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Environment and History

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Environment and History

Elusive Traces: Baobabs and the African Diaspora in South Asia

Haripriya Rangan and Karen L. Bell

Environment and History 21 (2015): 103-133. doi: 10.3197/096734015X14183179969827

The history of botanical exchanges between Africa and the Indian subcontinent reaches back in time over 5,000 years. Recent advances in archaeobotany have revealed these connections through evidence of food crops of African origin found at various archaeological sites in the subcontinent. However, little is known about the people that brought the crops to these places and other parts of the Indian Ocean world. This is also the case with other plants from Africa such as the charismatic baobab tree (Adansonia digitata L.) that appears to have had a longstanding presence in South Asia. Most scholarly accounts assume that 'Arab traders' were responsible for introducing baobabs to this region but do not offer any reasons for their doing so. Few scholars, if any, have sought to relate the dispersal of baobabs with the history of African migrations to the region. This paper reveals the elusive traces of their entwined environmental histories by linking baobab genetics with historical accounts and cultural evidence of the presence of African diasporic communities in South Asia.

KEYWORDS: Adansonia digitata, baobab genetic diversity, Africa, Indian subcontinent, inferred ancestry, cultural symbolism


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