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Polynesian Voyagers. The Maori as a Deep-sea Navigator, Explorer, and Colonizer

Origin of Polynesian Food Plants

Origin of Polynesian Food Plants.

In the face of all the evidence as to the former movements of Polynesian voyagers, one of our most famous authorities on the Maori (Colenso) has written: “If the origin of the people on some few of the islands, in the course of ages, might have arisen from a drift canoe, which seems next to impossible, exotic edible roots were not at all likely to have been by such means imported.”

In his paper on “The Food Plants of the Polynesians” Mr. Cheeseman says: “So far as botanical inquiry has been made into the origin of the common food plants of Polynesia, it certainly seems to point to the belief that most of them are introductions from abroad, coming in the majority of cases from the direction of the Malay Archipelago or eastern tropical Asia…. The actual introduction of the plants must have taken place at some remote period, in order to give them time not only for their spread through most parts of the Pacific, but also to allow of the gradual selection of so many different local varieties, in itself a proof of long-continued cultivation.”

Quoting from Candolle's Origin of Cultivated Plants, Rutland says of breadfruit. “Its original habitat was the Malay Archipelago, where it was brought into cultivation at so remote a period that the cultivated varieties ceased to bear seed, and are propagated by suckers. As eastward of the Fijis only the cultivated or seedless varieties are found, it was evidently introduced into and spread through Polynesia by man.”

In his paper on the history of the Pacific Rutland also shows that “Nine species of plants foreign to the region were found in cultivation amongst the Maori of eastern Polynesia and New Zealand by early European voyages, besides the coconut, the true habitat of which has not been satisfactorily determined. Of these nine species, all but one, the kumara, belong to the Asiatic flora, and must have found their way into Polynesia from page 33 the west. The eight Asiatic species … belong, probably, to the Malay Islands.”

A lately published work on the History of the Coconut-palm in America goes to show that Candolle was in error in tracing the origin of the coconut to Asia, and that it is a native of north-west South America. The author has no faith in the spread of this palm by means of sea-drifted nuts, and holds that it was carried westward by man at some remore period. If so, it does not follow that it was so carried by any American people, or that there was ever a migration from America to the isles of Polynesia. There is said to be some vague mention of a tradition that the “long-eared” folk who formerly lived on Easter Island came from a hot country far to the east. If any American people ever reached that isle, then the knowledge of building deep-sea-going vessels, and of ocean navigation, has since been lost by the continental folk. It is rather too much to believe that the log rafts of Peru ever crossed two thousand miles of open ocean. There is, however, no tradition or other evidence that the Polynesians found these “long-eared” gentry, or any other folk, in possession of any other isle of eastern or central Polynesia when they broke into the Pacific. The curious works in stone left by the “Long Ears” on Easter Island are apparently lone and unique.

I have no faith in the repeated assertion that the ancestors of the Maori found the numberless isles of Polynesia east of the Melanesian outpost of Fiji uninhabited a few brief centuries before or after the Christian era. The world is too old for that.

Another view may be taken—namely, that Polynesian voyagers reached America and carried the coconut westward If so, then the Polynesian irruption into the Pacific must again be pushed back into the night of time, it Candolle is correct when he tells us that its presence in Asia three or four thousand Apollonius saw the palm in Hindustan at the beginning of the Christian era. He also stated that Oviedo, writing in 1526, speaks of the coconut as being abundant on the Pacific coast of America. But we need not insist that the coconut and kumara were necessarily carried to or from America by the Polynesian Maori. We know that many Asiatic vessels have crossed the Pacific when they did not want to, and doubtless some would manage to return. It is not impossible that early navigators made set voyages to the same quarter for trading purposes.

As to the carrying and introduction of food plants, we know that this was a common Polynesian custom—that coconuts, young breadfruit-trees, and other such useful products were so carried in their vessels during their voyages, as also pigs, dogs, and fowls. In this manner the taro (Colocasia antiquorum), the sweet potato, the yam, gourd, and likewise the aute, or cloth-plant (Broussonetia papyrifera), were introduced into New Zealand from Polynesia. These must have been carried overseas about sixteen hundred miles in order to reach these shores. The dog and rat were also brought that distance, but apparently the oldtime voyagers did not introduce the pig and domestic fowl here.

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There is a curious absence of mention of the pig in Maori traditions.

In the narrative of the voyage of the “Pandora” (1790–91) we are told so many drift voyages occurred that the Polynesians “now seldom undertake any hazardous enterprise by water without a woman and a sow with pig being in the canoe with them, by which means, if they are cast on any of those uninhabited islands, they fix their abode.”

In making the voyage from Polynesia to New Zealand the final starting-point was Rarotonga, favourable circumstances, could have been made in a fortnight, in some cases probably less. What was to prevent these seafarers bringing seed kumara, taro, and hue (gourd) safely on so short a voyage? In some cases these voyagers called at Sunday Island, six hundred miles from Auckland—an isle known to both Maori and Rarotongan as “Rangitahua.”