Rice is the most consumed staple food in the world, and has two domesticated species: Asian rice (Oryza sativa L.) and African rice (Oryza glaberrima Steud.). Apart from the many commercial cultivars, several thousands of traditional rice landraces exist in Asia, Africa, and the Americas (Li et al. 2014; Stein et al. 2018). Although widescale commercial rice farming increasingly replaces traditional varieties, small farmers have been conserving their self-developed rice diversity for their potential tolerance against flood, drought, salinity and for their nutritional, culinary and cultural values (Gopi and Manjula 2018). By using separate names for rice varieties, farmers are effectively segregating phenotypes. Over time, this segregation can bring forth botanical significance. Another important aspect is that cultural knowledge of varieties helps to transmit crop knowledge, both widely in a community and specialized within sub-sectors of the community (Eyzaguirre 2003). Vernacular names in Gambia reflect specific farm management practices employed by farmers and, vice versa, analysis of names was helpful to explain on-farm genetic diversity and locally specific crop improvement strategies (Nuijten and Almekinders 2008). In Laos, rice names often indicated particular morphological features or other unique characteristics. Also, resistance to or tolerance for commonly occurring stress factors like drought, floods, lodging, birds, weeds and adaptation to soils were reflected in local rice names. This information helped to select germplasm for rice improvement (Rao et al. 2002).

In Suriname, rice is a major part of the dietary intake of every household (Kennedy et al. 2002). While coastal citizens consume rice grown on commercially exploited wetland polders, traditional rice varieties (both O. sativa and O. glaberrima) are important crops for Maroons living in the forested interior (Price 1993; van Andel et al. 2019). Maroons, descendants of enslaved Africans who escaped the plantations in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and established independent communities in the remote interior, are found in Suriname and French Guiana. Nowadays, six Maroon groups are distinguished in this region: Saramaccans (estimated population size ~ 82,500), Aucans (or Ndjuka, ~ 82,500), Matawai (~ 6800), Paramaccans (~ 11,000), Aluku (~ 11,000) and Kwinti (~ 1000). The majority still lives in the forested interior of both countries, except for the Matawai and the Kwinti, who have largely migrated to Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname (Price 2013).

Maroons practice slash and burn agriculture, and their rainfed provision fields contain multiple crops such as cassava, okra, plantain, sugarcane and rice, planted in close proximity of each other (Hurault 1965; Counter and Evans 1981). Trees that they cut are not removed, and as the burned trunks decay over time, they provide nutrition to the crops. After rice is sown, farmers never apply fertilizer as the charcoal from burned organic materials functions as such. Insecticides or herbicides are not used. Most rice is sown in the short dry season from March till April and harvested in the long dry season from July to September (van Andel et al. 2019). In Maroon society, rice functions not only as staple food, but also plays an important spiritual role, as it is present in most offerings to ancestors and Gods (Herskovits and Herskovits 1934). In the past, indigenous peoples in the Amazon have collected wild rice (e.g., Oryza latifolia, O. glumaepatula) for consumption (Hilbert et al. 2017). These species have not (yet) been encountered in the vicinity of Maroon rice fields.

The first official accounts by the Dutch about rice in Suriname date from 1687 and discuss the planting of rice destined as bulk food for the enslaved and soldiers (van Andel et al. 2022). Plantations records hardly mention rice, but it is likely that rice was grown widely on food plots not administered by plantation owners. Even though information on quantities is missing, accounts of rice appear more frequently by the late eighteenth century. Historical records of military expeditions, sent out to capture Maroons, mention the first Maroon provision fields with rice as early as 1712 (Dragtenstein 2002; van Andel et al. 2022). Once settled safely in the interior, rice became the main staple crop of the Maroons (Hurault 1965; Price 1993).

Accounts of varietal diversity in the Maroon rice fields appeared from the second half of the twentieth century. Anthropologist Sally Price (personal communication) recorded vernacular names in the Saramaccan language for 74 varieties in the 1960s, Geijskes (1955) listed 21 local varieties among the Paramaccans and Aucans along the Marowijne River, Hurault (1965) counted a dozen varieties planted by Aucans and Aluku in French Guiana, and Hoffman (personal communication) listed 29 varieties farmed by the Saramaccans between 2003 and 2006. Unfortunately, none of these scholars collected specimens or provided detailed (morphological) descriptions of the rice varieties. More systematic studies of the Maroon knowledge and practices regarding wild and cultivated plants were done by ethnobotanists, initially mostly on wild and medicinal plant species (Van Andel et al. 2014; van’t Klooster et al. 2022). Collection of names and samples of Maroon rice varieties is from recent studies (Van Andel et al. 2019) and the current study is the first attempt to sample rice diversity across all Maroon communities. The research questions addressed in the paper are: Which rice variety names exist and what do they refer to? Why does a variety have the name that it has? Do the Maroon communities share rice names? Do Maroons recognize each other’s rice varieties? What is the process for naming varieties? Is this naming pattern similar for all Maroons and is it comparable to other crops in Suriname, Africa or elsewhere?

Marronnage happened from different plantations over a timeframe of more than 100 years (Dragtenstein 2002). Since a substantial proportion of enslaved Africans in Suriname were rice farmers in Upper West Africa (Carney 2005), elements of a rice naming pattern may already had been established in Africa. What we argue in this paper is that the Maroon rice naming pattern is based on a combination of cultural and agro-ecological associations with distinguishing morphological features, and that the cultural associations in rice names refer to ancestral origins. A study on rice names in Gambia revealed a naming system based on morphological, agronomic and culinary traits, specific persons, geographical origin of the rice, and in rare cases, animals (Nuijten and Almekinders 2008). Moreover, this study suggests that relatively recent varieties that are widely used initially get named after the person who is considered to have introduced the seed first, and subsequently these varieties are renamed based on agro-ecological or botanical features: Naming a variety after the person who introduced it can be perceived as giving credit to that person. After a period of about 20 years, the variety gets a new name based on its distinctive morphological, agronomic, or culinary traits. Possibly, when varieties get more widely diffused, the actual origin loses its meaning and is forgotten (Nuijten and Almekinders 2008).

Our results show that Maroon communities continue to name rice varieties after women who escaped from the plantations in Suriname more than two centuries ago. Stories about heroic escapes, surviving persecution by plantation militias and armed forces the colonial government employed to destruct Maroon villages are deeply engrained in Maroon culture (Price 1983). This, together with the key role of women in food production, results in a wide presence of variety names referring to ancestral women who first escaped the plantation regime (van Andel et al. 2022). Our results thus suggest a strong role for cultural memory in the naming of Maroon rice varieties.

Material and Methods

We conducted semi-structured interviews in five regions in March–April and July–August 2021 and March–April and July–August 2022 (Fig. 1): the Tapanahoni River (Aucans), Marowijne River (Paramaccans and Aucans), French Guiana (Aucans, Paramaccans and Saramaccans), Upper Suriname River (Saramaccans), Cottica River (Aucans) and Upper Saramacca River (Matawai) and Lower Saramacca River (Matawai and Saramaccans).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Map of Suriname showing major sites for each of the Maroon groups where rice names were collected.

We administered a questionnaire to rice farmers to infer the number of varieties grown, cultivated area, variety loss, seed distribution, seed sources, field selection and variety names and meaning. All interviews were held after prior informed (oral) consent. We also interviewed five Maroon intellectuals on the meaning of rice names.

In conjunction with this questionnaire, farmers were asked for seed samples and/or whole rice plants to make herbarium vouchers. One duplicate was deposited at the National Herbarium of Suriname (BBS) in Paramaribo, Suriname, and the other in the herbarium of Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. When no living plants were available for specific varieties, we collected seeds from rice stored in people’s outdoor granaries. Seed samples were stored in paper envelopes: one living duplicate of each variety was deposited at the SNRI/ADRON germplasm bank in Nickerie, Suriname, for storage and phenotyping, while the other (dead seeds) was stored at Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

Furthermore, we interviewed paramount chiefs Albert Aboikoni of the Saramaccans, Lesley Valentijn of the Matawai, and Bono Velanti of the Aucans. After the first author clearly explained the nature of our research to these traditional authorities (in their own language), all three permitted us to conduct research on rice, document and publish traditional knowledge and collect specimens. As rice is a domesticated species, no further collection permits were needed to collect specimens in Suriname and French Guiana.

In our analysis, we included rice names collected previously by other researchers: Ramdayal et al. (2021) among Saramaccans, van Andel et al. (2016, 2019) among Aucans, Vaillant (1948) among Aluku and Aucans, Price (unpublished 1960s) and Hoffman (unpublished 2006) among Saramaccans, the SNRI/ADRON seed bank (unspecified Maroon communities), Geijskes (1955) among Aucans and Paramaccans and Fleury (2016) among Aluku. Additional Maroon rice names were collected from specimens in the herbarium collections of Naturalis and the Herbier du Cayenne in French Guiana. No rice names have yet been documented for the Kwinti Maroons, so this group was not included in our analysis.

Initially, we constructed a database with more than 800 names, after which we merged the different spellings and misspelled names, following the dictionary of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL 2013). We unraveled the meaning of the names with the help of the farmers we interviewed, the SIL dictionary, and our Maroon interpreters Edith Adjako, Vinije Haabo, John Jackson, Tolin Alexander, Annastacia Prisiri- Samson and Kenrich Cairo.

We then scored the (meaning of the) rice names based on their morphological characteristics (color, size, shape and presence of an awn), agronomic characteristics (threshing quality and preferred place of growth), reference to animals, females (person’s names, female body parts, etc.) or males (names and body parts), geographic origin, people or groups from which rice was received, and other features.

Maroons often recognize more than one type of the same variety, and for these they use binary names. For example, a red Rexora, white Rexora or spotted Rexora. In this case, we counted the variety name (‘Rexora’) as one, but scored an additional morphological category (red, white, or spotted). An exception was made for those varieties for which color is explicitly mentioned in the variety name and no other types are recognized within that variety. One example is baaka alisi (‘black rice’), which is a single variety of O. glaberrima, and therefore was assigned its own category. We then sorted names based on the Maroon group where the sample was taken and calculated frequencies of all categories. An UpsetR diagram (Conway et al. 2017) was created to show unique and shared names among the five Maroon groups, using R studio. A map of Suriname and figures were created using the “get_stamenmap()” and “ggmap()” functions of the ggplot2 package (Wickham 2016) in R-studio were created using Microsoft Excel.

To verify how well farmers knew rice from other communities and how names were invented in the field, we made a ‘rice quiz’: a paper with five samples of local rice varieties secured under transparent tape. The varieties we selected were: baaka alisi (the only O. glaberrima variety in Suriname to date), pende fisi (‘spotted fish’, with spotted husks), masaa alisi (‘master’s rice’, with red bran), Ma Paanza alisi (‘Mrs. Paanza’s rice’, a rice named after a Saramaccan female ancestor), puspusi (‘cat’) and Carolina gold (a recently developed, modern cultivar from Anson Mills, Columbia, USA). We included the ‘new’ Carolina gold cultivar (, allegedly similar to historic Carolina Gold varieties that were exported to Suriname in the late eighteenth century.


Shared Names

Overall, we interviewed 67 rice farmers (96% female): 26 Aucans, seven Matawai, four Paramaccans and 30 Saramaccans, and collected over 400 rice samples. The number of rice varieties grown per farmer varied from 1 to 21. Some rice variety names mentioned by farmers were not encountered in the field. We constructed a database from our fieldwork data and written documents with 284 unique names for rice varieties: 143 from the Saramaccans, 66 from the Aucans, 16 from the Matawai, 13 collected from the Aluku and eight from the Paramaccans (see Supplementary file). Of the 284 unique names, a total of 38 names were shared among two or more groups and only four names were found in all groups (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure 2

UpsetR diagram showing the number of unique and shared vernacular rice names of the five Maroon groups.

The majority of the unique rice names are found among the Saramaccans and Aucans, the two largest Maroon groups with the most villages. These groups have more unique names than names shared with other groups. The Paramaccans have fewer unique names than names shared with other groups, most prominently the Aucans and Aluku. The Paramaccans are small in number and live along the same river as the Aucans and Auluku. The Matawai share more than half of their rice names with the Saramaccans. The two groups started as one and split around the 1740s (Price 1983).

Of all the rice variety names, just four were found in all five Maroon groups: alekisoola (‘Rexora’), baaka alisi (‘black rice’), pende (‘spotted’) and alulu (‘it rolls’). Alekisoola is identified as locally adapted version of Rexora. This glabrous-hulled cultivar was developed in 1926 in Louisiana (Rutger and Mackill 2001), introduced to Guyana in 1932 (Codd and Peterkin 1933), and widely grown in coastal Suriname by 1938. According to Stahel (1944), a bale of Rexora rice was sent to the Saramaccan village Ganzee in 1936. The name baaka alisi is the only variety of black or African rice, and known by all Maroons as a spiritual rice (van Andel et al. 2019). The name alulu (a bon) means ‘it rolls (from the tree)’ as it is a shattering type. Aucan farmers see shattering as a positive trait, since it facilitates the threshing process. The name ‘pende’ refers to varieties with spotted husks.

Naming Categories

Based on the information obtained from rice farmers and previous research, we identified six naming categories. Names were given based on the rice morphology, agronomy, resemblance to animals, associations to males or females, geographic locations or other Maroon and non-Maroon groups. Figure 3 shows that rice names referring to morphology account for almost 40%, which is the highest for all categories. The binary naming pattern accounts for this: if we look only at the non-binary (simple) names, the morphology category drops to 24%, making the female category (28.6%) the category with the most rice names.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Percentages of rice names in each naming category. Percentages add up to more than 100% since we scored 76 binary names in more than one category.

Morphological characteristics

Most Maroon rice names refer to the morphology of a specific plant part, such as grain shape and color, husk color, plant shape and size, panicle structure, awn color and shape. Names such as lebi alisi in Aucan and bë alisi in Saramaccan both mean ‘red rice’ and describe the husk color of this variety. The Saramaccan name hánza-a-bandja means ‘wings on the side’, and refers to long outer glume on each side of the grain that is a typical morphological character of this variety (Fig. 4A). The Saramaccan name jöööjööö (long hair) is given to a variety with very long awns (Fig. 4B).

Fig. 4
figure 4

(A) The Saramaccan traditional rice variety hánza-a-bandja (‘wings on the side’, NP 220). The long outer glumes are clearly visible. (B) the Saramaccan variety jöööjööö (‘long hair’, NP137). Pictures: Nicholaas Pinas.

Agronomic Characteristics

Approximately 9% of all rice names were connected to agronomic characteristics, such as a preference for swampy soil, a tendency to lodge, etc. Our field surveys revealed that Maroons mostly cultivate upland rice varieties, but also some varieties that prefer wet soils or even permanent swamps, such as baka suwámpu (‘behind the swamp’, see the Supplementary information). Names such as awéi máun (Saramaccan and Matawai for ‘making the hands tired’) refer to the heavy panicles that cause exhaustion during harvesting time. Kaasihánsi (Saramaccan for ‘itching hands’) refers to the irritating hairs on the leaves or grains and alulu (a bon).

Reference to Animals

Almost 13% of all Maroon rice names refer to animals, most of which are native to the Amazonian rainforest. The names pingo puuma (bush pig hair), refers to the collared peccary (Dicotyles tajacu), while djampö and pakia both refer to the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), both common wild pig species in the Amazon forests. Rice varieties associated with these peccary species all have long awns that look like the pigs’ hair. The variety named watadagu (‘river otter’) has stiff awns that resemble the whiskers of the river otter, while the variety puspusi (‘cat’) has softer awns that look like a cat’s tail.

Apiikutu (futu), translated as ‘green-rumped parrotlet (feet)’, is a rice variety that is often destroyed by this bird (Forpus passerinus), as it descends on the rice to feed on it and squeezes the panicles with its feet. Aucan chief Bono Velanti explained that one time this specific parrotlet had eaten a lot of rice in the field, and farmers had caught and killed it. When gutting the bird, the farmers found that its stomach was full of rice. They had taken the seeds to be sown again and named the variety after the parrotlet.

Lastly, one rice name refers to a bird species from West Africa. The name toke for a variety with dark brown patches on the husk refers to the Guinea fowl (Numida meleagris), a West African bird that was introduced to Suriname on slave ships (Benjamins and Snelleman 1917).

Male Associations

A small number of rice names are connected to men. The variety Adongote konde, meaning ‘Adongote’s place’, is one of them. A farmer said that Adongote loved this rice so much that it used to be the only variety he farmed. When he passed away, the villagers decided to name this variety after him. Ston taka is a name referring to male pubic hair, as it has a curly black awn that falls off easily. The Aucan rice variety mesti (‘teacher’) is named after a teacher of the first boarding school established in the Marowijne River, shortly after World War II. He had handed out rice to the mothers of the pupils, whose descendants appreciate the variety until today (van Andel et al. 2019).

Reference to Places and Other Maroon and Non-Maroon Groups

A limited number of rice names refer to places, such as for example Abenaston, a Saramaccan village. We think that the researcher who collected this name either invented it without discussing it with the farmer, or it arose from a misunderstanding between the two, or the farmer preferred to mention a village rather than a specific name. Names in this category also refer to other Maroon groups, such as Aluku paansu (Aluku seeds), bë djugá (red Aucan), and Ndyuka alulu (Aucan roller), which suggests seed exchange between two Maroon groups. Naomi Eva, a Matawai farmer living in Comsarsikondre (Saramacca river) from whom we collected Ndyuka alulu, said she received this rice from Aucan people. Notably, Aucans themselves never labelled their own rice as Ndyuka. It seems that exchange of varieties among the groups rarely happens.

In the post-emancipation period, the Maroon groups also exchanged rice with non-Maroon groups, such as indentured laborers from India (Hindustani), who were brought to Suriname from the late 1870s onwards. A variety named kuli kuli, for example, has a clear reference to coolies, the derogatory term used for indentured laborers from India. The Dutch colonial government also arranged recruitment from Java. We encountered a glutinous (sticky) rice variety named katam, a name strongly resembling ketan, the Indonesian word for stickiness. In 1975, Hmong refugees from the northern mountains of Laos and Vietnam arrived in French Guyana, and Aucans along the Cottica River cultivate a variety they named either Hmong or anambu. The latter refers to a water bird with long legs, as the Aucans said the Hmong people lived on stilt houses above the swamp.

Traces of early runaways

The category ‘other Maroon groups’ also contains rice names that refer directly to the time of marronnage. Names, such as Baákápáu tjaka, Agbosótjaka, Mbotombolia and Afanti sacca refer to groups of runaways that joined the Maroons in different time periods. The Baákápáu were a group of people who escaped from the Tout Lui Faut plantation in the 1690 s (Price 1983). The term Agbosó probably refers to Fon-speaking people, from A(g)bomey, the capital city of the former Kingdom of Dahomey, currently Benin (Smith 2015a). The Agbo ran away and joined the Saramaccans around 1750s (Price 1983). The term Mbotombolia probably refers to a group of runaways that settled along the Boterbalie creek in the Para district, and who were taken along by the Matawai leader Musinga (Price 1990). The (A)fanti or Fante are a subgroup of the Akan people in southern Ghana of whom many were transported to Suriname (Wooding 1979). According to traditional healer Kenrich Cairo, the Afante people escaped from the Tempati region and joined the Aucan Maroons. Our data suggest that all these groups of escaped people had rice with them.

African Words in Maroon Rice Names

Several Maroon rice names contain terms that can be linked to African words, of which the meaning was mostly forgotten or changed over time. The name pende, meaning ‘dark’ or ‘dusk’ was reported for an O. glaberrima variety found in Sierra Leone that was ready to harvest between 80 and 90 days (Richards 1986). We found the name pende associated with several O. sativa varieties with dark spotted husks, but with a growth season of 4 months, similar to most other Maroon varieties.

The word saka is a general word for rice in Mende (Sierra Leone), Gban (Ivory Coast) and several other unrelated African languages, and only occurs near old Portuguese and Spanish trading posts. The root of the word is probably the Portuguese verb sacudir, meaning ‘to shake up’ or ‘winnowing rice’, used as contact word by slave traders buying rice as bulk food for the trans-Atlantic voyage (Wiener 1920). We found that only few farmers knew what saka meant, although the term was shared by the Aluku, Aucans and Paramaccans. However, the Saramaccan rice names Agbosotjaka, Afantisaka, tjaka Ma Jaa and the Matawai name atjakati also seem to carry this same word (saka).

The name böngö is also another general name for rice, particularly in the Saramaccan community. The best translation is probably ‘seeds’ or ‘seedling’, but also ‘children’ or ‘offspring’. Among the Aucans, we heard the term bongo only in a rice song that was sung when farmers were finished with sowing. They hoped that by singing it, the harvest would be plenty. Bongo probably comes from the Central African word m-boóngo in the Kintandu language, meaning ‘descendants’, ‘planting material’, ‘seeds’, and ‘offspring’ (Smith 2015b).

Non-translated and Other Names

Almost 15% of the Maroon rice names we could not translate, or none of our interviewees could explain or remember their meaning. Names also referred to other objects or things that did not fit in a category. Names such as kamu, topi-topi and adjekwaman were collected by other researchers, but they did not ask the farmers for the meaning of these names. The name kamasondu was collected by us, but the farmer who grew it could not recall what the name meant, and we could not find another person that knew its meaning. The name adjádja (rice crust) was the only variety referring to culinary use.

Rice is a Woman

Finally, the names referring to women make up almost 30% of all names. Rice is in a symbolic sense considered to be a woman, and the reasons for this are diverse. Saramaccan farmer Mariona Tiapoe explained to us: ‘It is women who plant the rice, and [like a woman] one rice seed can bring forth a lot of children’. The great majority of the Maroon farmers are women. It seems that when they invent rice names they refer to their own gender, such as the Saramaccan names gaán bóbi (big breast), longi longi mujëë (very tall woman), koto mujëë (cold woman), limbo mujëë (clean woman) and Aucan names such as moi uma (beautiful woman) and tjantjan poena (old ladies’ pubic hair, after its thin white awns). These names refer to women in general, but the majority of rice named associated with females refer to specific female individuals (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5
figure 5

Percentage of rice names referring women (n = 80), split in general female associations and referral to specific female persons in all five Maroon groups.

In Maroon oral history, there is a claim that women escaped from the plantations with rice braided in their hair (Carney 2004). Although the early Maroon history is complex and contains reiterant exchanges between plantation slaves and Maroons, the women had a crucial role in the cultivation of food crops. Rice varieties carry names of women that allegedly were the first to bring rice to the Maroon villages (van Andel et al. 2022), such as Ma Paanza (Mrs. Paanza). Saramaccan paramount chief Albert Aboikoni explained that Paanza escaped with rice from a plantation named Stenenberg. She took the rice to Baakawata, a village that does not exist anymore along the Pikin Lio. A similar story documented by Price (1983) is attributed to the variety alisi Seei, meaning Seei’s rice, named after an enslaved Ghanaian woman who escaped in 1690 from the plantation Waterland. She fled together with her daughter Yaya, after which the rice variety tjaka Ma Jaa was named (van Andel et al. 2022). Rice names such as Anoussa, Amessina and Alena refer to women whose history is probably forgotten, as the farmers could not recall anymore who they were, probably because they had only limited impact in small communities.

Varieties named after specific women do not only refer to the time of marronnage, but also persons that recently died or are still alive. M’kono alisi (M’kono’s rice) was collected from her neighbor, shortly after M’kono passed away. Odina konde (Odina’s place) was encountered on the field of Odina Aboikoni in Dangogo 2, the uppermost village on the Pikin Lio (Fig. 6). She had not seen this variety before, and her mother decided to name it after her. New women’s names have been invented over the centuries, because new varieties are continuously appearing on farmers field, or names are forgotten and rice is renamed after its farmer.

Fig. 6
figure 6

Odina Aboikoni with her mother Sabel, threshing her rice in Dangogo 2. Picture: Nicholaas Pinas.

The Naming Pattern Across Maroon Groups

In the five Maroon groups, the naming pattern seems to be the same. Figure 7 shows the percentages of names in the different categories for the specific groups. Similar percentages are found for all Maroon groups, including for the two most frequent categories: morphology (between 31 and 35% for all groups) and female (between 15 and 22%). For the Aluku, the percentage in the category ‘other’ is relatively high, because most names collected by Fleury (2016) were not translated, and we did not do fieldwork among Aluku farmers. The Matawai have a relatively high score in the male category, because their awned rice was called bia bia (‘young man’ or ‘beard’) and we scored this as an association to males.

Fig. 7
figure 7

Percentages of names in the different categories for all five Maroon tribes.

Recognizing each Other’s Rice

The six rice varieties that we selected to see how farmers would identify each other’s rice were not equally familiar. Black or African rice (Oryza glaberrima) was recognized by all 20 farmers who participated in the exercise as baaka alisi (black rice) or matu alisi (forest rice), because of its dark brown husk and its spiritual significance in Maroon communities (van Andel 2010). The variety pende fisi was also well recognized by 85% of farmers as pende or ahunjön. These spotted rice types probably are old varieties: the West African name pende was first documented by Vaillant (1948 along the Marowijne River for rice varieties with striped husks. The origin of the Saramaccan term ahunjön, which means ‘ugly’, due to the dark brown spots on the husk, remains unknown.

Masaa alisi (‘master’s rice’) was only farmed by Aucans living along the Cottica River, probably because the variety needs to grow in swampy areas. The variety had a mix of purple and white grains, and was not recognized by farmers from outside the Cottica. According to Aucan artist Tolin Alexander, Aucans returning from the Tapanahoni River to the Cottica region used the term masaa (‘plantation owner’) for the descendants of enslaved Africans who remained on the former plantations. After emancipation, the Maroons met their former family members on the plantations they had fled from a century ago. As a token of respect, they addressed these people with masaa (‘master’). These people were farming rice on the abandoned plantations and they shared their swampland varieties with the Maroons. As masaa alisi had red seeds, 20% of the farmers named it kamasondu, which is a Saramaccan upland variety with red seeds. The other Maroons did not recognize it.

Puspusi was only collected in Semoisi, a Saramaccan village along the upper Suriname river. The variety was not recognized by any of the 20 farmers, probably because its name is limited to Semoisi. In the other villages, 85% of the farmers named it after its long awn, so either tjantjanpuna (‘old women pubic hair’), jöööjööö (‘long hair’) or weti hedi mma (‘white headed woman’). The variety Ma Paanza with smooth orange husks, collected in the Saramaccan village Jawjaw, was not recognized by any of the farmers. However, Saramaccan women from other villages have another type of Ma Paanza with hairy husks and red seeds. The modern US cultivar Carolina gold was not recognized by any farmer as a foreign cultivar. All 20 farmers considered it a Maroon rice variety and called it names such lebi alisi and bë alisi (red rice), because of it orange husk.

Inventing Names for Unknown Rice

Farmers looked at the rice varieties we selected for the exercise and came up with names for those they thought they recognized, but also invented names for those they did not know. Figure 6 shows that when an unknown variety had a white husk, farmers incorporated this trait as part of the suggested name only in 20% of the cases. When the husk color was orange, this was incorporated in more than half of the suggested names. Farmers who guessed a name for varieties with an awn used this trait in the majority of the names they invented. When the variety had a red seed, one-third of the farmers incorporated this trait as part of the name they invented. So, there seems to be a hierarchy in name giving: the awn is seen as a major motivation for inventing a name (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8
figure 8

Percentage of farmers (n = 20) who invented names with a morphology component of an unknown variety.


Mechanism of Naming

From the 284 unique Maroon rice names, a naming pattern was noticed with categories referring to morphology, agronomy, animals, male and female names, and rice brought from specific regions or by non-Maroon groups. As the five Maroon groups had only four to five rice names in common, we can deduce that most names were invented after the enslaved Africans escaped into the forest and formed tribal groups that practiced agriculture in relative isolation. However, as the Maroon rice naming pattern is similar between groups, it is likely that this was in place before marronnage.

Rice names were also recorded in many other West African countries, such as Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Togo, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Senegal (Nuijten and Almekinders 2008; Portères 1965, 1966; Richards 1986). Unfortunately, Nuijten and Almekinders (2008) translated only 20 of the 129 rice names they collected and Portères (1965, 1966) only a dozen of the c. 100 rice names he reported from Guinea Conakry, which makes a detailed comparison with our dataset difficult. If more African rice names had been unraveled, we would have been able to compare the Maroon naming pattern more thoroughly with those of the countries from where enslaved Africans were taken to Suriname. The difference between our findings and the rice naming systems described by Nuijten and Almekinders (2008) for Gambia, Portères (1965; 1966) for Guinea Conakry and by Rao et al. (2002) for Laos are the names referring to the length of the growth season, extension officers, resistance to drought, weeds, development organizations and production ecosystems. These categories are absent in Suriname, as all Maroon rice varieties are ready to harvest within four to five months, production systems are all similar, there are no extension officers or NGOs handing out rice, and drought is not a problem. Common aspects of our results with Laos, Guinea Conakry and Gambia are the names referring to morphology, agronomy and resemblance to animals, which may be part of a universal naming system for rice or crops in general. In Gambia, some rice names refer to female farmers who introduced a variety into the community. In Laos, there is no mention of either female or male farmers’ rice names (Rao et al. 2002).

Due to the naming of rice after specific persons, the Maroon naming pattern has more similarities to the system in Gambia than to the one in Laos probably because lots of enslaved Africans were transported from West Africa to Suriname.

Of the few African rice names that were translated by Richards (1986) and Portères (1965; 1966), we see some resemblance between the Maroon and the West African naming pattern. The Mende rice name helekpoi (‘elephant’) in Sierra Leone was a variety that was found in the stomach of an elephant that was killed after destroying a rice field. A similarly constructed name, apiikutu in Suriname, refers to rice found in the stomach of a parakeet that had eaten from the crop. In both cases, farmers continued to grow the rice taken from the dead animals. The name kalembaama, large jaw bone in Mende, refers to a variety with long outer glumes. A very similar-looking rice grown by Saramaccans is known as hánza-a-bandja, meaning ‘wings on the sides’. Ngolo-yombo (‘chimpanzee hair’) in Mende has a long black awn like the hair of this ape (Richards 1986). Yakisan (‘sheep beard’), a rice name recorded in Guinea Bissau, has a long white awn (Portères 1966). The naming of awned rice after hairy animals was also found in Suriname, where Amazonian mammals such as peccaries, otters, howler monkeys and jaguars have taken over the role of their African counterparts. Portères (1965; 1966) reported many rice names linked to specific areas and groups of people, but very few that refer to specific persons. None of the dozens of rice names translated by Portères referred to women.

As people from many different African groups ended up on Surinamese plantations, any African naming of rice varieties that ‘survived’ the Middle Passage was influenced by the overall Creolization of language and food producing practices on the plantations and, subsequently, in the Maroon villages. The naming pattern is thus best characterized as a local adaptation of an Atlantic bowl of rice varieties and names to the Surinamese situation. The selection, adaptation and naming process continued in the post-abolition period.

Women as Key Agents in Rice Diversity

Maroon rice names are most unique in the reference to women. This category accounted for almost one-third of all names. Names refer to women in the more general sense, such as ‘red woman’, ‘black-haired woman’, ‘messy woman’, but also to individual people. What makes Maroon rice names truly distinctive are varieties such as Ma Paanza, alisi Seei and Ma Jaa. These were well-known ancestors of the Saramaccans who allegedly escaped with rice, but who are not known by other Maroon groups. The general pattern that emerges is that every Maroon tribe seems to have rice names of specific women that are considered as the first to have escaped with rice and commemorated as fundamental to their own survival (van Andel et al. 2022). We did not yet collect such stories from Paramaccans and the Aluku. These rice names probably have been passed on over many generations, potentially as far as the late seventeenth century. Paanza, Seei and Yaya are said to have escaped their plantation between 1690 and 1739 (Price 1983). The strong presence of female names for rice varieties represents the important role of female farmers in Maroon rice cultivation. Different groups of runaways, such as Agbos, Baákapáus and Boterbalies were mentioned in accounts of Maroon oral history (Price 1983), but merged into different Maroon clans and lost their original names. Our research suggests that they all escaped with specific rice varieties that kept the name of these people. This information is probably lost in oral history and the contemporary archives, but the rice names indicate that they all contributed to the current crop diversity in the Maroon communities.

Shared African Heritage

African terms for rice, such as pende, saka, and bongo, known in different forms and spelling, reveal traditional knowledge about this crop among enslaved Africans prior to marronnage. The same goes for the often-used rice name alulu in Aucan communities. The root of this word, lunlun, meaning ‘to fall apart’ or ‘crumble’ comes from the Ewe language spoken in Benin (Smith 2015a). The fact that all Maroon farmers recognized baaka alisi, the only O. glaberrima variety, and most knew the name pende for spotted rice is probably because these names refer to old morphological traits that are easily recognized. When a variety is not known, a name is given that is first based on morphology and if it does not have striking features such as an awn, it is connected to the woman who first introduces it to others. The question still is whether the many names also reflect a huge genetic diversity. Not every name represents a single variety, some names can include more than one rice type. Other varieties can have more than one name. Future research on the DNA of our Maroon rice samples will reveal to what extent the names are indicative for genetic diversity, and probably reveals the geographical origin of these crop varieties as well.

Names Do Change

Maroon rice cultivation probably is a dynamic system in which new varieties appear and old ones get lost, and the same must be happening with names. The oldest documented name of a rice variety was joerka aleisi (‘ancestor spirit rice’) by Hostmann (1850), a name which we also reported in 2021. Of the 28 unique rice names collected by Price in the 1960s, however, 40% was no longer heard during our surveys in the same region. We also found names that were not previously recorded, but had the same meaning as names recorded before, such as amapapi (1960s), meaning ‘with wings on the side’ probably refers to the same outer long glumes as the rice that we collected with the name jesi teke (‘long ears’) or opolani (‘airplane’). Unfortunately, there is no picture or herbarium collection of amapapi for us to compare. We believe also that names such as Aluku paansu (‘Aluku seed’) and Ndyuka alulu (‘Aucan roller’) exist because the original name is forgotten (or misunderstood) after it was exchanged with another Maroon group. However, this pattern of changing names is not the same as in Gambia, were varieties that were exchanged immediately got the name of the introducer, but lost this after c. 20 years (Nuijten and Almekinders 2008). Rice names in Maroon communities often still reflect historic introducers and farmers, some of whom lived as long as 300 years ago.


Maroon history is reflected in the names of rice varieties currently grown by Maroons in Suriname and French Guiana. A substantial portion of rice names refers to women who are commemorated through stories about bringing food crops to the community during the struggle for freedom. Furthermore, in the rice names we found the separate groups of runaways that all brought rice with them, although descendants of these people do not have the same name anymore. The other groups of people the Maroon had contacts with in the past, such as Asian contract laborers, and the adaptation to the New World environment remains visible in the references to Amazonian animals. The process of naming a variety is complex, but seems uniform in all five Maroon groups studied so far and has a clear but unspecific reference to West Africa.