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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 europ?us: 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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