Multidisciplinary evidence for early banana (Musa cvs.) cultivation on Mabuyag Island, Torres Strait


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.

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Fig. 1: Archaeological investigations at Wagadagam.
Fig. 2: Photomicrographs of individual banana starch granules.
Fig. 3: Photomicrographs of clumped banana starch granules.
Fig. 4: Photomicrographs of banana (Musa sp.) phytoliths and probable banana phytoliths.
Fig. 5: Summary of starch, phytolith and microcharcoal counts, together with artefact distributions, plotted by XU for Wagadagam test unit C.

Data availability

All data are available in the manuscript and supplementary material.


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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. 14.

Author information




The archaeobotanical study was devised by R.N.W., D.W. and T.D. Excavation information and samples were provided by D.W. Microfossil analysis was undertaken by R.N.W. with assistance of A.C. and under direction of T.D. All authors contributed to the interpretation of results and writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to Robert N. Williams.

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Extended data

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.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary discussion, Figs. 1–9 and Table 1.

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Supplementary Table 2.

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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).

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