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Samoan Material Culture



General features. Samoan horticulture is not very intensive. The people grew enough to supply their own needs with something extra to comply with the levy so often made for the entertainment of travellers and guests and special festivals. The tuberous food plants cultivated were the yam, page 545talo, sweet potato, and arrowroot. The sugar cane, kava, and ti were also cultivated; sugar cane principally for its leaves to furnish the lau thatch for houses, the ti to furnish everyday clothing, and kava not only for personal use as a beverage but to supply the tungase presentations to visiting chiefs. The paper mulberry for clothing and the lau'ie, laufala, and laupaongo (kinds of pandanus) for the various mats were also planted. The banana, breadfruit, and coconut also received some attention. The cultivations were made in clearings in the forest inland of the villages and usually on the uplands above sea level. In Olosenga, the cultivations are a considerable distance from the coastal village and long carries have to be made along the narrow zigzag track which connects with the high tablelands. On the smaller areas around the back of the houses, kava, sometimes sugar cane and bananas are planted to supplement supplies. Some pandanus is also grown near the houses. Swamp lands are usually near the villages in the hollow between the rising hills at the back of the village and the rising shelf of the beach in front. Bush clearings are usually small and confined to separate families. In the swampy ground, however, when of some extent, various families share the area which is divided off into plots by drains and paths.

The bush clearings are now readily formed by using the heavy introduced bush knife which performs all sorts of functions from whittling small wedges and cutting up pigs to felling fairly large saplings. It is now the inseparable companion of the man who walks into the forest. Formerly, the bush clearings had to be made with implements of stone. The small scrub and light saplings were ringbarked. The whole was then fired and it mattered not that a large tree remained standing here and there in the clearing.


The implements used in preparing the ground were the digging and the planting sticks.

The digging stick (oso) was of hard heavy wood, between 5 and 6 feet long and about 2 inches in diameter at the thick end which was sharpened. The bark was peeled off and it was devoid of any foot step or ornamentation. It was jabbed into the ground with both hands and the soil loosened by levering up the point. With such a crude implement, only the actual parts where the seed was to be planted were dealt with.

The planting stick termed oso to (to, to plant) was thicker, with a blunt, rounded point. This was thrust down into the loosened ground and levered from side to side to enlarge the hole. Lack of information as to weeding implements implies that special implements had not been devised.

The cultivation was visited from time to time and the spreading creepers or young growth cleared away. Under normal conditions, the people divided their attention between tending their cultivations and fishing in the sea and page 546lagoon. Extra activity in war or political agitations always resulted in neglect of the bush cultivations and a subsequent falling off in the vegetable food supplies.

Cultivable Food Plants

The yam (ufi, Dioscorea sp.) formed the first crop in newly prepared cultivations. The plants were grown from seed tubers which were planted close to the trunks of the trees left standing or besides large branches to give the vines support as they spread. The yams are easily damaged by bruising in transport or planting and do not recover from rough handling as the talo does. The yam crop was thus uncertain and often failed. Owing to this greater uncertainty and the greater care needed, it is not now grown so extensively as in former times when people were more careful in utilising all their available material. The easily procurable flour and bread has provided a substitute that has led to less activity in certain directions. The spreading vines of the yam are termed tolo.

One of the numerous Sina married the king of Fiji. Her brother Pili went to visit her but hid in the bush being evidently doubtful of his brother-in-law. He asked the birds and trees how he could get a meeting with his sister. The palai yam offered his services and sent one of his tolo vines to Sina's door. As Sina came out, her foot caught in the vine. At that time there was a shortage of food in Fiji so Sina followed along the vine to find the tuber. There she found her brother. The palai yam is very long. Sina broke off a piece and returned home. Every day she returned to meet her brother and broke off another piece of yam. (A yam broken off is termed matanau.) As she had followed up (tuli) the broken-off tuber, the tuber was called tuli matanau Hence repeated attempts at meetings or consultations to effect unity is referred to as, "Tuli matanau, le ufi o Sina" (Tuli matanau, the yam of Sina).

Yams are to be seen growing wild in old cultivations. In times of scardly, they are sought after. The season for planting is June, July, and August.

The talo (Colocasia antiquorum) was the staple crop of Samoa. Various kinds are distinguished by names. The following five were enumerated at Tanga, Savaii, but there are many more names known in other parts.

  • Talo manu'a, from Manua.
  • Talo niue, from Niue Island.
  • Talo mangasiva, the best kind used for chiefs.
  • Talo tanga, a local variety.
  • Talo pula'au, also a local variety.
  • The talo tanga and talo pula'au were the two original talo of the district.

The semi-wild talo, talo pula'au was given a mythical origin from the chewed pigeon food (mama lupe) described under pigeon netting. It is edible but not fit to place before guests. Hence has arisen an apologetic expression for the poorness of the food placed before visiting chiefs:

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Talofa, e leai se lelei na o pula'au se mea nei. E le aonga. Regrets, there is nothing worthy as this is pula'au. It has no value.

When dug up, the tops of the talo were cut off with the stalks in one piece. The outer wider leaves were removed. This formed the seed (tiapula). Following the custom of collecting mats and other articles, people short of planting material visited other villages ceremonially and were supplied.

The tiapula were planted in holes (lua'i) made with the planting stick which was then called oso to tiapula. The hole was always made much larger than the plant. Mr. Judd (17, p. 13) states that the hole was made deep and wide enough to receive two "seeds" which, being planted at the bottom of the hole, were protected from the sun. The hole also collected water from the neighboring plants. In some parts, such as Ngataivai, Savaii, the tiapula are planted singly against the side of the hole which is kept patent. The talo cultivations are along the banks of a stream which often overflows and fills the holes with silt. Children clear the holes by scooping out the silt with their hands. The idea of the large hole is to allow the tuber to expand laterally. If the holes are not cleaned out, the talo grows long and thin.

There are two forms of planting; the dry planting in the bush cultivations, and wet planting (loiloi) in swampy lands. The swampy lands are limited in distribution and it may be said that dry planting is the more common form. Fairly extensive wet cultivations were seen at Tau, Olosenga, and Aunuu Island. In all these cultivations the talo swamp was formed between the hills and the raised beach. The water accumulation was natural and not due to artificial irrigation. The area was divided off into plots (fuinu'u) by cut drains and pathways. The drains (alavai) contained stagnant water and had been cut to lower the water surface and not for irrigation which was impossible owing to the one level of the cultivation. The paths had large stones placed in the damper parts as footways.

Mulching was used by not only spreading the cut weeds round the growing talo, but by using coconut leaves and even old mats spread over the ground between the talo. This, by keeping the sun off the ground, not only kept the ground from getting dry but also restricted the growth of weeds.

Light fences of sticks were run along the sides of the drain and helped to keep the coconut leaves at the edges from slipping down into the drain. Scarecrows were also used.

In some rocky parts, the holes had to be made in between the stones and were necessarily shallow. This condition exists at Asau, Savaii, and finds expression in the saying, "Ua fa'alua'i talo Asau" (Like making the holes for the talo of Asau).

The planting season for the talo extends the whole year round. It is usual, when a new cultivation is not contemplated, to cut off the tops as the talo are dug up and plant them in the same place.

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Wet planting is confined to natural swamps and seepages and the alavai are merely drains. The advanced system of irrigating terraces by leading the water down through irrigation ditches from the stream at a higher level is not part of the Samoan agricultural system. No built-up terraces were seen and it was stated that they were not known.

In the new cultivations, the talo followed the first or second crop of yams.

The ta'amu species of talo is the large form with most of the bulbous part growing above ground, known as kape or 'ape in other parts of Polynesia. It is grown and used as a food which is not restricted to times of drought. The following names were collected: laufala, lauo'o, usolenga, famai, funga lata, fanga. The last two are not eaten. Two kinds (tonga and niukini) were introduced from Tonga and New Guinea.

The sweet potato ('umala, Ipomoea batatas) was seen growing at Olosenga in sandy soil just outside the houses in small mounds. They were prolific and of good flavor but only grown because the talo crop had failed the previous year.

Arrowroot (masoa, Tacca pinnatifida) is cultivated from the stalks of the plant cut off in lengths after the mature root is dug up for use. In Samoa, according to Pratt (23, p. 238) the widespread Polynesian name of pia was abandoned because it had another meaning which he characterizes as obscene. The term masoa was substituted to satisfy the sentiments of prudery newly acquired from foreign teachers.

Sugar cane (tolo) was planted principally to provide leaves for thatch but is also grown for eating purposes near the houses in heaped up mounds called tapu'e. Mr. Judd (17, 2, p. 31) collected the following names with their characteristics:

  • Ula—wide leaves, red skin.
  • Fatu—narrow leaves, black skin (thatch only).
  • Uli—broad leaves, black skin.
  • Limu—broad leaves, green skin.
  • Vaivai ula—striped light green on red body.

The kava ('ava, Piper methysticum) was planted by preference in rocky places around the backs of houses or back in the cultivations. It was planted from the branches ('ata) and when the roots were dug up, a branch was always planted to provide for the future. Hence the saying, recommending wise provision at the time of attending to present needs:

E sua le 'ava 'ae to le 'ata (Dig up the kava root but plant the branch).

The ti (Cordyline terminalis) was easily grown from small side shoots. They were planted in the neighborhood of the houses and near at hand as the leaves were in constant demand for clothing. It may be owing to its extensive use in furnishing the titi kilts that it was not used so much to wrap page 549food. People soon get into the habit of associating material with particular needs. Thus the ti was for clothing and the banana leaf for food wrappings. The underground stem provided a saccharine chewing material.

Textile Plants

The paper mulberry (u'a, Broussonetia papyrifera) was extensively cultivated from cuttings by the women folk. On more than one occasion I saw a woman with a bundle of short cuttings, which she was going to plant in the bush cultivation on the following morning. Fresh crops were planted from time to time to keep up the supply. Some may be seen growing near the houses but the large stock is back in the bush usually dotted here and there amongst the other plants of the garden.

Species of pandanus (laufala, laupaongo, lau'ie) were planted for mat material, though the wild growing pandanus may be used on occasion. The undergrowth is cut. The old leaves are usually plucked off, and the growing heads may be bound round the base with a strip of leaf.

Fruit Plants

The banana (fa'i) is planted as food not only for the ripe fruit but also for cooking. Not much care is taken in selecting good plants or taking care of the cultivation. Holes are made and the plant stuck in to take its chance.

The Samoans divide bananas into the soa'a (plantains) and fa'i. There are three kinds of soa'a, distinguished by the fruit: soa'a, smallest and longest; sulasula, intermediate in size; fa'i puta, large and short.

Of the other bananas, a large number of varieties are recognized as the following list from Leone shows:

Native Recognized As Foreign
Fa'i mamae ulu. Fa'i papalangi (Cavendish)
Fa'i mamae se Fa'i fuamanalunga
Fa'i samoa Fa'i fuamalolo
Fa'i latetele Fa'i faaleongolua
Fa'i usi Fa'i Tonga
Fa'i pu'a Fa'i Niue
Fa'i ilimanifi Fa'i misi luki
Fa'i usi se
Fa'I malama'a
Fa'i tapuaota
Fa'i pipi'o
Fa'i vavaileta
Fa'i pulu
Fa'i pata
Fa'i toemanu (wild, not eaten)
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The breadfruit ('ulu, Artocarpus incisa) grows in the villages and affords shade as well as fruit. It is also grown back in the cultivations. A large number of varieties are named as in the following list by Mr. Judd (17, 2, p. 31):

Puou, round fruit, best house timber. Ea.
Ma'afala, long fruit. Fau.
Sangosango, yellowish flesh. Aveloloa, best for tafolo.
Ma'a, long fruit, yellowish flesh. Tala.
Mase. Poututono
Manu'a. Pousina.

The maopo has no divisions in the leaves, which are used as plate for foods such as fa'ausi and tafolo.

There are four seasons (fuata). The fuata starts with the flowering of the fruit and it is two months before the fruit is properly mature for eating. The approximate months of each season are: 1. Fuata mafu i ato seu (about March); 2. Fuata ta'oto (May). After the westerly winds, the trees which have been blown down, still bear in the prone position as long as a root connection with the ground is maintained. Hence the name of ta'oto (lying down) is used. 3. Fuata tu fa'amanu (August). Again after the seven winds, the leaves are blown off the trees and the fruit shows up in the stalks like birds (tu fa'amanu). 4. Fuata a le tau (October).

The coconut (niu, Cocos nucifera) seems to be planted anywhere regard less of order, distances apart, or elevation from the sea. Many seem to have been taken up on the hillsides to show that someone has had a cultivation in a seemingly inaccessible spot. Many trees have grown up close together from the fallen fruit being allowed to take care of themselves. Carelessness as to progressive planting exists and the people take up the attitude in many instances that the coconuts will take care of themselves. An increasing reluctance to use the climbing bandage has resulted in steps being cut in the trunks to afford toe holds. The trees deteriorate and when a storm lakes place, the trees snap off at one of the cut steps. Various names are applied to different kinds of coconuts but a list was not collected.

The trees are all privately owned, but no objection is raised to travellers taking drinking nuts so long as they do not abuse the privilege. Special trees set apart for copra or other purposes are marked with a sign termed a tapui to indicate that they are prohibited. Such prohibitions are also made on the trees devoted to assisting the income of the church. When the mature nuts are collected for commercial copra, they are stacked up around stakes to which they are fastened. (See Plate L, B.)

Other plants, such as the maile lau li'i for wreaths and the au'u'u for fish poison, may be planted for use.

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Scarecrows (aveau) were seen in the talo cultivation at Aunuu. They consisted of two plaited maile (rough food platters) of coconut leaves placed back to back and inserted vertically over the end of sticks stuck upright in various parts. As the wind blew they rotated a little, giving sufficient movement to startle the manuali'i (Porphyrio samoensis) which frequent the talo patches and destroy newly planted tiapula.

Prohibitions and Myths

An owner may protect his coconut and breadfruit trees by putting up notices on the trunks. A notice consists of a piece of coconut leaf placed longitudinally against the trunk with the butt upwards and three or four leaflets from either side brought around the tree and tied in a knot. Sometimes the notices are more elaborate and are made with a stake beside the path as a warning to travellers. A mature coconut may be suspended to the trunk of a coconut tree by a strip of the husk torn down from one end. In olden days, some of the tapui were rendered virulent by some ritual which caused sickness or death to those interfering with them.

The origin of the coconut tapui is attributed to Nafanua who delivered western Savaii from its oppressors and became a war goddess of the district. Turner (41, p. 39) says that the oppressed people were forced to climb the coconut trees feet upwards and pluck the nuts with their toes. Nafanua, who came from Pulotu, took the lead in the battle for freedom. She covered her breasts with coconut leaflets to conceal her sex and her troops wore coconut leaflets round the waist as a distinguishing badge. After the victory, Nafanua tied coconut leaflets round some of the trees to mark them as hers and from that time coconut leaflets have been used as a prohibitory sign.

Samoan tradition abounds with myths concerning the origin of various plants. The talo, coconut, and kava according to one, were obtained by Losi from the Tangaloans in the heavens after a struggle in which they were given to him to rid heaven of an unwelcome visitor. The paper mulberry and the pandanus were brought to Samoa by Fulualela, a Fijian chief, as part of his daughter's dowry. Various myths occur in different parts, all bearing witness to the spread of useful plants by human agency.


The comparatively large area of cultivable land in proportion to the population may have been responsible for the absence of intensive cultivation that is evidenced by the irrigation methods of producing talo which exist in some parts of Polynesia. If the ancestors of the Samoans were acquainted with irrigation terraces, some practical reason such as lack of necessity must have led to their being abandoned.

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Though the horticultural implements were confined to two forms of pointed sticks, the presence of the planting stick (oso to) is all important and marks the gap that exists between food gathering and food producing peoples. Its importance was fully appreciated in ancient times for the early ancestor Pili, in dividing land and spheres of influence among his sons, gave the western part of Upolu and the spear to Ana, the middle portion and the fly flap to Sanga, while to the eldest son Tua he gave the eastern part of Upolu and the planting stick. A fourth son Tolufale lived on Manono and was given supervision over all. The material gifts represented war, oratory, and horticulture. To Pili, the planting stick symbolized labor in the production of food. Turner (41, p. 234) quotes him in his last exhortation to his sons as saying, "When you wish to fight, fight; when you wish to work, work; when you wish to talk, talk."