Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Atlantean Bananas

This item by Al Sears extols the virtues of bananas and it contains a lot of surprising value that is unsuspected by most of us.  After all it is sweet and tastes good and surely cannot be good for us?  We obviously need to take this plant far more seriously.

Of great interest to myself are his notes on the distribution and possible history of the plant.  I have posted extensively of the Atlantean sea borne culture that prospered from around five thousand years ago to three thousand years ago upon which it abruptly collapsed.  It had the capacity and it did establish trade globally during the two thousand years it was able to operate.  This capability provided a clear mechanism to transport members of different populations and some food sources worldwide.

It was also the first time that this was possible since the beginning of agriculture some ten thousand years ago.  This beginning of agriculture is particularly marked by the emergence of polyploidy based crops including wheat and our other grass based domesticates.  We understand six such centers of incipient agriculture and South East Asia is a natural center of taro and the banana.  (Polyploidy doubles the number of chromosomes and produces a large seed while still allowing propagation of some sort.  It may happen naturally but we now know how to induce it) It remains an excellent argument in support of the establishment of planned agricultural colonies to jump start human development ten thousand years ago.

Since we have huge evidence of Bronze Age gold mining in South Africa, it is clear that it was possible to transport goods through there or alternatively through the Suez to connect with the Americas.  Both routes were clearly known and usable.  The Suez was dominated by the Atlantean culture in the Nile Delta during most of this time.

My point is that domesticates from South East Asia was transported to Atlantean trade networks in the Americas.  It is also possible that we will discover a much earlier banana  locale in West Africa were gold was readily available for surface mining.  I do not think anyone has really looked yet.

 Admit, I Forgot About Bananas...

Al Sears

It got me before I could swat it.

Now I had the biggest welt I ever got from a bug bite. I knew it was going to itch like crazy... the mosquitoes here are huge.

I showed my guide and laughed a bit. The tall, lean Ugandan said, “Wait...”

He fished a banana out of his pack, pulled off a strip of the peel and handed it to me.

I have to admit I forgot about bananas.

I rubbed the inside of the peel on the giant bite. It never did itch. And today the angry bump is almost completely gone.

Simple things like that are one of the reasons I love to travel to remote places. It reminds me that nature usually provides the remedy in the same area there's a problem. So along with mosquito bites you can get cuts, rashes, bruises and other skin reactions, and banana peels are good for all of them.

But Ugandans don’t only use them as medicine. They eat more bananas per person than anyone else. 500 pounds for each person every year. No wonder they always have them around.

They even make banana beer they call “lubisi.” I haven’t tried it yet, but when I find some I’ll let you know how it tastes.

The First Crop

You might say the banana is the original superfood. It is probably the first domesticated crop. In fact, the history of the banana might make us rewrite the history of the world.

I think the story of our history is one we’re still learning. And our children will probably get to know a different story than the one we know.

Bananas come from Southeast Asia, and botanical evidence tells us that everywhere else they grow, they were brought there by humans.

We know this because the bananas outside of Asia are “polyploidy,” meaning they’re a hybrid of two or more other kinds of bananas. And they are incapable of growing on their own. Someone has to cultivate them.

The ones that still have seeds and don’t need to be actively cultivated are rare. And they’re only in Asia. The rest are infertile “parthenocarpic clones.” They don’t make seeds because they have extra numbers of chromosomes.

Yet these hybrid bananas that need people to help them grow are all over Africa. They’re all over the Caribbean islands. They’re in Central and South America. And they were in the New World before the Europeans came.

So it’s probable that someone traveled to the Americas hundreds of years before the Europeans.

Bananas, which scientists know as Musa sp., are grown in central Africa where I am visiting right now... but who brought them there?
(source: http://banana.mappr.info)

In fact, bananas were introduced in Africa according to a certain route that started a thousand years B.C. in what is now Nigeria. We can trace the progression because the people who cultivated bananas replaced the hunter-gatherers. So if you trace that route... you’d have to rewrite the history of humans leaving Africa, too.

But it still leaves the question, where did they get the original banana in the western coast of Africa? We don’t know because the people who went there, like the Phoenicians and the Romans, didn’t have bananas.

So it was someone else.

Maybe someone from India went all the way around the Horn? Maybe the Chinese? Someone brought them there.

Same thing in South America. They diverged from the other cultivars of bananas 5,000 years ago. But the kinds that grow there can’t grow on their own. Someone took them to South America a very long time before Columbus.

It’s interesting to me because I’ve seen people who live high in the mountains of Peru, who look exactly like Pakistanis. And there are fierce warrior tribes in Peru whose people look Polynesian.

[They also grow amaranth in Peru and Pakistan]

So there had to be many waves of human migration to the Americas that occurred in many places at many times.

But... Why Bananas?

What makes the banana so special that people would choose it as the one plant to take with them across the ocean to a new world?

As it turns out, bananas have a lot of benefit for your brain, heart, and stomach. They even fight cancer.

For instance, you may have noticed that it can just plain make you feel good to eat a banana. Part of the reason could be that bananas have dopamine in them.1

Dopamine is a brain chemical that enhances learning, memory, motivation, and even helps with attention and sleep. It’s also the key to experiencing pleasure and maintaining an overall sense of well-being and a good mood.

Plus bananas have tryptophan, serotonin and nor epinephrine, which all help alleviate depression. And bananas help you produce nitric oxide, which lowers your blood pressure and helps you relax.

Bananas can also give you feel-good effects similar to dark chocolate and a warm cup of tea. They have gallocatechins;2 antioxidants that also help give green tea and chocolate their benefits.

A lot of athletes eat bananas because they give you a pick-me-up. Part of the reason is probably because bananas contain a good mix of all three natural sugars – fructose, sucrose and glucose – plus fiber, so the energy lasts.

But they also have potassium. This mineral is an electrolyte, which means your cells need it to work right. Potassium regulates the heartbeat and function of the muscles.

It also nourishes your brain so you can think clearly throughout the day. Potassium channels play a key role in maintaining the electrical conductivity in your brain. So it’s involved in higher brain function like memory and learning.

Plus, bananas have choline, the main ingredient in the brain chemical acetylcholine, which you need for all the basics like thought, memory and sleep. It even controls how you move. Your muscles receive commands from your brain via acetylcholine. That means your sense of balance and stability is controlled by this key transmitter.

Bananas can also protect you in several important ways. The first is that bananas guard your stomach by triggering mucus production. This gives you a protective barrier against stomach acids. They also have protease inhibitors, which can break down the harmful stomach bacteria that cause ulcers.

Banana extract is so powerful that researchers were able to use it to prevent malignant cancer in animal studies. Giving the animals banana extract alone raised the survival rate of the animals from zero to 30%.3

You could think of bananas as the original superfood. They have almost every essential nutrient including B vitamins, vitamin A, C, calcium, magnesium, and selenium.

Is That a Banana?

Plantains (left) are a bigger, greener banana cousin, and need to be cooked before you eat them. There are also red bananas, baby bananas and the common Cavendish (right).

What we think of as a banana “tree” is really a very big herb. The biggest flowering herb in the world. And the banana is a huge berry.

You’ll probably only ever see three kinds of banana that you can buy and eat. There are “red” bananas (which are really brown), baby bananas (like a mini yellow banana) and the typical yellow banana, which is a Cavendish.

They are all peel-and-eat, as opposed to a plantain, a kind of banana that needs to be cooked before you eat it.

When I went to India, I noticed that there’s no difference between a banana and a plantain. They just call one a cooking banana, and the other a “dessert” banana.

We don’t cook with bananas too much in the West, except to make breads or muffins. But that changes what you’re eating into a high-glycemic food, which I don’t recommend. I like banana as is, for the most part.

But, you can make a sweet treat by roasting bananas. All you have to do is cut a banana in half lengthwise. Place the halves cut sides up on a coated cookie pan and bake at 450° for 4 minutes.

Sprinkle a bit of brown sugar on them, or, to make them even tastier, roast a few walnuts and lightly press them into the cut side of the banana on top of the sugar. Then bake for three more minutes.

If I want a frozen treat, I’ll grab one banana, dip it in plain yogurt, then roll it in finely chopped coconut. Afterwards I put it in the freezer and eat it whenever I want a quick snack.

If you buy a lot of bananas and they get overripe, just peel them and put them in a zip lock bag and freeze them. A plain, ripened, frozen banana tastes a lot like banana-flavored frozen yogurt – but without the added sugar. Try it for yourself. 

1 Kanazawa, K, Sakakibara, H. "High Content of Dopamine, a Strong Antioxidant, in Cavendish Banana" J. Agric. Food Chem., 2000, 48 (3), pp 844–848.
2 Someyaa, S. Yumiko Yoshikib, Y, Okubob, K. "Antioxidant compounds from bananas." Food Chemistry. November 2002; Volume 79, Issue 3, Pages 351-354.
3 Guha M, Basuray S, Sinha K. "Preventive effect of ripe banana in the diet on Ehrlich’s ascitic carcinoma cell induced malignant ascites in mice." Nutrition Research, August 2003. Volume 23, Issue 8 , Pages 1081-1088.

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