Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Vikings of the Sunrise

21. The Trail of Plants and Animals

page 312

21. The Trail of Plants and Animals

Plant my head and from it will grow a
tree whose fruit will remind you of me.

Tuna, the eel lover of Sina, was killed by jealous suitors, but at his last meeting he had told Sina of his impending fate. He commanded her to cut off his head after he was slain and to plant it. From his head would grow a tree with a fruit that would furnish her with both meat and drink. On the fruit itself she would see the two eyes that had adored her and the mouth that had spoken tender words of love. So it came to pass that Sina planted the head of Tuna and from it grew the coconut palm.

The myth is found throughout Polynesia, and outside of Samoa the dialectical form of Hina replaces Sina. Even now, the Polynesian who husks a drinking nut for a stranger, delights to point out the eyes and mouth of Tuna represented by three depressions on the top of the shell. The mouth depression is the only one that pierces the full thickness of the shell, and it is closed with soft material. It is through the mouth of Tuna that the shoot passes to the outside of the nut to grow into a tree to provide food and drink for the descendants of Sina.

page 313

Myths add a halo of romance to the origin of food plants which played such an important part in the economic life of the Polynesians. The ethnologist, however, cannot rely on myths as indicating a local origin for plants. He must consult the botanists who have studied the origins and spread of food plants into Polynesia.

The plants that were present in Polynesia when man arrived offered little in the way of food. On volcanic islands there were certain berries, roots, the pith of the tree fern, the curling young shoots of ferns, the growing ends and stems of creeping plants, and seaweed. All edible plants have been used on various islands during famines in recent times, and were certainly eaten by the earliest settlers before other plants were introduced. On atolls, the only edible plants were purslane (Portulaca sp.) roots of the Boerhaavia, and seaweed, and perhaps the pandanus on the islands to which pandanus seeds may have preceded man. Pandanus, which grows luxuriantly on atolls as well as on volcanic islands, has a large fruit divided into keys like a pineapple. The fleshy basal part of the keys forms a nourishing food, and the outer, hard part contains seeds in a watertight compartment. When dry the keys are light and could be conveyed long distances by ocean currents to become established on islands without the aid of man. Professor St. John, botanist at Bishop Museum, informed me that there are scores of species or varieties of pandanus on the various tropical islands of the Pacific. Most of them occur on only one or a few islands, but a very few of them are widely distributed. Hence the genus must have spread so long ago that many local species have had time to develop. The pandanus doubtless invaded the Pacific long before the Polynesians, though these people certainly carried the cultivated, long-leaved page 314 varieties with them and established them on many island groups. The pandanus was of the greatest economic value to the Polynesians not only for the fruit as food but for the leaves to make baskets, mats, and sails, and to thatch houses.

The important fruit-bearing trees present in Polynesia on first European contact were the coconut, breadfruit, banana, and plantain. The main tuberous plants were the taro, yam, arrowroot, turmeric, and sweet potato. Of other plants useful to man, I shall mention only the paper mulberry used for the making of bark cloth and the small gourd (Laginaria vulgaris) used for containers. The botanists tell us that all these plants, with the exception of the sweet potato, originated in the Indo-Malayan region. They were all established in Polynesia before Columbus discovered America, and hence could not have been introduced by later Spanish vessels. The journey of the plants from Indonesia to Polynesia is clothed with as much romance as that of the Polynesian voyagers.

There is divided opinion among botanists as to the original home of the coconut palm. Some believe that it was America; others maintain that it was Asia, and the latter seem to have the best of the argument. Though the dry, mature coconut will float until waterlogged and must have been carried to islands by currents and storms, there is a doubt as to how long the living embryo within the nut can survive. There is a possibility that coconuts drifted to near-by islands and rooted, but there is little or no evidence to indicate that coconuts have floated to and established themselves on remote islands. The spread of the coconut throughout Polynesia must be attributed to man. Indeed, all the food plants and the paper mulberry were undoubtedly introduced by man.

However, the transference of plants from one island to another was more difficult than that of the human beings page 315 in whose voyaging canoes the plants were carried. Man was captain of his soul and carried food and water to sustain his creature wants. The plants were helpless passengers with a varying resistance to sun, wind, and salt water. On arrival at an island, whether coral or volcanic, man could adjust himself to his environment, but the plants that survived the voyage could grow only in soil that suited their particular needs.

The only introduced plants that will grow on atoll islands are the coconut and a coarse variety of taro which was grown in trenches dug down to the subsoil brackish water. Fine varieties of taro require volcanic soil. Another atoll plant used occasionally for food was the noni (Morinda citrifolia), and it may have been aided by man in its diffusion. All other cultivable food plants require volcanic soil, and hence could not possibly travel into Polynesia along an atoll-studded route. The Micronesian route, therefore, would not be taken by the plants, for the volcanic islands end at Kusaie, or at most at Banaba and Nauru Islands. The distance from Kusaie in the Carolines to Ra‘iatea in the Society Islands is over 3000 miles and to Samoa about 2500 miles. The intervening atolls were peopled gradually over a long period of time during which only the coconut, coarse taro, pandanus, and noni could have been relayed from atoll to atoll to central Polynesia.

The other food plants had to advance eastward into the Pacific by a route on which volcanic islands formed growing stations that were within voyaging distance of each other. Such a passage is afforded by the southern route through Melanesia. I am not an ethnobotanist, but I feel that, though the Polynesians travelled into central Polynesia by the Micronesian route, such important food plants as the breadfruit, banana, yam, and finer taro were carried from Indonesia to page 316 New Guinea and relayed by Melanesians to their eastern outpost at Fiji.

The earliest scouting parties of the Polynesians who came direct from Micronesia to Ra‘iatea in the centre, Hawai‘i in the north, and Samoa on the base of the triangle, could have carried only the coconut, pandanus, noni, and the coarse taro. On Oahu in Hawai‘i, there is a deep, wide trench at Kualoa so ancient that there is no Hawaiian explanation as to its purpose. Things that cannot be explained by the later culture usually belong to an earlier culture that has ceased to function so far back in time that they remain a mystery. May it not be that the deep excavation down to subsoil water is a witness of the coarse taro cultivation brought by the earliest settlers direct from atolls and abandoned when the better varieties of taro reached Hawai‘i at a later date?

The richer food plants which reached Fiji had to be relayed to central Polynesia through volcanic islands. The first relaying station in western Polynesia was provided by Samoa or Tonga. Gifford has pointed out, however, that the Tongan myths regarding the origin of plants associate them with Samoa, the skies and Pulotu, vaguely situated beyond Samoa. The first stage of the passage of plants from Fiji to Polynesia thus centres on Samoa.

The breadfruit that came into Polynesia was seedless and could be propagated only from young shoots that sprang up from the spreading roots of growing trees. Similarly the banana was grown from shoots that grew up around the base of the parent trunk. Neither of these plants could cross sea channels unless they were carried by man. As they could not be used for sea provisions, it may be accepted that the presence of the breadfruit and banana prove definitely that the plants were carefully brought by people who were seeking page 317 to settle on a volcanic island. Handy collected a Mar-quesan tradition concerning an expedition which set out for Rarotonga with a ship loaded with young breadfruit plants. The taro and the yam were grown from tubers and had no seed mechanism by which they could fly by air or float by sea. Hence we repeat that the plants could reach Samoa from Fiji only by canoe.

Human contact between Fiji and Samoa must have commenced at a very early period. Probably the vanguard that dropped south from the Gilberts also reached some of the Fijian islands. These early scouting parties were daring and courageous, and they must have handled such vessels as they had with consummate skill. The Fijians had good double canoes which they handled skilfully within the confines of their own archipelago. They did not go east, however, except on later, occasional voyages after Samoa had been peopled by Polynesians. Had the food plants been brought eastward by Fijians, Samoa would have been a Melanesian colony.

From Samoa, the plants were carried to the Polynesian centre of distribution at Ra‘iatea and Tahiti, also at a very early period. Both the introduced plants and animals were a necessary factor in the great social development that took place in the centre. Communication between Samoa and Ra‘iatea ended before the priests at Opoa had elected the various deified ancestors to a common pantheon, and hence Tagaloa-lagi carried a restricted mythology to Samoa.

Forest B. H. Brown found so many varieties of breadfruit in the Marquesas that he was led to the conclusion that the groups must have been inhabited for a very long time to allow such a number to develop. Similarly there are many varieties of sweet potato in Hawai‘i. Either varieties develop quickly page 318 in tropical islands or Polynesia has been inhabited for a longer time than we think. A variety of sweet potato and one of taro flower and seed in Hawai‘i, and one variety of breadfruit in Tahiti has seeds. Were the present seedless varieties developed from early plants that seeded, and were the first plants carried by means of seeds? It is a problem for the ethnobotanist.

Associated with the food plants are the domestivated animals. Here again the zoologists tell us that the pig, dog, and fowl found in Polynesia had their home in the Indo-Malayan area. The animals reached America via the Atlantic long after they had found their way into Polynesia. It is significant that none of these three animals was found on coral atolls in Polynesia when first visited by Europeans. There is a Tuamotuan version of the origin of the dog, but this comes from Anaa, which had frequent communication with Tahiti. We must remember that the coconut was carried along by the early settlers and until the plants became established in quantity that was little food on an atoll for pigs and fowls. Dogs could have subsisted on fish or become vegetarians, but their chances of surviving times of drought or famine were small, especially as they could be eaten by their owners. The animals now found on atolls were introduced in post-European times when the coconut trees were numerous and trading schooners brought food from the outside world. Coral atolls thus formed a barrier to the spread of domesticated animals. They must have been relayed along the Melanesian route and passed from Fiji to Samoa.

A Samoan legend has a bearing on the transport of the pig. A Samoan voyager visited Fiji and was feasted on pork. He naturally desired to take pigs back with him to his own country. The Fijians, however, refused to allow any live pigs to page 319 leave their shores, but they raised no objection to dead pigs being taken as food for the voyage. The Samoans thereupon procured two very large pigs which they killed and dressed. Unknown to their hosts, they stole some young ones and concealed them in the abdominal cavities of the dressed animals which they covered with leaves. Carrying the dead pigs on poles, they successfully eluded the vigilance of the Fijian customs officers, and so pigs were introduced to Samoa.

The importance of Fiji as a trade centre cannot be overestimated. The western triangle of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji became an important area for exchange and diffusion. Commercial relationships were favoured by intermarriage, and Fijian customs that were of use to the Polynesians were readily adopted. Intermixture took place between chiefly families and as a result a higher Fijian culture that absorbed certain Polynesian elements was developed at the places of contact. This mixed culture was marked by patrilineal descent, powerful chiefs, and much elaborate ceremony which contrasted with the earlier Melanesian culture retained in those parts of Fiji that did not come under Polynesian trade influence. The Samoans and Tongans incorporated some of the Fijian customs such as the power of the mother's brother and brother-sister avoidance into their own culture. The business methods acquired in dealing with Fijians affected the psychology of the western Polynesians, for cloak it with ceremony as they may, they have a keenness to acquire goods and a hard commercial instinct that is absent in the rest of Polynesia. The cultural changes that took place in the western triangle were initiated primarily by exchange and barter for food plants and domesticated animals. Communication was continued, for both Samoans and Tongans desired red feathers from Fijian parrots to adorn their fine mats and page 320 ornaments, and the Tongans required big timber for their canoes and sandalwood to burn as incense to their dead.

The plants and animals were carried to central Polynesia, but the Fijian customs remained in the west. From the centre, the plants and animals and the polytheistic mythology were carried along the various radials by the later voyagers of the tenth to the fourteenth century. On the northern route, all the plants and animals reached Hawai‘i. To the northeast, all except the dog reached the Marquesas. From the Marquesas, all the plants arrived at Mangareva, but the fowl dropped out and only the pig gained temporary foothold. In far-off Easter Island, the coconut and breadfruit are lacking and of three animals only the fowl survived. South and southeast, the Australs had all the plants and all three animals, but in southerly Rapa, the breadfruit would not grow, the coconut did not bear, and the animals were absent. Southwest in the Cook Islands, all the plants are present. The animals, however, have a varied distribution, for the pig, though important in Rarotonga, Atiu, Mauke, and Mitiaro, was absent in Aitutaki and Mangaia. I am not sure of the distribution of the dog and the fowl in the Cook Islands. In New Zealand in the south, the taro, yam, and small gourd obtained a footing, but of the three animals only the dog was present at the time of first European contact.

The paper mulberry reached all the volcanic islands including Hawai‘i, Easter Island, and New Zealand. The spread of plants and animals to all parts of Polynesia indicates clearly that though the earliest scouting parties may have reached islands by lucky chance, there was a later period extending from the tenth century when voyages of exploration were made and followed up by deliberate voyages to settle the lands discovered. Apart from legendary evidence, page 321 it does not seem logical that people would carry the tender shoots of breadfruit and banana over 2000 miles to Hawai‘i and banana shoots over 1000 miles to Easter Island unless they had some idea of where they were going.

A problem is caused by the presence in Hawai‘i of a large calabash apparently not found in other parts of Polynesia. From its size it formed an excellent container (ipu nui) for carrying clothing, and it was also used for storing quantities of pounded taro. Botanists termed the plant Cucurbita maxima and placed it in the pumpkin group, which differs from that of the smaller gourd (Lagenaria vulgaris) widespread throughout Polynesia. The original home of pumpkins, squashes, marrows, and melons is in America. The question is, how did the large gourd get to Hawai‘i? It could not have come in with the sweet potato for then it would be found in other parts of Polynesia. Hawaiian informants state that the large gourd was also called hulilau and that its leaves and flowers could not be distinguished from those of the other gourds, of which a number of varieties served different purposes. There is a possibility that the large gourd has been wrongly placed with the pumpkins and that it may belong to the true group of Lagenaria. If so, the problem is clarified for it could have come as an ordinary gourd from central Polynesia and have been developed into a large variety in Hawai‘i.

Let us now consider the sweet potato (Ipomœa batatas) which entered Polynesia from the east and not from Asia. Botanists have determined the original home of the sweet potato as South America. The theory of a German scientist that it was introduced into Polynesia by Spaniards is based on inaccurate data and is untenable. From traditional history we learn that the sweet potato was in Hawai‘i by 1250 a.d. and in New Zealand by 1350 a.d. at the latest. As there page 322 are no traditions of later contact with the outside world, it is evident that the Polynesians themselves carried the sweet potato from central Polynesia to the northern and southern angles of the Polynesian triangle. Hence the sweet potato had reached the Society Islands before the final Polynesian voyages were made to the north and the southwest.

The late Professor Roland B. Dixon was convinced that the sweet potato was in Polynesia before Columbus reached America and that the claims that the Spanish distributed the plant were untenable. He says, ‘The plant could only have reached Polynesia from America by the aid of human hands, and since we have no evidence that at any time the Indians of the Pacific Coast of South America, where the sweet potato was grown, had either the craft or the skill for making long sea journeys, we are forced to conclude that the transference of the plant was carried out by Polynesians. At some time a party of these intrepid sailors must have reached the Peruvian coast, and have taken this valuable plant back with them to their island home.’

The Peruvian coast is specified because in the Kechua dialect of north Peru the name for the sweet potato is kumar. As the general Polynesian name for the plant is kumara, the tuber must have been obtained from an era that used the name kumar.

Some time before the thirteenth century an unknown Polynesian voyager sailed east in search of a new land. Though Easter Island is the nearest Polynesian island to America and the distance of 2030 miles well within the accepted compass of a Polynesian voyaging canoe, no expedition could have been inaugurated from that island because of the lack of timber to build a suitable canoe. It is also improbable that Easter Island was used as port of call, because any voyager page 323 who had come over a thousand miles from the nearest land in eastern Polynesia would have settled there and not gone on. I believe that the expedition hoped to find land within fair distance of their place of departure and that, because of the empty eastern sea, they were forced to go on until they reached the South American coast.

The nearest islands from which the expedition could have set out are Mangareva and the Marquesas. The Tuamotu atolls are eliminated, because there is a possibility that the seeds of the gourd (Lagenaria vulgaris) were introduced into South America from Polynesia in pre-Columbian times; and such gourds do not grow on the Tuamotu. An expedition from Mangareva is likely to have encountered Easter Island and stayed there. But, even if a canoe had gone on from Easter Island, the probability is that it would have touched the American coast south of Peru where the sweet potato name of kumar was unknown. The clear open sea between the Marquesas and north Peru offered no interruption, and hence we will assume that the expedition set out from the Marquesas.

The distance from the Marquesas to the north Peruvian coast is just over 4000 miles. Dixon estimates that the voyaging range of a Polynesian ship was 2500 miles, but this estimate was based on the voyages accomplished within Polynesia. Allowing a canoe with a favourable wind a speed of seven miles an hour, the voyaging from the Marquesas would have taken a little over three weeks, which is not too long a period for sturdy men to endure. The voyage was exceptional and probably was made only once. Had the leader of the expedition suspected that the distance to the nearest land toward the east was so great, he probably would have waited until the westerly winds were over and then sailed in a different direction.

page 324

I will not attempt to interpret the feelings of the voyagers as they sailed day after day without sighting land. When hope ebbed, a huge land with mountains piercing the sky loomed up over the horizon. What a sight it must have been to people accustomed to oceanic islands! They landed but had to go warily among a strange people. Fearing a conflict against larger numbers, they decided to return to the homeland in Polynesia.

Contact was too short to make any lasting exchange in religious or social ideas. Of material things the Polynesians may have passed on the seeds of the gourd, and they certainly received the sweet potato.

The Polynesian commander refitted and provisioned his ship. He laid aboard a supply of the new tubers, and, when the winds were favourable, he sailed for his homeland in the west. The gods were good as evidenced by the arrival of the sweet potato in Polynesia. From whatever part of Polynesia he may have left, he evidently arrived on his return at the Marquesas, where his plants grew. Later they were carried eastward to Mangareva and Easter Island and westward to the Society Islands in the centre.

The unknown Polynesian voyager who brought back the sweet potato from South America, made the greatest individual contribution to the records of the Polynesians. He completed the series of voyages across the widest part of the great Pacific Ocean between Asia and South America. Tradition is strangely silent. We know not his name or the name of his ship, but the unknown hero ranks among the greatest of the Polynesian navigators for he it was who completed the great adventure.