Multiproxy archaeobotanical analyses (starch granule, phytolith and microcharcoal) of an abandoned agricultural terrace at Wagadagam on Mabuyag Island, Torres Strait, Australia, document extensive, low-intensity forms of plant management from at least 2,145–1,930 cal yr bp and intensive forms of cultivation at 1,376–1,293 cal yr bp. The agricultural activities at 1,376–1,293 cal yr bp are evidenced from terrace construction, banana (Musa cultivars) cultivation and dramatic transformations to the local palaeoenvironment. The robust evidence for the antiquity of horticulture in western Torres Strait provides an historical basis for understanding the diffusion of cultivation practices and cultivars, most likely from New Guinea. This study also provides a methodological template for the investigation of plant management, potentially including forms of cultivation that were practiced in northern Australia before European colonization.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
All data are available in the manuscript and supplementary material.
Wright, D. et al. Exploring ceremony: the archaeology of a men’s meeting house (‘kod’) on Mabuyag, Western Torres Strait. Camb. Archaeol. J. 26, 721–740 (2016).
Walker, D. Bridge and Barrier: The Natural and Cultural History of Torres Strait (Australian National Univ., 1972).
Gerritsen, R. Australia and the Origins of Agriculture (British Archaeological Reports Limited, 2008).
Pascoe, B. Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture (Magabala Books, 2014).
Cosgrove, R., Field, J. & Ferrier, Å. The archaeology of Australia’s tropical rainforests. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 251, 150–173 (2007).
Gammage, B. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2012).
Gott, B. Cumbungi, Typha species: a staple Aboriginal food in southern Australia. Aust. Aborig. Stud. 1999, 33–50 (1999).
Gott, B. Murnong —Microseris scapigera: a study of a staple food of Victorian Aborigines. Aust. Aborig. Stud. 2, 2–17 (1983).
Hallam, S. J. in Foraging and Farming: The Evolution of Plant Exploitation (eds Harris, D. R. & Hillman, G. C.) 136–151 (Unwin and Hyman, 1989).
Jones, R. Firestick farming. Aust. Nat. Hist. 16, 224–228 (1969).
Hynes, R. A. & Chase, A. K. Plants, sites and domiculture: Aboriginal influence upon plant communities in Cape York Peninsula. Archaeol. Ocean. 17, 38–50 (1982).
Denham, T., Donohue, M. & Booth, S. Horticultural experimentation in northern Australia reconsidered. Antiquity 83, 634–648 (2009).
Jones, R. & Meehan, B. in Foraging and Farming: The Evolution of Plant Exploitation (eds Harris, D. R. & Hillman, G. C.) 120–135 (Unwin Hyman, 1989).
Bowman, D. M. J. S., Gibson, J. & Kondo, T. Outback palms: Aboriginal myth meets DNA analysis. Nature 520, 33 (2015).
Rangan, H. et al. New genetic and linguistic analyses show ancient human influence on baobab evolution and distribution in Australia. PLoS ONE 10, e0119758 (2015).
Rossetto, M. et al. From Songlines to genomes: prehistoric assisted migration of a rain forest tree by Australian Aboriginal people. PLoS ONE 12, e0186663 (2017).
Bourke, R. M. & Hardwood, T. A. Food and Agriculture in Papua New Guinea (ANU E-Press, 2009).
Denham, T. Tracing Early Agriculture in the Highlands of New Guinea: Plot, Mound and Ditch (Routledge, 2018).
Denham, T. et al. Origins of agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of New Guinea. Science 301, 189–193 (2003).
Golson, J., Denham, T., Hughes, P. J., Muke, J. D. & Swadling, P. Ten Thousand Years of Cultivation at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (ANU E-Press, 2017).
Barham, A. J. The local environmental impact of prehistoric populations on Saibai Island, northern Torres Strait, Australia: enigmatic evidence from Holocene swamp lithostratigraphic records. Quat. Int. 59, 71–105 (1999).
Parr, J. & Carter, M. Phytolith and starch analysis of sediment samples from two archaeological sites on Dauar Island, Torres Strait, northeastern Australia. Veg. Hist. Archaeobot. 12, 131–141 (2003).
Harris, D. R. Early agriculture in New Guinea and the Torres Strait divide. Antiquity 69, 848–854 (1995).
Harris, D. R. in Social and Ecological Systems (eds Burnham, P. C. & Ellen, R. F.) 75–109 (Academic Press, 1979).
Harris, D. in Sunda and Sahul: Prehistoric Studies in Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Australia (eds Allen, J. et al.) 421–463 (Academic Press, 1977).
Jukes, J. B. Narrative of the Surveying Voyage of H.M.S. Fly, Commanded by Captain F.P. Blackwood, in Torres Strait, New Guinea and Other Islands of the Eastern Archipelago, During the Years 1842–1846 (Boone, 1847).
Macgillivray, J. Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, Commanded by the Late Captain Owen Stanley During the Years 1846–50: to which is added Mr. E.B. Kennedy’s Expedition for the Exploration of the Cape York Peninsula (Boone, 1852).
Moore, D. The Australian–Papuan frontier at Cape York: a reconstruction of the ethnography of the peoples on mainland Cape York and the adjacent Torres Strait Islands, their interaction with each other, and their prehistory; incorporating unpublished documentary evidence and an archaeological survey of the area. PhD thesis, Univ. of New England (1974).
Moresby, J. Discoveries & Surveys in New Guinea and the D’Entrecasteaux Islands: A Cruise in Polynesia and Visits to the Pearlshelling Stations in the Torres Straits of H.M.S. Basilisk (J. Murray, 1876).
Haddon, A. C. Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits: Arts and Crafts (Univ. of Cambridge Press, 1912).
Haddon, A. C. Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits: Sociology, Magic and Religion of the Western Islanders (Univ. of Cambridge Press, 1904).
Haddon, A. C. The ethnography of the Western Tribe of Torres Straits. J. Anthropol. Inst. Great Britain Ireland 19, 297–440 (1890).
McNiven, I. J. Precarious islands: Kulkalgal reef island settlement and high mobility across 700 km of seascape, central Torres Strait and northern Great Barrier Reef. Quat. Int. 385, 39–55 (2015).
Crouch, J., McNiven, I. J., David, B., Rowe, C. & Weisler, M. I. Berberass: marine resource specialisation and environmental change in Torres Strait during the past 4000 years. Archaeol. Ocean. 42, 49–64 (2007).
Harris, D. R. & Ghaleb Kirby, B. in Goemulgaw Lagal: Cultural and Natural Histories of the Island of Mabuyag, Torres Strait Parts 1 & 2 (eds McNiven, I. J. & Hitchcock, G. J.) 283–375 (Queensland Museum, 2015).
McNiven, I. Inclusions, exclusions and transitions: Torres Strait Islander constructed landscapes over the ast 4000 years, northeast Australia. Holocene 18, 449–462 (2008).
Fell, D. G. & Stanton, D. J. The vegetation and flora of Mabuyag, Torres Strait, Queensland. Mem. Queensl. Mus. 8, 1–33 (2015).
Reichert, E. T. The Differentiation and Specificity of Starches in Relation to Genera, Species, etc. Vol. 1 (Carnegie Institute, 1913).
Lentfer, C. J. Going bananas in Papua New Guinea: a preliminary study of starch granule morphotypes in Musaceae fruit. Ethnobot. Res. Appl. 7, 217–238 (2009).
Lentfer, C. J. in Archaeological Science Under A Microscope: Studies in Residue and Ancient DNA Analysis in Honour of Tom Loy Terra Australis 30 (eds Haslam, M. et al.) 80–101 (ANU E Press, 2009).
Allen, M. S. & Ussher, E. Starch analysis reveals prehistoric plant translocations and shell tool use, Marquesas Islands, Polynesia. J. Archaeol. Sci. 40, 2799–2812 (2013).
Fullagar, R. L. K., Field, J., Denham, T. & Lentfer, C. Early and mid Holocene tool-use and processing of taro (Colocasia esculenta), yam (Dioscorea sp.) and other plants at Kuk Swamp in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. J. Archaeol. Sci. 33, 595–614 (2006).
Ball, T., Vrydaghs, L., Van Den Hauwe, I., Manwaring, J. & De Langhe, E. Differentiating banana phytoliths: wild and edible Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. J. Archaeol. Sci. 33, 1228–1236 (2006).
Lentfer, C. J. Tracing domestication and cultivation of bananas from phytoliths: an update from Papua New Guinea. Ethnobot. Res. Appl. 7, 247–270 (2009).
Wilson, S. M. Phytolith analysis at Kuk; an early agricultural site in Papua New Guinea. Archaeol. Ocean. 20, 90–97 (1985).
Piperno, D. R. Phytoliths: A Comprehensive Guide for Archaeologists and Paleoecologists (AltaMira Press, 2006).
De Langhe, E., Vrydaghs, L., Perrier, X. & Denham, T. Fahien reconsidered: Pleistocene exploitation of wild bananas and Holocene introduced Musa cultivars to Sri Lanka. J. Quat. Sci. 34, 405–409 (2019).
Madella, M., Alexandre, A. & Ball, T. International code for phytolith nomenclature 1.0. Ann. Bot. 96, 253–260 (2005).
Piperno, D. R. & Pearsall, D. M. The silica bodies of tropical American grasses: morphology, taxonomy, and implications for grass systematics and fossil phytolith identification. Smithson. Contrib. Bot. 85, 1–40 (1998).
Rovner, I. Potential of opal phytoliths for use in palaeoecological reconstruction. Quat. Res. 1, 343–359 (1971).
Bozarth, S. R. in Phytolith Systematics: Emerging Issues (eds Rapp, G. Jr. & Mulholland, S. C.) 193–214 (Springer, 1992).
Rowe, C. Holocene History of Vegetation Change in the Western Torres Strait Region, Queensland, Australia. PhD thesis, Monash Univ. (2005).
Denham, T. P. & Haberle, S. Agricultural emergence and transformation in the Upper Wahgi Valley, Papua New Guinea, during the Holocene: theory, method and practice. Holocene 18, 481–496 (2008).
Haberle, S., Lentfer, C., O’Donnell, S. & Denham, T. The palaeoenvironments of Kuk Swamp from the beginnings of agriculture in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Quat. Int. 249, 129–139 (2012).
Perrier, X. et al. Multidisciplinary perspectives on banana (Musa spp.) domestication. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 11311–11318 (2011).
Simmonds, N. W. Botanical results of the banana collecting expedition, 1954–5. Kew Bull. 11, 463–489 (1956).
Denham, T. P. in Archaeology of Oceania: Australian and the Pacific Islands (ed. Lilley, I.) 160–188 (Blackwell, 2006).
Torrence, R. & Barton, H. Ancient Starch Research (Left Coast Press, 2006).
Therin, M. & Lentfer, C. J. in Ancient Starch Research (eds Torrence, R. & Barton, H.) 159–161 (Left Coast Press, 2006).
Loy, T. H., Spriggs, M. & Wickler, S. Direct evidence for human use of plants 28,000 years ago: starch residues on stone artefacts from the northern Solomon Islands. Antiquity 66, 898–912 (1992).
Pearsall, D. M. Phytolith analysis of archaeological soils: evidence for maize cultivation in Formative Ecuador. Science 199, 177–178 (1978).
Parr, J. A comparison of heavy liquid flotation and microwave digestion techniques for the extraction of fossil phytoliths from sediments. Rev. Palaeobot. Palynol. 120, 315–336 (2002).
Bowdery, D. Phytolith Analysis Applied to Pleistocene–Holocene Archaeological Sites in the Australian Arid Zone (British Archaeological Reports, 1998).
Mooney, S. D. & Tinner, W. The analysis of charcoal in peat and organic sediments. Mires Peat 7, 1–18 (2011).
Torrence, R., Wright, R. & Conway, R. Identification of starch granules using image analysis and multivariate techniques. J. Archaeol. Sci. 31, 519–532 (2004).
Grimm, E. C. CONISS: a Fortran 77 program for stratigraphically constrained cluster analysis by the method of incremental sum of squares. Comput. Geosci. 13, 13–35 (1987).
Stuiver, M. & Reimer, P. J. Extended 14C data base and revised CALIB 3.0 14C calibration program. Radiocarbon 35, 215–230 (1993).
Hogg, A. et al. SHCal13 Southern Hemisphere calibration, 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55, 1889–1903 (2013).
This project was supported by Goemulgal, traditional owners of Mabuyag. Funding for the fieldwork was provided by a Griffith University/James Cook University collaborative grant awarded to D.W. and S. Ulm; and for the laboratory research by Australian Research Council grant no. FT150100420 to T.D. Microscopy facilities were provided by the Centre for Advanced Microscopy and School of Biology, Australian National University. We thank D. Fell for providing assistance and information relating to Mabuyag vegetation; M. Prebble for assistance with starch, phytolith and summary multiplots; A. Fogel (Griffith) for provision of GIS files; and K. Dancey and K. Pelling (Australian National University, Cartography) for assistance with redrafting of Figs. 1–4.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended Data Fig. 1 Stratigraphic distribution of starch types (% of total starch granules per XU, total count shown in grey) for Wagadagam Square C, showing zones delineated by CONISS analysis.
Stratigraphic distribution of starch types (% of total starch granules per XU, total count shown in grey) for Wagadagam Square C, showing zones delineated by CONISS analysis.
Extended Data Fig. 2 Stratigraphic distribution of phytolith types (% of total phytolith sum per XU; dot indicates <1%) and counts of spicules, diatoms and microcharcoal for Wagadagam Square C.
Stratigraphic distribution of phytolith types (% of total phytolith sum per XU; dot indicates <1%) and counts of spicules, diatoms and microcharcoal for Wagadagam Square C. Stratigraphic zones are delineated by CONISS analysis of phytolith morphotype counts.
About this article
Cite this article
Williams, R.N., Wright, D., Crowther, A. et al. Multidisciplinary evidence for early banana (Musa cvs.) cultivation on Mabuyag Island, Torres Strait. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 1342–1350 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1278-3