The origin and diffusion of betel chewing: a synthesis of evidence from South Asia, Southeast Asia and beyond

Thomas J. Zumbroich

Abstract


The preparation of a betel quid generally involves the combination of slaked lime with two plant products: the seed of Areca catechu L. ('areca nut') and the leaf of Piper betle L. ('betel leaf'). This paper aims to provide a comprehensive perspective on how the habit of betel chewing originated and was diffused across Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands before the common era. The limited biogeographical data available on the two plant species are consistent with a restricted natural distribution which was followed by a wide dispersal by human agency. A critical review of past archaeobotanical reports from South India to Papua New Guinea challenges some of the earliest dates claimed for betel chewing. By synthesizing evidence from the disciplines of archaeology, historical linguistics and textual analysis on the plants and the material culture of betel chewing, a picture emerges that is far more complex than had previously been suggested. Currently no single model of dispersal, such as the migration of Austronesian speakers, fully explains the transmission of A. catechu L. and P. betle L. across Asia. However, a number of biological and cultural factors can be identified that have facilitated the dynamic expansion of betel chewing across a wide geographic area up to the present.

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