Journal of Biosciences

, Volume 32, Supplement 3, pp 1227–1244 | Cite as

Historical evidence for a pre-Columbian presence of Datura in the Old World and implications for a first millennium transfer from the New World

  • R. GeetaEmail author
  • Waleed Gharaibeh


Datura (Solanaceae) is a small genus of plants that, for long, was thought to occur naturally in both the New and Old Worlds. However, recent studies indicate that all species in the genus originated in the Americas. This finding has prompted the conclusion that no species of Datura could have been present in the Old World prior to its introduction there by Europeans in the early 16th century CE. Further, the textual evidence traditionally cited in support of a pre-Columbian Old World presence of Datura species is suggested to be due to the misreading of classical Greek and Arabic sources. As a result, botanists generally accept the opinion that Datura species were transferred into the Old World in the post-Columbian period. While the taxonomic and geographic evidence for a New World origin for all the Datura species appears to be well supported, the assertion that Datura species were not known in the Old World prior to the 16th century is based on a limited examination of the pre-Columbian non-Anglo sources. We draw on old Arabic and Indic1 texts and southern Indian iconographic representations to show that there is conclusive evidence for the pre-Columbian presence of at least one species of Datura in the Old World. Given the systematic evidence for a New World origin of the genus, the most plausible explanation for this presence is a relatively recent but pre-Columbian (probably first millennium CE) transfer of at least one Datura species, D. metel, into the Old World. Because D. metel is a domesticated species with a disjunct distribution, this might represent an instance of human-mediated transport from the New World to the Old World, as in the case of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas).


al-Ghafiqi chola bronze dhattura gauz mathil pre-Columbian unmattam 


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Copyright information

© Indian Academy of Sciences 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and EvolutionState University of New YorkStony BrookUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, Faculty of Science and ArtsJordan University of Science and TechnologyIrbidJordan

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