Sugar Cane - Early Origins and Spread

The sugar genus Saccharum is complicated because species within it readily cross-breed with each other, and with species in related genera to produce many different types.

Early spread

Image: Sugar cane originated in New Guinea. It gradually spread to Southeast Asia and India.- photograph of sugar cane plant

Sugar cane originated in New Guinea where it has been known since about 6000 BC. From about 1000 BC its cultivation gradually spread along human migration routes to Southeast Asia and India and east into the Pacific. It is thought to have hybridised with wild sugar canes of India and China, to produce the 'thin' canes. It spread westwards to the Mediterranean between 600-1400 AD.

Arabs were responsible for much of its spread as they took it to Egypt around 640 AD, during their conquests. They carried it with them as they advanced around the Mediterranean. Sugar cane spread by this means to Syria, Cyprus, and Crete, eventually reaching Spain around 715 AD.     

Introduction to New World

Around 1420 the Portuguese introduced sugar cane into Madeira, from where it soon reached the Canary Islands, the Azores, and West Africa. Columbus transported sugar cane from the Canary Islands to what is now the Dominican Republic in 1493.

The crop was taken to Central and South America from the 1520s onwards, and later to the British and French West Indies. It is likely that only one form (cultivar) was involved in the movement of sugar westwards from India, and it was this that was carried to the New World. It became known as 'Creole' or 'Caña Criolla' in Latin America. It was the only sugar cane grown in the New World for over 250 years, until replaced by the noble cane 'Otaheite' ('Bourbon') towards the end of the 18th century.

Sugar production

Sugar cane was originally grown for the sole purpose of chewing in southeastern Asia and the Pacific. The rind was removed and the internal tissues sucked or chewed. Production of sugar by boiling the cane juice was first discovered in India, most likely during the first millennium BC.

Until the 1930s, the main types of sugar cane grown in India were the 'thin' canes. They were well suited to the north Indian climate, though yields were fairly low. In the southern or tropical zone of the country, where the climate was more suitable for sugar cane cultivation, thicker 'noble' canes were more important..

Cane sugar is now grown in more than 70 countries mainly in the tropical zone, but also in some sub tropical areas.


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