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Ethnology of Tongareva



The kitchens are small buildings roofed with coconut leaves and set slightly back from the dwelling houses. The kitchen shelters the site of the oven (umu).

Fire was formerly produced in the general Polynesian method with the fire plough. A pointed piece of hardwood was rubbed back and forth to form a groove on the upper cut surface of another piece of dry wood laid flat on the ground. The near end of the lower piece was held in position by the foot of the operator while an assistant steadied it with a foot placed on the other end. The dust produced by rapid rubbing collected at the page 101 far end of the groove and ignited through friction. The lower fire stick was turned over, and the smouldering particles were emptied onto a piece of the dry coconut husk (puru) kept in the houses for lighting fires. The piece of puru was waved to and fro until it blazed.

Firewood was scarce, and all suitable parts of the coconut palm were utilized: the dry flower sheath (taume), the dry flower stems (roro), and the dry discarded shells of husked nuts (ipu). Firewood (kautahu) was also obtained from various trees, the dry branches of which were broken up by the hands and by beating the branches against other objects. In the legend of Sokoau, Sokoau says to her brothers, “I au e rongo ake nei i te saruru o te kautahu e sangi mai nei. Noku paa?” (I hear the sound of the crashing of firewood. Perhaps it is for me?)

In the Polynesian oven heat for cooking is produced by heating a single layer of stones arranged over the top of the burning wood. In the volcanic islands stone is plentiful, but in atolls like Tongareva the absence of good stone presents difficulties. Recourse was had to pieces of coral and the empty shells of the Tridacna. The coral was broken up into suitably sized pieces which, however, could be used once only, as after being heated they crumbled up into small white pieces (tia). A new supply of coral had to be obtained each time the oven was used. Accumulations of small, soft pieces of tia are to be seen about the old cooking houses, and mounds of tia mark the sites of ovens formerly used for cooking turtle near the sacred marae inclosures. (See page 174.)

The Tridacna shells used are those of medium size which are obtained in large quantities from the lagoon. They are thick, but crumble readily after use. However, each fresh supply of food also furnishes a fresh supply of shells. The pile of discarded shells at the back of the cooking house serves a useful purpose as reserve heating material, just as the pile of discarded coconut shells forms reserve fuel.

When the coral pieces or shells are heated they are levelled off to form an even bed for the food. To prevent the food from being burned it is necessary to place a layer of green material between the heated medium and the food. Here again Tongarevan methods are influenced by their environment. In the high volcanic islands strips from banana stems or large leaves are used, but in Tongareva, where such material is absent, the green husk of coconuts forms a ready substitute. Shredded strips of green husk are laid in a layer over the stones, and the food is placed upon the husk.