Jackfruit Archaeology

The jackfruit is growing in worldwide popularity, but it’s been an important part of daily life for many people in South Asia for thousands of years. In this post, you will find the YouTube video exploring some of the known archaeological evidence of jackfruit and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

YouTube Video Transcript

Here, you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section with hyperlinked references/citations.

Introduction

The jackfruit is growing in worldwide popularity, but it’s been an important part of daily life for many people in South Asia for thousands of years. In fact, it’s considered the national fruit of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and the state fruit Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India. The fruits are versatile and can be used to create things like jams, pickles, and meat substitutes. But other parts of the plant were important too. 

Hi! I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan, and I’m an archaeologist. I also grew up eating a lot of jackfruit and I got curious about its archaeology. So in this video, we’re going to explore the archaeology of jackfruit and how this plant shaped life in Ancient South Asia. 

So let’s get into it. 

Earliest Evidence

So you might be asking, “where do jackfruits come from?”

And the answer is a little tricky. When it comes to origins, archaeologists have narrowed it down to two hypotheses .

The first possibility is that it originated in the Western Ghats of India, where my ancestors are from, and eventually spread to Asia, Africa, and the Americas from there. There are different jackfruit varieties in South Asia, and we have archaeological evidence that possibly place jackfruits in parts of South Asia thousands of years ago, but more on that soon. This hypothesis is quite popular and seems to be the most widely accepted.

The second hypothesis is that jackfruits originated in Southeast Asia and spread from there. We see relatively high jackfruit variety diversity in Malaysia (pg. 201-201) and jackfruit sibling species diversity in Borneo.

When scholars are looking for the origin of a certain plant, we often start in places where we see a lot of varieties of that plant, aka diversity, which both Southeast Asia and South Asia have for jackfruit.

We also try to find the wild ancestor when looking at the origins of the domesticated plant, which jackfruit is. The wild ancestor of the jackfruit has yet to be identified. However, scholars think that regardless of where the ancestor came from, it was domesticated independently in both South Asia and Southeast Asia. Some scholars point to linguistic studies of the word jackfruit in various languages to support this hypothesis. 

So, since the origins of jackfruit are tricky, most [00:02:00] scholars consider it native to both South Asia and Southeast Asia. For me, given that my ancestors are from South Asia, I was really curious about how it shaped ancient life there. 

Agriculture

Archaeologists working in South Asia believe trading forest fruits, like the jackfruit, was important to people in this region potentially as far back as 4000 years ago. Now Jackfruit’s specific archaeological evidence for this theory is limited, but let’s look at what we do have. 

At the small village of Narhan, in modern-day Utter Pradesh, a site was excavated in the 1980s where scholars noted jackfruit remains in the earliest layers of the site. This site date range is around 1100 BCE to 800 BCE. Now, as with many archaeobotanical studies, especially early ones, we don’t usually get a photograph or detailed description of every remain found and there were other plants found too. So based on our research, we’re not sure if they found seeds, charcoal, or plant impressions, but maybe they will let us know if they see this video. 

At the site of Senuwar, in modern-day Bihar, wood charcoal remains of a plant in the jackfruit genus, Artocarpus, were found in a period dating to 1300BCE – 700BCE. Now from my experience identifying wood charcoal, it can be really hard to get to a species-level identification for certain trees. In this case, the researchers felt confident it was the Artocarpus genus and narrowed down the species to two likely candidates, one being jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophylla). [additional source].

And wood charcoal isn’t the only archaeological proxy where it’s hard to get to a species level identification. At a site in Sri Lanka, Artocarpus phytoliths were found as far back as around 36,000 years ago; however, it’s hard to tell whether they belonged to jackfruit or another closely related species. 

So while the archaeobotanical evidence is not straightforward, what is interesting is that both Narhan and Senuwar are not located in forests. They are sites on the plains. 

One theory suggests that ancient people started transplanting forest fruit trees, like the jackfruit, out of the forest and into other areas, like plains, so they could cultivate them

So jackfruit travelled out of its native forest habitat and potentially influenced agriculture in ancient South Asia for millennia. But there is more to the story here.

Religious 

Not only was jackfruit influential in the economic sense, it was also actually sacred.

The jackfruit tree is mentioned in the Ramayana, a sacred Hindu text. It’s part of a list of trees that are considered heart-pleasing, signal an optimistic path forward, and possess ambrosial fruits. 

Now the dating of the Ramayana is highly contentious, and like many religious texts,  it has multiple versions. By conservative estimates, the text could be at least around 2000 years old, but what we can see for sure is that jackfruit tree is considered in a very positive light.

There are reliefs at temples dating to the first centuries BCE & CE, that have been interpreted as depictions of jackfruit. These interpretations have led some scholars to think about jackfruit representations elsewhere in south Asia. 

For example, let’s go to modern-day Pakistan, at the archaeological site of Kafirkot. There, a yogic-looking sculpture was unearthed. The leaves on the sceptre have been interpreted as coming from the jackfruit. 

That sacred significance seems to continue over time.

 In the Brihat Samhita, a 6-century CE encyclopedic-like text, the jackfruit is also mentioned. It’s part of a list of worshippable trees, and there are detailed instructions on how to graft and maintain the tree. 

And the sacredness of jackfruit is still present today. For example, in Kerala, [00:05:30] just outside of the city of Kottayam, there are 3 sacred jackfruit trees at the Mahavishnu temple. Recently, they have been dated using dendrochronology and turned out to be 396, 416, and 543 years old.

Using The Wood

Now when it comes to the jackfruit’s wood, I can’t help but speculate that ancient people were using the wood for a variety of purposes, given how common it was and the fact that it has anti termite properties. Those wood charcoal pieces we mentioned from Senuwar give me a glimmer of hope in this [00:06:00] area.

In the meantime, there are numerous historical and modern example of the diverse ways that the wood is used.

At the Sri Rama Temple in Kerala there are numerous intricately carved wooden statues made from jackfruit wood

At Padmanabhapuram Palace in Tamil Nadu, often considered the largest wooden palace in India, there is a pillar carved from a single jackfruit tree

The jackfruit’s wood has been used beyond sculptures and buildings. Jackfruit wood has been used for things like furniture and musical instruments. In addition, [00:06:30] jackfruit wood, as well as its leaves and roots, have been used as a natural dye. 

Outro

Though the ancient archaeological evidence of jackfruit is limited, we can still take a few things from it, like the jackfruit’s influence on ancient agriculture and religions. Historical archaeology examples highlight the diverse way the jackfruit’s wood has been harnessed for centuries, which could be a hint of what was happening in ancient times. 

Now if you’re curious to learn more about how studying plants is part of archaeology, check out this video here. That’s all for this video and we’ll catch you in the next [00:07:00] one. Bye.

Credits

Anya Gruber: Researcher

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor

Thank you to my Kumari Aunty, Dhama, Dhaya, and Bhavia for helping me get jackfruit pickle footage. Also, thanks to my Mom for checking in with some of our family to learn more about some of the places mentioned in South India.


If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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