The History (And Mystery) of the Crazy Coconut

nick musica
Published Oct 14, 2020. Read time: 4 mins

You may recognize the coconut in everything from your favorite dairy substitute to the mountain of white, fluffy flakes in the bulk aisle to that extra tasty goodness in your boxed water.

But just because the superfruit is everywhere, doesn’t mean we know everything about it.

In fact, scientists are still scratching their heads about some of the finer points of the coconut’s history. But don’t go up a tree trying to figure out their past – we’re happy to share the nutty mystery with you.


It seems that the mystery of the coconut goes down to their very core – literally.

While scientists are typically pretty good at sleuthing out a fruit’s origins, no one is really quite sure where the coconut came from.

There are two predominant schools of thought in the great debate: The Indo-Pacific and South American theories.

Team Indo-Pacific points to the large number of Cocos nucifera fossils in New Zealand, with the island nation turning out not only a wide diversity of ancient Cocos, but arguably the world’s oldest coconut example: the earthly remains of a plant called "Cocos" zeylanica which sprouted anywhere from 5.3 to 23 million years ago. Whew! (This also marks the first time in history we can imagine a coconut product going bad!)

Meanwhile in the India half of the Indo-Pacific equation, fossils of Cocos-like fruits, stems and leaves have been found all over the volcanic Deccan Traps area in the central-west part of the country, many of which also trace back millions of years.

But the Western Hemisphere can also lay some claim in the coconut origin game, with ancient examples also showing up in Colombia and Panama. Making the mystery all the more intriguing, one fossil, found deep in the Colombian Cesar-Ranchería Basin, dated all the way back to 66 million years ago. But the remains were far too fractured for scientists to piece together whether it could truly be considered a coconut.

Regardless of where they got their start, however, it’s clear that coconuts knew how to get around.

But just how they circled the globe is another question scientists haven’t been quite able to answer.

By Float or By Boat

Did you know coconuts can float?

It’s one of the nut world’s neatest tricks – and one possible answer to the coconut origin riddle.

Many in the science world have posited that the fruit started spreading by simply going out to sea.

Indeed, the coconut has been found to be a magnificent floater, and one scientific paper has claimed that the nuts can travel 110 days or 3,000 miles by sea and still be able to germinate. The fruits have even been found ocean-bound as far north as Norway, though it wasn’t clear where those coconuts entered the water.

The phenomenon would help explain their proliferation on both sides of the Pacific, though others give the theory a stern side-eye.

If floating was their main form of travel, it’d go to follow that coconuts – and coconut palms – would ride and rise up along the paths of the tides, yet still more research has found that the trees were conspicuously missing from would-be hotspots like Eastern Australia, Eastern Africa and the Caribbean in ancient times.

Instead, these floater skeptics say, it’s most likely that the coconut saw the world courtesy of Polynesian canoes, where they made a popular pick for a seafaring snack thanks in large part to their famous durability.

These scholars point to old trade routes, rather than ocean tides, to carve the coconut’s historic path, tracing it from its South Pacific origins to South America, where the nut was picked up by conquistadors who brought it back to Spain and, eventually, to the Caribbean.

Portuguese explorers also encountered the coconut in India, these scholars say, and started the plant’s life throughout much of Africa.

Yet, coconuts have proved popular no matter where they’ve landed, with a number of cultures reserving a high status for the fruit in their life and lore.

Coconut King

Indeed, coconuts may be one of the world’s most celebrated fruits – thanks, no doubt, to their versatile and giving natures: their water is potable; their meat is delicious; their husks make perfect bowls or great canvasses for carving; and their leaves can be woven into a number of textiles.

It’s not surprising then, that so many rituals revolving the coconut have evolved over the years.

In India, fishermen are known to bring a coconut offering to the river or ocean, to ask for a bountiful catch, while the Hindu goddess of wealth and well-being, Lakshmi, is often depicted holding the fruit.

In the Philippines, a traditional coconut dish is made up to offer one’s passed away relatives.

And a number of Southeast Asian and Polynesian cultures put the coconut at the very center of our origin story, positing the plant’s sprouting as the start of the world.

Coconut traditions have even traveled to New Orleans, where the city’s Zulu Aid and Pleasure Club made a habit of throwing out decorated coconuts to Mardis Gras parade revelers—though a 1987 law made sure any coconut-related injuries were exempted from insurance liability.

Today, our form of worship looks more like marked up items at any natural grocery store, or the coconut craze that put the flavor in everything from candy to water to ice cream.

So the next time you’re getting ready to chow down on a coconut snack, remember: This fruit’s ancient ancestors traveled many miles -- possibly by floating -- just to get to you.


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