Coconuts: Facts, History and Science

In one ellipsoid or ovoid that looks odd from the outside, the coconut (the fruit of the palm Cocos nucifera) provides food, potable water, ingredients for a rope, and a shell that can become charcoal. In a pinch, it floats if you need assistance with that.

Legend says that the mutiny of the Bounty (an ostensibly true story turned into a Marlon Brando movie) was caused by Captain Bligh’s punishment of sailors who stole coconuts from the ship’s kitchen. Kenneth Olsen, a plant evolutionary biologist, who researched the DNA of more than 1,300 coconuts from all over the planet, found that there were definitely two types of coconuts.

Because the coconut was grown in two different areas; namely, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific basins, Olsen could trace prehistoric trade routes as well as the progression that colonized the Americas.

Bee Gunn, now of the Australian National University in Australia, was a part of Olsen’s team.

It was discovered that there are actually two forms of coconut, known as niu kafa and niu vai, which are Samoan names. The former is oblong and triangular with a large fibrous husk. The niu vai form is rounded and it is in that type is found when it is not ripe.

“Quite often the niu vai fruit are brightly colored when they’re unripe, either bright green, or bright yellow. Sometimes they’re a beautiful gold with reddish tones,” according to Olsen.

It was when DNA was introduced that things really got interesting.

Gunn and Olsen procured a National Geographic Society grant that allowed Gunn to collect coconut DNA in regions of the western Indian Ocean for which there was no data. The snippets of tissues from leaves in the center of the coconut tree’s crown were sent home to be analyzed.

Long story shortened, Gunn and Olsen’s efforts allowed them to “fingerprint’ the coconut,” Olsen said.

The most definitive finding of the new DNA data is that the Pacific and Indian Ocean coconuts are genetically different.

“About a third of the total genetic diversity can be partitioned between two groups that correspond to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean,” Olsen stated.

“That’s a very high level of differentiation within a single species and provides pretty conclusive evidence that there were two origins of cultivation of the coconut,” he continued.

In the Indian Ocean the likely cultivation center was the southern edge of India, including the Laccadives, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.

In the Pacific, however, coconuts were generated in island Southeast Asia in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia and may have shown up on the continent, too.

“At least we have it easier than scientists who study animal domestication,” Olsen commented. “So much of being a domesticated animal is being tame, and behavioral traits aren’t preserved in the archeological record.”

There was one interesting exception to the general split in the Pacific/Indian Ocean groups. That was found in the western Indian Ocean, specifically the Comoros Islands and Madagascar where Gunn had collected. These coconuts are a genetic mixture of the Indian and Pacific Ocean types.

Olsen and his colleagues believe the Pacific coconuts were introduced to the Indian Ocean a couple of thousand years ago by ancient Austronesians establishing trade routes connecting Southeast Asia to Madagascar and coastal east Africa.

Today’s residents of the Madagascar highlands are descendants of the ancient Austronesians, Olsen shared.

Europeans ultimately took the Indian Ocean coconut to the New World while the Portuguese took it to the Western Africa coast. That is why the coconuts that you find today in Florida today are the Indian ocean type, according to Olsen, which is why they likely have the niu kafa form.

Pacific Ocean coconuts seem to have come in during there in pre-Columbian times by ancient Austronesians. Ultimately, the Spanish brought coconuts to the Pacific coast of Mexico from the Philippines. This is why, Olsen says, you find Pacific type coconuts on the Pacific coast of Central America and Indian type coconuts on the Atlantic coast.

“The big surprise was that there was so much genetic differentiation clearly correlated with geography, even though humans have been moving coconut around for so long,” Olsen concluded.

Interested in sampling some coconut water? Check out H2coco’s range of Coconut Water available for delivery or in supermarkets.