distributed among the eastern archipelagos of Polynesia, these did not reach America until introduced by Captain Blieh in 1793, while the cocoanut must have crossed the Pacific thousands of years before, in order to give time for the development of the numerous and very distinct varieties cultivated in the Malay region. Except with the banana, botany gives much evidence for and none against the new world origin of the food plants shared by ancient America with Polynesia and the tropics of the old world, though few of them are known under conditions which warrant a belief that they now exist anywhere in a truly wild state. The partial or complete seedlessness attained by several of the important species also indicates dependence upon human assistance in propagation for a very long period of time, and precludes all rational doubt that their wide dissemination was accomplished through the direct agency of primitive man.

Ethnologists will not deny that in the old world this distribution was the work of the ancestors of the Polynesians, who have been traced from Hawaii and Easter Island to Madagascar, and even across the African Continent.[2] We have not, however, been provided with any explanation of the existence of these food plants in America, for it is


  1. Many species of true yams (Dioscorea) are cultivated, and the roots of numerous wild species are collected for food in various parts of the Tropics. The present reference is to D. alata, the most widely distributed of the domesticated species, and not known in the wild state.
  2. Frobenius, Zeitsch. der Gesellsch. für Erdkunde zu Berlin, Bd. 33, 1898. Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1898, pp. 637-650.