Excerpt from Banana by Dan Koeppel, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

by Dan Koeppel

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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 304 pages
    Jan 2009, 304 pages

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Print Excerpt

And God Created the Banana

IF THERE IS AN ANSWER TO PANAMA DISEASE, it begins further back than even the earliest recorded history. It starts in myth. It starts when people—and bananas—were born.

It is humanity's oldest story. There's probably not a single person you know who isn't familiar with it. The odds, however, are also good that nobody—not you, me, or perhaps even your local pastor—has gotten it quite right.

In the beginning, God spent a week creating heaven and earth. Fruit appeared on day two. Man arrived after the sixth dawn. After resting, God created a companion for his progeny, and Adam and Eve became a couple. Their Eden was a classic utopia. Everything was there in abundance, for the taking, with a significant exception: "You may freely eat of every tree in the garden," God said, "but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat it, you shall die."

When she encounters the snake, Eve, being Eve, is easily convinced that the prohibited fruit is not poison, but a source of power selfishly guarded by God. A taste confirms it: "The tree was good for food," the Bible says, "and a delight for the eyes." The first woman shares with her mate, and Adam, also, doesn't perish. Instead, the couple realizes that they're naked, and they fashion clothes from leaves. God discovers the transgression…you know the rest. Common wisdom holds that Eve's temptation was an apple, a piece of which lodged itself in Adam's throat, giving that particularly male anatomic feature its name.

The apple is so prominent in the Western world's collective imagining of Eden that it came as quite a surprise when I learned, while researching this book, that many of the most ancient biblical texts, written in Hebrew and Greek, never identified the fruit as such. That now-common representation emerged around AD 400, when Saint Jerome, patron saint of archaeologists, librarians, and students, created the Vulgate Bible, a version of the book that united the older texts into a cohesive Latin form. Jerome's work—conducted in Rome at the behest of Pope Damasus I—was one of the first to make scripture available to a wider audience. Over the next six centuries, other translations of the Bible began to appear. Then, in 1455, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type and published the first mass-produced edition of the Bible. Gutenberg's Bible was a close transcription of Jerome's millennium-old volume, in the original Latin.

Like English, Latin is a language that contains many homonyms—words that sound alike, but have different meanings. When Jerome translated the Hebrew description of Eden's "good and evil" fruit, he chose the Latin word malum, which, according to biblical archaeologist Schneir Levin, was intended to mean something similar to "malicious." Malum also can be translated as "apple," however, derived from a Greek word for the fruit, melon. When Renaissance artists referred to their Gutenberg bibles, they took the term to be a reference to the fruit—and began painting apples into their Gardens of Eden.

NOT EVERYONE INTERPRETED the term that way, though. Over the centuries, scholars outside of Renaissance Europe asserted that the identification should have been the banana. Among these scholars was Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus, father of modern taxonomy. Early in the eighteenth century, Linnaeus made two entries for the fruit in his Systema Naturae, a seminal catalogue of over four thousand species of fauna and seven thousand kinds of plant life. A deeply religious man, Linnaeus saw his work as no less than creating a complete inventory of God's creation. He both believed in Eden and that the banana belonged there. The scientific name he gave to the sweet, yellow banana was Musa sapentium, from a Latin term meaning "wise" (as in the tree of knowledge). The green banana—our plantain—was called Musa paradisiaca, "the banana of paradise."

Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Banana by Dan Koeppel. Copyright © Dan Koeppel, 2008.

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