Ancient period: Before 1498 AD

Updated: 14 February 2017

The "Ancient" period is a catch-all for the mostly unrecorded but highly significant and very long time that it took for coconut to evolve (possibly originating in that part of Gondwanaland that is now South America), disseminate by floating (in the Tethys Sea), become domesticated (almost certainly in a now submerged area of Southeast Asia) and then provision the earliest human emigrations (into the Pacific and Indian Oceans)

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Columbus had found no coconuts - (Nux indica) in the New World and the Portuguese had travelled the length of Africa to the Cape of Storms (Cape of Good Hope) without finding any. Vasco da Gama had to reach the Indian Ocean in 1498 before "coquos" were recognised.

For "oil or butter" read coconut oil? . . . there were two large candlesticks like those at the Royal palace. At the top of each of these were great iron lamps, fed with oil or butter, and each lamp had four wicks, which gave much light. These lamps they use instead of torches.

Modern History Sourcebook: Vasco da Gama: Round Africa to India, 1497-1498 CE

Thatcher, O.J. (ed.) The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. V: 9th to 16th Centuries, pp. 26-40.

Treen - Une couppe faicte d'une noix d'Inde. Inventar der Anne de Bretagne. Gay (1928) [Cited by Fritz (1983)].


Treen - A nutte couved harnessed wt silver gilt. Inventary of the Craft of Founders, London. Langbeck (1834). Cited by Fritz (1983)].


Tordesillas Treaty – The Tordesillas Treaty of 1494 divided the world outside Europe between Portugal and Spain; Africa and Asia went to Portugal while the “New World” of America and the, as yet unknown, Pacific went to Spain. The treaty effectively prevented Spanish mariners from sailing through Portuguese controlled waters; for example in 1521, twenty Castillians of the surviving crew members who set out with Magellan to circumnavigate the globe were interned on the Portuguese Cape Verde Islands. So for most of the 16th century, until 1580 when both countries were ruled by Philip II of Spain, the conquistadors who went to America had no opportunity to see mature, fruit-bearing, coconut palms in Asia. They may have heard or read about coconuts, and might even have seen ripe nuts or even seedlings brought back on Portuguese vessels but when Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, a Spanish official historian, learnt that “cocos“ palms were present on the Pacific coast of Panama in 1516 and Alvaro de Guijo, a Panama city resident, sent seed to Mexico in 1539 they may, unintentionally, have misidentified a different palm as just an another sort of coconut. Over the intervening years professional taxonomists have classified some 131 palm species or sub-species as Cocos, predominantly from south or central America, although today they have been assigned to other genera, leaving Cocos nucifera as a monotypic genus.

Harries, 2012 Key to coconut cultivation on the American Pacific coast: the Manila-Acapulco galleon route (1565-1815).


Columbus – expected to see Nux indica but misidentified Cuban royal palm (Roystonia)

Treen - Unum ciphum vocatum le nutte stantem argen'in toto cum coopertorio. Testament, England. Cripps (1886). [Cited by Fritz (1983)].

Olive oil - There were no coconut palms when America was discovered in 1492; if they had existed, the Spanish colonizers and missionaries would not have laboured to establish the olive crop for the production of vegetable oil. [Al descubrimiento de América en 1492, no existía la palmera de coco; de haber existido, los colonizadores y los misioneros españoles no se hubieran afanado tanto en la implantación del cultivo del olivo, para la producción de aceite vegetal].

Gattoni, L.A. (1968) El cocotero en Panama. Min. Ag., Comm. Ind.; Segunda Edicion, Rep. de Panama.


Babur - The coco-nut palm (P. nārgīl, Cocos nucifera) is another. An Arab gives it Arabic form and says nārgīl; Hindustān people say nārjīl , seemingly by popular error.* Its fruit is the Hindi-nut from which black spoons (qarā qāshūq) are made and the larger ones of which serve for guitar-bodies. The coco-palm has general resemblance to the date-palm, but has more, and more glistening leaves. Like the walnut, the coco-nut has a green outer husk; but its husk is of fibre on fibre. All ropes for ships and boats and also cord for sewing boat-seams are heard of as made from these husks. The nut, when stripped of its husk, near one end shews a triangle of hollows, two of which are solid, the third a nothing (būsh), easily pierced. Before the kernel forms, there is fluid inside; people pierce the soft hollow and drink this; it tastes like date-palm cheese in solution, and is not bad.

* Babur’s “Hindustān people” (āil) are those neither Turks nor Afghāns.

Beveridge, A.S. (trans.) (1922) Babur-nama in English (Memoirs of Babur) translated from the original Turki text. London 2 vols (here).


Treen – Ung gobelet couvert fait d'une noix d'outre-mer. Inventar der Maria von Burgund in Gent. Gay (1928) [Cited by Fritz (1983)].


Treen – Ein beslagne nuzz ex India. Inventar des Stiftes St. Peter. Egg, E. (1959) Adeliges Trinkgeschirr in Tirol. In: Beiträge zur Kunstgesichte Tirols. Schlern-Schriften Nr. 208 [Cited by Fritz (1983)].


Treen – J standing blake nutte quae fuit matris meaea. A standing gilt nutt. Testament of Sir Thos. Lyttelton, England. Cripps (1886) [Cited by Fritz (1983)].


Treen – Nux nigra cum turri argentea et pede argenteo. Inventar des Domes zu Lund. Langbeck, J. (1834) Scriptores rerum Danicarum medii aevi, VIII, Copenhagen. Also: Braun (1940) [Cited by Fritz (1983)].


Treen – Meum optimum nutt, meum less nutt. Testament, England. Cripps (1886) [Cited by Fritz (1983)].


Treen – An olde black nutte with cover. English Inventory, Jackson (1911) [Cited by Fritz (1983)].


Treen – Una nux cum ij cooperculis. Durham Priory Surtess Soc. Jackson, C. J. (1911) History of English Plate, London [Cited by Fritz (1983)].


Treen – Ij notes cov'ed garnysshed wt silver t gilt. Treasury of the Exchequer, Henry VI. Cripps (1886) [Cited by Fritz (1983)].


Treen – Ij siluern krosen, die ich to Kollen dede maken met auermertsche noeten gemaeckt. Inventar des Willem von Jülich. Kronijk van het Historisch Genootschap 2 (1850) [Cited by Fritz (1983)].

Treen – Ij noten mit sulwer beslagen. Nachlass der Jacoba von Bayern Gräfin von Holland. Kronijk van het Historisch Genootschap 2 (1850) [Cited by Fritz (1983)].


The country of Ku-li [Calicut] - The wealthy people mostly cultivate coconut trees - sometimes a thousand trees, sometimes two thousand or three thousand - this constitutes their property.

The coconut has ten different uses. The young tree has a syrup, very sweet and good to drink; it can be made into wine by fermentation. The old coconut has flesh, from which they express oil, and make sugar, and make a food stuff for eating. From the fibre which envelope the outside they make ropes for shipbuilding. The shell of the coconut makes bowls and cups; it is also good for burning to ash for the delicate operation of inlaying gold or silver. The trees are good for building houses, and the leaves are good for roofing houses.

Ma Huan (1433) The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores, Beijing, trs. J.VG. Mills, Cambridge UP (for Hakluyt Society), 1970, p. 143.


Coconut decanters from Constantinople - ". . . deux buretes de noix d'Inde garnies d'argent doré, à un long col, sans ances, lesquelles messire Jehan de Chasteaumont apporta de Constantinople et donna à mondir Seigneur ou moys de septembre mil CCCC et deux"

Guiffrey, 1894


Coconut palm as a source of sugar - Ibn Battuta said “recorded the manufacture of coconut honey in the Maldives (1343-1344) which was exported to Yemen, India and China. The same commerce was noted by Ma Huan in 1432 and Sprenger in 1500.e

Battuta, I. 1929. Travels in Asia and Africa 1325–1354 (Translated and edited by H. A. R. Gibb). Broadway House, London. Online:

Ma Huan's Diary (Ying-yai Sheng-lan): The overall survey of the ocean's shores: (1433) translation by JV Mills (1970) Hakluyt Society publication.

The book of Ser. Marco Polo ed Yule London 1902 II p 315.

Sprenger, . . . Indienfahrt 1050-1506. ed Schulz Strassburg 1902, p163.

Deer, N (1950) The history of sugar. Vol II, pp 510-511.

Future confusion -- When Ibn Battuta commented that ”The coco-palm is one of the strangest of trees, and looks exactly like a date-palm” he may have unwittingly confusd those botanists who, centuries later (until 2017), accepted Oviedo's claim to have found coconut palms growing (but not cultivated) on the Pacific coast of Panama (see also 1343, 1535 and 2017).


Coconut and crime - coconut shell cups were owned by kings such as Edward III, by dukes, by counts. They were even temporarily in the possession of the man in the street; in 1337 "one cup called a note with foot and cover of silver value 30s" was found on a thief. [Broadwey, UK 2013 - Three 18th century coconut shell ornaments; worth £3,000 altogether, were also stolen. Two of the ornaments had real shells mounted on top of a silver stem and the shell itself had a silver rim while the third was a coconut shell dish with a silver rim.(here)

Cripps, 1886

In the house of Hugh le Bever a taverner of London - one cup made out of a coconut with a silver foot and cover . . . value £1 10s. [Riley (ed.), Memorials, pp. 199-200. The assumption that Hugh le Bever was a tavener is based on his valuable drinking vessels and the fact that he had six casks of wine. Riley, HT (ed.), (1868) Memorials of London and London Life in the xiiith, xivth and xvth Centuries].

Mortimer, I (2008) The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. Bodley Head

Eleven coconut cups survive from medieval England. See the Eton College example in Marks and Williamson (eds.), Gothic, item 190. [As that entry makes clear, such items were very rare. Marks, R and Williamson, P (eds.), (2003) Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547]

Mortimer, I (2008) The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. Bodley Head


Ibn Battuta - From Kulwa we sailed to Dhafari [Dhofar] . . .They grow also betel-trees and coco-palms, which are found only in India and the town of Dhafari . . . The coco-palm is one of the strangest of trees, and looks exactly like a date-palm*. The nut resembles a man's head, for it has marks like eyes and a mouth, and the contents, when it is green, are like the brain. It has fibre like hair, out of which they make ropes, which they use instead of nails to bind their ships together and also as cables. Amongst its properties are that it strengthens the body, fattens, and adds redness to the face. If it is cut open when it is green it gives a liquid deliciously sweet and fresh. After drinking this one takes a piece of the rind as a spoon and scoops out the pulp inside the nut. This tastes like an egg that has been broiled but not quite cooked, and is nourishing. I lived on it for a year and a half when I was in the Maldive islands. [The many uses of the coconut] One of its peculiarities is that oil, milk and honey are extracted from it. The honey is made in this fashion. They cut a stalk on which the fruit grows, leaving two fingers' length, and on this they tie a small bowl, into which the sap drips. If this has been done in the morning, a servant climbs up again in the evening with two bowls, one filled with water. He pours into the other the sap that has collected, then washes the stalk, cuts off a small piece, and ties on another bowl. The same thing is repeated next morning until a good deal of the sap has been collected, when it is cooked until it thickens. It then makes an excellent honey, and the merchants of India, Yemen, and China buy it and take it to their own countries, where they manufacture sweetmeats from it. The milk is made by steeping the contents of the nut in water, which takes on the colour and taste of milk and is used along with food. To make the oil, the ripe nuts are peeled and the contents dried in the sun, then cooked in cauldrons and the oil extracted. They use it for lighting and dip bread in it, and the women put it on their hair.

Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354, tr. and ed. H. A. R. Gibb (London: Broadway House, 1929) pp. 113-115. Internet Medieval Source Book.

Future confusion -- When Ibn Battuta commented that ”The coco-palm is one of the strangest of trees, and looks exactly like a date-palm” he may have unwittingly confused those botanists who, centuries later (until 2017), accepted Oviedo's claim to have found coconut palms growing (but not cultivated) on the Pacific coast of Panama (see also 1343, 1535 and 2017).

circa 1328

Nargil or Nux Indica - First of these is a certain tree called Nargil; which tree every month in the year sends out a beautiful frond like [that of] a [date] palm-tree, which frond or branch produces very large fruit, as big as a man's head. There often grow on one such stem thirty of those fruits as big as I have said. And both flowers and fruits are produced at the same time, beginning with the first month and going up gradually to the twelfth; so that there are flowers and fruit in eleven stages of growth to be seen together. A wonder! and a thing which cannot be well understood without being witnessed. From these branches and fruits is drawn a very sweet water. The kernel [at first] is very tender and pleasant to eat; afterwards it waxeth harder, and a milk is drawn from it as good as milk of almonds; and when the kernel waxeth harder still, an oil is made from it of great medicinal virtue. And if anyone careth not to have fruit, when the fruit-bearing stem is one or two months old he maketh a cut in it, and bindeth a pot to this incision; and so the sap, which would have been converted into fruit, drops in; and it is white like milk, and sweet like must, and maketh drunk like wine, so that the natives do drink it for wine; and those who wish not to drink it so, boil it down to one-third of its bulk, and then it becometh thick, like honey; and 'tis sweet, and fit for making preserves, like honey and the honeycomb. One branch gives one potful in the day and one in the night, on the average throughout the year: thus five or six pots may be found hung upon the same tree at once. With the leaves of this tree they cover their houses during the rainy season. The fruit it that which we call nuts of India; and from the rind of that fruit is made the twine with which they stitch their boats together in those parts. Jordanus of Séveras (1863)

Yule, H. (trans.) (1863) Mirabilia Descripta Wonders of the East by Friar Jordanus. London (here).


Nux indica were "big as melons, and in colour green, like gourds. Their leaves and branches are like those of the date palm". Friar John of Montecorvino.

Yule, H. (1866) Cathay and the way thither. London, 3 vols, p.213.


Marco Polo - in 1271, the Venetian merchant set off on a journey to China with his father and his uncle. They crossed Asia by the main Silk Road. Polo wrote that the coconut palm was found in abundant supplies in various parts of India and on the Malabar coast. In Europe only the fruit of the palm was known

Chiovenda 1921-3 Webbia 5, 199-294 & 359-449.


Coconut cups were often religious items, in the possession of popes, cardinals, archbishops and bishops; in 1259 a Bishop of Durham made a bequest: "Item Isabellae nepti meae cyphum de nuce Indye cum pede et apparatu argentis" .

Lehmann-Brockhaus, 1955


Treen - The coconut shell was known in the form of gold or silver mounted cups, drinking flasks and other objects which are called treen by antiquarians Between the years 1250 and 1800 records show that these items were found in cathedrals and in castles from the Tyrol to Scotland.

Numerous reference, quoted by Fritz, R. (1983) Die Gefässe aus Kokosnuss in Mitteleuropa 1250-1800. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein.

Pinto, 1969.

1000 AD

Tonga unified under rule of Tu‘i Tonga.

Quanchi & Robson (2005) Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands.

9th century AD

Coconut carved in stone - Relief of coconut palm in the Barabudur (Indonesia) 9th century AD

van Hall & van de Koppel, 1948

695 AD

Fossil record - Early coconuts on Mo'orea Island, French Polynesia

Lepofsky, D., Harries, H.C. & Kellum, M. (1992) J. Poly. Soc. 101(3), 299-308

Mid 6th century AD

Argellia – The Narikela of Sanskrit – Cocoa-nuts - The other tree [represented] bears what are called argellia, that is, the large Indian nuts. It differs nothing from the date-palm, except that it is of greater height and thickness and has larger fronds. It bears not more than two or three flower-spathes, each bearing three nuts. Their taste is sweet and very pleasant, like that of green nuts. The nut is at first full of a very sweet water which the Indians drink, using it instead of wine. This delicious drink is called rhongcosura. If the fruit is gathered ripe and kept, then the water gradually turns solid on the shell, while the water left in the middle remains fluid, until of it also there is nothing left over. If however it be kept too long the concretion on the shell becomes rancid and unfit to be eaten.

On-line edition

McCrindle, J.W. (1897) The Christian topography of Cosmas, an Egyptian monk. London, p.362.

589 AD

The King who introduced coconut planting into Ceylon! - The tradition is that a king of Ceylon was a leper, or afflicted with some skin disease, and that he (Kusta-Rajá) was cured by sea-bathing and the milk of the coconut, or the use of the expressed oil. Curiously enough, the Maháwansa (the ancient Sinhalese history of Ceylon) does not contain nearly so many references to the coconut as it does to the palmyra palm, although the latter now does not cover nearly the area occupied by coconut. One shrewd surmise why the Maháwansa has so little to say about the coconut hazarded by Mr. H. Nevill, is that the practice of toddy-drawing after a time, and its distillation into spirit, would prejudice the priestly historians against the palm and its cultivation. Be this as it may, Mr. Nevill notices that the Maháwansa (XLIL chapter) records how King Aggrabodhi about A.D. 589 caused "a coconut plantation of three yojanas (about 36 English miles) in extent" to be formed, probably between Dondra and Weligama, and so it is surmised that his statue was cut out of the rock near the Weligama Vihara as a memorial of the King who introduced coconut planting into Ceylon!

Ferguson, J. (1897) All about the coconut palm, p.1.

350-600 AD

Physical evidence for trade in coconut oil - Potsherds found at Qasr Ibrim, Egyptian Nubia, were shown to have absorbed oil which was assumed to have come from the locally common date or doum palms. This was seen as the first physical evidence of the exploitation of palm oil (sic) in antiquity and the use of pottery vessels in its processing. The archaeological reports overlook the difference between palm kernel oil and palm mesocarp oil but mention processing date mesocarp for palm sugar, syrup or liquor. Such processing does not release kernel oil. Likewise the doum, which is also known as the "gingerbread" palm, is used to flavor cakes and drinks, not to give oil. Coconut oil is a more likely candidate. One very obvious use for it is as a source light because it burns with a bright, clear and virtually smokeless flame. The archaeological reports consider that signs of burning on the outer surfaces of the potsherds signified processing. But if the pots had contained coconut oil then this would have been solid just when light is most needed, at night, with desert temperatures way below the melting point of coconut oil (around 25°C). The pots of solid oil would show external scorching if they were held over an open fire before decanting smaller amounts of oil into lamp vessels. Coconut oil could have been brought to Egypt by Red Sea dhows from India or Africa. Translations of the Periplus Maris Erythraei (see 1st century AD below) suggest that coconut oil was exported from the ancient town of Raphta, believed to have been situated at the mouth of the Pangani river on present-day Tanzania mainland.

Copley, et al (2001a) Processing palm fruits in the Nile Valley - biomolecular evidence from Qasr Ibrim. Antiquity 75, 538-42.

Copley, et al (2001b) Detection of palm fruit lipids in archaeological pottery from Qasr Ibrim, Egyptian Nubia. Proc. Roy. Soc. (B) 268(1467) 593-597.

400 AD

People move north from Society or Marquesas Islands to Hawai‘i.

Quanchi & Robson (2005) Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands.

300 AD

People move southeast from Society Islands to Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

Quanchi & Robson (2005) Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands.

220 AD

Ganges - 'And they say that nuts also grow there, of which many are treasured up in our temples here as objects of curiosity'. Apollonius of Tyana (born towards the beginning of the Christian era at Tyana, in Cappadocia)

Philostratus' 'Life of Apollonius of Tyana' English translation by F.C. Conybeare, 1912 Book III, Chapter V p.241

It has been presumed that the nuts referred to are coconuts because it is difficult to think of any other kind of nut that would be a marvel in the Mediterranean. In the context Philostratus is referring to the Ganges plain and he specifically mentions the impressive height of the corn, beans three times larger than Egyptian beans and sesame and millet 'of enormous size'.

Personal communication, Dr. Paula Turner.

First and second century AD

Periplus Maris Erythraei (Circumnavigation of the Erythraean Sea). The Periplus reports that coconut oil is exported from the ancient town of Raphta, believed to have been situated at the mouth of the Pangani river on present-day Tanzania mainland. However, there is some debate over the reference since the word taken to mean coconut oil has also been read as "cuttle-fish" and "pearly sea-shells" . Interpretations vary between "a little coconut", "coconut oil" and even "copra". The explanation may lie in the fact that when the translations were published in the late 19th century coconut oil and copra were important articles of trade. At the time the Greek text was written the coconut was hardly known in Europe and copra was not traded but oil that was produced and consumed where the coconuts grew and might have been stored in clay pots for transport by dhows. If the coconut was known at all in Europe it was as the empty shell of the nut possibly decorated and ornamented. Coconut shells, together with those of the Coco de Mer, were called Nux indica. They were carried overland by Arab traders, known in Greek temples and reached as far as English cathedrals long before the Portuguese sailed to East Africa.

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, annotated by Wilfred H. Schoff, New York, NY: Longmans, Green and Co.,1912

Quseir al-Qadim on the southern Egyptian Red Sea coast - Coconut, Cocos nucifera, was also found in these two deposits, as well as in deposits dated to the mid-2nd century AD (6G and 6H). The remains of coconut consist of fragments of the epicarp and fibrous husk and of the nut shell. In all cases the endosperm, the white coconut ‘meat’, had been removed.

Link (here)

Berenice; an ancient seaport of Egypt on the west coast of the Red Sea - "Among the unexpected discoveries at Berenike were a range of ancient Indian goods, including . . . coconuts . . . ”; evidence that “inhabitants from Tamil South India (which then included most of Kerala) were living in Berenike, at least in the early Roman period”

Berenice Troglodytica

1– 500 AD

People move to Kiribati and Marshall Islands.

Quanchi & Robson (2005) Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands.

BC 161

The Mahavanso - Ceylon's oldest chronicle, indicates that the plant was well-known on the island 161 years BC.

Chiovenda 1921-3 Webbia 5, 199-294 & 359-449.

BC 200

People move east from Fiji to Tonga, the Cook, the Society and Marquesas Islands.

Quanchi & Robson (2005) Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands.

BC 415

A Greek physician Ctesias (around 415 BC), wrote that he had seen these fruits in India.

Chiovenda 1921-3 Webbia 5, 199-294 & 359-449.

BC 1000 -700 AD

Hawai`i. - Fleets from the Marquesas Islands arrive in Hawai`i. The Polynesians bring with them: pigs and chickens of Asian ancestry, elephant's ear, shampoo ginger, gourd, taro, Alexandrian laurel, ti, sugar cane, candlenut, banana, portia tree, coconut, Indian mulberry, bamboo, mountain apple, turmeric, Polynesian arrowroot, sweet potato, yam and breadfruit

(1100 - 1300 AD Similar fleets from Tahiti arrive in Hawai`i. )

A Brief Overview of the Political, Cultural and Agricultural Interventions that have Created the Hawai`i we know Today (Link here).

BC 1439

Guam - " . . . Cocos is not an introduced tree, but was among the native plants already existing on Guam when the first human colonists arrived. The IARII Laguas data show that this economically important tree increased gradually in the record after about 3,444 cal. B.P. from its pre-human sporadic occurrences, and did not decline until the start of the historical period".

Athens, JS & Ward, JV (2004)

BC 1400-1000

Indian medicine - the oldest document on Indian medicine, the Susrutas Ayur-Veda (1400-1000 BC), cites coconut as a medicinal plant.

Chiovenda 1921-3 Webbia 5, 199-294 & 359-449.

About 1500 – 1000 BC

People move from New Guinea to Solomon Islands, Santa Cruz, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia1500 – 1000 BC

People move north into Western Carolines1500 – 1000 BC

Emergence of Lapita people in New Caledonia1500 – 1000 BC

People, and Lapita culture, move east from Vanuatu to Fiji and Samoa1500 BC - People move from Philippines to Guam and Marianas Islands.

Quanchi & Robson (2005) Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands.

BC 1650

First written reference - the coconut palm is referred to (for the first time) in the Sallier papyrus which states that there was a specimen of this plant in the botanical collection of Tothmes I (around 1650 BC).

Chiovenda 1921-3 Webbia 5, 199-294 & 359-449.

3,500 YBP

New Guinea Remains of coconuts, dated at about 3,500 before present, have been found associated with human settlements and Lapita pottery in the St.Matthias group of islands in Papua New Guinea.

Kirch, 1987.

4,600 YBP

New Guinea An Indo-Malesian origin was proposed in the region to the north west of New Guinea, mainly for geological and biological reasons related to Wallace's line (Mayuranathan). Prior to the time that this suggestion was made a fossilised coconut fruit had been found at Aitape on the north New Guinea coast in association with a human skull but the fact was not published until later (Hossfeld). The material was estimated by radiocarbon dating to be 4,555 years old.

Unfortunately, the whereabouts of the fossil coconut is not now known and it may well have been destroyed in the dating process.

Mayuranathan, 1938

Hossfeld, P.S. (1948) The stratigraphy of the Aitape skull and its significance. Trans. Roy. Soc. S. Aust. 72, 201-207.Hossfeld, P.S.

(1964) The Aitape calvarium. Australian J. Sci. 27, 179.

About 4000 BC

Austronesians move into Southeast Asia.

7,890-7,750 YBP

Fossil (coconut) pollen - Aitu Island (Aitutaki Atoll, Cook Islands) 7820 +/-70 YBP.

Parkes 1997

14,000-8,000 YBP

Eden in the East - at the end of the last Ice Age, Southeast Asia formed a continent twice the size of India. Oppenheimer argues that it was in this area, rather than in Mesopotamia, that the civilization which fertilized the great cultures of the Middle East was found.

Mesolithic Pottery in Thailand 10,000 YBP

Invention of Agriculture 9,000+ YBP

Oppenheimer, S. (1998) Eden in the East About 8000 BC - Rising sea levels isolate New Guinea and Australia (Quanchi & Robson (2005) Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands.

19,000 YBP

Land area available for domestication -

Source: Modelling shoreline evolution associated with earth glaciation

About 40,000 BC

Evidence of people living in New Guinea

(Quanchi & Robson (2005) Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands).

65,000-45,000 YBP

The “beachcomber express” - The pattern of variation in the DNA of both mitochondrial and Y chromosomes in all people of non-African origin attests that some time around 65,000 years ago, or not much later, a group of people, numbering just a few hundred in all, left Africa. They probably crossed the narrow southern end of the Red Sea, a channel much narrower then than it is now. They then spread along the south coast of Arabia, hopping over a largely dry Persian Gulf, skirting round India and a then connected Sri Lanka, moving gradually down through Burma, Malaya and along the coast of a landmass called Sunda in which most of the Indonesian islands were then embedded, until they came to a strait somewhere near Bali. But they did not stop there either. They paddled across at least eight straits, the largest at least forty miles wide, presumably on canoes or rafts, working their way through an archipelago to land, probably around 45,000 years ago, on the continent of Sahul, in which Australia and New Guinea were conjoined.

This great movement from Africa to Australia was not a migration, but an expansion. As bands of people feasted on the coconuts, clams, turtles, fish and birds . . . The interior of many of the continents was inhospitably dry, windy and cold. But the low-lying coasts were dotted with oases of freshwater springs. The low sea level not only exposed more springs, but increased the relative pressure on underground aquifers to discharge near the coast. All along the coast of Asia, the beachcombers would have found fresh water bubbling up and flowing into streams that meandered down to the ocean. The coast is also rich in food, if you have the ingenuity to find it, even on desert shores. It made sense to stick to the beach.”

Ridley, M (2011) The Rational Optimist, page 65-68; Harper Collins, London.

Pleistocene 1,640,000-11,000 YBP

Australopithecus Pekin man (Sinanthropus)

Homo erectus (Java man)

The continental coast and larger islands of Malesia was the site for domestication of Cocos nucifera, long before wild, domestic and introgressed types of coconut were taken into agricultural cultivation.


Australia - A silicified coconut fruit from the Chinchilla sands in southern Queensland was dated to the late Pliocene, about 2 mya (Rigby, 1995)

10cm long x 9.5cm maximum diameter

The Chinchilla sands are situated about 250 km west of Brisbane, and the area is otherwise rich in fossils of semi-aquatic animals such as crocodiles and tortoises, that suggest a more tropical and humid climate than at present (Dowe & Smith, 2002).

Rigby, J.F. (1995) A fossil Cocos nucifera L fruit from the latest Pliocene of Queensland, Australia. Birbal Sahni Centenary Vol. pp 379.381

Dowe, JL & Smith, LT (2002) A Brief History of the Coconut Palm in Australia. Palms 45(2).

5.2-1.64 MYBP

Pliocene Oldest human ancestors in direct line, Ramapithecus?

Cocos zeylandica (according to Berry) dating disputed (Couper).

Ethiopean man (3 myBP) 1470

Man (2.5 myBP)

Berry, E.W. (1926) Cocos and Phymatocaryon in the Pleiocene of New Zealand.Am. J. Science. 12, 181-184.

Miocene 23.3-5.2 MYBP

Cocos zeylandica (according to Couper).

The primordial coconut would also have floated to continental coastlines but would have stood less chance of surviving competition from other plants or predation by animals until domesticated by early man after human ancestors branched off from apes (18 myBP).

Couper, R.A. (1952) The spore and pollen flora of the Cocos-bearing beds, Mangonui, North Auckland. Trans. Roy. Soc. New Zealand 79, 340-348.

Oligocene – 35.4-23.3 MYBP

Islands in the Tethys Sea could have been the ancestral home of the coconut, from where it dispersed by floating to other islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, before the Australian plate collided with the Indonesian, but not into the Atlantic because the Afro-Arabian and Indian remnants of the former super-continent Gondwanaland, colliding with Eurasia to the north, pinched shut the western end of the Tethys Sea. Compressional forces generated by the collision helped to push up an extensive system of mountain ranges, from the Alps in the west to the Himalayas in the east.

Eocene (Cenozoic) - 56.5-35.4 MYBP

Eocene 55.8 – 37.2; Moderate, cooling climate.; First grasses Australia separates from Antarctica (50 MYBP)

India collides with Asia (45 myBP)

Members of the Cocoseae that rafted on the Indian plate are now extinct but Eocene fossil fruit in the Rajasthan Desert, a Cocos-like stem from the Deccan, and fossil corals in the Himalayan foothills could represent coastal coconut progenitors caught between the Indian and Asian tectonic plates.

Kaul, K.N. (1951) A palm fruit from Kapurdi (Jodhpur, Rajasthan Desert)

Cocos sahnii Sp.

Nov. Current Science (India) 20 (5), 138.

Shukla, A, Mehrotra, R.C. & Guleria, J.S. (2012) Cocos sahnii Kaul: A Cocos nucifera L.-like fruit from the Early Eocene rainforest of Rajasthan. western India. J. Biosci. 37 1-8.

DOI: 10.1007/s12038-012-9233-3

Patil, GV & Upadhye, EV 1984. Cocos like fruit from Mohgaonkalan and its significance towards the stratigraphy of Mohgaonkalan Intertrappean beds. In: Sharma AK (Editor) Evolutionary botany & biostratigraphy: 541-554. (Ghosh Comm. Vol.). [Cocos intertrappeansis ]

Sahni, B. (1946) A silicified Cocos-like palm stem, Palmoxylon (Cocos) sundaram, from the Deccan Intertrappean beds. J. Indian Bot. Soc. Iyengar commemorative volume 26, pp. 361-374. [Palmoxylon parthasarathyi (Sauer 1967) ])

Coconut migration in the coral atoll ecosystem - The position of land masses during the Eocene shows a deep Andean split where Colombia would be, while the distance between South America and Africa is not very wide. Although long-distance dispersal is less important than short-distance dispersal for coconut, there may have been occasions when floating seednuts made a "jump" possible across water too deep for coral atolls to form. Such events will not be easy to recognise today, but can be modelled. There is also a convenient "corridor" between North Africa and Europe going through to southern Asia and the independent Indian plate. The currents would be altogether different from today and, assuming tropical temperatures, there could be atoll forming corals practically lining the route. Such a route, if eventually validated, would accommodate the recent phylogenetic evidence that indicates the coconut is most closely related to American genera (Meerow et al., 2009) by associating the fossil fruits attributed to Cocos recovered in Colombia (Gomez-Navarro et al., 2009) with those in India (Shukla et al., 2012). Modern phylogenetic and biogeographic analyses are suggestive of such a connection (Baker and Couvreur, 2009, 2013), but still need further work.

Harries & Clement, 2014

Paleocene – 65-56.5 MYBP

65.5 – 58.7; Climate tropical. Modern plants appear; Alpine orogeny in Europe and Asia begins; Indian Subcontinent collides with Asia

54.8 - Fossil records of the coconut tribe Cocoseae, particularly of fossilised endocarps, are numerous (Dransfield et al., 2008). Until recently, well documented records appeared from the Middle Eocene onwards (for example, Campbell et al., 2000; . . . ), but new research in the middle to late Palaeocene of Colombia has revealed compression fossils of large fruits that closely resemble the modern coconut, Cocos nucifera, both in size and surface morphology (Gomez-Navarro et al., 2009). In the absence of further substantiating evidence, we allocate this fossil to the stem node of the Attaleinae, the subtribe of tribe Cocoseae to which Cocos belongs, with an age of 54.8 Ma.
Campbell et al ., (2000) Fossil coconuts from mid-Cenozoic shallow marine sediments in southern New Zealand.
Gomez-Navarro et al., (2009) Palms (Arecaceae) from a Paleocene rainforest of northern Colombia.

52 - 48 Ma - Himalayan Orogeny starts

Independent Floating Dispersal - With its ability to float the evolving coconut became independent of plate tectonics for its dispersal whereas other palms, such as the coco de mer, became notoriously endemic.
Harries (1990)

Coral atoll ecosystem hypothesis - ". . . C. nucifera originated and dispersed by populating emerging islands of the coral atoll ecosystem, where establishment conditions impose high selection pressures for survival. When lifted by wave action onto virtually sterile, soilless coralline rocks just above sea level and exposed to the full impact of the sun, seednuts must germinate, root and establish vigorous populations. The cavity within the nut augments the buoyancy provided by the thick husk, which in turn protects the embryo and, by delaying germination, simultaneously extends viability while floating and provides a moisture-retentive rooting medium for the young seedling. These adaptations allow coconuts to disperse widely through the coral atoll ecosystem."
Harries & Clement 2014

Cretaceous 144.2-65 MYBP

India separates from Gondwanaland it is suggested that the wild type Cocos evolved not on the lands masses at all but by floating between the volcanic islands and atolls where these fringed the continental plates.

Harries (1990; 2005)

Jurassic 205.7-144.2 MYBP

Africa and South America separate.

Members of the Cocoseae radiated and became very diverse in the Americas (Gunn / Meerow); some rafted on the African (Podocarpus; Jubaeopsis) and Madagascar (Voanioala) Plates, where their progeny survive to the present day after Uhl & Dransfield (1987)

Triassic (Mesozoic) - 248.2-205.7 MYBP

Gondwanaland breaks up and modern corals appear. The coral atoll is considered to be the world's oldest and most stable ecosystem (Alkire, 1978) and the coconut palm is its most successful plant form (Harries, 1990).

An origin for the whole Coco[s]eae tribe in western Gondwanaland seems most compatible with the present day distribution. The tribe probably differentiated shortly before the break up of that super-continent (Uhl & Dransfield, 1987).

Dated phylogeny of all palm genera - Some doubt has been cast on this convenient explanation by the publication of much later dates for palms in general so that Cocos only appears about 65 Mya when that movement was well under way (Baker et al, 2005) or even that the nucifera lineage diverged around 22 Mya (Gunn, 2004). Until such time as the geochronology and biochronology might be synchronised or recalibrated it has to be accepted that the American and African plates and the Madagascar and India plates were already separate.