Tuesday, 25 November 2014

'Remarkable Plants' by Bynum & Bynum, 'The History of Central Asia' by Baumer

It was my birthday last week, so I've got some new books to read, including volume two of Christoph Baumer's The History of Central Asia (I B Tauris), dealing with the first millennium CE, and a book about important and useful plants by the medical historians Helen and William Bynum, Remarkable Plants that Shape our World (Thames & Hudson). They're both lovely to look at - Baumer's photographs are excellent, and the illustrations used in the Bynum & Bynum book, drawn from eighteenth and nineteenth century publications in the Kew Gardens collection, function perfectly as enhancers of the text.
Baumer's book isn't exactly my kind of history as it focuses on power politics and kings. I'd much rather hear about how Xiongnu people lived day to day (what they ate for breakfast and so forth) than about which chanyu did what, relevant as such actions undoubtedly were to life in Xiongnu communities. It's an attempt at a narrative historical synthesis for a diverse and well-documented region, so naturally the focus is on large-scale abstractions - political entities, major religions, etc - and if you're fine with that then it's a good purchase. I don't have a copy of the first volume, but I have read a little of it, and it seems to be along the same lines. The photographs in both are stunningly good.
The cover of Remarkable Plants.
Remarkable Plants is a useful book from a (pre)historian's perspective as it surveys the botanical homelands and uses of some of the most common and vital plants around the world, from wheat to rubber and poppies to Madagascar periwinkle. It's ordered by theme, so that staple crops are considered in one section ('Transformers') while medicinal uses are looked at in another ('Heal and Harm') and technology, considered narrowly, in another ('Technology and Power'). Some of the most interesting plants are included in the sections on ornamental or primordial flora - the exceptionally ancient gingko, for example.
A gingko fossil, Eocene (c.56-34 million years ago) - h/t Wiki, User: Kevmin.
Some of these classifications could be disputed (why is banana considered a cash crop and not a staple? why is yew in the technology category when it also has medicinal uses?), but it's a useful way of going about things. Certainly better than alphabetic ordering of Latin binomials.

It's missing a few things. Where's the lontar palm? Lontar (Borassus flabellifer) is incredibly important in Indonesia, exploited for everything from thatch to timber to syrup to distilled alcoholic beverage. The range of uses is extraordinary, and through its use the island of Roti provides one of the rare examples of a fairly sizeable population sustaining itself through drinking rather than eating (as J. J. Fox's landmark 1977 ethnography Harvest of the Palm explains).* It ought to have been included, as ought more obscure but nonetheless fascinating plants like the peach-palm (Bactris gasipaes).
A peach-palm fruit. The flavour of the cooked fruit - which I cannot vouch for, having never tried it - is normally described as savoury and autumnal, like squash or sweet potato. It's supposed to be nutritious, too. h/t the US Government.
Indonesia and Oceania as a whole is fairly poorly served; the homeland of bananas is described as 'Southeast Asia', rather than a more specific area (the greatest diversity and earliest evidence of cultivation is actually in New Guinea). Little is said about the homeland of sugarcane, another New Guinea crop, or the transmission of these two extremely important plants to the rest of Afro-Eurasia. Banana phytoliths have been found in Cameroon dated to c.4000 BP - how did they get there? What route did they take? Who was responsible for this extremely early evidence of trans-Indian Ocean contact? That story is surely the equal of anything else in there.

There's something of a focus on Eurasia, although the segments on staples from the Americas are good, and there are some interesting nuggets about attitudes to the sulphur-rich alliums (onions, garlic, leeks, chives) and tomatoes (closely related to poisonous nightshades). It's especially remarkable to note how few vital crops have European origins, although the brassicas are mostly European (cauliflower from Sicily, cabbage with developed leaves and balled heads seemingly coming south from Gaul/Germania in the Roman period, etc). It all makes you wonder what people ate before the late middle ages/post-Columbian era - aloo gobi without potatoes or cauliflower? Gado-gado without peanuts?

I suppose I have two other criticisms as well: 1) the writing isn't fantastic, and 2) you may already be familiar with a lot of the stories in the book if you read the kind of things I read. With regard to 1), it's less that the writing is awful and more that it feels a bit rushed and in need of editing. And 2) is probably inevitable - there are only so many ways to tell the story of British bio-piracy in the nineteenth century. In any case, the illustrations in Remarkable Plants make it worthwhile, and it's a good starting point for anyone interested, like me, in plants, their uses, and their origins.

*It's interesting that the extensive lontar exploitation described by Fox seems to have largely disappeared. I didn't get to Roti this summer, but the guys I spoke to in Timor, and tourists who had visited Roti, described the standard Rotinese diet as basically consisting of rice and fish (like elsewhere in Indonesia).

**The relationships between the brassicas are interesting, too.


  1. Is there any idea if the Xiongnu were Turkic, Mongolian or Uralic? This question hasn't been answered, Northeast China was once inhabitaded by Indo-European Tocharians and they disappearead from history.

    1. I don't think there's a consensus on that - Tungusic and Yeniseian are also possibilities. Tocharian speakers may not have been the only IE speakers in NW China at the time, either. It's a fascinating area for research, but rather complicated by the difficulties of reconstructing Old Chinese and of extracting useful information about ethnic groups from the Old Chinese reconstructions.

    2. Iranian speakers speakers were prevelant in areas now dominated by Turkic speakers.

      What IE language Tocharians is the closest? It seems that Anatolian IE is the most similar.

    3. As far as I'm aware, Tocharian isn't grouped with any other branch of IE - it's as close to Germanic as it is to Italo-Celtic and Slavic and so on. I'm not sure Anatolian can be shown to be particularly close to Tocharian using standard linguistic methods. Seems prima facie unlikely to me, but I suppose you never know, and Tocharian is a little peculiar in some aspects, so...


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