For thousands of years, the coconut palm has entwined itself in history, from tropical coasts to typical shelves in global groceries. Called the “tree of life” by the many cultures that have depended upon it through time, it provides sustenance, succor and shelter. While it now grows on every subtropical coastline around the world, genetic testing underwritten by the National Geographic Society in 2011 showed the coconut originated in India and Southeast Asia. From its original home, the nut—which can float—made its way independently, traversing both hemispheres.
But historians also agree that coconuts traveled at the hands of men, and it was most likely seafaring Arab traders who carried coconuts from India to East Africa as much as 2,000 years ago. Even the name they conferred on the fruit— zhawzhat al-hind, which means “walnut of India”—survives in Arabic today.
These mariners encountered coconuts as they traded with their Indian counterparts who sailed small, nimble dhows, coast-hugging boats made from teak or coconut-wood planking lashed together with coconut fiber (coir). The dhow was adopted by Arab merchant mariners themselves, and the boats continue to be made today, but with modern materials.
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