January 21, 2021

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Research Article / The evidence for native coconuts growing in Australia

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What is the evidence that coconut palms were growing on the Australian mainland before the introduction of coconuts by Europeans?
coconut

ANDRE LEU


• Wild-type coconuts of the niu kafa race grew in Queensland before colonisation

• Europeans introduced the niu vai coconut race

• The traditional owners had words for coconuts and names for coconut groves


The definition of a native plant or animal is that the species was growing in Australia before European colonisation. The reason for this is that there are hundreds of species of plants and numerous species of animals that are native to Australia and are also found throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Plants and animals have been coming to and from Australia, Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Americas for millions of years. 

So did the coconut come to Australia before European colonisation and grow here? 

There are two main races of coconuts — niu kafa and niu vaiNiu kafa is an oval-shaped, ancient type with angular sides that colonised the whole Indo-Pacific. It is regarded as the wild-type coconut. Niu vai is an improved race selected through thousands of years of cultivation and originally was only cultivated in Asia. It is rounder and larger. Commercial coconut plantations use the niu vai variety as it has a thinner husk and a greater proportion of the nut flesh. There are also numerous types of intermediate forms of niu kafa, which were cultivated in traditional gardens in New Guinea, the Torres Straits and in the Pacific Islands. (1)

The wild-type, niu kafa, is well adapted for spending many months at sea crossing oceans to colonise new lands because of its thicker husk with three-sided angular shape giving it a keel that could dig a trench into the sand so it can plant itself. It and its intermediate types colonised the whole of the tropical Indo-Pacific. The fossil records show that they were in Papua New Guinea 4,000 years ago and in Vanuatu 5,000 years ago. (1,2)

Research shows that the niu kafa and intermediate varieties had colonised the islands of the Pacific as far out as Tahiti thousands of years before the arrival of humans. There is evidence that coconuts were in the Cook Islands over 8000 years ago, 7,000 years before the arrival of the first humans. (2) Niu kafa and intermediate varieties clearly had the ability to travel from New Guinea and the Torres Straits and colonise coastal Australia.

On the other hand, niu vai is not as well suited for long-distance drifting due to its thinner husk. Its spread has been done primarily by humans who introduced them to new areas for cultivation because of their superior nut qualities. (1) 

coconut
The two coconut races-the wild-type niu kafa is on the lower left side. It is smaller, a narrower oval shape and more angular than cultivated niu vai on the right, that is substantially larger and rounder. The nut in the middle is a niu kafa intermediate variety. It is smaller, more oval shaped and more angular than the cultivated niu vai and larger than niu kafa. Niu kafa and the intermediate types were widespread throughout the Pacific before the commercial scale introduction of niu vai. Image courtesy of Andre Leu.

Coconuts were cultivated in New Guinea and in the gardens of Torres Strait islanders before European contact, for thousands of years. These early coconuts were of the niu kafa and intermediate varieties and would have regularly drifted to mainland Australia. Plantations were started on the Torres Straits and Cape York in the 1890s with nuts of the niu vai variety that were imported from South East Asian plantations. (1,2)


What is the evidence that coconut palms were growing on the Australian mainland before the introduction of coconuts by Europeans?

The earliest documented evidence of coconuts was reported by Cook, Banks and Parkinson in June-August 1770 when they found the nuts in multiple sites in and around the Endeavour River and on Lizard Island. This is clear evidence that coconuts were drifting onto the coast and into the estuaries of Eastern Australia. These would have most likely been niu kafa and intermediate varieties because there is no evidence that niu vai was in the south-western Pacific then. 

Sydney Parkinson made the first list of the Endeavour River’s traditional owner’s words in 1770. He recorded the Kuku Yalanji word ‘Keremande’ for coconut which clearly shows that they knew about coconuts. (3)

The first published Kuku Yalanji dictionary was compiled by Henry and Ruth Hershberger and fluent Kuku Yalanji elders. The Hershbergers were expert linguists and translated several bible stories into Kuku Yalanji. They recorded the word, ‘Jirimandi’, for coconut which shows that Parkinson did a good job in recording Kuku Yalanji words. Parkinson recorded ‘Kangooroo’ for kangaroo resulting in this Kuku Yalanji word being the international generic word for these animals. (4)

The Hershbergers also recorded distinct place names for groves of coconut trees. The coconut grove near the mouth of Emmagen Creek, north of Cape Tribulation, was called ‘Kulngurbu’. The Kuku Yalanji clearly distinguished this grove from the beach. The name for the beach is ‘Ngamujin’ and the lower end is called ‘Kaliway’ because it is an important story site. 

‘Jijamali’ was the name for a coconut grove on the south bank of the Bloomfield River. Giving these groves unique names shows that the traditional owners placed great significance on them; significant enough to name them as distinct sites and this indicates that these groves are important sites that have been there for a long time. (4)

Buckley and Harries in their article about finding self-sown niu kafa palms on Lizard Island, cite published research that the indigenous people of Cape York planted nuts above the king tide line and looked after the palms. The traditional owners told the researchers that coconuts have always been on the Cape York coast. (1)

John Singe, in his book about the Torres Straits recorded how the people of Lockhart River had a clump of coconut trees that they said had always been there. (5)

Robert Tucker, the author of Palms of Subequatorial Queensland, gives the word ‘Kunga’ for coconut in the Lockhart River language and records that traditional owners say coconut palms were always there. He wrote: “…the coconut is known to them by their own dialectual name and features in certain traditional ceremonial and culinary arts.” (6)

Captain Owen Stanley of the HMS Rattlesnake recorded finding two small groves of coconuts on Russell Island in the Frankland Islands, while conducting natural history research there between June 6 and June 19, 1848. He described the mature trees as loaded with nuts. They had to shoot down the nuts to collect them. (7) As coconuts live for between 70-100 years, the mature trees would have started growing in the latter part of the 1700s, long before any record of Europeans spreading coconuts along the Queensland coast. Given that there were two groves, that would have started from the germination of one or two nuts and that these groves had multiple trees that had to be the result of several generations, shows that they could have been there for hundreds of years. They would have been mature groves when Cook sailed past them at night and named the Frankland Islands.

These groves are clear proof that coconut palms were growing along Queensland’s eastern coast, however, Cook and other sea captains such as Mathew Flinders missed them when they sailed through the region. Consequently, the accounts of mariners not seeing coconuts cannot be used as proof that no coconuts were growing on mainland Australia. They just didn’t see them. The crew of HMS Rattlesnake found them because they spent 13 days exploring the Frankland Islands doing natural history research. 

Buckley and Harries give examples of several mariners and botanists who found mature coconut palms along the Queensland coast in the 1860s and 1870s including good descriptions of the wild-type niu kafa race. These mature trees would have started life before any major documented planting of coconuts. The Russel Island coconuts were growing well before any European planting.

There were advertisements in newspapers in Sydney and Brisbane in the 1800s of imported Asian coconuts for sale. However, these were sold as food, and there is zero evidence that they were used for planting coconuts along the tropical Queensland coast. The earliest records of minor plantings of coconuts by Europeans start in the 1840s and 1850s, and again in the 1870s by the acclimatisation societies. The large scale planting of coconuts didn’t begin until the 1890s when thousands of nuts were imported to start plantations on Torres Straits Islands and Cape York. All of these introductions in the 1800s were niu vai varieties imported from plantations in Asia. The first record of a niu vai coconut being found naturalised in Australia was by Bailey in 1899. (1)

Tucker, a botanist who specialised in palms, gives many examples of niu kafa and intermediate varieties he found throughout Cape York. He wrote: “Many of the forms occurring on the Peninsula coasts have fruits containing very small seeds, some almost spindle-shaped. Such forms would rarely be deliberately cultivated amongst societies dependant on the fruits as food, and may represent forms close to a “wild” coconut.” (6)

The fact is there is absolutely no credible evidence that coconuts were not growing in Australia before European contact. The lack of sightings by some mariners is not evidence that they were not here. It is just evidence that they did not see them. It is an illogical argument to say not seeing something means that it does not exist. By extrapolation, all the other plants not seen by early European mariners must not have existed prior to European colonisation and therefore are not native.

On the other hand, there is a good body of evidence-based research utilising reports from European mariners and botanists as well as credible accounts of indigenous history and knowledge that coconuts were here, prior to European colonisation. It is a disrespectful, partially racist, arrogance on the part of some researchers and government officers to dismiss the accounts of indigenous people who state that coconuts have always been in Australia. I prefer to accept the accounts of the traditional owners who have managed this continent for tens of thousands of years over the accounts of a few mariners who just sailed by and missed groves on the Franklin Islands, Emmagen Creek, the Bloomfield River and Lockhart River.

The evidence shows coconuts were in Australia before colonisation and that they were niu kafa and its intermediary types. They are easily distinguished from the niu vai varieties that were introduced from Asia by Europeans. Niu kafa and its intermediary types of coconuts are just as native as the hundreds of other Indo-Pacific plant species that have drifted into Australia. Those of us who study coconuts have found a great diversity of niu kafa and its intermediary types along our coasts. It is time to dispense with the assumption that all coconuts were introduced by Europeans after colonisation and start properly documenting, researching and preserving our unique highly diverse, Australian niu kafa coconut genetics. 


Addendum

The division of coconuts into the two races of niu kafa and niu vai is based on the international accepted morphology. Morphology is where plants and animals are described by their distinct features, and is the primary tool of taxonomy, the science of classifying species and subspecies. DNA testing is used to get an understanding of the relationships between species and subspecies. At this stage, due to only sampling limited sections of genes, and not all the genes, resulting in a range of inaccurate and conflicting interpretations, it is not used to override morphology in classifying species and subspecies such as races. Consequently the two races of niu kafa and niu vai stand as the accepted scientific convention.

Archeological work shows that coconuts had spread throughout the Pacific thousands of years before the arrival of people. Later, the first people also spread niu kafa and intermediate varieties. Niu vai originated in Asia, most likely India, through selected cultivation even later. This race has been spread by humans around the tropical world and these are the type of coconuts that were introduced by Europeans to Australia. The coconuts recorded by Cook, Banks and Parkinson in 1770  are proof of coconuts drifting onto the Australian coast and would have been niu kafa and intermediate varieties as there is no records of the introduction of niu vai to the western Pacific before then. Furthermore indigenous records, language and culture show that they were here prior to European colonisation. These two races, niu kafa and niu vai, are distinct and can be separated through examination.


References

1. Ralf Buckley and Hugh Harries, Self-Sown Wild-Type Coconuts From Australia, Biotropica Vol. 16, No. 2 (Jun., 1984), pp. 148-151, Published by: Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation

DOI: 10.2307/2387847 https://www.jstor.org/stable/2387847

2. N. Madhavan Nayar, The Coconut: Phylogeny, Origins, and Spread, Academic Press, 2016, ISBN 0128097795, 978012809779

3. http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/parkinson/194.html

4. Henry D and Ruth Hershberger, Kuku Yalanji Dictionary 1982, Reprinted 1998

http://www.ausil.org.au/sites/ausil/files/WP-B-7%20English%20-%20Kuku-Yal%20Dict._0.pdf

5. Singe, John, The Torres Strait : people and history, St. Lucia, Qld : University of Queensland Press, 1979.

6. Robert Tucker, Palms of Subequatorial Queensland, Palm and Cycad Societies of Australia (PACSOA) 1988 http://www.pacsoa.org.au/palms/Cocos/nucifera_oz.html

7. Captain Owen Stanley, Narrative of the Voyage of the HMS Rattlesnake, Volume 1, T&W Boone, London 1852

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Hugh Spencer
6 months ago

Andre, can you get over this? I have no issues with coconuts, but not at the expense of our highly endangered littoral forests. Frankly it is really irrelevant whether coconuts were growing in Australia or not, before European settlement. The issue is that we are seeing coconuts destroy our littoral forests. Grow all the coconuts you wish, but not on the coast. They grow perfectly well in plantations (such as the one near Oak Beach). I get the sad feeling, that like so many people – you feel that supporting human feeding is far more important than protecting the environment that we are dependent on.