Volume 109 2000 > Volume 109, No. 2 > Shorter communication: A range of disciplines support a dual origin for the bottle gourd in the Pacific, by R. C. Green, p 191-198
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Further discussion, drawn from a number of different sources, is presented here on the subject of the Māori bottle gourd and its origins addressed in a shorter communication in this journal by Burtenshaw (1999). The aim is to amplify a fairly recent parallel statement on the topic by Ross (1996:166) that “the gourd [Lagenaria siceraria] may well have reached Oceania from two directions, arriving in Melanesia from the Indo-Malaysian region and in Eastern Polynesia from South America”. This source and others not referenced by Burtenshaw, and therefore perhaps not particularly well known in general, stem from a range of disciplines beyond those of ethnobotany that bear on one or more of the issues raised by his article.

For example, my current interest in the topic of the bottle gourd arose from a concern with Easter Island (Rapanui) origins (Green 1998), something that also involved the problems of contact between South America and Polynesia attested by both the bottle gourd and sweet potato, a subject to which Burtenshaw only briefly alludes in his discussions drawing on a rather limited range of sources. In relation to this issue, I develop further a longstanding view that Polynesians from Rapanui sailed on to South America and then back to central East Polynesia around the 11th to 12th century A.D., bringing with them both the bottle gourd and the sweet potato (Green 1998:95-98). Some of the additional evidence used in developing that proposal, besides Yen (1974) for the sweet potato and Whistler (1990,1991) for the bottle gourd, was linguistic, while that for the dating of the presence of both plants in East Polynesia was archaeological. These two South American sourced plants seem to have arrived in central East Polynesia just in time to be carried by early ancestors of the Māori to New Zealand in the 12th to 13th century A.D.

It is best to deal first with the Asian evidence that over time extends out into the Pacific. This evidence presumably relates to a variety of L. siceraria given the subspecies designation of asiatica, although subspecies identifications are never provided for archaeological specimens. The earliest reports of bottle gourds are those from Spirit and Banyan caves in Thailand at 9000 to 11,000 and/or 8000 to 9000 B.P. (Yen 1977:570), and from Hemudu in South China around 7200 and 6900 B.P. (Bellwood 1997:208). It is difficult to assess the robustness of the South Chinese claims for the gourd being L. siceraria, but the conditions of plant preservation in Layer 4 of the Hemudu site are very good, making accurate - 192 recognition quite feasible. For the Thailand sites, Yen (1977:575) says the low quantities and poor conditions of specimens (three samples from two sites with only two of them allowing repeated identifications) preclude overall confidence in the designations. A Lagenaria sp. of gourd is also reported from Japan at 5500 B.P. (Imamura 1996:108).

In contrast to these very early East Asian dates, some current linguistic-based opinion traces the bottle gourd of Southern Asia and Island Southeast Asia to the last two millennia B.C. (Achaya 1998:7,35,261; Mahdi 1998:392-94). Thus in the later Vedas of Sanskrit (1500 to 800 B.C.), the word for bottle gourd is alābu ~ alābū ~ lābū (Mahdi 1998:392, Achaya 1998:261). While Achaya (1998:7) would seemingly accept an early stage of the Munda languages of India belonging to Austroasiatic as a source for these names in Indo-European Sanskrit, Mahdi (1998:392-93) says cognates of alābū in Austroasiatic are rare, and is sceptical of that language family being their source. Moreover, he (1998:393) is equally emphatic that “there is no reason to consider the Sanskrit forms as borrowings from Austronesian”, as the plant originates from Africa (a point on which Achaya [1998:42] agrees), therefore the Austronesian forms must ultimately derive from Sanskrit.

Among the three possible Sanskrit loans that Mahdi has advanced as plausible reconstructions in Austronesian, *labu in the languages of Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, central Maluku and the south Philippines is most clearly related to the Sanskrit form alābū. Its presence in Island Southeast Asia he attributes to the clove trade route of the second century B.C. Malay-speaking seafarers. Bellwood (1997:294-95) has recently summarised the archaeological evidence, both in the form of Rouletted Ware pottery and trade beads, for Indian contacts with western Indonesia dating back to the second century B.C. and perhaps earlier, as well as glass bead evidence for such contact in the Talaud Islands of northeastern Indonesia (Bellwood 1997:297-98). Given the direction this lābū linguistic borrowing apparently went, it and the archaeological signature of contact with India in the second century B.C. seem fairly persuasive of this situation having some kind of role in the spread of the bottle gourd from India into the Indonesian part of the western Pacific.

A second term for the bottle gourd reconstructed by Mahdi (1998:393) is *ta[b,B]u reflected in the Austronesian languages of Sumatra, Sulawesi, Lesser Sundas and Maluku plus Madagascar. He is rather uncertain how to deal with the origin of an implied *l > *t sound shift, but thinks it more likely to have occurred in old Sanskrit than Austronesian. He therefore writes, “Perhaps… *tabu represents and even older borrowing than *labu, mediated by India-based Austronesians during the period before involvement of Malay-speakers in shipping across the Bay of Bengal” (1998:394). Further support for *tabu perhaps being an earlier Indonesian Austronesian form for the bottle gourd is found in Taiwanese sources Mahdi has not accessed. Li (1994:262) documents seven Formosan daughter language reflexes and reconstructs *taba as Proto North Formosan and *tabuLulu as Proto Rukai. Although not reconstructed as a form for the bottle gourd present in any recently published list of Proto Austronesian plants I have examined (Wolff 1994, Zorc 1994, Blust 1995), Li advances *tahbeH as being of Proto Hesperonesian or Proto Western - 193 Austronesian status in the sense in which Tsuchida (1977) uses that term. In short, whether the Indonesian *tabu forms and those of Taiwan prove or do not prove to be related, they suggest the bottle gourd has a fair antiquity in the western Austronesian part of the Pacific. Thus they would be quite compatible with the finding of the Lagenaria gourd in Timor dating to sometime around 2000 B.C. (Bellwood 1997:231, Glover 1977). It seems reasonable to assume that in the last part of the first millennium B.C. the bottle gourd was established in Island Southeast Asia (Taiwan plus eastern and western Indonesia), and that certainly one, and perhaps several terms for it, relate to loans from Sanskrit. However, the likelihood on both linguistic and archaeological evidence is that it appeared in the area rather more than a millennium earlier than its well attested second century B.C. date.

Swadling (1996:53-59) sets out the archaeological basis on which to postulate continuing contact between eastern Indonesia and New Guinea in the period from 500 B.C. to A.D. 250 associated with an Asian plume trade. Thus it is not too surprising that in the first few centuries B.C. at the Manton site in the New Guinea Highlands, portions of L. siceraria exocarp were recovered from a swampy environment (Golson et al. 1967:369). This is the earliest dating of the bottle gourd plant in the Oceanic region of the Pacific known to me. Hopefully, it will lay to rest Burtenshaw's (1999:430) speculation that the bottle gourd accompanied the sweet potato in a rather unlikely journey to New Guinea from much further east.

We know now from Swadling's (1996:165,252-53) research that the sweet potato route into New Guinea from Indonesia—the source originally postulated for it by Yen (1974)—was very likely by New Guinea's Trans-Fly coast and river system up into the Papua New Guinea Highlands in the period A.D. 1645-1790. This is entirely compatible with Golson's (1997:48-49) archaeological account of the sweet potato first appearing as a crop in phase 6 (250 B.P.) of the long agricultural sequence documented for the Kuk swamp site in the Highlands. Golson also discusses the huge impact at that time of the sweet potato more generally on food production throughout the higher altitudes of the Papua New Guinea highlands. Whatever the explanation of African and American features in modern New Guinea bottle gourd plants cited by Burtenshaw (1999:430), the fact is that it first arrived in the island at a time quite different to the sweet potato, and neither came from much further east as he suggests. Rather more likely was that the source for both was eastern Indonesia, separated in time by more than two millennia.

This Asian, Indonesian and New Guinea background is, I have found, quite germane to properly assessing a postulated South American connection for the bottle gourd of East Polynesia. As Ross (1996) found, unlike many Asian sourced cultivars for which it was an easy matter to reconstruct at least one appropriate proto-form attributable to the Oceanic (POc) subgroup of circa 3000-3500 B.P., that did not prove possible for the bottle gourd. Moreover, this seemed to be the case despite the fact the bottle gourd was generally regarded by ethnobotanists like Barrau (1962:189) as an ancient food plant throughout Melanesia. For Ross (1996:161), the implication of the linguistic information was that the bottle gourd was “not known to POc speakers”, and that it “reached the Bismarck Archipelago after the break-up of POc” (emphases in original).

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Support for this view comes from archaeological collections of plant remains from both pre-Lapita and Lapita horizon age. Thus Swadling (1997:6-7) did not find any bottle gourd specimens in her waterlogged pre-Lapita deposits from the Ramu River site of Dongon in north coast Papua New Guinea dating to 5800 B.R Nor does Spriggs (1997:79) report it from similar wet-zone deposits in the Apalo site of pre-Lapita age (6100 to 5300 B.P.) situated on Kumbun Island, Arawe Group, Bismarck Archipelago. Even more telling, bottle gourd remains do not appear in the rich muck-zone deposits of the Lapita age (3500 to 3000 B.P.) at the ECA site in the Mussau Group of that archipelago. Nor have they been found in any other Lapita sites (Kirch 1997). The conspicuous absence at ECA occurs among a rather large corpus of other plant materials running to more than 5000 specimens distributed over numerous genera (Kirch 1989).

When one turns to the Proto Eastern Oceanic (PEOc) and Proto Polynesian (PPn) linguistic reconstructions for the term *fue, having ages of circa 3200 and 2600 B.P. respectively, a similar conclusion to that developed for Proto Oceanic is again encountered. While various reflexes of the term *fue are widely applied nearly everywhere to the bottle gourd in East Polynesia, that is not so among Polynesian and eastern Oceanic languages further to the west. Instead PEOc and PPn *fue reconstruct as designating a shore creeper of the Convolvulus species or a similar seashore creeping vine (POLLEX 1998). Thus in Western Polynesia and Fiji there is seemingly no convincing evidence for the pre-European presence of the bottle gourd; such early European accounts as do so being instances of mis-identification (Whistler 1990:119-20). One is therefore left with the viewpoint outlined by Green (1998:98) that *fue with an Eastern Polynesian meaning designating the bottle gourd is to be correlated with its archaeologically demonstrable antiquity of the 12th to 16th century in the islands of Hawaii, the Marquesas, Tahiti and New Zealand. This suggests it is far more likely to have been an introduction from South America into East Polynesia at approximately the same time as the sweet potato—i.e., the 11th to 12th century A.D.; the antiquity of both plants in South America is of course millennia earlier.

On the point of a South American origin for the East Polynesian bottle gourd, it would in fact appear that following Whistler (1990, 1991), first Ross, then myself, and now Burtenshaw are all in agreement as to the high probability of that connection, although each of us has arrived at it from a different line of enquiry. The 11th century direct microbotanical archaeologically based evidence from Mangaia for the sweet potato only (Hather and Kirch 1991) sets the earliest known date for this event, something about which Burtenshaw was apparently unaware. It is crucial, however, in providing a sufficient antiquity for his postulated kumara/bottle gourd association which would allow the introduction of both plants to New Zealand at the time of Māori settlement from central East Polynesia.

The lesson, I believe, is only too evident. If subjects such as these are to be tackled profitably, a rather wide range of information from a number of quite disparate disciplines has to be researched. DNA studies, on living, and perhaps even prehistoric, varieties of bottle gourd plant materials as advocated by Burtenshaw could indeed provide another strong link in the chain of evidence. However, available linguistic and archaeological - 195 publications on the subject from beyond New Zealand or Polynesia must also form a significant part of the discussion. If they are, it means one currently can in fact discriminate among the four different scenarios Burtenshaw (1999:430) advances for the origin of the Māori gourd, by rejecting his first three as largely already unsupported by existing data. This leaves us with some form of his fourth proposition invoking the American connection and human actions requiring long distance voyaging to explain the bottle gourd varieties of East Polynesia, including those of Māori. This is the most favoured hypothesis at present, based on consideration of numerous lines of information beyond those Burtenshaw has outlined.


Thanks to Helen Leach both for probing queries about the antiquity and distribution of the bottle gourd in the Pacific which caused me to explore further the whole matter at greater depth after writing the Rapanui paper, and then for assistance in accessing literature I might otherwise have missed. While Burtenshaw's article has caused me to write this comment, my Rapanui paper was published in a Chilean source not readily available to New Zealand researchers. I have sent him a photocopy. Others wishing one should send me a request. Dorothy Brown ably turned my written manuscript into electronic form.

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On the Road of the Winds
An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact

On the Road of the Winds synthesizes the grand sweep of human history in the Pacific Islands, beginning with the movement of early people out from Asia more than 40,000 years ago, and tracing the development of myriad indigenous cultures up to the time of European contact in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

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