While doing some research into the claim I discussed a few weeks ago that Native Americans had discovered Europe around 60 BCE, I found a weird little sidelight to the story. The Afrocentrist scholar Ivan Van Sertima discussed the case of the Native American travelers in his They Came before Columbus (1976), credulously repeating the hoary idea that Pliny and Pomponius Mela had accidentally described Native Americans when talking of “Indians” (from India), and in so doing, he adds a weird little detail that the Native Americans brought pineapples with them while traveling from North America to Germany.
Imagine that: A few Native Americans in a bark canoe following the Gulf Stream somehow brought a pineapple from lower South America all the way up to the North American coast and then across the Atlantic—keeping it fresh, no less—before turning it over to the Romans, who dispatched it not to the capital but to a resort town where its image was faithfully preserved, though only in an obscure corner of a single mural, for 140 years. It makes perfect sense.
Van Sertima then claims that Domenico Casella, a botanist whom he identifies as a scholar of Pompeii, recognized the mural as a pineapple, as did plant taxonomist E. D. Merrill.
Casella proposed in a 1950 study published in Pompeiana that images on the murals of Pompeii depict three tropical fruits: the pineapple, the mango, and the custard-apple. The latter two are images of highly stylized fruits that no other scholar has been able to identify—as tropical or anything else. They are too doubtful to assign a meaning, let alone to propose absent any supporting proof that they represent a fruit unseen anywhere else in ancient Europe.
The “pineapple” is a more interesting case. The image, found at the “House of the Ephebe,” depicts what nearly most scholars are sure is the cone of the umbrella pine. I wish I could provide an image of the mural, but no author in the past 60 years has done so, and I am not able to find the picture in any readily accessible set of Pompeii mural images.
Those who disagreed early on tended to be scholars who were not native to Italy and therefore based their opinions solely on Casella’s text rather than knowledge of Italian botany. One of these was anthropologist George Carter, who accepted Casella’s argument without question, and to it attached a number of other diffusionist claims about American products in the Old World. Carter was well-known as a diffusionist and proponent of the theory that humans had lived in America for more than 100,000 years—nearly 10 times the scholarly consensus. His work has not stood up to skeptical inquiry.
E. D. Merrill, a botanist, certainly was qualified to speak about plants, though he was not an expert in Roman art or Old World archaeology. His judgment was based entirely on the degree to which he felt the mural resembled the pineapple.
Despite these supporters, archaeologists and art historians immediately criticized Casella’s claims, and in the 1950s a lively exchange played out across the academic journals. Ivan Van Sertima either knew nothing of this or cared nothing about it, or the emerging scholarly consensus that the Roman image depicts an umbrella pine cone. Instead, he draws on the tradition represented by coverage of the pineapple claim in The Interamerican (1967) and The New Diffusionist (1973) of simply repeating controversial academic papers without a fair presentation of the broader intellectual argument surrounding them. We should credit him, however, for resisting the temptation to pluralize the pineapple, as is done by less cautious alternative authors like Gunnar Thompson who frequently write of the many “pineapples” depicted in Pompeiian murals, thus transforming Casella's tentative identification of a single image into a wide-ranging crop of pineapples.
The similarity of pineapple and pine cone has a linguistic echo. The very word “pineapple” was coined in early modern England to describe the cones of pine trees, the “apple” (or fruit) of the “pine.” It was only when European explorers found the American pineapple (native to South America) and saw the visual similarity that they applied the name to the American fruit, causing the new meaning to supersede the old. The older meaning, however, clung on in places, which is why Marc Monnier’s 1886 book on the Wonders of Pompeii could describe an image at Herculaneum as depicting a serpent “eating a pineapple,” a description drawn from a half a century of earlier descriptions all referencing the “pine-apple” or “pineapple” on the sign, meaning a pinecone. Similarly, Asclepius (the god of healing) was said in pre-1900 manuals of mythology to be associated with "the pineapple," which later writers were forced to clarify meant a "pinecone" due to confusion caused by the American fruit and their similar appearance.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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