There are four members of the Gossypium genus referred to as cottons, with two found in the Old World and two in the New World. Cultivated and hybridized for an extended period, the Old World species G. arboreum and G. herbaceum have no definitively identified wild progenitor. The cultivars may have originated in Africa before to the Stone Age, derived from one of the wild Gossypium species still present in the region. The wool was likely utilized for purposes other than manufacturing cloth, such as ceremonial decoration or wound dressing.

Early cultivars were brought to Asia at a certain point, and the first skilled weaving was observed around 1000 BC in the Indus Valley. They gradually expanded to the west, and in the Book of Esther, King Solomon’s palace walls are shown as adorned with cotton fabric. Herodotus, a reputable classical commentator from the fifth century, mentioned that Indians had a tree that grows a type of wool comparable to sheep’s but of superior quality. In his account, there are hints of a vegetable-lamb story, but Herodotus did not view cotton as anything other than a regular plant with unique features.

Five hundred years later, Pliny the Elder discovered that the plant had moved westward and identified the pods as a type of fruit holding seeds. He described a shrub found in the upper part of Egypt near Arabia, known as gossipion. The fruit of this plant looks like a bearded nut and contains soft fibers that can be spun like wool. These fibers are unmatched in terms of whiteness and delicacy compared to any other substance. Cotton followed a well-known path westward, with Roman imports of fabric from India to the Moors introducing plants and cultivation methods in Spain and Sicily around the early tenth century.

Four members of the Gossypium genus referred to as cottons
Subsequently, the plot takes an unconventional turn. Spanish colonizers in the Americas brought cotton, but discovered that the indigenous people were already creating advanced clothing from it. Upon Hernando Cortés’ arrival in Mexico in 1519, the Yucatan Indians presented him with a gold-encrusted ceremonial cotton robe, shortly before his army began to massacre them. Recent archeological findings indicate that two distinct New World species were utilized in that region for millennia.

Seeds of G. barbadense were found in excavations in Chile and Peru, together with remnants of yarns and fishing nets produced from its silky seed plumes, dating back to 4000–3000 BC. G. hirsutum seeds recovered in Mexico date back to 3500 BC. Cotton appears to have been cultivated in Central and South America for at least 2,000 years before it was planted in Asia. As genetic science progressed in the 1960s, a surprising finding was made. American cultivated cottons are the result of a historical hybridization between Old World cultivars and New World wild species. How did this occur prior to European invaders transporting their species over the Atlantic?

Here is where factual information transitions into supposition, or what could be referred to as scientific fabulation. A group of botanists theorized that the seeds of Asiatic cottons were transported over the Pacific millions of years ago, maybe by birds or ocean currents. They interbred with the New World species and eventually died out, allowing their robust mixed progeny to carry on the lineage.

The ‘diffusionists’ believe that cultivated Old World cottons were introduced to the western shores of the Americas by people from South East Asia who colonized the region. The ‘inventionists’ argue that it is unlikely that foreign import caused the changes in native American cotton species, instead suggesting that a spontaneous chromosomal mutation occurred. This botanical dispute mirrors the continuous and strongly divided discussion on the ancestry of Native Americans.

When did they arrive and by what means? Travel overland from the northern tundra or by sea from the southern Pacific? Edgar Anderson, an American botanist and authority on the history of economic plants, noted that European ethnographers tend to support the transoceanic diffusion theory, while American ethnographers are more inclined to attribute the development of indigenous high culture to the native American intellect. Years ago, prominent American writers were mostly against diffusionism. A clever English anthropologist called this notion “the Monroe Doctrine of American Anthropology.”