The coconut fiber most recently highlighted on S07 E15 (Surely Templar) of Curse of Oak Island has long been discussed as a surprising find that requires some rethinking of local history. Why would coconut fiber end up in an archaeological context on an island in Nova Scotia, far from any area where it naturally occurs?
Could it be that it is related to the burying of a treasure on the island, and to the building of the box drains that feed the flood tunnels that protect the money pit? In order to determine how interesting or significant the find of coconut fiber on Oak Island might be, we first have to see whether it is surprising in the first place.
So just how rare is coconut in archaeological sites of comparable age in northeastern North America? It turns out that isn’t very surprising at all.
Coconut in the local archaeological record
From a bit of very quick looking around in the archaeological literature, it is clear that coconuts were circulating quite widely in all of Northeastern North America by the middle of the 19th century, and that they were available and used inland as early as the 17th century.
Coconut shell shows up in an early 19th century archaeological site in Nova Scotia itself, at Salter’s Gate near the Alexander Keith brewery (MacIntyre and Davis 2006:24). By the mid-19th century, coconut was widely available in North America as far away as Toronto, and apparently not considered a luxury good. “Coconuts were well-known in Toronto from the mid-nineteenth century onward, and merchants advertised in the newspapers for both whole coconuts and processed forms as specialty items” (Driver 2018:59).
Archaeologists have reported coconut fiber dating from the 17th and 18th century, and coconut husk dating from the 18th century in a site in Albany, New York (Huey 2018:44). Albany is not exactly ocean front property. It is a good 150 km up the Hudson river from the ocean. It also isn’t any more tropical than Oak Island.
Fairly conclusive demonstration that coconuts were not unusual or luxurious on the eastern seaboard comes from the fact that in the 19th century, a flour mill at Old Place Neck on Staten Island in New York was “modified to process coconut shells and iron ore” for use in paint pigment (Palinc, n.d.:11).
In an archaeological report on a complex in Upper West Side Manhattan that mostly covers the period from the 1870s to early 20th century, and co-authored by Eva Hulse, with whom I worked for several years, a whole section is dedicated to the analysis of the coconut finds. Even though, according to the report, the coconuts “would have needed to be transported very long distances to be consumed”, “the coconut was not a stranger to the citizens of Manhattan” (Turck et al 2016:94).
The report goes on to note that there were 174 shipments of coconut into New York Harbour in 1872 alone, and about 8 million coconuts in total. “The sheer number cited above suggests that coconuts were not exactly rare commodities” (:94).
Why coconut on Oak Island?
The presence of coconut on Oak Island is therefore not surprising. That still leaves us, though, with the very interesting question of what it was used for in that place and at that time, especially the fiber. Even if we limit ourselves to what is shown on Curse of Oak Island, we know that there is plenty of farming and light industry on the island starting in the mid-18th century, not to mention the massive searcher activity that picks up in the mid-19th century, that culminates in the mid-20th.
Coconut fiber has a number of commercial applications, that range from ship-building and repair, which likely happened on the island, to insulation, and rope production. Rope production from coconut fiber was important in the 19th century, and some of it was even made in the UK.
Is it possible, then, that the coconut fiber found on Oak Island is from rope used in farming, light industry, and searcher activity from the 18th to the 20th century? Why yes, it certainly is possible.
Is it possible that Templar Knights who buried a fantastic treasure on Oak Island in the 14th Century left it there? That is also possible. But I will venture to say that it isn’t quite as probable as the first possibility. I will let you decide whether the balance of probabilities is closer to 51/49 or to 99.9/0.1. Given the information available at the moment, I am closer to the 99.9/0.1 end of the spectrum.
Driver E 2018. Coconuts in the latrines! In Martelle H, M McClelland, T Taylor, J Lorinc (eds).
Huey PR 2018. Annotated Bibliography of New Netherland Archaeology, New Netherland Institute
MacIntyre AD, SA Davis 2006. Salter’s Gate: Archaeological resource impact assessment final report,
Public Archaeology Laboratory (Palinc) n.d. New discoveries at Old Place: The story of the Old Place Neck site, Staten Island, New York.
Turck JA, E Hulse, K Wiley, R Yamin, J Mazzariello, A Berry, ZS Garrett 2016. Phase I and II geoarchaeological investigation of the Riverside Project Area, Volume I: Background, research design, results, and conclusions, Geoarchaeology Research Associates.