The "Pineapple" of Pompeii
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.
8/26/2013 08:32:21 pm
Ha..ha. Never thought about the pineapple theory in depth. Actually your explanation is quite satisfactory. But, what if they had found out a way to keep the pineapple fresh? I mean centuries ago they found out how to keep human body from decaying, so why not pineapple?
It's actually a bit more likely to be depictions of artichokes. In my art history class, we were taught about "those pineapple-looking things in classical architecture are artichokes," and a quick look at Wikipedia even shows that the varietal common to the Mediterranean even had tufty stuff at the top. (Link to the article is above.)
9/22/2013 12:44:51 pm
That's a good point, though in many cases an identical object is on the end of Dionysus' staff, and it is identified in texts as the pine cone. Some of them are probably artichokes (like the ones with leaves at the end) and others (like on the staff) pine cones.
11/5/2014 12:52:42 am
I think this is the picture you are looking for: http://www.palombieditoriblog.it/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/mosaico.jpg
11/5/2014 12:54:36 am
Actually this one is better, bigger and free
1/20/2015 04:44:09 pm
You have to admit though, from those pictures and in context, it does look very much like the fruit. After all, why would I put a pine cone on a platter with figs, grapes and pomegranates?
9/23/2015 07:21:19 am
Umbrella pine seeds are called pine nuts and are a delicacy:
7/25/2017 05:14:38 pm
2/1/2018 12:21:20 am
Regarding the “pineapple of Pompeii”. I don’t think it’s an artichoke because of the little dots on it. It really does look exactly like an umbrella pine cone: check out this stock photo:
3/30/2018 12:35:15 am
5/17/2018 08:26:11 am
I will say this, the pineapple and pine cone planet do indeed look similar, but here's the main problem the Pine Cone Picture is a bright green, and is much too small to look like the image on the art piece. Then, you also have reports of native Americans history describing greek style ships, and west African style ships trading with them. The same thing happened with the native americans of the Pacific North West showing signs of Japanese, Chinese Sailors, and their shipwrecks. Native Americans also wrote down account of trading with " men of different colors who came from the pacific ocean "
1/3/2019 03:08:37 am
The conspiratorial nonsense quoted at the end of that article is perhaps the best clue as to what kind of person this J. Hutton Pulitzer is and what to make of their claims: nonsense peddled by a conman.
10/19/2019 01:57:30 am
10/17/2019 05:09:19 pm
There is of course the evidence of a Roman shipwreck in the harbor of Rio, There is also the appearance of a pineapple with diamond-shaped sections in a 2-3rd c Ad mosaic fragment of Alkman at the Kelsey Museum in Ann Arbor/
10/19/2019 02:40:23 am
Are you referring to the amphorae supposedly discovered in the harbour of Rio by Marx? That guy was an American treasure hunter and author promoting his books. He didn’t even bother to properly document his find in situ. Brazil banned him when they found he was hawking artifacts in Europe he dug up on dives and didn’t bother reporting to Brazilian authorities. So he made up a conspiracy theory that someone buried the wreck under silt to keep anyone from finding it again.
3/7/2020 01:01:02 am
So if it was impossible that fresh pineapples were brought across the ocean in 60BCE, what technology allowed them to be brought over in 1493 and stay fresh?
8/20/2020 11:01:09 pm
SO.... IT IS well known in Italy that when the queen of Spain asked Cristoforo Colombo which was the route that he intended to try to get to "India", he responded : the route of the ancient Romans !!
7/28/2021 12:45:27 am
Here’s a photo of the Pompeii pine cone:
10/18/2021 03:10:35 am
"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."
9/15/2022 04:36:00 am
This pinecone-pineapple is in fact a Balady Citron (etrog) hence the leaves.
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