Tropical Gardening Research Paper

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Tropical gardeners of Southeast Asia domesticated a great many plants as early as 8500 BCE— such as rice, cane sugar, citrus fruit, bananas, coconuts, and yams—some of which still play a significant part in feeding humankind in far-flung parts of the Earth. Tropical gardeners survive today, like hunters and gatherers, only in a few refuges where they have not been invaded and conquered.

Tropical gardening of the kind that is still practiced in the interior of New Guinea is probably very old. When outsiders discovered New Guinea gardens (and a society of gardeners) in the 1930s, each agricultural village was independent, and each family lived on food their members raised on small plots of land. Population was dense enough to occupy almost all suitable soils, and warfare between rival communities was common. Crops were various: mainly roots that could be reproduced by replanting the top of a growing plant whenever it was pulled from the ground to provide the next meal. As long as part of the root was still attached, the top could then regrow a new root and in a few months provide the gardeners with yet another meal. New Guinea gardeners also grow many other kinds of plants to supplement starchy roots like yams and taro, both of which were poisonous when fresh and had to be boiled in water to dissolve the acrid chemicals that protected them from insects—but not from humans.

A few tropical gardeners also survive in remote mountainous areas of the southeastern Asian mainland, and once existed throughout south China as well, where rice was one among the many different crops they harvested as early as 8500 BCE. But the gardeners of southern China proved incapable of resisting encroachment from the north by Chinese armies and settlers who learned how to raise rice and made it the staple food of historic China by about 500 BCE, even though millet and wheat, upon which Chinese society had depended earlier, continues to prevail in the northwestern-most Chinese provinces.

From what we now know about tropical gardeners in contemporary New Guinea and in ancient China it is reasonable to suppose that this kind of gardening originated along the coasts of the monsoon seas soon after humans first learned to fish on rafts and in boats and then made permanent settlements along the shoreline where safe harbor could be found. Hunters and gatherers undoubtedly knew a lot about plants from the very beginning of human history, and women left behind by early fishermen had every inducement to transplant useful plants to the places where they had settled down, thus becoming the first gardeners. Fruit and nuts from trees (coconuts, citrus, bananas, plantains, and sugar cane), as well as roots (and grasses like rice)—all probably came under human management in these gardens. Since we know that humans crossed at least 96.5 kilometers (60 miles) of open water to reach Australia sometime between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, fisherman on rafts and/or boats, complete with paddles and sails, would have also traveled on the adjacent monsoon seas that long ago. Those seas were especially hospitable to early sailors, since the monsoon winds blow equably in opposite directions for part of each year and make even lengthy coastal voyages comparatively safe.

But direct evidence is lacking for what probably was by far the oldest form of agriculture, and there is scant hope that archaeologists will ever be able to find traces of boats, tropical gardens, or any other elements of early coastal settlements because, beginning about 16,000 years ago, Ice Age glaciers began to melt, whereupon sea levels rose and submerged the coastlines of the Earth. Whatever slight traces coastal tropical gardeners in Southeast Asia may have left are therefore now deep under water. To be sure, inland lakes and streams might have attracted similar settlements, but so far archaeologists have found only very slender traces of tropical gardening far away in south China where fishing and sea going played no part.

Wherever such communities existed, they were always vulnerable to civilized encroachment. When each family raised its own food and did not have to store large quantities of harvested grain, everyone lived more or less like everyone else. In such communities priests could not persuade ordinary people to give part of their harvest to the gods in order to assure divine protection from disaster, and specialized fighting men could not demand a share for themselves in return for protection against raiders from afar. But grain farmers were liable to both these forms of blackmail, and thereby inaugurated what we call civilization, with an array of specialized traders, artisans, soldiers, and priests—and before long tax collectors, standing armies, and hereditary rulers. Such complex societies easily overwhelmed independent and equal villagers whenever they encountered them. So tropical gardeners survive today, like hunters and gatherers, only in a few refuges where civilized peoples have not chosen to invade and conquer them.

Yet in their time tropical gardeners of Southeast Asia domesticated a great many plants, some of which still play a significant part in feeding civilized humankind in far-flung parts of the Earth—rice first and foremost, but cane sugar, citrus fruit, bananas, and coconuts, as well yams and other roots. Such domestication constitutes tropical gardening’s ongoing contribution to humankind as a whole.


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