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Polynesia: The Trail of Plants and Animals

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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 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 it was he who completed the great adventure.    



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.

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) 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. 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 a long time ago that many local species have had time to develop.

There is no doubt that the pandanus invaded the Pacific long before the Polynesians, though these people certainly carried the cultivated, long-leaved 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, 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 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, could not be taken by the plants, for the volcanic islands end at Kosrae, or at most at Banaba and Nauru Islands. The distance from Kosrae in the Carolines to Ra'iatea in the Society Islands is over 3,000 miles and to Samoa about 2,500 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. 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 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 center, 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 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. It has been indicated, 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 centers 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 to settle on a volcanic island. There is a Marquesan 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 it is apparent 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 (Kiribati) 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 center 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 center. 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.

There have been found so many varieties of breadfruit in the Marquesas leading to the conclusion that the group 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 in tropical islands or Polynesia has been inhabited for a longer time than is thought. 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 the varieties developed from early plants that seeded, and were the first plants carried by means of seeds? It is for the ethnobotanist to solve.


Associated with the food plants are the domesticated 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. It needs to be remembered that the coconut was carried along by the early settlers and until the plants became established in quantity there 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 leave their shores, but they raised no objections 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 center 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 such 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 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 center, 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 fowls dropped out and only the pig gained temporary foothold. In far-off Easter Island, the coconut and the 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, thought important in Rarotonga, Atiu, Mauke and Mitiaro, was absent in Aitutaki and Mangaia. 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 party may have reached islands by lucky chance, there was a later period extending from the 10th century when voyages of exploration were made and followed up by deliberate voyages to settle the lands discovered. Apart from legendary evidence, it does not seem logical that people would carry the tender shoots of breadfruit and banana over 2,000 miles to Hawai'i and banana shoots over 1,000 miles to Easter Island unless they had some idea of where they were going.

It is generally considered that the sweet potato entered Polynesia from the east and not from Asia. Indeed, botanists have determined that the original home of the sweet potato was South America. In this respect, the Peruvian coast is specified because in the Kechua dialect of north Peru the name of the sweet potato is kumar. As the general Polynesian name for the plant is kumara it is felt that the sweet potato came from north Peru. From traditional history, it is learnt that the sweet potato was in Hawai'i by 1250 and in New Zealand by 1350 at the latest. As there are no traditions of labour 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.

Sometime before the 13th century an unknown Polynesian voyager sailed east in search of a new land. It is probable that Easter Island was not used as a port of call because any voyager would have settled there and not gone on. The nearest islands from which the expeditions could have set out are Mangareva and the Marquesas and it is apparent that the clear open sea between the Marquesas and north Peru offered no interruption suggesting that the expedition set out from the Marquesas.

The distance from the Marquesas to the north Peruvian coast is just over 4,000 miles allowing a canoe with a favourable wind a speed of seven miles an hour, the voyage from the Marquesas would have taken a little over three weeks which is considered not too long a period for the voyagers to endure. The voyage was exceptional and was probably made only once. What a sight the Peruvian coast must have been to people accustomed to oceanic islands. The party would have landed but had to go wearily among a strange people. Fearing a conflict against larger numbers, they would have returned to their homeland in Polynesia. Their visit would have been too short to make any lasting exchange in religious or social ideas. It was during such a visit that they certainly received the sweet potato.

When the winds were favourable, the Polynesian voyagers sailed for their 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, the Polynesian commander 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.

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 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 it was he who completed the great adventure.    

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