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Volume 43, Number 3May/June 1992

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New World Foods, Old World Diet

Written by Paul Lunde

Consider the custard apple.

It is a favorite fruit in India, where it is known as sitaphal, "the fruit of Sita," or, by a borrowing from Arabic, as sharifa, "the noble." The custard apple, Annona reticulata, is so integrated into the Indian diet that it is the subject of legends, paired with another of the Annonaceae, the sweetsop or sugar apple (Annona squamosa), called "the fruit of Rama," ramaphal . Nineteenth-century travelers in India remarked that the custard apple grew wild, abundantly, in the jungles of the Deccan. The Carmelite Vicenzo Maria, whose book on the East Indies was published in Rome in 1672, gives a good description of the plant and its fruit, which he knew by its Malabari name: "The plant of the Atta in four or five years comes to its greatest size.... The fruit... under the rind is divided into so many wedges, corresponding to the external compartments.... The pulp is very white, tender and delicate, and so delicious that it unites to an agreeable sweetness a most delightful fragrance like rose-water... and if presented to one unacquainted with it he would certainly take it for bla[nc]mange."

Custard apples and sweetsops grow in the Philippines, Malaysia and China as well as India. The custard apple is eaten with relish in Lebanon, where it is known as the "Indian quince." In Andalusia, a related fruit is the chirimoya , a Quechua Indian name - for this fruit, like the custard apple and the sweetsop, is of American origin. All three were brought from the New World to the Far East in the late 16th or early 17th centuries by two routes and two nations: by the Portuguese westward around the Cape of Good Hope and, after 1575, by the Spanish from Acapulco via Manila.

Evidence for this double dissemination of the Annona is the fact that one of its names in Mexico is até, apparently the origin of the Tagalog and Malabar names, and that in Malaysia and Indonesia it is sometimes called nona , a recognizable version of the West Indian - and Latin - name for the fruit.

In the 16th and 17th centuries a number of American plants were thoroughly acclimatized in India and elsewhere in the Far and Middle East. The exact lines of transmission are usually unknown, though we know, for example; that the Moghul emperors at first received their pineapples through the Portuguese-controlled Indian ports. But who brought the custard apple, the guava and the cashew tree? By what route did they come, and to which ports? All three now grow wild in India.

The papaya is another New World plant that found its way to the Far East very early. In this case we know the route by which it was disseminated, thanks to the observant Dutch traveler Jan Huygen van Linschoten, who saw the papaya in India before 1596: "There is also a fruite that came out of the Spanish Indies, brought from beyond ye Philipinas or Luzons to Malacca, and from thence to India , it is called Papios and is very like a Mellon …and will not grow, but always two together, that is male, and female... and when they are divided and set apart one from the other, then they yield no fruite at all.... This fruite at the first for the strangeness there of was much esteemed, but now they account not of it."

The papaya, in other words, was brought to the Philippines by Spaniards, and from there to the Portuguese trading entrepôt of Malacca in Malaysia, and thence to India. By 1626 it had reached Nepal. So a fruit first noted by Columbus in the Caribbean and described by Spanish chronicler Fernández Oviedo y Valdés from a tree seen in the Isthmus of Panama in 1519, had reached India less than 100 years after its first discovery. The papaya is now so at home in the Far East that it requires an effort to remember that it originally came from the West, not the East, Indies.

In the Caribbean and Central America, one of the Amerindian uses of the papaya tree had been as a meat tenderizer. The leaves contain an enzyme called papain, which acts very like the digestive juices of the stomach, and is an ingredient of commercial meat tenderizers. But the leaves of the papaya tree do not seem to be used for this purpose in the Far East: Transplantation to a new environment in this case involved the loss of essential information about the species. This is only a single example of many: The agave, which also reached southern Europe and the Far East in the 16th century, had many uses for the inhabitants of Mexico; in Europe and the Far East it seems to have been planted solely as decoration, and it is only in East Africa that it is grown for sisal. The nopal or prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) is used in North Africa, Andalusia and India mainly as hedging, although the fruit, the Barbary fig, is eaten. In Mexico, the plant had many more uses, and the leaves, stripped of their thorns, are still eaten today in several forms. Yet outside the plant's original New World habitat, they never seem to have been so used, even in times of famine. Another example of lost information is the prickly poppy, Argemone mexicana : Although considered a weed in India, it was cultivated in pre-Columbian Mexico as an important source of medicinal drugs.

The Carib Indians grew pineapples in their gardens; on the mainland the fruit was first noted in Panama. The pineapple traveled east very rapidly, perhaps because it traveled so well: Its long "shelf life" made it an ideal fruit to carry on board the galleons. It brought one of its indigenous names with it: Except in Spanish, English, and Italian, the pineapple is the ananas - or some recognizable version of this word -in European as well as in Asian languages, including in Arabic.

The first certain mention of the pineapple in India occurs in the year 1590. Abu al-Fazl describes it in his wonderful statistical description of the Moghul Empire, the Ain-i Akbari: "Pineapples are also called kathal-i safari , or traveling jackfruits, because young plants, put into a vessel, may be taken on travels and will yield fruits. In color and shape they resemble an oblong orange: The leaves have the shape of a hand. The edges of the leaves are like a saw. The fruit forms at the end of the stalk and has a few leaves on its top. When the fruit is plucked, they cut out these leaves, separate them, and put them singly into the ground; they are the seedlings. Each plant bears only once, and one fruit only."

Akbar's son, Jehangir, was - like his father and his grandfather Babur, founder of the Moghul dynasty -very interested in plants and gardening. His memoirs, the Tuzuk-i Jehangiri, mention a number of fruits that became common in India during his father's reign. Since Akbar ruled India from 1556 to 1605, this gives us at least a rough time frame for the introduction of those New World plants to the Indian subcontinent. One of these was the pineapple: "Among fruits, one which they call ananas , which is grown in the Frankish ports, is of great fragrance and excellent flavor." Muslim writers normally called Europeans, whatever their origins, "Franks"; here, Jehangir is referring to the Portuguese, who controlled a number of ports on the west coast of India.

One of these ports was Goa, and it was from there that Jehangir, following in his father's footsteps, obtained another New World exotic - a turkey. On April 4, 1612, Jehangir received one of his chief retainers, a man named Muqarrab Khan, whom he had sent to Goa.

When he returned from the aforesaid port to the Court, he produced before me one by one the things and rarities he had bought. Among these were some animals that were very strange and wonderful, such as I have never seen, and up to this time no one had known their names. Although King Babur has described in his Memoirs the appearance and shapes of several animals, he had never ordered the painters to make pictures of them. As these animals appeared to me to be very strange, I both described them and ordered that painters should draw them in the Jehangir-nama, so that the amazement that arose from hearing of them might be increased. One of these animals in body is larger than a peahen and smaller than a peacock. When it is in heat and displays itself, it spreads out its feathers like the peacock and dances about. Its beak and legs are like those of a cock. Its head and neck and the part under the throat are every minute of a different color. When it is in heat it is quite red - one might say it had adorned itself with red coral - and after a while it becomes white in the same places, and looks like cotton. It sometimes looks of a turquoise color. Like a chameleon it constantly changes color. Two pieces of flesh it has on its head look like the comb of a cock.... Round its eyes it is always of a turquoise color, and does not change. Its feathers appear to be of various colors, differing from the colors of the peacock's feathers.

The wonderful painting of Jehangir's turkey fortunately survives; it is by the court painter Mansur, who was particularly adept at painting birds, and it is one of the very few surviving Islamic depictions of a New World exotic.

The turkey spread rapidly in India, where it was known as piru , perhaps from the name of the South American country. The men and women who celebrated the first Thanksgiving Day in 1621 were thus anticipated in their enjoyment of the turkey by the Moghul court in India. The turkey had reached Europe still earlier, of course; it is one of the few New World products to be instantly accepted by Europeans, who were eating turkey by the late 1540's.

Three years after Mansur painted Jehangir's turkey, the English ambassador to the Moghul court was served a magnificent feast. There were of course numerous rice dishes and curries, but the guests were also served "potatoes excellently well dressed." These were almost certainly sweet potatoes rather than white potatoes, for the sweet potato, like the pineapple, spread very quickly in the East. The white potato does not seem to have become popular before the 18th century, when it suddenly spread throughout the world, its virtues as a staple against famine finally recognized. Both came from the New World. The sweet potato was encountered early, for it was a staple food in Haiti. The "white" potato was a native of Peru, where it had been cultivated in a bewildering number of varieties - and colors - for millennia. The two are not related; the sweet potato is a member of the order Convolvulaceae, while the white potato is one of the Solanaceae, like the tomato and the capsicum pepper.

The sweet potato is one of the few American plants that may have been carried across the Pacific in pre-Columbian times. Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the Magellan voyage - and incidentally a man who probably passed the latter part of his life in Ottoman service - ate sweet potatoes in Brazil. He noted them again in the Ladrones, in mid-Pacific. It has been claimed that he confused the sweet potato with the yam; this seems unlikely for one who had eaten both. The widely spread name for the sweet potato in the Pacific - kumara - is claimed as additional proof of its pre-Columbian trans-Pacific dissemination, for it is said that cumar was the indigenous name for the sweet potato in Peru.

The tomato is a peculiarly elusive fruit. It was known - and grown - in Europe in the 16th century, but was it eaten? The family Solanaceae contains many poisonous plants, deadly nightshade and henbane among them, and pre-Linnean botanists may have been aware of this. Popular resistance to the tomato - and initially the potato - may have been due to the poisonous leaves of the former and the potato's poisonous flower. It is only in 1608, in Seville, that there is a record of the tomato being eaten. This may be due to the closer contact the Andalusians had with Amerindian cultures: They would have known that the Indians ate tomatoes and didn't die.

The tomato originated in Peru or Mexico and was among the plants brought back to Spain, and thence to Naples, a Spanish dominion after 1522. The first tomatoes were probably lobed and yellow to golden in color - hence the Italian name pomodoro , "golden apple"; this type can still be found in Andalusian vegetable gardens today. The Italians, like the rest of Europe and America, probably did not eat these tomatoes raw before the late 19th or even 20th century, however. Believing them to be poisonous, they boiled them into a sauce - which begs the question: What did they put on pasta before this great invention?

It is very difficult to imagine Italian food without the tomato, and the same is true of North African and Near Eastern food. When and how did this New World fruit reach the Middle East? A tomato is called banadura in colloquial Arabic throughout the Middle East, though not in Morocco, and this is obviously a version of the Italian name, so it is probable that they received it via Italy. As to when: For the 'Alawites of Syria tomatoes and pumpkins - both New World products - are forbidden foods, but such prohibitions, which obviously came into being only after the foods themselves were known, are themselves difficult to date. Tomatoes, along with other New World cultigens like pumpkins, kidney beans and maize, were being eaten in Algeria in the mid-18th century, for they were observed there by the English scholar and traveler Thomas Shaw.

The Islamic world generally seems to have been more open to the new foods than was Europe, perhaps because of a longer tradition of experimentation with new cultigens. Muslims either ruled or formed substantial majorities in lands stretching from the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Spain all the way to the Philippines, it is no wonder that they tended to be more experimental in what they grew and ate than Europeans. Under Arab rule, al-Andalus in particular had been a center of agricultural innovation, and it was from this region that many new food plants were disseminated. New varieties of sorghum, buckwheat, fruits, vegetables and flowers first entered Europe via al-Andalus.

This is particularly relevant to the history of the haricot bean. The ancient world - apart from the Americas - was poor in beans; it knew the chickpea, the broad bean or fava and the lentil. The Chinese had the soybean, cultivated since time immemorial, and a few rather marginal beans were eaten in Japan and Southeast Asia. The discovery of the New World showed the Old World the possibilities of the bean, for Amerindian cultures had developed beans of every imaginable shape and color. In the 16th century these came to be known collectively as haricot beans, the word "haricot" deriving either from the Aztec ayacotl or from an old French word meaning a kind of stew. New World beans were accepted readily and, in many regions of the Old World, became staple fare, supplying much-needed protein to peoples who had traditionally endured very low-protein diets. This all seems straightforward, but it has recently been pointed out that the scholar Ibn al-'Awwam, writing in 12th-century al-Andalus, describes some 17 varieties of bean. From his descriptions, some of these sound suspiciously like haricot beans. The French scholar who first remarked on this even suggested that the prevalence of haricot beans may have contributed to the flowering of the Andalusian economy in the later Middle Ages: Improved diet, broadly speaking, brings improved productivity. More research needs to be done on the history of the haricot bean, but as we shall see, it is not the only New World plant whose origins have been questioned.

The chili pepper - one of dozens of varieties of capsicums, ranging from the mildness of bell peppers to the fire of habañeros - is used as a seasoning from Morocco to the Philippines. Columbus encountered it in the Caribbean, where it was called aji. It was brought to Spain in 1514, but except in chorizos is hardly used in Spanish cooking. It reached India during the reign of Jehangir, in 1611, presumably brought by the Portuguese, and was diffused, like other New World products, from India and the Philippines throughout Southeast Asia. Yet the date of its arrival in the Middle East is unknown.

It is not easy to understand why some plants were thought worth mentioning in the written sources and others not. The properties of the chili pepper are surely remarkable enough to have elicited some comment, and it would be hard to imagine, say, Tunisian food without the fiery chili sauce called harisa . Yet no surviving documentary evidence of the plants introduction exists. On the other hand, use in the Middle East and North Africa rather localized; it never obtained the wide acceptance there that it did in India, Malaysia and Thailand.

The peanut is a peculiar plant. Its flower bends down until it touches the earth and the fruit ripen underground. This makes the peanut plant easier to identify from early descriptions than some other New World plants, such as maize and the squashes. The Chinese scholar Huang Hsing-tsêng, who died in 1540, calls the peanut lo-hua-sheng, "born from flowers fallen to the ground." "After the flowers fall," he says, "the pods begin to develop underground." Huang says the peanut grew near Shanghai. Other early Chinese writers say the peanut entered China via Fukien, which is likely, as this maritime province was in contact with the Portuguese, who arrived in Canton in 1516.

The earliest Chinese reference to the peanut is dated 1538; the plant may have reached Malaysia even earlier. Now it is a staple in both Malaysia and Indonesia, to say nothing of West Africa, where the peanut probably also arrived earlier than in China. The Portuguese are believed to have brought the peanut to West Africa to provide cheap, nourishing food for slaves destined for the New World.

But the first American food plant to reach was what Americans call corn and the rest English-speaking world knows as maize, one of most important of world grains. With a yield per acre at least three times that of wheat, a short growing season and great tolerance of climatic variations, maize transformed lives wherever it was introduced, whether it was used as animal feed, human food or both. It arrived in China in 1513, only 19 years after Columbus found it growing in the Caribbean. A Chinese woodcut of a recognizable maize plant dates from 1590. The cob is much smaller than those of the flint or dent maizes with which we are familiar, and it is possible that this first introduction of maize to China was a dwarf variety, for these are still highly regarded in the Far East.

There is evidence that maize reached the Levant before the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517: It was certainly grown in Egypt in the early years of the 16th century. It is said to have been planted as early as 1500 in Seville, although it is doubtful if a taste for maize caught on in Andalusia so early. Very early indeed, the Portuguese planted maize in the Cape Verde Islands - again to provide cheap food for slaves - although 1502, the date which is sometimes given, also seems unlikely. In 1574, the botanist Leonhart Rauwolf collected a specimen of maize from the banks of the Euphrates; that specimen still exists in the herbarium of Leiden University.

The word "maize" is probably Carib; chronicler Peter Martyr, to whom we owe an excellent early description of it, spells the word maiz; Giambattista Ramusio, in his famous collection of voyages, spells it mahiz. But 16th-century Europeans did not call it that. The Italians called it granturco, "Turkish grain"; in southern France it was "Turkish wheat". In West Africa, where it was introduced very early, the Hausa-speaking peoples called it masar, simply a variant of the Arabic word for Egypt, misr. The Turks called it misir too, which implies that they first encountered it in Egypt, or perhaps in Mamluk territory. The Arabs have always called it dhurah, in dialects dura or dra, followed by an adjective. Dhurah is Arabic for sorghum, but to distinguish maize from this other grain, maize was called "red sorghum" or "Abyssinian sorghum" or even "Indian sorghum"; in Egypt it was called "Syrian sorghum", and in Syria, "Egyptian sorghum."

It is most interesting that, in the countries most immediately concerned with the New World - Portugal, Spain and Italy - only Matthioli, in the 1570 edition of his herbal, ascribes a New World origin to maize. The learned community, like the people at large, thought it came from somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, as the names they gave it attest. Bonafous, who wrote an important monograph on maize as late as 1801, was still convinced of its Asiatic origin, and to support his argument printed a Chinese woodcut of the maize plant drawn the 16th-century Chinese herbal, the Pen Tsao Kang Mu .

Yet there is no doubt that maize indeed originated in the New World, where it has been cultivated for millennia. Archeologists have found the wild ancestor of maize in very deep strata; its antiquity is proved by the wide number of varieties cultivated in the Americas. The Amerindians, as with the haricot bean, delighted in developing hundreds - even thousands - of different varieties of maize, selecting for size, texture, color and taste.

But Carl Sauer, the well-known American geographer who spent a lifetime studying New and Old World plant uses and distributions, noticed a curious passage in the Decades of Peter Martyr. Describing maize in his very first letter, soon after Columbus's return from his first voyage, the Italian-born chronicler says the Indians make their bread from "a certain floury grain which is found in abundance among the Insubres and the people of Granada." He compares the size of the kernels to peas, and says the grain is called maiz.

"Insubres" is merely a playfully learned term for the inhabitants of Milan, and the area of Milan is among the very few regions of Europe where maize is habitually eaten today, along with central Portugal, Galicia and the Balkans.

Peter Martyr says the grain is also grown around Granada, and there is another bit of evidence that this was so. Leo Africanus - his Arabic name was Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Zaiyyati - left Granada when it fell to the Christians in 1492 and settled in Morocco. In about 1516, he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Niger region. In his very detailed description of North and West Africa, published by Ramusio in his collection of voyages in 1563, Leo Africanus mentions an unnamed grain which he found growing in two places. Describing Walata, in what is now Mali, he says: "Little grain grows in this country, and this is millet and another kind of grain, round and white like chickpeas, which is not seen in Europe." To this passage Ramusio added a marginal note, saying this grain was called mahiz in the West Indies. Leo Africanus noted the same grain in Gubar, and in this passage says that he thinks it also grows in Spain.

It is possible, but unlikely, that maize had reached Mali from the west coast of Africa by 1516, but this would not account for Leo's statement that he thought the same grain grew in Spain - which he had last seen in 1492! Modern editions of Ramusio point out that the identification with maize is Ramusio's, not Leo's, and that what Leo probably saw was a variety of sorghum. But none of the many varieties of sorghum have grains the size of chickpeas....

Africanist M.D.W Jeffreys combed the written sources and the African linguistic and archeological evidence and came to the conclusion that maize was known in West Africa in pre-Columbian times. He suggested it had been introduced by the Arabs as early as the 11th century. Since no one now denies the New World origin of the grain, we are thus forced to infer pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic contacts between the New World and the Arabs of either al-Andalus or North Africa.

The archeological evidence cited by Jeffreys has been questioned: It consisted of the imprint of maize cobs on West African pottery, and this use of maize cobs to produce a decorative repeat pattern in the clay is now regarded as post-Columbian. But "knowing" that maize could only have been introduced in post-Columbian times may have influenced the dating of the pottery.

Is there anything in the Arabic sources about an unfamiliar grain grown near Granada? Historian Ibn al-Khatib, writing in 14th-century Granada, describes a grain - or possibly a legume - grown in the environs of the city and eaten by the poor. He calls it qatani. Much earlier, the geographer al-Idrisi mentions qatani as growing in a number of places, among them West Africa. Was qatani maize? In classical Arabic, qatani is simply the plural of qutniyyah, and means "legumes" - peas, beans and lentils. But the Tunisian word for maize is qutaniyyah. And in al-Andalus, the word had a wider semantic range, being applied also to emmer wheat and buckwheat; the term might have been extended to maize - if maize existed - just as Americans today use the old word for wheat, "corn," for maize. If the grain called qatani by Ibn al-Khatib was indeed maize, then someone reached America before Columbus.

Maize is first described in a European herbal in 1536, when Jean Ruell gave a confused but recognizable description of it, almost certainly at second hand. The German herbalist Leonhart Fuchs was the first to publish an illustration of maize, in his De historia stirpium, in 1542. He states categorically that it came from Asia and Greece - then under Ottoman rule - and passed to Germany, where it was called "Turkish wheat." Another 16th-century botanist, Hieronymus (Tragus) Bock, says it came from Yemen. The very influential Neuw Kreuterbuch of another German botanist, Johann Tabernaemontanus, published in 1591, confuses the issue by distinguishing two kinds of maize, one called "Turkish wheat," but both types are illustrated, and the illustrations are unambiguously of maize.

When Ruell gave the first scientific - and very brief - description Of maize, which he calls "Saracen millet," he said it was grown in French gardens and "was brought to us fifteen years ago." His De natura stirpium was published in 1536, so a conservative date for the first appearance of maize in France would be about 1520. Like his successors, Ruell thought maize originated in the Islamic world, hence the term "Saracen millet." It is striking that scholars closest in time to the discovery of the New World ascribed an Old World origin to the new grain, and seem to have done so almost unanimously.

The year 1520 is only 28 years after Columbus's first voyage. Even accepting that Jean Ruell's "French gardens'' were probably botanical gardens, where maize grown as a rarity, rather than ordinary kitchen gardens, the length of time between discovery and cultivation is still remarkably small - and it can be narrowed even further. In a curious note on an autopsy performed on an elderly subject, Leonardo da Vinci describes the liver and the veins which feed it as crumbling "after the manner of maize or Indian millet when their grains have been separated." Leonardo died in 1519, but we know that his notebooks of anatomical drawings, in which this passage occurs, were complete two years before his death. They may have been completed even earlier, for a note in Leonardo's hand reads: "This winter of 1510 I look to finish all this anatomy." If he completed his anatomical studies on schedule, the reference to grains of maize dates to 1510 or 1511 - very early indeed, although still only two or three years before the first mention of maize in China.

There is another reference to maize in Leonardo's notebooks that may be even earlier. In the second of the three "Forster" notebooks, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, there is a curious list that can be dated to between 1500 and 1505. It reads: "Beans, white maize, red maize, panic grass, millet, kidney beans, broad beans, peas." Two sorts of maize are mentioned, as they are in much later herbals. Panic grass and millet were commonly classed with maize in the 16th century because of the general similarity of stalk and stem. In fact, Columbus himself used the Spanish word for panic grass to refer to maize the first time he saw it, and in Portuguese the old word for millet, milho, now means maize exclusively. The term Leonardo uses for maize is meliga, now one of the several Italian words for maize - but it originally meant sorghum, and both a red and a white variety of sorghum were cultivated in Italy in the late Middle Ages. Did Leonardo mean maize or sorghum? His English translator and editor thought he meant maize, and if he did - that is, if the word meliga had already assumed its modern meaning - this brings the first European mention of maize to the earliest years of the 16th century. The use of the word fagioli, now used to mean haricot beans, in the same list, may indicate that indeed meliga had also already assumed its modern meaning.

Now, it is possible that Leonardo personally encountered maize on a journey to the Levant. His notebooks contain an eyewitness account of a natural disaster that struck an unnamed city - probably Tarsus or Adana - in the Taurus region of Anatolia. The letter was written while Leonardo was on a mission to that region for the Mamluk authorities, a trip that may have taken place between July 1505 and March 1508.

The fertile plain to the west of the Taurus Mountains is ancient Cilicia, a powerful Armenian kingdom in antiquity and later in the Middle Ages. Traditionally, sugarcane and cotton were grown there. Leonardo describes it in his letter: "This mountain at its base is inhabited by a very opulent people; it abounds in most beautiful springs and rivers; it is fertile and teems with everything that is good and especially in those parts which have a southern aspect." Is it possible that it was here that Leonardo first encountered maize? If so, it would explain his precocious familiarity with the grain, as well as with the name by which it is known to this day in Italy - granturco. If maize was first sown in Cilicia, it might also explain why the Turks called it misir , "Egypt," for until 1516 Cilicia was controlled by the Mamluks of Egypt. The Arabic name for maize used in Egypt, "Syrian sorghum," would also be explained, because under the Mamluks Cilicia was administered from Syria. After 1517, Cilicia, Syria and Egypt all formed part of the Ottoman Empire; anything proceeding therefrom was "Turkish."

There is another, earlier name for maize in Turkish. This is qalambak, a strange word of Persian origin that apparently originally meant a kind of aromatic wood. Oddly enough, this same word is used in Malaysia. Closer to home, it is the origin of one of the Greek words for maize - kalampokki. The other is arabiskoi, "Arabian." Nearby Albania uses kollomboc .

It is possible that qalambak and misir referred to different varieties of maize, perhaps sweet maize and flint maize respectivly. The fact remains that qalambak is an Oriental word, and once again, as throughout the 16th century, we find maize associated with Islamic lands rather than with the New World from which it in fact came.

The acceptance of a new cereal crop is no easy matter. It involves major changes in field and cropping techniques, to say nothing of the ritual practices that around the world often accompany sowing and harvest. Fruits like pineapples or papayas could be accepted or not accepted; their cultivation did not involve radical change. But where maize was cultivated, it replaced other grains, grains with deep cultural and economic associations. This is why it is so astonishing to find maize cultivated in China so early; it is one reason why some scholars - particularly anthropologists - have thought maize might have had Old World origins; it is why it is worth enquiring how maize might have reached Europe from the East rather than the West.

The 16th-century Chinese gazetteers studied independently by Francesca Bray and Ping-Ti Ho mention maize being cultivated not only in Anhwei province, but also in Yunnan, Kiangsu, Honan, Chekiang and Fukien. These Chinese provinces all had minority populations - Yunnan was heavily Muslim - and these minorities may have been less resistant to the new cultigen.

The earliest Chinese name for maize meant "barbarian wheat," so it was recognized as being of foreign origin. But which barbarians brought it to China? In 1511, provinces like Anwhei could as yet have had little direct contact with the Portuguese. If the Portuguese brought maize to China, it would have been between 1500 - when they discovered Brazil - and 1511, when the grain is first mentioned in Anwhei. Eleven years is not much time for the introduction of a new cereal crop, yet this is the maximum time allowable if the Portuguese did in fact introduce it to China.

But there are two other regions from which maize might have come to China: India and the Levant. Years ago, anthropologist Berthold Laufer suggested that maize reached China overland from India. This is not impossible, but maize is not mentioned in the exhaustive Ain-i Akbari, composed around 1590. On the other hand, there may be a reference to maize in the memoirs of Babur, founder of the Moghul dynasty. He compares the leaves of the plantain to a plant he knew from Transoxiana, which he calls aman-aqra. It has been suggested that aman-qara was maize. If so, this would give a date late in the 15th or early in the 16th century for the cultivation of maize in the Transoxiana, from where it could have spread overland to China via the Silk Road, which also passed through the levant.

There are various possible routes by which maize might have reached the Levant. The most obvious is that it was bought by Moriscos, Muslim refugees from Spain, who in the years after the fall of Granada in 1492 sought refuge in both Mamluk Ottoman territories. Another possibility is that maize was encountered in Spanish ships returned from the New World, captured by corsairs in Ottoman service or by Ottoman ships of the line: The Columbus map reached the Ottomans in just this way. A third possibility is that Peter Martyr, chronicler of the discoveries, brought it to Islamic lands himself. He was sent to Egypt on a diplomatic mission in 1501 and he may have taken samples of maize and other New World exotics with him, to demonstrate the reality of the recent discoveries to the Mamluk court.

There is unfortunately, no evidence for any of these theories. What does seem to be certain is that maize was cultivated in China and perhaps in Islamic lands before it was cultivated in Europe, and that it entered Europe indirectly, via Ottoman territories. This would explain why contemporaries associated the new grain not with the New World but with Asia - in particular, Islamic Asia.

For those who feel that the period of time between the discovery of maize and its first cultivation is still too short, there is a fourth possibility: pre-Columbian voyages to the New World. More than 30 years ago, H. H. Li suggested, on the basis of Chinese geographical texts, that Arabs made regular voyages to the New World as early as the 11th century. These Chinese texts describe voyages in very large ships to a county called Mu-lan-p'i, one hundred days' sail to the west. Li pointed out that these could hardly have been voyages from, say, Egypt to Spain or North Africa, because the texts specifically state that the sailors spent one hundred days out of sight of land - virtually impossible in the Mediterranean, where the maximum distance between landfalls is barely 500 miles.

However attractive this theory is, Arabic sources, though prolix and plentiful, do not mention such voyages - with the exception of those undertaken by the mugharrirun , which cannot be called regular trading voyages with the New World. What is possible is that, in the century preceding Columbus's discovery, someone else reached the New World and brought back maize. This would resolve many of the mysteries about its dissemination, explaining the troubling passage in Peter Martyr and allowing a longer time for maize to come under cultivation. There was, after all, a great deal of maritime activity in the Atlantic in the late 14th and 15th centuries and - who knows - perhaps more than one "Anonymous Pilot."

Historian and Arabist Paul Lunde, author of the whole issue of Aramco World , is a frequent Contributor to the magazines with some 50 articles to his credit over the past two decades, including special multi-article sections on Arabic-language printing and the history of the Silk Roads. His immediate research for this issue was carried out in Seville, Rome, London and Cambridge, and he wrote from his base in Seville’s Barrio do Santa Cruz, a stone’s throw from the city’s cathedral—once a mosque—and from Alcázares Resales, the Moorish palace complex that remains today one of the residences of Spain’s Christian kings.

Questionable Origins
Written by Paul Lunde

Austen Henry Layard belonged to the heroic age of archaeology. His astonishing discoveries in Mesopotamia laid the foundations of modern Assyriology and radically changed our perception of the ancient world. In his classic Nineveh and Babylon, published in 1958, he describes one of the Assyrian stone reliefs he discovered at Koyunluk: "The walls were paneled with sculptured slabs about six feet [two meters] high. Those to the right, in descending, represented a procession of servants carrying fruit, flowers, game and supplies for a banquet, preceded by mace-bearers. The first servant following the guard bore an object which I should not hesitate to identify with the pineapple, unless there were every reason to believe that the Assyrians were unacquainted with that fruit. The leaves sprouting from the top proved that it was not the cone of a pine tree or fir. After all, the sacred symbol held by the winged figures in the Assyrian sculptures, may be the same fruit, and not, as I have conjectured, that of a coniferous tree."

Layard’s great contemporary Sir Henry Rawlinson, the leading authority of the time on ancient Near Eastern history,was not so hesitant, and was convinced that the fruit in the frieze at koyunluk, and which appeared elsewhere in Assyrian sculpture, was indeed the pineapple.

Rawlinson may not have realized the implications of this identification. There are only two possibilities: Either the pineapple was indigenous to both the Old World and the New,or it was brought to the Old World from the New. Yet, despite claims that it has been found painted on Egyptian pottery and even depicted in a Roman mural at Pompeii, nothing like the pineapple is mentioned in the ancient literatures of the East, nor in the whole body of Roman and Greek literature.

That fact, though negative, is pretty conclusive evidence that the pineapple was unknown to antiquity.

Since the pineapple is a very tough plant and spreads with rapidity, it is also unlikely that, once introduced, it would then vanish from cultivation. The fruit being carried in the Assyrian friezes is almost certainly not the pineapple, but a germinating date palm, a symbol of fertility.

Major General Cunningham, of the Archaeological Survey of India, working at the site of Bharhut in South India last century, was convinced that some of the stone figures he excavated there were holding custard apples, Annona reticulata. These are also said to be depicted on some of the frescoes at Ajanta. Here again is an identification from an iconographic representation. The statues from Bharhut are clearly pre-Columbian in date; if the fruit depicted is the custard apple, it is evidence of the contacts between the New World and the Old – in this case trans-Pacific contacts - in pre-Columbian times.

The problem is complicated by the fact that at least two American plants do seem to have crossed the Pacific before Columbus crossed the Atlantic. One of these is the sweet potato, apparently known in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. The other is cotton, the diploid variety of which is found in both Old World and New, and may have been taken to the New World very early.

At least two Old World plants were found already growing in the New by the Spanish when they arrived. One was the coconut palm, the other sugar cane. Several early Spanish chronicles mention the coconut palm growing on the west coast of Panama. Had it been brought by man, or carried there by the sea? A kind of cane very line sugar cane was found growing on the coast of Brazil. Was it sugar cane, which has no wild ancestors in the Old World? These questions are very difficult to answer, especially given the speed with which Old World plants acclimatized in the New. The classic example of this phenomenon is the peach, which spread in north America more rapidly than the advance of Homo europæus: it had become standard fare for a number of North American Indian tribes long before they had any direct contact with Europeans. Old World weeds and wildflowers also spread very rapidly, outdistancing the conquistadores.

We have already seen how the new world origin of the haricot bean has periodically been questioned. Dictionaries give two possible etymologies for the word "haricot" – one Old French, the other Aztec. The fact that what we call the lima bean – it has lost both its capital letter and its Spanish vowel in English – is known in some parts of Asia as the Rangoon bean shows how fluid the name of a plant can be and what a poor guide it may be to the plant’s place of origin. Theoretically, iconographic representations of plants should be much less subject to argument. But this is not so: Where some see pineapples, other see pine cones.

Even the American origin of the turkey has sometimes been challenged, not only on the basis of its odd English name, but because of claims that it appears on the border of the Bayeux Tapestry – which was supposedly created about the year 1100. I have examined a good color reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry and found many birds, but nothing quite like a turkey. On the other hand, the doubt recently cast on the date of the Bayeux Tapestry by Robert Chenciner, who cites the scenes of the Norman soldiery devouring shish kebab as evidence that the tapestry we have is later copy of the original, means that anything is possible. A turkey in the tapestry might tell us about medieval contacts with the Americas than about the date of the Bayeux Tapestry itself!

Columbus found the natives of Cuba smoking loosely rolled tobacco leaves, the prototype of the cigar. Oddly, tobacco seems to have spread less swiftly than maize – oddly because mankind has always been quick to accept new drugs. It was brought under cultivation in Spain in 1558, and after that there was no stopping the spread of tobacco. We have seen how it reached Fez in 1599; its progress through the Middle and Far East can be almost exactly dated by the publication of prohibitions against its consumption. Japan forbade the use of tobacco in 1607, the Ottoman Empire in 1611. The Moguls forbade it in 1617. Everywhere its use gave rise to violent polemics, as did the use of chocolate at a slightly later date. This American plant conquered the world; it was smoked, chewed and sniffed everywhere from Spain to China.

Oviedo says the word tabaco was applied by the Indians of Hispaniola to the Y-shaped pipe used to smoke the herb. Las Casas, whose familiarity with the islands was unrivaled, says it is the name of the leaf itself. This implies that both the plant and its name are of American origin.

Or are they? Wiener, in his Africa and the Discovery of America, published in the 1920's, thought tobacco may have originated in Africa; others have occasionally suggested the same. Yet this is certainly mistaken; if tobacco had been grown and smoked, chewed or sniffed in pre-Columbian Africa, at least in the areas familiar to the Arabs, they would certainly have mentioned it. The disagreement about the meaning of the word "tobacco" itself may be because the same word meant different things in different Indian languages or dialects, but in any case it shows that there was a certain amount of confusion about the name of the herb even when it was first encountered on its home ground.

The early 19th century Tunisian scholar and traveler Muhammad ibn 'Umar ibn Sulayman al-Tunsi visited Dar Fur, in the Sudan, in 1803 - long before this remote and interesting region had been visited by Europeans, in his fascinating account of the Sultanate of Dar Fur, entitled Tashhidh al-Adhan bi-Sirat Bilad al-'Arab wa-l-Sudan, he mentions the various food plants - among them maize - grown in Dar Fur. In the little market of Kusa he saw tobacco for sale. Now the word for tobacco in Arabic is generally dukhkhan, meaning simply "smoke." But in Kusa, it was known as taba, and al-Tunsi was struck by this word's resemblance to the French tabac. Here is exactly what al-Tunsi says: "They were selling tobacco [dukhkhan] in the market of Kusa, but they call it taba in their language, like the French. This coincidence is surprising. Not only do the people of Dar Fur call tobacco taba, but indeed, it is so-called throughout the Sudan. The people of the Fezzan and Tripoli call it tabgh."

Al-Tunsi then quotes a number of lines from a poem which he believed to have been composed about the year 1450. The poem is a defence of tabgha smoking, indeed, the second verse literally spells it out:

"Almighty God has caused a plant to appear

in our land which is called, without any doubt,

tabgha / Spelled ta, b, gh, a."

Since the word occurs in the form tabgha, al-Tunsi presumably saw the poem in Fezzan or Tripoli. Modern Arabic dictionaries give the word in the form tabgh, but it is not common in the spoken language. If al-Tunsi is right about the date of the poem, tabgha must have been some plant other than tobacco. A more likely explanation, however, is that the poem is later than Al-Tunsi thought, and that tabgha is a deformation of French tabac or Spanish tabaco, although one would expect a form more like tabak.

The taba of the Sudan was made of the green leaves of tobacco plants, pounded in a wooden mortar, formed into little pyramids and dried in the sun. It was very strong, and al-Tunsi says one almost fainted at the smell. Is it possible that before the introduction of tobacco, taba was made of some other leaf, and the old name was then applied to the new substance? Did this word taba then reach North Africa in the form tabga, and was it then used in Spain for the American herb?

This article appeared on pages 47-55 of the May/June 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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