PLANTS OF THE CANOE PEOPLE
An Ethnobotanical Voyage through Polynesia
by W. Arthur Whistler, Ph.D.
|Sometime around 1000 B.C., a people who would eventually be known as the Polynesians ventured into the Pacific and established a homeland in Tonga on the western side of a huge expanse of ocean and scattered islands known as the Polynesian triangle. This triangle has its angles at Hawai‘i (north), Easter Island (east), and New Zealand (south). Over the next two millennia or so, these intrepid voyagers explored and settled nearly every inhabitable island in the region by means of outrigger or double-hulled canoes. Hence the poetic name for this maritime culture, the canoe people.”
Living on a distant tropical South Pacific island is not as easy as it may seem. Protein food, such as fish and birds, would be easy to find (at least in the beginning), but native vegetables, starches, and fruits that provide the staff of life were virtually absent. Timber trees were usually abundant, but native plants needed for making clothing, shelter, cordage, medicine, and material goods were remarkably scarce in prehistoric Polynesia. To remedy this absence of plants essential to their culture, the Polynesians employed a strategy of transporting the plants they needed (called canoe plants, which are part of the “Polynesian toolkit”) with them in their voyaging canoes. Around 60 of these canoes plants were present in the first area of Polynesia settled (western Polynesia, i.e., Samoa and Tonga). But during the eastward expansion into eastern Polynesia (Tahiti, Hawai’i, the Cook Islands, etc.), many of these failed to make the trip. Only about 27 canoe plants were present in the northeastern-most corner of Polynesia, Hawai‘i, at the time of the arrival of Europeans into the area. These canoe plants, along with native species mostly used for timber, were essential to life on the distant islands.
This book is about the useful plants of the Polynesians, but most of the same species are also a part of Micronesian and Melanesian culture. It is basically an ethnobotanical flora with profiles of the 96 plants most important to the Polynesians (including the Fijians). These species are listed in alphabetical order, each with one or more photos of the plant and its uses. Each profile includes the scientific name, plant family, common name (some do not have English names) and the Polynesian names, along with a discussion of the origin of these names. It is followed by a discussion of the plants’ origin, range, habitat, and frequency. The end of the profile includes a botanical description, with a “distinguishing features” line to help in identification if the photos are insufficient.
A table is provided that shows the distribution of each of the species within the major islands and island groups of Polynesia (including Fiji). Also included are a bibliography of pertinent literature and a glossary of botanical terms. A future book planned by the author will explore their cultural uses in much greater detail.
The 241-page book includes about 148 color photos, and eight color illustrations by well-known Hawai‘i artist Mary Grierson. The book is designed for use by botanists (especially ethnobotanists), naturalists, teachers, students, or just nature lovers who are interested in the traditional useful plants of the islands. Other related books written by the author and available from Isle Botanica (see www.islebotanica.com) include The Samoan Rainforest, Rainforest Trees of Samoa, The Ethnobotany of Samoa, Flowers of the Pacific Island Seashore, Samoan Herbal Medicine, Tongan Herbal Medicine, Polynesian Herbal Medicine, Tropical Ornamentals, and Wayside Plants of the Islands.