About eight to ten thousand years ago in Southeast Asia, early cultivators first domesticated bananas, developing what is believed to be the first cultivated fruit. There is both archaeological and linguistic evidence for cultivated bananas. In Papua New Guinea, archaeologists found evidence of banana cultivation dating back to 5000 BCE. Packed onto canoes and into satchels, dozens of varieties were diffused through South Asia, the Pacific, and Africa.
Some 2,500 years ago, Sanskrit scholars recorded the world’s first known literary references to the banana. In 327 BCE, Alexander the Great crossed the Indus and learned of bananas. Around four hundred years later, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder learned of bananas from the crews of Roman ships that crossed the Indian Ocean to trade with India. In India today, there are more than 670 different strains of cultivated and wild bananas. Muslim traders apparently brought sweet bananas from South Asia to East Africa. Gradually, banana cultivation migrated west across the continent of Africa. In the early fourteenth century, Portuguese sailors transplanted bananas to the Canary Islands. The stage was set for the banana’s journey across the Atlantic.
In 1516, the Spanish friar Tomás de Berlanga planted banana stems on the island of Hispaniola with the hope that the fruit would keep the growing slave population nourished. Easy to grow and providing a caloric punch, bananas became crucial to the colonial extraction of gold and then sugar through expropriated labor.
Or maybe bananas first reached the Americas from the Pacific. Circumstantial evidence suggests that about eight hundred years ago, Polynesian seafarers brought bananas along on their journey from the eastern Pacific to the western tip of South America.
Carolus Linnaeus bestowed the scientific name Musa sapientum, meaning “fruit of wise men,” upon the sweet banana after reading Pliny’s account of sages in India eating this fruit. In 1750, Linnaeus gave plantains another name, Musa paradisiaca, the “heavenly fruit,” or the forbidden fruit of paradise. Over seven thousand years, this fruit had become the foundation of diets around the world. In North America, however, it remained unknown.
Until around 1850, bananas were not consumed in significant quantities outside of the tropics. In the Caribbean and Latin America, the descendants of slaves continued to cultivate both cooking and sweet bananas.
In 1870, a schooner captain named Lorenzo Baker purchased 160 bunches of bananas in Jamaica. With the luck of strong winds to fill his sails, he made it to Jersey City before the fruit had ripened, selling it for $2 a bunch. Initially, North Americans considered bananas to be a delicacy, an exotic tropical fruit that only the elite of the East Coast and southern port cities could afford.