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Chapter 11

Food plants


Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa), who favoured a Micronesian path for Polynesian settlement, and cited ethnographic evidence in support of his theory, was unequivocal that an exception was required for introduction of the common food plants. These were mostly of Indo-Malayan origin, and dependent both on volcanic soils and humans for their propagation. Because of this, thought Buck, these plants must have been introduced by means of voyaging canoes but could not have followed an "atoll-studded route", and must therefore have come through Melanesia (Buck 1958:314-5).

Later writers have tended to follow Buck in this judgement, including Kirch and Green who take it for granted that it was Lapita potters following the Melanesian route who colonised Polynesia, bringing with them "a full roster of oceanic crops, including such staples as taro, yam, bananas, and breadfruit."  (Kirch and Green 2001:121) As will be seen, however, when distributional evidence is taken into account, the matter is not as straightforward as it seems.

Besides mere presence of a cultivar in an area, its vernacular name and usage must also be considered as part of the evidence. Standard sources of such information include The University of Auckland Proto Polynesian Lexicon project (Pollex), and cognate tables of food plant terms from the ANU Proto Oceanic project (Ross 2008), together with extensive surveys of food plants by Barrau (1961), Whistler (1991), and other authors. Additionally, W. Arthur Whistler's book Plants of the Canoe People (2009) came to attention only after the present chapter was written, and is recommended for its detailed treatment of cultivated plants of Polynesia. All of these resources, however, depend upon published dictionaries and vocabularies for most of their linguistic information, and many of these dictionaries were not published until the 1960s or later. By this time there was potential for loss of vocabulary and changes of nomenclature from plant names as first recorded. Micronesia is especially problematic in this regard and there is a problem also of lack of attention to this area by writers who have assumed that it is irrelevant to the problem of Polynesian origins. By good fortune some of the gaps have been filled by an industrious and little known early contributor to the Journal of the Polynesian Society, Frederick William Christian (1867–1934). Described in an obituary (Anon 1934a) as an anthropologist and explorer, Christian was born in England, educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford University, where he graduated with a BA. In later life he  became a New Zealand resident, serving as City Librarian in Palmerston North for nine years, before retiring on grounds of ill health (Anon 1934b). He travelled extensively in the Pacific and was particularly interested in Micronesia, where he set himself the task of collecting plant names in the Caroline Islands at the relatively early date of 1896. Whatever one may think of some of Christian's comparisons, this is a treasure trove of Micronesian terms themselves, collected sufficiently early in the contact period for this to be still possible.

Before considering individual food plants, some caveats are in order.


Difficulties of interpretation

In a comprehensive study of Polynesian plant introduction, Whistler (1991) enumerates over 70 species of plants he categorises as intentionally introduced by Polynesians. Of these a few, notably the bottle gourd and the sweet potato are judged to have been introduced from South America, a handful of others from Micronesia, and the remainder from Melanesia. As one might expect from the inter-regional distances involved, most of the latter appear to be confined to Western Polynesia, where they can reasonably be regarded as testament to the multiple opportunities there for contact between Melanesians and Polynesians during the several millennia that have elapsed since settlement of these areas began. Some of the introductions may date from Lapita times but there is no easy way to determine which or how many, even of those that have reached Eastern Polynesia if historically recent return contact between this area and Western Polynesia can be assumed. It is noticeable as well that a number of introductions to Eastern Polynesia are centred upon Tahiti or Hawai'i, which were hubs of maritime commerce after Europeans entered the Pacific. It would have been surprising if eighteenth and nineteenth-century Polynesian crew members of European vessels had not taken opportunity to transport useful plants back to their home territories, just as modern-day Polynesians did for quantities of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 1970s, when this commodity first became available in New Zealand.   

A similar pattern to the Polynesian one is true also of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu where large numbers of workers were recruited in the nineteenth century to work on Australian plantations, and introduced new plant species to their home areas when they returned. Sweet potatoes and bananas are thus often found with vernacular names that are derivations of Sydney and Brisbane (Barrau 1958:64).  

Barrau draws attention also to the activities of nineteenth century missionary societies, especially Samoan teachers of the London Missionary Society who introduced varieties of Colocasia, bananas, and breadfruit into Melanesia "all the way from Fiji to New Guinea." (Barrau loc.cit.)

A converse problem is that some plant species, such as coconuts, bananas, and, to lesser extent, breadfruit, were naturally occurring in many areas, and on this account would have been domesticated more than once. 

The question of when and where specific plants may have been introduced into Polynesia involves comparison with both Melanesia and Micronesia, with special attention to the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, and of Ponape (Pohnpei) in particular. 

Finally, for the latter area, Bascom (1965) identifies numerous plant introductions as taking place in successive Spanish, German, Japanese and American colonial periods in Micronesia, thereby dating them and distinguishing them from those already present in pre-contact times. There are an astonishing number of them, serving as a salutary reminder that the same process has occurred elsewhere in Oceania, and the old must be winnowed from the new if conclusions are to be reached about plant distributions in the past.

In a nutshell, these problems are concerned mostly with the single issue of distinguishing borrowings from introductions that took place at times of first settlement. With luck, borrowings will leave evidence in the form of sound changes that linguists are highly skilled at uncovering. In many cases, however, borrowings display no such evidence of their own and are undetectable unless their history is already known or can be independently deduced.


Common food plants

The common Oceanic food plants are breadfruit, yam, taro, and sweet potato.  As indicated by Buck, all -- including Polynesian breadfruit, which is mostly seedless (Ross 2008:281)-- are propagated by vegetative means and for this reason are dependant on humans both for transfer from one area to another and for their continued survival in the new locations. As such they are excellent markers of past movements of peoples.



This is the plant that so impressed early visitors to Tahiti, helping to fuel European perceptions of a romantic tropical paradise, called New Cythera by Bougainville, where food was plentiful, life was easy, and bread literally grew on trees. A newsletter about Bougainville's voyage to Tahiti of 1766–1769, published ahead of the official account of the voyage, provides an idealised description of the place, including mention of breadfruit:

The fruit which serves as their bread is the size of a melon, weighing from two to ten pounds; it is red inside, and tastes very good; they knead it with water and make of it a dough which is as nourish­ing a substance as bread, and which can be kept fresh for five or six months (Hammond 1970:25).

The botanist Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook on his voyage of discovery not long afterwards from 1768–1771 added his own gloss on the happy life of the Tahitians, claiming:

. . . scarcely can it be said that they earn their bread with the sweat of their brow when their cheifest sustenance Bread fruit is procurd with no more trouble than that of climbing a tree and pulling it down. Not that the trees grow here spontaneously but if a man should in the course of his life time plant 10 such trees, which if well done might take the labour of an hour or thereabouts, he would as compleatly fulfil his duty to his own as well as future generations as we natives of less temperate climates can do by toiling in the cold of winter to sew and in the heat of summer to reap the annual produce of our soil . . . (Beaglehole 1962:1, 341, cited by Oliver 1974:234)

Banks's view was to prove influential. Soon after his return to England he was promoting breadfruit as a possible cheap and easy way to feed slaves in the sugar plantations of Jamaica; Captain Bligh was commissioned by the Admiralty to bring breadfruit seedlings home from Tahiti; and the well-known mutiny of the Bounty of 1789 was an outcome.

Eventually a few seedless varieties of breadfruit were introduced from Polynesia to the Caribbean and gradually spread from there to other tropical regions (NTBG 2010). But the early reports of the breadfruit gave a false impression. Far from lasting for months, the fruit itself spoils rapidly after harvesting and must be eaten almost immediately unless means are taken to preserve it. The method of preparing the dough referred to in the New Cythera report is to bury the fresh fruit in a leaf-lined pit and leave it for months or years to ferment and mature in a process akin to ripening cheese. The result, called mahi in Tahiti and more generally ma, is extracted as required and, in a highly labour-intensive sequence of steps, is processed into paste for eating. Along with fresh breadfruit in season it was a primary carbohydrate foodstuff in the Society Islands as well as the Marquesas and Gambier Islands in Marginal Eastern Polynesia (Ragone 1991:210).      

Its importance in the daily diet elsewhere in Polynesia varied with the availability of bananas, plantains, sweet potatoes, taro, and yams. Both forms of breadfruit are good sources of many essential dietary nutrients, but fermented breadfruit provides more carbohydrates, fat, protein, calcium, iron, and B vitamins than fresh fruit. Ma was never eaten directly from the pit. It was processed into a form known as popoi in the Marquesas and Society islands. Ma was taken from the pit and placed in a wooden bowl or a trough made from a hollowed log. It was kneaded or pounded and water mixed in as needed; the older the ma, the longer it took to knead it into a soft, doughy mass. It was made into small cakes, wrapped in breadfruit leaves, and cooked in an earth oven. . . After cooking, it was again put in a trough, water added, and it was beaten to the desired consistency with a stone or wooden pounder. It was eaten warm or after it had cooled, and formed the basis of many dishes. (loc. cit.).

One wild and two main cultivated species of breadfruit are distinguished in Oceania:

The wild ancestor of breadfruit, Artocarpus camansi (breadnut) naturally occurs in New Guinea, the Moluccas (Indonesia), and possibly the Philippines (NTBG 2010).

The two cultivated species are as follows;

1. Artocarpus altilis

The breadfruit tree is indigenous to southeast Asia, but was aboriginally introduced eastward to Hawaii. Many different varieties are cultivated on the high islands and atolls of Polynesia, particularly in the Marquesas. Most of these lack seeds, and trees found in forests are mostly relicts of former cultivation. Although cultivated primarily for its large, seasonal, edible fruit, its wood is also highly esteemed for making canoes and houses.

Most of the Polynesian names for breadfruit are cognates of kuru, which itself is a cognate of the Malayan name for the tree, kulur (Whistler 1991:55).

2. Artocarpus mariannensis Trec 

This species of breadfruit is native to the limestone forests of Guam and elsewhere in Micronesia, but was aboriginally introduced over much of Micronesia. In Polynesia, it is reported only from Tuvalu and Tokelau, apparently introduced from the former to the latter, judging by its Tokelauan name ('elihe, meaning Ellice Islands, the former name of Tuvalu).[3] It may have been an aboriginal introduction to Polynesia, but this may never be known (Whistler 1991:55, 65).

More detailed information on this species is as follows:

This wild seeded relative of breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is native to Palau and the Mariana Islands. It naturally grows in limestone and ravine forests from coastal to lower mountain slopes. It prefers calcareous soils and is often found growing on boulders in volcanic areas of the islands. It is distributed through its natural range by fruit bats. Wild populations are seriously declining due to typhoon damage, predation by feral deer, and the disappearance of fruit bats. Artocarpus mariannensis is widely cultivated for its edible fruit and seeds throughout Micronesia (Palau, Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Nauru, and Banaba Island). It grows primarily in coastal areas and on atolls. It has naturally hybridized with Artocarpus altilis and the numerous interspecific hybrid varieties are considered to be ‘breadfruit’, whether they are seeded or seedless (NTBG 2010).

Pollex files record two different Polynesian names for breadfruit, one common throughout Polynesia and the other, as will be seen, shared with Micronesia. It might be assumed that the former would be altilis and the latter mariannensis. But both are identified as Artocarpus altilis in Pollex, and this is confirmed by consulting the relevant dictionaries. Displayed side by side the two terms are seen to be mutually exclusive. An initial q as in qullu signifies a glottal stop:


Comparison of breadfruit terms













FIJ        Kulu. Breadfruit (Serua, Nadroga and Colo West) (Palmer)

HAW   qulu. Breadfruit

KAP     Gulu. Breadfruit tree, artocarpus altilus (Lbr)

MAE    Kuro: Breadfruit variety (Clk)


MAO   Kuru: Mentioned as edible, tree‑borne fruit in tradition



MFA    Kuru. Breadfruit

MIA     Kuru. Breadfruit tree (Chn)

MQA   Kuqu/vahake: Esp. d'arbre à pain (Dln)

MQA   Kuqu/vahane: Esp. d'arbre à pain (Dln)

MQA   Kuqu/hua: Yellow (Bgs)

MVA   Kuru: Fruit à pain de petite espèce (Jnu)

MVA   Kuru/oe. Pâte de fruits à pain avortés qui n'est cependant pas très mauvaise (Jnu)

MVA   Kuru/tara. Nom des fruits à pain qui ont la peau rugeuse (Jnu)




NKR    Gulu. Breadfruit

OJA     qulu. Breadfruit

PEN     Kuru. Breadfruit

RAR     Kuru. Breadfruit



ROT     qulu. Breadfruit

SAM    qulu. Breadfruit

SIK       Kulu. Breadfruit

TAH     quru. Breadfruit

TAK     Kuru. Breadfruit (Hwd)



TON     Kulu. Kind of tree


TUA     Kuru. Breadfruit

WFU    Kuru. Breadfruit



ANU    Mei. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) (Yen)

ECE     Mei. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) (Rby).

ECE     Mai. The breadfruit tree (Nks).

EFU     Mei. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)

EUV     Mei. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)






MAE    Mei. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) (Clk)



MQA   Mei. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)








MVA   Mei. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)






NFU     Mei. Breadfruit (Dye)

NIU   Mei. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) B.>





REN     Mei. Breadfruit, (Artocarpus altilis) (Ebt)






TIK      Mei. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) (Fth)

TON     Mei. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)




As one might expect from its SE Asian origin, A. altilis is not limited to Polynesia, but occurs also in Melanesia. Ross (2008:282) indicates that by far the most frequently reflected term for it is POc *kuluR (column 1 above), inherited from PMP, with reflexes in the Admiralties and Mussau, North New Guinea, Papuan Tip, Bali-Vitu (MM), the Willaumez group (MM), New Caledonia and Central Pacific. It is apparently also reflected in the Chuukic subgroup of Micronesian with a change in denotation to Barringtonia asiatica.

In Micronesia the dominant term for breadfruit is mei (as in column 2 above). Christian documents it everywhere in the Carolines:

Eastern Carolines—Ponape, Mokil, Pingelap, Ngatik—māi. Central and Western Carolines—Mortlock Islands, Ruk (Hogolen)—mei; Lamotrek, Ifalik, Satawal, and Uluthi, mai; Pulawat mais; Sonsorol and St. David's mai; Uleai moai, mai (Christian 1897:129). 

It is also termed mei in Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, and the following are terms applied specifically to Artocarpus mariannensis (NTBG 2010), most taking the form of the mei term, followed by a qualifier.

* chebiei, ebiei, meduuliou, mai (Palau)

* dugdug, dokdok (Mariana Islands)

* maiyah (Puluwat, Yap)

* mei chocho (Chuuk)

* mei kole (Pohnpei)

* mejwaan (Marshall Islands)

* mos en Kosrae (Kosrae)

* te mai (Kiribati)

In the Mariana Islands area of origin of the wild mariannensis species it can be seen that the term for it is neither kuru nor mei but changes to the latter elsewhere in Micronesia. The simple explanation is that the originating area has its own terms for the species, and elsewhere in Micronesia the mei term is the commonly used one for all forms of breadfruit, whether mariannensis or altilis.  As a species, mariannensis is probably more widespread because of its suitability for atoll environments. But on the high island of Ponape, for example, both mariannensis and altilis are present. Bascom (1965:98) identified 78 native species of breadfruit on Ponape, all of which except seeded varieties were A. altilis.

The information above is all reconcilable once it is realised that the two Micronesian species of breadfruit were of different origin but were called by the same name, mei, in Eastern Micronesia. A. mariannensis originated in Western Micronesia, spreading from there into the mostly atoll areas of Eastern Micronesia, but reaching Polynesia, only relatively recently, most likely from Kiribati through Tuvalu, and penetrating no further than Tokelau where it now exists side by side with A. altilis. Introduction of altilis into Micronesia, on the other hand was most likely from the Bismarck Archipelago into Ponape, and from there as mei into the areas of Western Polynesia where this term remains extant. Most likely this took place via Kiribati, Tuvalu, and E. Uvea before the western mariannensis form of breadfruit had begun to hybridise with altilis. Meanwhile, the same species filtered through Island Melanesia, migrating from there into the areas with kuru as the breadfruit term. The timing of these moves is a matter for speculation but linguistic evidence provides some clues.

The kuru term is of POc provenience, is present in Samoa and except for absence in Tonga would be PPn. Mei is the Micronesian term and limited largely to Western Polynesia, including the Outliers. It is of Austronesian provenience and so perhaps an even older term than kuru. Certainly the presence of two widely distributed terms for the same highly valued essential foodstuff suggests two separate migrations of peoples.

In summary, it is clear that A. altilis reached Polynesia through Island Melanesia, though possibly not early enough to qualify as PPn, and another stream of the same species came through Micronesia. But this is not the only evidence of a connection. The method of pit fermentation for preserving breadfruit was not only employed in both Polynesia and Micronesia but in Ponape, Pingelap, and Mokil goes by the same name, ma (Bascom 1965:100 ). In Polynesia the term is unquestionably old, appearing as PPn *ma 'fermented food' with reflexes as far afield as New Zealand Maori in its broader sense, and more specifically as the term for pit breadfruit in areas of both Western and Eastern Polynesia where breadfruit is grown (Pollex). In Melanesia, pit breadfruit and the ma term are reported for Tanna, Vanuatu (Christian (1897:129), but could be a borrowing there from Polynesia.



Three main cultivated species are recognised in Oceania. A fourth, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius Nicolson, not considered below, may once have been grown as a supplemental crop but was probably never more than a famine food (Whistler 1991:58).

1. Colocasia esculenta, True taro

Taro is native to southeast Asia, but was aboriginally introduced as far east as Hawaii. The plant rarely flowers in Polynesia, and is thus mostly restricted to cultivated areas, usually in running water where it thrives. Numerous varieties were recognized in each island group, with perhaps the greatest number in Hawaii. Taro is the most esteemed of the four aroids grown by Polynesians, but its growth requirements preclude its cultiva­tion on most atolls. In addition to its edible tuber, the leaves, which must be thoroughly cooked, are eaten like spinach throughout its Polynesian range (Whistler loc.cit.).

This is the most important of the aroids, lending its name, taro, as a general term for other species listed below which resemble it. Ross 2008:266-7 has an extensive table of Melanesian cognates for taro, with the term reconstructed to PMP and POc. Cognates are provided for NNG, PT, MM, SES, NCV, SV, and Fij, together with Pn Samoan and Tongan. Pollex extends the distribution through the rest of Western Polynesia into Eastern Polynesia with reconstruction to PPn, and PAN *talo cited as the highest order subgroup. The presence of the plant and the coincidence of name in both Polynesia and Island Melanesia convincingly suggests introduction into Polynesia from the latter area, and the same has been shown by a recent study of plant remains from Fiji.

Starch residue, pollen and phytolith analysis was carried out on coralline deposits from a c. 3050–2500 cal. yr BP Lapita site at Bourewa, Viti Levu, Fiji. Starch grains, calcium oxalate crystals and xylem cells of introduced Colocasia esculenta and Dioscorea esculenta were identified, involving a process of elimination of possible taxa by cross-correlation of microfossil types. The data provide an eastward extension of direct evidence of Lapita horticulture in Remote Oceania previously identified in Vanuatu (Horroocks and Nunn 2007:Abstract).

True taro is nevertheless also extensively present in Micronesia, albeit known by terms which appear unrelated to its common name in Polynesia and Melanesia, suggesting either a long history of change or a diverse history of introduction. Barrau provides the following:

The Micronesian names are, for the Marshalls, kotak; for Pingelap to Ponape, saws; for Truk, ot, oni, and ori; for Ulithi, ioth; for Yap, mal ; for Palau, kukau; and for the Marianas, aba and gabi (Barrau 1961:39),

to which may be added taororororo for Kiribati (Thamon 1987:15).

Despite unsuitability of Colocasia esculenta for atoll environments because of intolerance to saline or shallow soils, Micronesians have devised ways to grow the plant in such conditions, doing so by means of pits within which richer soils can be built up by composting and careful husbandry. Manner (1993:93) lists over 40 atolls scattered across the length and breadth of Micronesia where rainfall is sufficient for growth of the plant, and upon which esculenta is currently cultivated. Though probably unexploited in Lapita times, there could have been potential even then for carrying the plant still further afield, intersecting with areas within which the plant may already have been established.

2. Alocasia macrorrhiza, Giant taro or Dryland taro

The giant taro is probably indigenous to tropical Asia, but was aboriginally intro­duced as far east as Hawaii. The plant, which does not require wet soil as taro usually does, is cultivated for its large aroid rhizome, but is usually considered inferior in taste to taro (Whistler 1991:51).

In Polynesia the most common name for the dryland taro is kape with cognates throughout both Western and Eastern Polynesia, and the term is reconstructed to PPn from the following areas (Pollex):


The Giant taro is also known as kape in EFU (Burrows 1936:131; Rensch and Whistler 2009:621) and EUV (Burrows 1937:94). In a number of places, however, the name for it is different. In Tuvalu and Tokelau it is termed tamu (Rensch and Whistler 2009:504), but this may be a recent name for it. Charles Hedley, who conducted field work on the atoll of Funafuti in 1896 names it as Brokka (Hedley 1896:61) (perhaps cognate with Palau brak for swamp taro , see later), and still other names are recorded in the Outliers for Kapingamarangi, Nukuoro, and Mele Fila (Rensch and Whistler 2009:621).

Ross (2008:272) has a different set of cognates for Melanesia, reconstructed to POc *piRaq, with reflexes in Adm, PT, MM, SES, NCV, SV, NCal, and Fij, most commonly in Vanuatu, where the most frequent term is via.

In a list of terms provided by Barrau, Micronesia also stands alone, except in Truk where the term kap is cognate with Polynesia, and is the same as for the Common yam in the adjacent island of Ponape (see later):

The Micronesian names are, for the Marshalls, wot; for Ponape, oht; for Truk, ka; for Ulithi, fole; for Yap, lai; for Palau, bisech; and for the Marianas, pigs (Barrau 1961:39).

From Truk, the trail extends eastward to Kiribati where the giant taro is called kabe (Thamon 1987:7).

The plant has some advantages, especially in drier atoll environments. It grows without need of irrigation: the edible rhizome keeps for months after reaching maturity, and can grow to two or more metres in length, hence the name of Giant taro. But there are drawbacks as well. The plant is coarse in texture and, worse still, contains oxalate crystals that irritate the mucus membranes of the mouth and have to be removed by prolonged preparation and cooking. For these reasons it has only secondary significance in most areas. In Tahiti, for example, it was eaten only when more favoured foods were in short supply (Oliver 1974:249). Though widespread in Melanesia, it was seldom cultivated in gardens (Ross 2008:271). And in the Micronesian island of Ponape, though reported as grown by every family in the 1950s, it was consumed only in the period between the yam and breadfruit harvests (Bascom (1965:105).

3. Cyrtosperma chamissonis or merkusii, Swamp taro, also known as Elephant's Ear.

This giant aroid is probably indigenous to New Guinea or elsewhere in Melanesia, but was aboriginally introduced to Micronesia and Polynesia as far east, perhaps, as the Cook Islands. It is less esteemed as a root crop than taro or kape, but unlike these two, thrives on atolls in standing brackish water, in pits excavated in the sandy soil. Its aboriginal range is thought to include Tuvalu, Tokelau, and the northern Cooks, and its introduction east of there is thought to be modern. It was first noted from Tonga in Rabone's vocabulary list (1845). The apparent later introduction into French Polynesia is supported by the common names there, which are unrelated to the Polynesian cognates of puraka, pulaka, and pula'a. Its aboriginal introduction to Polynesia from the atolls of Micronesia rather than through the high island route of Melanesia is suggested by its Trukese name pura (Barrau 1961), probably a cognate of the Polynesian names (Whistler 1991:58-9).

Barrau's puru term for Truk looks isolated among quite different terms elsewhere in Micronesia:

Native names in Micronesia are, for the Gilberts, to babai; for the Marshalls, iaraj*: for Pingelap to Ponape, tnuang and mwang; for Truk, pupa and pura ; for Ulithi, lok; for Palau, brak; and for the Marianas, baba (Barrau 1961:39).

Christian (1897:127), however, reports it all over the Central Carolines as "pulak, bulak, burak, and burok, and in Pelews p'rak," extending also to the Solomon Islands "(p to k) as kuraka."

In Ponape, which may be regarded as Representative of the Carolines, Bascom (1965:104) recorded 29 species of Cyrtosperma of which 21 were said to date from the pre-European period. All were planted in wet places such as fresh-water marshes or muddy stream beds, and were used primarily during lean periods when breadfruit and yams were not available.   

Whistler's suggestion that the plant reached Polynesia from Micronesia is supported by the evidence from Melanesia where Ross affirms a late introduction "probably from Micronesia " (Ross 2008:292). A cognate set provided by Ross for Melanesia is accompanied by complex linguistic arguments. It lists reflexes of Ponapeic *p'ulaka 'swamp taro in Adm, MM and elsewhere, including entries for Micronesian Marshallese, Mortlockese, Chuukese, Puluwatese, Satawolese, Carolinian, Woleeain, followed by terms from Western Polynesia and the Polynesian Outliers (Ross 2008:270-1).

With the above measure of agreement that the swamp taro was introduced into Polynesia from Micronesia, it is worth citing the entire Pollex set of cognates:

ANU Pulaka. (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) (Yen)

ECE Pulaka. (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) (Rby)

EFU Pulaka. (Cyrtosperma sp.; plant sp

EFU Pulaka. (Cyrtosperma sp.)

EUV Pulaka. (Cyrtosperma sp.)

KAP Bulaga. (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) (Lbr)

NKR Bulaga. (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) (Stn)

PUK Pulaka. (Cyrtosperma merkusii) (Bge)

RAR Puraka. Coarse kind of taro (Etn) (Sve)

SAM Pula’a. (Cyrtosperma sp. (Mnr)

SIK Ka/pulaka. A vegetable bigger than taro (Sps)

TAK Puraka. (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) (Hwd)

TIK Pulaka. (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) (Fth)

WOL Pulag. (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) (Shn)

To these may be added NUK puraka, TOK pulaka, and TUA puraka (Rensch and Whistler 2009:445, 450).

Except for Rarotonga and the Tuamotus, this cognate set does not contain terms for Eastern Polynesia. Unless these turn up elsewhere this, together with absence in Tonga and Niue, indicates that the term is not PPn and must have been introduced after settlement of Eastern Polynesia. It was probably introduced to Rarotonga from Pukapuka, but no explanation can be offered for the Tuamotus. Appearance in Tuvalu, E. Uvea, E. Futuna, Samoa, and most of the Outliers follows a path, as will be seen, which is shared by other introductions from Micronesia. 



Five main species of yam are recognised in Oceania:

1. Dioscorea alata, Greater or Common Yam  

The common yam is widespread in cultivation from tropical Africa to Hawaii, and was aboriginally introduced throughout Polynesia where numerous varieties are recognized. It is cultivated for its large edible tubers, and is the most common yam species in the region. All the Polynesian names are cognates of the Malayan name for the plant, ubi (Whistler 1991:59).

Ross (2008:260-1) provides a table from PMP *qubi 'yarn' (Dempwolff 1938) and POc *qupi 'greater yam, Dioscorea alata; yam (generic)', with cognates in areas Adm, NNG, PT, MM, TM, SES, NCV, SV, NCal, Fij, and Pn Tongan and Samoan.   

Barrau supplies vernacular names for Polynesia and Micronesia as follows:

The native names of Dioscorea alata L. in Polynesia are ufi, uhi, and pahui. The native names in Micronesia are, from Pingelap to Ponape, kep or kap; for Yap, duok; for the Palaus telngot; and for the Marianas, dago (Barrau 1961:44-5).

Pollex lists Polynesian cognates of ufi, uhi uvi or near equivalent, for 30 Polynesian languages, mostly in Western Polynesia and the Outliers, but extending also as far afield as Hawai'i, Mangareva, and NZ Maori in Eastern Polynesia. In view of this, coupled with the disparity of terms in Micronesia and the similarity of those in Island Melanesia, this species of yam is likely to have entered Polynesia from the latter area.

2. Dioscorea esculenta, Lesser, Prickly, or Sweet Yam

Also known as Dioscorea aculeata, Sweet Yam

The lesser yam is probably indigenous to tropical Asia, but was aboriginally introduced as far east as western Polynesia, and more recently to Eastern Polynesia. It is cultivated for its small, edible tubers, but is not grown as frequently as the common yam, D. alata (Whistler 1991:59).

Barrau provides vernacular names as follows:

The Polynesian names of D. esculents (Loureiro) Burkill are (a) ufi lei in the Samoan group and (b) ufi lei and ofa lei farther eastward. Native Micronesian names are, for Ponape, kap-tek-tek( ?) ; for Yap, dai; and for the Marianas, nika (Barrau 1961:45).

For Ponape, however, Christian (1897:126), who gathered his terms in 1896, reports the sweet yam more fully as kape-lai, similar to Samoan ufi-lei).

Pollex extends the distribution of related terms to ANU, EFU, EUV, SAM and TON in Western Polynesia but, significantly, nowhere in Eastern Polynesia.          

Additionally, Rensch and Whistler (2009:693) register the plant under a variety of names in NIU, RAR, REN, TAH, TIK, TUA, and WUV.

Ross (2008:263-4) has an unrelated term of *kamisa 'lesser yam' for NNG, and MM but is unable to reconstruct it to POc. He speculates that perhaps it was not domesticated until after the breakup of POc.

If cognates do not turn up in southern Island Melanesia, it would seem possible that this was a Micronesian species initially, and was introduced from there both to Polynesia under its Micronesian name and to NW Melanesia under a different name. In this case the Greater yam would be Melanesian and the lesser yam Micronesian. In view of apparent late introduction into Polynesia, it is a surprise to find this species reported as present in Lapita-era archaeological deposits in Fiji (Horrocks and Nunn 2007:Abstract).

3. Dioscorea bulbifera, Potato or Bitter Yam

The bitter yam is distributed from tropical Africa to Hawaii, but was an aboriginal introduction throughout Polynesia. The tuber is edible, but because it is acrid and poisonous, much effort is required in its preparation. Consequently, it was mostly a famine food and rarely if ever cultivated, but is now naturalized in disturbed and undisturbed habitats (Whistler 1991:59).

Barrau notes:

The native names of D. bulbifera L. in Polynesia are hoi, soi, and oi. Native names in Micronesia are, for Ponape, palai; for Truk, apuereka; for Yap, rok and yoi; and for Palau, belloi (Barrau 1961:45).

Pollex reconstructs the term to PPn *Soi:A wild yam (Dioscorea bulbifera), with cognates in 15 areas ranging from Anuta to Samoa and Tonga in Western Polynesia and the Outliers to Central and Marginal Polynesia in the east as follows: ANU, EFU, EUV, HAW, MAE, MQA, MVA, NIU, RAR, REN, SAM, TAH, TIK, TON, TUA, to which may be added a further Outlier WUV (Rensch and Whistler 2009:692).        

Barrau's yoi and belloi terms for Yap and Palau have the appearance of being possibly cognate with Polynesian.

In Melanesia, Ross (2008:262-3) has a cognate set for this species with an entirely different term, POc *p"atika 'potato yam, aerial yam, Dioscorea bulbifera' with cognates in Adm, MM, SES, SV, and perhaps including Mic: Chuukese pereka 'Dioscorea bulbifera'.

Evidence for the direction of introduction is inconclusive but Micronesia could have been the area of origin for both Melanesia and Polynesia, this time out of Western Micronesia which would have received it from Indonesia or the Philippines.

4. Dioscorea nummularia, Spiny Yam

This spiny yam is probably indigenous to southeast Asia, but was aboriginally introduced eastward to Fiji and perhaps Polynesia. Dioscorea nummularia may have been introduced to much of Polynesia in the nineteenth century, possibly by missionaries (Whistler 1991:59).

Massal and Barrau (1980:12) describe this species as present almost everywhere in the South Pacific from New Guinea to the eastern end of Polynesia and to Western Micronesia.

Barrau states:

The native names of D. nummularia Lamarck in Polynesia are, for the Society Islands and some of the Cook Islands, pirita; for Samoa and some of the Cook Islands, ufi parai, uhi parai, and ufi palai; and for the Marquesas, pahui peahi. It would appear that certain yams found at Yap and Ponape in Micronesia can be classified within this species (Barrau 1961:45).

The latter part of Barrau's statement is borne out by Christian (1899: 334) who records the term palai in the Caroline Islands as the name of a yam variety. 

Ross (2008:258) was unable to find a term for D. nummularia, but it is, in fact, present in Pollex, where it matches Christian's Micronesian term, reconstructed to PPN *Palai 'a yam' (Dioscorea nummularia) in a small cognate set of EFU, EUV, NIU, RAR, REN, SAM, TAH, and TON, all except Tahiti and Rarotonga in Western Polynesia.

Despite the possibility of nineteenth century introductions to Polynesia by missionaries, the Pollex reconstruction to PPn, coupled with presence of the Polynesian term in the Caroline Islands, is indicative of connection between these two areas.   

5. Dioscorea pentaphylla, Five-leaved or Five-fingered Yam

The five-leaved yam is probably indigenous to tropical Asia, but was aboriginally introduced as far east as Hawaii. It is sometimes cultivated for its edible tuber, but is more of a famine food that grows semi-naturalized in disturbed areas (Whistler 1991:60).

Barrau reports D. pentaphylla as follows:

The Polynesian names of D. pentaphylla L. are, for the Marquesas, utau; for the Societies, parauara; for the Cook Islands to Samoa, pirita; and for some of the Cook Islands, pakatiro. The yam known as duol on Yap may belong to this species or to the closely related species D. cumingii (Barrau 1961:45).

A combination of listings from Pollex and Rensch and Whistler (2009:693) yields the following distributions:

Set 1

For the pirita term above PPn *pilita a yam in NIU, RAR, SAM, TAH, and TUA.

Set 2

Varients of the term 'lena' which more generally is applied to turmeric (q.v.): EFU, EUV, SAM, TON

Additionally, there are terms unrelated to the above in HAW, MQA, MEL, and REN.

In Melanesia, D. pentaphylla is not among species for which Ross (2008) was able to provide a reconstructed term.

There is insufficient information on D. pentaphylla to judge the direction of introduction into Polynesia. Presence of the plant as a wild species in many areas, coupled with the spotty distribution, suggests that this is an old species that has fallen progressively out of use.  

In summary:

  • The Greater yam (Dioscorea alata) is of probable Melanesian origin.
  • The Lesser yam (Dioscorea esculenta) is of possible Micronesian origin and introduced from there both to Polynesia and Melanesia under different names.
    • The Potato yam (Dioscorea bulbifera) is another possible introduction to both Polynesia and Melanesia from Micronesia.
    • The Spiny yam (Dioscorea nummularia) is thought to be of late provenience in parts of Polynesia. It is present in Western Micronesia, and probably came from there.
  • The Five-leaved yam (Dioscorea pentaphylla) is widely distributed in Polynesia but its direction of introduction is uncertain.

Of the five species, only the Greater or Common yam is of unequivocal Melanesian origin.

Region by region there are some noticeable differences in the pattern of yam use and cultivation:

Bellwood (1978a:136) observes that yams are today important mainly in Melanesia and are of less significance in Micronesia and Polynesia, and this indeed seems to be the case.



The most widespread yam in Melanesia, and, as has been seen, quite possibly the only one with a clear claim to have reached Polynesia from this area, is Dioscorea alata, the Greater or Common Yam. In Melanesia, however, it assumes distinctive extra-culinary status as a component of the well-known "big man" complex and efforts by individuals to gain renown by conspicuous consumption or display. It is this form of yam that is seen to be ceremonially significant in Melanesia, and a source of prestige for the grower (Ross 2008:258). In part this behaviour can be seen as a product of the growing requirements and storage capabilities of the tuber itself. The plant requires rich well-drained soil which is present in abundance on the high islands of Melanesia and absent in atoll environments: it crops prolifically and tubers can grow to enormous size; and finally, unlike taro, it keeps well in storage. Because of these characteristics it can be grown in excess of food requirements and, like money, in our own economy becomes available in effect as a collectable product.



Barrau comments on difficulties he encountered in Ponape as a result of the mystery with which men surrounded the yam crop:

For them, yams possess a certain ritual value ; and they are reluctant to take an outsider into their yam gardens, which are usually hidden in the forest, or to supply any information on cultivation methods or the species and varieties grown (Barrau 1961:45).

Bascom reveals this behaviour to be the product of what he calls the "prestige economy", which is similar in this regard to the Melanesian "big man" complex but differs in other ways.

In Ponape a man rises in status through successful participation in prestige competitions. These take the form of giving feasts in honour of chiefs and by contributing large yams and quantities of pit breadfruit to feast given by others.

Each Section chief watches to see which men consistently bring the largest yams and chooses them to fill Section titles which are vacant or, if they already have a title, promotes them to higher rank (Bascom 1970:88).

An obvious point of difference from Melanesian big man behaviour is the role played by chiefs. Another is that a man is not allowed to show open pleasure in success but must display appropriate humility.

He must not act proudly or boast openly about his achievement. When others discuss the merits of his yam, he pretends not to listen. When they come up to tell him that his yam is the largest, he protests that it really isn't.

Finally, as Barrau found out, it pays a man to keep quiet about yams, kava plants, or pit breadfruit he has in his possession or is keeping in reserve for future occasions.

Information of this kind is concealed in the hopes that the element of surprise may enable the owner to surpass his neighbors at future feasts (Bascom 1970:89).



Barrau observes that in Polynesia yams are of real importance only in westernmost areas such as Tonga and Uvea (Wallis). Elsewhere in Polynesia

from the Samoan islands to the Australs and from the Society Islands to the Marquesas, the staple food-plants are, or were, taros, bananas, and breadfruit (Barrau (1961:19).

This has the appearance of a gradient, with a peak in Melanesia and a diminishing significance after transfer into Micronesia and Polynesia.

  • In Tonga, yams featured in obligatory first fruit and other tribute to chiefs and the Tui Tonga (Gifford 1929:103), but evidently no more so than other foodstuffs. 
  • For Samoa, Mead (1961:287-8) names the primary food plants as taro, bananas, yams, sweet potato, and breadfruit, but yams are simply one food plant here among others.
  • Finally, from early observations in Tahiti, Oliver (1974:251) notes yams, (Dioscorea alata: uhi), as occasionally cultivated but more generally collected from wild plants only when the common staple, breadfruit, was scarce. 

It is something of a puzzle to understand the wide distribution of all five species of yam in Polynesia, each with its own term or terms as revealed in Pollex. An answer may be that as a foodstuff notable for its keeping quality, it could have been favoured as a food supply on long-distance canoe voyages, but happily abandoned in favour of more palatable alternatives after arrival and thenceforth retained only as a famine food.



Controversy has surrounded the subject of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) in the Pacific, not least because of claims by Thor Heyerdahl that it was introduced by South American Indians, and later when a theory of African origin was also floated. Consensus nowadays, largely because of comprehensive studies by Douglas Yen (1974), supports introduction from South America by means of a return Polynesian voyage. Crucial also to the several arguments is distributional evidence from Melanesia and Micronesia, and the direction of contact in these areas.

Parameters for the debate were set very early by the American anthropologist Roland B. Dixon in a 1932 paper. Having rejected post-Columbian introduction by Spaniards, Dixon suggested the sweet potato in the Pacific must have been

due either to Polynesian voyagers who, reaching American shores, brought back the plant with them on their return to their homeland, or to Peruvian or other American Indians who sailed westward and carried the sweet potato with them to Polynesia . . . (Dixon 1932:59 cited by Howard 1967:70).

In his book Vikings of the Sunrise (1958:321-3) Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) puts the case for the first of these alternatives, doing so partly with reference to Dixon. In summary:

1. According to traditional history, the sweet potato was in Hawai'i by A.D. 1250 and in New Zealand by A.D. 1350 at the latest, showing that it had reached central Eastern Polynesia before the settlement of these two places.

2. The Peruvian coast of South America is specified as a point of origin because the common name for sweet potato in Polynesia is kumara, and the name for the same plant in the Kechua dialect of north Peru is kumar.

3. There is no evidence that the Indians of the Peruvian coast had either the craft or the skills for long sea voyages.

4. We are forced to conclude that transfer of the plant was made by Polynesians who reached the Peruvian coast and took the plant back with them to Polynesia at some time before the 13th century. 

Buck goes on to consider possible points of departure and return for this journey:

5. No expedition could have been inaugurated from Easter Island, because of lack of timbers with which to build a suitable canoe. Also, a voyage from there would most likely have reached the American coast only south of the area where kumara grew.

6. The nearest islands to South America from which a vessel might have set out are Mangareva and the Marquesas.  

7. An expedition from Mangareva would most likely have encountered Easter Island and gone no further.

8. There is uninterrupted ocean between south America and the Marquesas Islands which therefore emerge as the most likely starting point.

Buck calculates that such a journey would have taken about three weeks, which would not have been beyond the range of a Polynesian canoe. On arrival the voyagers would have found themselves among a strange people, and would not have been tempted to stay for long.

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. (Buck 1958:324).

A little under a decade after Buck's book was first published in 1938, Dixon's alternative hypothesis of sweet potato introduction had been put to the test by Thor Heyerdahl's spectacular voyage from Peru on his raft Kon Tiki.  Heyerdahl later published a substantial book, American Indians in the Pacific (1952) in which he attempted to gain scientific recognition for his theory of Polynesian origin, and later still he mounted an archaeological expedition to Easter Island (1955-6), publishing his initial results in a popular book Akuaku (1958). If the issue had been with the sweet potato alone he might have had a case, but the evidence of other food plants, all of which originated in SE Asia, as well as the linguistic evidence of language origin from the same quarter was overwhelmingly against him, and his broader contention of Polynesian settlement from America must accordingly be rejected.

The idea of African origin of the sweet potato has been attributed to E.D. Merrill (1954) in what Barrau (1961:53) calls a "daring theory". Merrill's publication, however, takes the form of a long and rambling paper in which he includes much valuable material but raises the African idea only peripherally, except as follows in an afterthought towards the end of the paper:

Concluding Remarks on the Origin of the Sweet Potato:— While in this memoir, as originally prepared, I accepted the almost universally prevalent idea that the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) was of American origin, I have reason to believe (though no satisfactory proof as yet) that this is erroneous. The plant probably originated through hybridization in Africa and was transmitted by man across the Atlantic to America a few centuries before Columbus reached the West Indies, and perhaps somewhat earlier by way of Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands to Malaysia, Papuasia and Polynesia and even to the west coast of South America. There is no definite proof of this as yet, but the hypothesis is worth further study (Merrill 1954:371).

Tentative as it is, this hardly ranks as a theory, daring or otherwise, and it is possible that Merrill himself would later have repudiated it if he had not been in the last active months of his life and had time to reflect, especially as information earlier in the paper about Portuguese contact in Africa (see next) should have suggested a more ready explanation. Geographically, a trans-Indian Ocean transfer from Madagascar to Malaysia may have seemed no more unlikely than a trans-Atlantic one from Africa to the Americas. But, as will be seen, neither idea was to prove correct. Merrill's more important contribution was with the nature of the Portuguese/Spanish connection.

Again and again in the course of his paper, Merrill emphasised the error of earlier writers in overlooking the importance of Portuguese and Spanish introductions of cultigens from the New World to SE Asia and Micronesia from the 16th century onwards. Specifically, after the discovery of Brazil by the Portuguese:

For somewhat more than 160 years there was a direct and, for certain seasons at least, a very much travelled commercial route, actually initiated in 1500, from Lisbon to eastern Brazil and thence via the Cape of Good Hope direct to Goa, on the Malabar coast of India (Merrill 1954:192).

Merrill goes on to point out that the Portuguese also established colonies in South Africa, "(and, here and there, on the east and west coasts of Africa) and explored a part of Madagascar."

In a surprisingly few years they had established themselves at Cochin, Goa, and elsewhere in India, Ceylon, Malacca (1511), the Moluccas (1512-1514) and Siam, explored the Red Sea and the Gulf of Persia, reached Canton (1517), founded Macao (1557) . . . and, from this as a centre, they operated extensively in Formosa and Japan (loc.cit.).

The other major early influence out of the Americas to be emphasised by Merrill was that of the Spanish:

The Spaniards initiated the galleon route from Mexico to the Philippines and return, in 1565, both the eastward and westward trips being by way of Guam. Normally only one ship was dispatched in each direction, each year, sometimes two, rarely three. We know the approximate number of tropical American species (115) introduced into Guam, before the galleon line was discontinued in 1815, as well as the corresponding figures for the Philippines (200). This Spanish-sponsored shipping line lasted for 250 years (Merrill 1954:193).

In 1963, the topic of the putative Oceanian-African hypotheses was taken up in a paper by Harold C. Conklin, in a thorough study of the vernacular names of sweet potato in the areas under contention, showing strong evidence of European loan words in all of them. No support was found for the idea of African origin, but unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with Merrill's other suggestions, the evidence uncovered by Conklin

strongly suggests that late sixteenth and seventeenth-century Portuguese ships were the first to carry sweet potatoes to Africa, Goa, and parts of Indonesia, from the Atlantic coastal regions of mid-latitude America; and that sixteenth-century Spanish vessels sailing from the Pacific coast of Mexico first introduced sweet potatoes to western Pacific regions including Micronesia, as well as the Philippines and other parts of Malaysia (Conklin 1963:133).

The debate about introduction of the sweet potato to America and SE Asia respectively, is important primarily for the light it throws on introduction into Polynesia. The fundamental starting point for all areas is South America, and in particular Peru, as the area of origin of the sweet potato, with introductions elsewhere, whether Africa, SE Asia or Polynesia all proceeding out of this area.

A west to east movement of the sweet potato into Polynesia is ruled out because of the evidence of introduction to SE Asia by Portuguese and Spanish seafarers in the 16th and 17th centuries A.D. Earlier east to west introduction by Polynesians is well supported by linguistic and other evidence across regions:



The Pollex cognate set for sweet potato, kumala (Ipomoea) has entries for most of Eastern and Western Polynesia, but is preceded by a note "It is possible that all apparent cognates outside of Eastern Polynesia are borrowings as there are no early references to the plant in Western Polynesia." This is plainly to be expected if plant introduction was from the Americas. 



Regarded for many years as "one of the greatest enigmas of Pacific prehistory" was the discovery in the 1930s of large numbers of people in the Highlands of New Guinea who cultivated sweet potatoes. How could this be if the plant originated in South America? And what about the situation in Island Melanesia? The answer in this case was evidently introduction into New Guinea via Indonesia after Spanish colonisation of the Philippines (Brookfield and Hart 1971:83-4), followed by arrival much later still in the Bismarck Archipelago and Solomon Islands only with European traders and Settlers (Ross 2008:55). 



In Micronesia, where the sweet potato was introduced into Guam by the Spanish, names given to it reflect its foreign origin. In Poanape:

The potato is called Kap-en-uai or the Foreign Yam; and the Sweet Potato Kap-en-Tomara, or the Yam of Tomara, from a village near the Palang River on the west coast where it was first introduced. Similarly . . . In the Pelews the potato and the sweet potato are styled Tuingutal-Barath, i.e. the Yam from the Westward (Christian 1899:334).



The best known and most exhaustive study of the sweet potato to date was carried out by Douglas Yen and published as a B.P. Bishop Museum Bulletin in 1974. Yen examined sweet potato distribution in both SE Asia and the Pacific, doing so from the standpoint of an ethno-botanist, with conclusions mirroring those foreshadowed by Buck, Merrill, Conklin, and others whose work is outlined above.

Taken together, the several strands of sweet potato introduction into Oceania are encapsulated into a single statement named by Yen as his "tripartite hypothesis":

The sweet potato was transferred from South America to Polynesia between AD 400 and 700, possibly by Polynesian voyagers. The 16th-century voyagers of Portugal and Spain were to transfer the plant from America to Indonesia and the Philippines, respectively. The Portuguese introduction was indirect, from the West Indies through Africa and India; the Spanish route was more direct from western Mexico and Peru on what was to be the Manila Galleon route through Micronesia (Yen 1974:329).

In the simplest terms, taking all evidence into account we end up with a grand circle of sweet potato introductions around the world. From an origin in Peru or nearby, the plant was taken into Europe after European discovery of the Americas, and from Europe via the Portuguese and Spanish trading empires to SE Asia and from there to New Guinea and parts of Island Melanesia. Meanwhile, perhaps half a millennium earlier, Polynesians had found South America and had begun to spread the sweet potato from there throughout Eastern Polynesia.

Although this general course of events is now the standard view, details are still elusive, despite an entire conference on the subject in 2002, reported upon in Ballard et al. 2005, and with the especial benefit, in this volume, of a detailed island by island survey from Roger Green.

Although no certainty can be claimed for its results, Green's (2005) survey departs from earlier estimates principally in terms of the timing for the Polynesian excursion to South America, now placing the date in the 11th or 12th centuries AD, rather than the 5th or 6th centuries nominated  by Yen. Green additionally makes a significant contribution by tracking the spread of the sweet potato much beyond the confines of Yen's tripartite model into historical times at the hands of Polynesians themselves on European vessels and introductions by European explorers and missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, a conclusion which must also be appropriate for other food plants.



The coconut palm is unquestionably one of the most versatile of Pacific plants, with the tree itself, its leaves, and the nuts, from their juvenile state through maturity and even beyond, all made use of. As observed by Bellwood:

. . . it provides a solid food and a drinkable liquid, together with fibre for cordage, leaves for roofing and basketry, shells for containers, and trunks for house posts and bridges. . . Its cultivated origins are unknown, but seem to lie in South-East Asia or Melanesia (Bellwood 1978b:34).

Detailed accounts of the culinary and other uses of the coconut, together with information about modern copra production, are available elsewhere (e.g. Massal and Barrau 1980:28-30) and need not be reproduced here. For background on Bellwood's statement it is worth stepping back a further 20 years once again to the time of Peter Buck.

When the 1958 edition appeared of Buck's book, Vikings of the Sunrise, botanists were in disagreement on two issues concerning the coconut, the first on where it came from, and the other on whether it was able to spread from place to place by natural means. On the latter issue, it is easy to imagine that whenever Polynesians found a new island, a palm-fringed beach would be awaiting them. But was this really true?

Buck knew that mature coconuts will float until water-logged, and must have been carried to islands by currents and storms, but there was doubt about how long they would remain viable. Buck thought they might have survived long enough to root on nearby islands but not on remote ones, so the spread of the coconut throughout Polynesia "must be attributed to man " (Buck 1958:314). Modern experiments have nevertheless shown that sea-borne coconuts can remain capable of sprouting for upwards of 18 months (Nunn 2008:110), so the extent of pre-human spread may have been greater than Buck supposed.

One of the ideas still current in the 1950s was an assumption that the coconut originated in tropical America. Merrill's investigations, however, showed that there was no evidence of pre-Columbian presence of the coconut in the Americas except on the Pacific coast of Panama and Ecuador. From this limited area it would have been spread elsewhere in the Americas, as in the case of the sweet potato, by the Portuguese and Spanish (Merrill 1954:266-7).

Today, a South American origin for the coconut is no longer even contemplated, as a result of overwhelming linguistic evidence to the contrary across all three ethnographic areas of Oceania:



Christian (1897:130) lists the following terms for coconut, almost all akin to the common Polynesian form niu:

Ponape nî, Kusaie nû. Yap niu, Ngatik, Mokil, Pingelap, and Nauru nî, Nukuoro nûi. Uluthi lû, Gilbert Islands and Marshalls nî, ngi and niu, Lamotrek nû, Satawal lû, Uleai lû, Sonsorol riu, rû.

The remarkably full distribution, encompassing both Western and Eastern Micronesia, together with the unusual degree of uniformity for the name, points to this term and the presence of the plant itself as indigenous to the area and unlikely to be a Polynesian borrowing.



Ross (2008:356) has a cognate set for PMP *niuR coconut, Cocos nucifera; (Dempwolff 1938) and POc *niuR coconut palm and/or fruit with Melanesian terms in areas Adm, NNG, PT, MM, TM, SES, NCV, NCal, together with Mic (8 entries East and West), Fij, and Pn (2 entries). Remaining Polynesian cognates are in Pollex (see next).



Pollex lists the following, again reconstructed to PMP as the highest order subgroup. As can be seen, there is an almost complete sweep of languages with the term in both Eastern and Western Polynesia, including the Outliers, and almost complete uniformity for both the term itself and its meaning.

ANU    Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

EAS     Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

ECE     Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

EFU     Niu. Coconut palm

EUV     Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

FIJ        Niu. Coconut palm

HAW   Niu. Coconut palm, coconut meat

KAP     Niu. Coconut tree

MAE    Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

MAO   Niu. Divining stick

MFA    Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

MKI     Ni. Coconut (Sve)

MQA   Niu. Prefixed to several Coconut varieties (Dln)

MVA   Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

NGG    Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

NGU    Na‑niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

NIU      Niu. Coconut palm

NUK    Nui. Coconut palm

OJA     Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

PEN     Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

RAR     Nuu. Coconut palm

REN     Niu. Coconut palm (Ebt)

ROT     Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

SAA     Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

SAM    Niu. Coconut palm

SIK       Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

TAH     Niu. Coconut palm (Obs.)

TAK     Nui. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera) (Hwd)

TIK      Niu. Coconut palm and nut (Fth)

TON     Niu. Coconut (tree or fruit)

TUA     Niu. Coconut palm

WFU    Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

WUV   Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

YAS     Niu. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

Two conclusions can be drawn:

1. The direction of introduction of the coconut palm into Polynesia was from west to east, with nothing to choose between Micronesia and Melanesia as vectors. Both could well have been involved. 

2. Polynesians were in possession of the coconut palm from Proto Polynesian times onwards and coconuts would have been well integrated into their food plant inventory by the time sweet potatoes were imported from South America. It is probable that Polynesians did not at this time possess the bottle gourd, and there is indeed a suggestion that this plant was South American (Whistler 1991:48-9) in which case it could have been brought back at the same time as the sweet potato. 

Lacking gourds for storage of drinking water, the Polynesians would have laid in a good supply of green drinking nuts for their outward exploratory journey, and probably a supply of sprouting coconuts as well in order to make use of the highly nutritious spongy contents (uto) as a foodstuff. On arrival in Peru, these nuts would have been still viable if planted.

An intriguing suggestion has been made by Whistler (1991:61) that Polynesians, having obtained the sweet potato from Peru may have reciprocated by leaving the coconut. Merrill's suggestion above that the coconut was present aboriginally in South America only in the Pacific coastal environs of Panama and Ecuador is consistent with this as Ecuador is the next-door neighbour of Peru,[4] and Merrill, in fact came close to making the same suggestion by surmising that the plant could have arrived "either through natural means (floating), or by the Polynesians themselves" (Merrill 1954:267). With floating now known to be ruled out by the northwesterly set of the Peru or Humboldt Current (Nunn 2008:110), an introduction by Polynesians is confirmed. 

Finally, unless the Polynesians had a lengthy stay in Peru they would have lacked drinking coconuts for the return journey, making up for this by their acquisition of the bottle gourd, and the luxury of water to drink on their way home.



Problems surrounding the botanical classification and geographical distribution of the banana (Musa sp.) have seemed so complex as almost to defy description. There are numerous species, subspecies, and varieties, including hybrids, (Ross 2008:276); the area of first domestication is still uncertain, with both New Guinea and SE Asia suggested as candidates; and there is a lengthy  subsequent history of new introductions and of commercial exploitation that has brought the banana to the world. The banana purchased today in an Auckland supermarket could quite well have been imported from Ecuador or other South American country. In South America, if Merrill is correct, the banana was introduced from west Africa in the 16th century AD as a consequence of the Portuguese slave trade, and was afterwards spread to other parts of tropical America by the Spanish (Merrill (1954:278). Thus far the story is familiar as this was just one of several plant species introduced into America in the same way. But how did the banana get to Africa? Was it indigenous there or did it come from somewhere else?

The accepted view has been that it came across the Indian Ocean from SE Asia, probably entering Madagaska within about 2000 years ago. A recent discovery, however, has thrown doubt on both the destination and the date. In 2001 a small group of archaeologists conducted a study of sediment cores from a swamp site in Uganda, East Africa. This yielded from its lowest level a quantity of microscopic plant stones known as phytoliths which are diagnostic of banana plant material, more than doubling the presumed age of bananas in Africa to some 5000 years ago. Peter Robertshaw, who reported the find, makes no extravagant claims about it:

All of a sudden, we were not only challenging the assumption that bananas only reached Africa in the last 2,000 years, but that African connections to the Indian Ocean world may be more ancient than we previously supposed (Robertshaw 2006).

The next step back is to find out where the SE Asian migrants to Madagascar came from. The clue to this is not bananas but language. The language spoken in most of Madagascar is Malagasy, and Malagasy is the most geographically distant member of the Austronesian language family from which Proto Malayo-Polynesian, Proto Oceanic, and Proto Polynesian are ultimately derived.   

Linguistically, the Malagasi language of Madagascar belongs to the Southeast Barito subgroup of Borneo but has undergone considerable influence from Malay and Javanese. Adelaar (1995) has speculated that Malagasy, rather than having sailed to Madagascar of their own accord, may have been transported there as slaves, ship crew, and labourers by Malays who, unlike South Barito speakers were seafarers who sailed all over Southeast Asia and along the Indian Ocean coast. In evidence, Adelaar offers numerous Malay and Javanese loan words in the Malagasi language. These would have entered the lexicon after the transfer of Southeast Barito speakers to Madagascar, possibly post-dating this event to a couple of centuries later than the currently estimated 5th century AD. If this is correct, then Robertshaw's banana date of 5000 years ago would have had nothing to do with Madagascar. The likelihood, however, is that such an introduction would have been by people from the same general area as those who later went to Madagascar, namely from somewhere in the environs of Indonesia. But there are arguments against this as well. First, the emergence of Malayo-Polynesian out of Taiwan took place on current estimates at around 4000 BP or later (Spriggs 2010) which is a thousand years after the event if Malayo-Polynesians were involved. Also, Uganda is landlocked, with the entire country of Kenya between it and the sea, so the prospect of any maritime visitors to Uganda is small, and the apparent early presence of banana there must therefore remain  a mystery.

A 5000 BP date for banana , however, is not a problem in itself to judge from  recent results by plant geneticists on materials from the Wahgi Valley of New Guinea. In an area known as the Kuk swamp site, banana phy­toliths has been found in the earliest layers, dating to 9000 BP, with very high quantities indicating active exploitation in the second phase of the site, dated 6900-6400 BP (Allaby 2007:190).  


Terms for banana

Melanesia and Polynesia

Despite uncertainty about the exact history of banana introductions at the Proto Malayo-Polynesian level, there is nevertheless a well-attested PMP reconstruction, *punti, for the plant, with a Proto Oceanic (POc) continuation of *pudi with reflexes so widespread as to make it certain that this was the generic term (Ross 2008:277). Ross continues with a cognate set ranging from Adm to Fij, and Pollex extends the distribution, mostly as fusi or futi to more than 20 Polynesian languages, with renditions in this case of PMP *futi and POc *punti as highest order subgroups:

Set 1


To these may be added MEL (Rensch and Whistler 2009:697).

Unexplained is the presence in Polynesia of two almost completely separate cognate sets for banana, the above which, as can be seen, is exclusively Western Polynesian except for New Zealand Maori, and a second smaller set limited to Central Eastern and Marginal Polynesia as follows:

Set 2

EAS                          Meika. Banana

MQA                        Meika. Banana

MVA                        Meika. Banana

RAR                         Meika. Banana

TAH                         Mei’a. Banana

TUA                         Meika. Banana

Cognates are also in Hawai'i as mai'a and side by side with the futi term in Tuvalu as maika (Rensch and Whistler 2009:251).

In New Zealand, banana did not grow and the Set 1 term above was applied to a variety of sweet potato.

It cannot be the case that the primary Set 1 term was lost in Proto Polynesian as in this event the term would not have been remembered by the New Zealand Maori, albeit applied to a different plant which itself was a post-PPn introduction. The only explanation that comes to mind is that perhaps the punti term became subject to word tabuing in Central Eastern Polynesia at some time before dispersal to Marginal Polynesia took place, and the new term became a permanent replacement.



Christian (1897:130) supplies the following:

Banana or Plantain.—Following practice common amongst Caroline islanders of dropping initial v or f: Ponape 'ut, Kusaie and Mortlock, 'us, Mokil and Pingelap, 'us, 'uts, Ngatik uth, Ruk (Hogohu) us, Pulawat, Uleai, Lamotrek, and Satawal uis, Nuku-oro huti, Sonsorol and Tobi  vathogl, Uluthi ut=banana. . . 

Compare also Mariannes chotda, Solomon Islands vudi, pusso, and Tahitian fei, fehi, Timor hudi, German New Guinea pundi, pun, hundi, fut, Bismarck Archipelago bundu, Fijian vundi, Pangasinan (Philippines ponti (id.), Samoan (Savai'i dialect) and Futuna futi.

It will be noticed that both high islands and atolls are on Christian's list, and the same is true of the Pollex listings for Polynesia above, although in this case high islands predominate. The reason, as Fisher observes for the Caroline Islands is that bananas "grow better on the high islands than on the low, although they are found everywhere." Fisher (1956:84). Also worth pointing out is that banana shoots from which new plants are propagated can last for a long time. The LMS missionary John Williams successfully transferred Chinese banana to Samoa from London after a trip of nine months (Massal and Barrau 1980:16), so the much shorter voyages undertaken by pre-Polynesians would have been no barrier to introductions of the plant.

Malcolm Ross's confidence in his POc reconstruction is vindicated by recent evidence of banana phytoliths in three Vanuatu archaeological sites ranging in date from 500 BP to the Lapita period of c.3000-2700 BP (Horrocks et  al. 2009). The distributional complexities referred to earlier, however, have also

been the subject of recent genetic research with conclusions which in this case challenge the prevailing Lapita orthodoxy:

Although bananas are widely assumed to have been part of the set of crops transported to Polynesia at first settlement, the linguistic evidence on which this is based underestimates the diversity of bananas in the New Guinea region and is suspect. Archaeological evidence of bananas is so far very tenuous. Recent genetic evidence of the parentage of most groups of cultivated bananas shows that the primary step toward edibility occurred in the Philippines New Guinea region. Early movements westward across Island Southeast Asia must have occurred, and the complexity of hybrids makes regionally dispersed development likely. There is no demonstrable link with Taiwan or the adjacent coast of China. There is no evidence that the genetically distinct lineages of bananas found in Polynesia were brought together in the putatively ancestral Lapita crop assemblage of the northern New Guinea region. The complex phylogeny of the cultivated Pacific bananas may thus suggest multiple prehistoric introductions of bananas to Polynesia. If bananas were part of the founding set of crops of Remote Oceania, the question "which bananas" is currently unanswered (Kennedy 2008:Abstract).

The answer, however, lies with the linguistic information which the above passage calls to question. Presence of the Set 1 term for banana in all three ethnographic areas of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia speaks of interactions over time among them all.


Other food plants

The foregoing sections on breadfruit, taro, yam, sweet potato, coconut and banana account for the most frequently consumed food plants common to the three ethnographic areas of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. Some remaining plants of interest will be considered next, but in less detail.



Contrary to the case on high islands where most food plants thrive, pandanus is a mainstay of atolls, so much so that the Kiribati islanders of Micronesia have been dubbed "pandanus people." (Grimble 1933-4).

For Micronesia, Christian reports as follows:

Pandanus, or Screw-Pine.—Used all over the islands for mat-making and thatching, and in manufacturing hats and sails. In the Marshall Islands the fruit (called pop) is eaten, and forms an important part of the island dietary. Ngatik, Ponape, and Pingelap ki-pár, Mortlocks fas far and fat, Nauru par, Nuku-oro hara and fara, Uluthi fat, Ruk fat (flower, li-fát), Pulawat fas, Mamotrek and Satawal fas, Sonsorol fas, St. Davids vat, Pampanga e-bus (Christian 1897:13).

The bulk of these terms are plainly cognate with the following extensive set of Polynesian terms from Pollex, where they are reconstructed to PAn *fara and POc *panda (Pandanus) as highest order subgroups:

ANU Para, ANU Paa, ECE Fala, EFU Fala, FIJ Vadra, HAW     Hala, KAP Hala,

MAE Fara, MFA Rau/fara, MQA   Fa’a, MVA ‘Ara, NIU Faa, NKR Hala, OJA Hala, PEN Hara, PUK Wala, RAR ‘Ara, REN Haga, ROT Hata, SAM Fala,

SIK Hala, TAH Fara, TAK Fara, TIK Fara, TOK Fala, TON Faa, TUA Fara, TUA Hara, WFU Fara, WUV Fala

Although most of these are Western Polynesian, the term is plainly PPn, and it would be surprising if it had not reached Polynesia from the mostly atoll environment of Micronesia.



The sugar cane is indigenous to the Old World tropics, but was an aboriginal intro­duction throughout Polynesia where it was cultivated for its sugar-laden stems and its leaves were used for house thatch (Whistler 1991:60).

Pollex has two closely related sets of terms for sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum):

Set 1

Reconstructed to PPn *to, with POc *topu and PAn *tebu “Sugarcane” as highest order subgroups.

ANU Too, EAS To/a, EUV too, FIJ Dovu, HAW Koo, MAE     Too, MVA Too, NIU Too, PUK Too, RAR Too, ROT Foqu, TAH To, TON Too.

To which may be added MQA (Rensch and Whistler 2009:514).

Set 2

Reconstructed to PNP tolo 'sugarcane'

EFU Tolo, MFA Toro, NIU Too, NKR Dolo, OJA Kolo, REN Togo,

SAM Tolo, SIK Tolo, TAK Tolo, TIK Toro, TON Too,

with addition of ECE (TUV) and, TOK tolo (Rensch and Whistler 2009:551). 

Christian has some Micronesian cognates among the following:

Sugar-cane.—Polynesian tô, tolo, Fijian ndovu, Ponape cheu (t to ch, a  common Micronesian change; in Paliker district on the west coast it is  called nan-tap), Kusaie tô, Ngatik tho, Mokil tâu, Pingelap tsô, sô, Nuku-oro tolo, Marshall Island tô (Christian 1897:133).

Ross 2008:390 lists numerous NW Melanesian cognates in Adm, NNG, PT, MM, TM, SES, and NCV of the reconstructed POc term *topu 'sugarcane, pointing out that in Polynesia this appears as to rather than the expected tofu.

As in so much else, the close matching of terms between Micronesia and geographically adjacent areas of both Melanesia and Polynesia, points to Micronesia as middle ground and no less likely than Melanesia as a source for the Polynesian term.



The Polynesian arrowroot is distributed from India eastward to Hawaii, but was probably an aboriginal introduction to Polynesia. It is naturalized in littoral areas, and was probably mostly harvested rather than cultivated. The starch extracted from the tuber is bitter and poisonous, and must be washed thoroughly before being baked and eaten. It is also used as an additive to other foods, and as a glue in making tapa cloth (Whistler 1991:62).

To judge from its common name alone, Polynesian arrowroot has very little to do with Melanesia, and, although it is eaten in both Vanuatu (Massal and Barrau 1980:12), and on the small islands of the SE Solomons, it apparently had only limited use in the Bismarcks, and no Proto Oceanic term has been found for it (Ross 2008:273). In Vanuatu it is evidently not cultivated but is gathered from wild plants in the forest and used only in times of hunger (Olsson 2010).

Vernacular names for the plant in Polynesia and Micronesia are provided by Barrau:

Tacca leontopetaloides (L.) Kuntze (T. pinnatifida Forster) is the Polynesian arrowroot. Except in Samoa, the Polynesian name is pia. In Samoa it is called masoa, though it was evidently once called pia there also. Native names in Micronesia are, for the Gilberts, to makamaka; for the Marshalls, inokmok; for Pingelap, muganiuk; for Ponape and Truk, inokmok; for Ulithi, moginog, for Yap, sobosob; and for the Marianas, gabgab (Barrau 1961:43).

For the central and western Carolines, Christian provides a similar range of names, saposep, topotop, soposop, tapatap, (Christian 1897:136), and for the Carolines in general gives mokomok as a generic term (Christian 1899:339). 

Barrau's Gilberts term, makamaka, also rendered as mokemoke and makemake, together with Nauruan damagmag, and Marshalls mokmok (Themon 1987:7) is plainly cognate with Christian's term from the Carolines, and some of the other terms may also be related.

For Polynesia, Pollex has two terms, Set 1 glosssed as the plant, and Set 2 referring both to the plant and the starch prepared from it. The two sets are mutually exclusive except for Tuvalu (ECE) and Samoa (SAM), which have both terms.


Set 1

Glossed as 'Polynesian arrowroot' (Tacca sp.);

ANU Maoa, ECE Maasoa, EFU Maaso'aa, EUV Mahoa'a, SAM Maasoaa,

TIK Masoaa, TOK Mahoaa, TON Maahoa'a


Set 2

Glossed mostly to pia 'Arrowroot, starch'


To these may be added NUK bie, pie (Rensch and Whistler 2009:619).

The Set 2 term appears in both Eastern and Western triangle Polynesia and is of presumed PPn status. In view of the widespread presence and use of arrowroot in Micronesia, coupled with its comparative absence in Melanesia, and particular suitability for atoll environments, a Micronesian rather than Melanesian introduction to Polynesia can be assumed, with change of name to the current terms occurring at the point of transfer. The Set 1 distribution is limited to Western Polynesia including Outliers, and on this account must be more recent. It would seem not improbable that this term originated somewhere in the region of Tuvalu, East Uvea, or Samoa at some time after the settlement of Eastern Polynesia.



The turmeric probably originated somewhere in southeast Asia, but does not occur today in the wild state. It was aboriginally introduced throughout Polynesia where it was cultivated for the yellow powder extracted from its rhizome; this was used as a dye for tapa and mats, and as body paint in ceremonial and medicinal practices (Whistler 1991:62 ).

Although used principally as a dye, turmeric is also a minor foodstuff. On Ponape, for example, there are four varieties, all dating from the pre-contact period, of which one, known as 'little turmeric' is used for food (Bascom 1965:110).



Pollex has two separate terms for turmeric in Polynesia. In the lists following, only entries referring specifically to turmeric or its botanical name, Curcuma sp. have been included. The full listings in Pollex include entries where the terms, mean, yellow or something yellow, and these are noted separately below.   


Set 1

Reconstructed to POc renga Turmeric as highest order subgroup.

ANU Renga, EFU Lega, EUV Lega FIJ Re/rega, HAW ‘oo/lena, MQA ‘Ena, MVA Rega, NGU Na/tetega, NKR Lenga, RAR Renga, REN Genga, SAM Lega, TAH Re’a, TAK Rena, TIK Rega, TON Enga, TUA Renga

In Tuvalu (ECE) the term renga is applied to yellow ointment from Samoa or Rotuma (Ranby 1980) and, as singa, means yellow (Noricks 1981); it refers to yellow alone in MAO, PEN, and PUK, and does double duty for 'yellow' and 'turmeric' in HAW and TAH.  

Though glossed as a rule in Pollex simply as 'turmeric' , a sampling of dictionaries shows this term to refer to the prepared product,in contrast with the plant itself which is designated by the Set 2 term.  


Set 2

Reconstructed to PAn Ango A plant (Curcuma sp.) as highest order subgroup.

ANU Ango, EFU Ago, EUV ‘Ago, FIJ Cago, NIU Ango, REN Ango, ROV Ango, SAM Ago, TAK Ano, TIK             Ango, TON Ango

As can be seen, there is overlap between the two sets in the case of ANU, EFU, EUV, FIJ, REN, SAM, TAK, TIK and TON, all in Western Polynesia, with terms in both sets, and HAW, MQA and other Eastern Polynesian languages all in Set 1 alone.



An obvious cognate of the Set 1 Polynesian term is reported by Christian in two seemingly separate applications:

For ginger, we find in Ponape ong and au-long, in Kusaie, Mort-locks, Yap, Ruk, Pulawat and Pelew Islands reng, in Nuku-oro renga or lenga.

Significantly, after some discussion of terms elsewhere for 'yellow', Christian adds: 

It must be remembered that reng in the Carolines generally is used for the prepared turmeric done up into neat little cones, and extensively used throughout the group, and indeed all over Polynesia and Micronesia, for a cosmetic (Christian 1896:126, 127).

Of equal significance is appearance of the term on the Western Micronesian island of Yap, famed for its pre-contact stone money, where the reng packages of prepared turmeric (called mabuul on Yap) were used as money (Jensen 1977:174), and the reng term served also as the name for the smallest denomination of Yapese stone money (New World Encyclopedia 2008).

This is a uniquely Micronesian usage, providing strong evidence of Western Micronesia as a probable area of origin of the reng term and, by extension, its introduction into Polynesia.

A common denominator of the above descriptions is the colour 'yellow', which ginger and turmeric share. It would seem, however, that in Micronesia as in Polynesia the name for the prepared plant as reported by Christian is different from names for the plant itself, supplied as follows by Barrau:

Micronesian names are, for Ponape, ong; for Yap, guchol; for Ulithi, ochol; for Palau, kcsol; for the Marianas, mango (Barrau 1961:60).

Barrau's Ponape and Marianas names for turmeric have the appearance of cognacy with the Set 2 Polynesian terms, placing Micronesia in the same category as Western Polynesia as possessing both names.

Finally, in the Marianas, the Set 2 term, mango, means 'a yellow colour', and there are also colour associations for this term in the Carolines, again as in Polynesia:

Yellow in Ponape is ongong, in Pingelap and Mokil ongeonge, and in, the Pampanga ma-ange-ange (Christian 1897:126-7).



Ross (2008:412-3) provides three cognate sets inclusive of Melanesia, the first of the Set 2 term above and the others of the Set 2 and Set 1 terms respectively.


Set 2

Reconstructed to POc *yango 'turmeric, Curcuma longa'

NNG, MM, NCV, Mic: Ponapean, Mokilese, Woleaian, Fij: Bauan, Pn: Tongan, Samoan.

The terms in this table are applied almost as frequently to ginger as to turmeric.

In a number of languages the term is reconstructed not to 'turmeric' but to POc *yango-yango 'yellow'

NNG, PT, MM, SES, NCV, Mic: Woleaian, Fij



Set 1

Reconstructed to PEOc *[re]rengwa 'yellow material, prepared turmeric (?)'

SES, NCV, Mic: Kiribati, Fij, Pn: 7 entries.

Glossed variously as 'turmeric', 'prepared turmeric', or 'yellow'

As can be seen, there is a considerable range of meanings for the two terms in Melanesia, with no hint of the clear-cut distinctions between them that characterise Polynesia. More significantly still, of more than 30 languages represented in the cognate sets, only one in Melanesia, NCV Mota, apart from Fiji, has both cognate terms.



In judging the direction of introduction of turmeric into Polynesia, it is difficult to reconcile all of the above information. A key consideration, however, must be the distinction between plant and product which characterises the Set 1 and 2 terms respectively in Western and Central Micronesia together with Western Polynesia, but not in Melanesia except in Fiji.

Another matter to be taken into account is the differing highest order subgroup status of the two terms as POc and PAn respectively. It will be assumed in the discussion to follow that these terms were introduced into Polynesia together  rather than separately.

If turmeric entered Polynesia from Micronesia, one might expect it to have done so through Tuvalu, with Fiji the most likely point of origin if entry came from Island Melanesia. Were it not for the fragmented nature of incidence in the latter area, Fiji would be the more likely of the two, with both terms spreading from there to Tonga and the other areas in Western Polynesia which have both Set 1 and Set 2 terms. In this case, however, no explanation is available for the match between Western Polynesian usage and the identical distinction between plant and product in Micronesia. Tuvalu, on the other hand, would be the nearest point of entry if the transfer of plant and product had followed an easterly Micronesian route into Polynesia. But no evidence has been found of the plant in Tuvalu except as a borrowed product and as a term for yellow. Hedley, who conducted research in the area in 1896, apologises in his report for not having sufficient time to study plant evidence in detail. He says only that turmeric was present as a yellow dye, but does not reveal whether or not it was grown locally, and recourse to dictionaries has yielded only an entry from Ranby's Nanumea Lexicon of renga as an ointment from Rotuma or Samoa, which was presumably a borrowed import. Evidence of the plant in Tuvalu could yet be found, but absence need not be a surprise as turmeric evidently does best in rich soils and, from the distributional evidence was probably absent or rare in other atolls as well.  

With Melanesian evidence taken into account, just one possibility remains.

It seems clear that the original meaning of the Set 2 term in Melanesia, as also indicated by Christian for the Marianas and Carolines, was 'yellow', but an innovation occurred in Micronesia distinguishing the Set 1 term as the prepared product and the Set 2 term as the plant name, and these distinctions were carried from Micronesia into Polynesia. If not through  Tuvalu or direct from Kiribati, this would need to have taken place through the Outliers, possibly from Ponape to Nukuoro, and then west to east through Anuta, Tikopia, or other high islands which currently have both terms until Western Polynesia and ultimately Fiji was reached. The spread of the terms throughout Western Polynesia would have taken an unknown time to complete, possibly extending even beyond the date of settlement of Eastern Polynesia which must have been by a group who dropped the Set 2 term in favour of Set 1 for both plant and product.



(Morinda citrifolia)

The Indian mulberry is distributed from India to Hawaii, but was probably aboriginally introduced over the eastern part of its range, as it was in Hawaii. It is casually cultivated in villages and plantations, often as a weed of disturbed places, but is also naturalized in coastal forests. The bark and roots were used to make red and yellow dyes, and the fruit is a famine food. Various parts of the plant are also widely employed in native Polynesian medicine (Whistler 1991:56).

Barrau (1961:64-5) observes that the fruit contributed to the diet of both Polynesians and Micronesians in very early times, particularly on atolls, but was used mainly for its red and yellow dyes which were extracted from the leaves and root respectively.



Pollex has a huge cognate set of Polynesian terms for Morinda citrifolia, extending over almost the entire area, with reconstruction to PPn *noni and to POc *nonu as highest level subgroup.   

AIT Nano, ANU Nonu, ECE Nonu, EFU Nonu, FIJ Noni, EUV Nonu, HAW Noni, KAP Nonu, MAE Nonu, MFA Nunu, MIA Nonu, MKI Nenu, MQA Noni, MQA Nono, MVA Noni, MVA Nonu, NFU Nonu, NIU Nonu, NUK Nonu, PEN Noni, PUK Nonu, RAR Noni, RAR Nono, SAM Nonu, TAH Nono, TIK Nonu, TOK Nonu, TON Nonu, TUA Nono, WUV Nonu.

The term is also present in New Zealand Maori but applies there to a different plant, and in Fiji may be a borrowing from Polynesia as Capell's Fijian dictionary (Capell 1968:106, 156) shows it coexistent there with kura, which is Melanesian (see later).



Barrau (loc.cit.) provides vernacular names from East to West as follows:

Native names in Micronesia are, for the Gilbert Islands, to non; for the Marshall Islands, nin; for Pingelap, obul; for Ponape, weipul; for Truk, nen and nobur; for Yap, ngel and mangalueg ; for Ulithi, lol; and for Palau, nel. In the Tagalog dialects of the Philippines the vernacular names of Morinda are nino and lino.

Christian (1899:340 and 1897:134) gives the Gilberts term as nonu, confirms the Marshalls term as nin and the Uliti one as lol, and additionally offers, Mortlock nin, and the Polynesian Outlier Nukuoro nonu. As well he draws attention to Malay, nona.  

Finally, in a table of cognates for nonu, Ross (2008:408) includes non for Kiribati (Gilberts), nen for the Marshalls, and nen for Puluwat.  

Christian's Malay term is plainly cognate with Gilberts nonu, as also with its Polynesian equivalents, and the nin, nan, nen, non terms can also be accepted as cognate on the authority of Ross.  



In light of the following statement from Malcolm Ross, there is no need to cite Melanesian cognate sets in detail. Two proto Oceanic terms of especial significance for present purposes are distinguished: 

*kurat is reflected solidly through Melanesia from New Ireland (Lihir, Tangga) through NW Solomonic (Nehan, Ro­viana), SE Solomonic, North/Central and Southern Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji, while *nonu occurs in the Admiralties, North New Guinea, Papuan Tip, Micronesian and Poly­nesian. These distributions suggest that POc *nonu was in some sense the default term for M. citrifolia and that it was then replaced by *kurat in a solid Melanesian block from New Ireland to New Caledonia and Fiji. However, the reflexes of *kurat are generally regular, suggesting that replacement took place very early in the history of Oceanic (Ross 2008:408).

The implications of this could hardly be more apparent. The nonu term came first, reaching the Admiralties and Micronesia from the Philippines, and thence from the Admiralties to northern Papua New Guinea, and from Micronesia through the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) to Polynesia, with presence of the alternative term throughout Island Melanesia ruling out entry to Polynesia from this quarter. 


Chapter summary and conclusion

This chapter has provided information on the common Polynesian food plants, considering each in terms of use, vernacular name, and distribution within both Polynesia and the adjacent areas of Melanesia, and Micronesia. The object has been to identify possible paths for introduction of the plants into Polynesia from the latter two areas. From an ultimate origin in SE Asia, just two routes are possible for such introductions, one out of Micronesia, involving the mostly atoll islands en route, and the other out of Island Melanesia, most likely via Fiji. The first of these alternatives was long ago rejected by Buck because of unfavourable atoll environments for most of the plants; and the other has subsequently been espoused by Kirch and Green as a key component of their theory of Lapita origins for Polynesians. Neither theory is fully supported by the data set out above. Atoll dwellers have found ways to ameliorate the disadvantages of their poor soils, and only a limited range of plants in fact are found to have come exclusively from Melanesia, with both Melanesia and Micronesia contributing their most important plants. Thus, breadfruit, for example, came from both directions; true taro came from Melanesia, but swamp taro from Micronesia; pandanus, arrowroot, and turmeric were probably introduced from Micronesia; Indian mulberry was unequivocally in this category;  and other plants such as banana, coconut, and sugarcane are so ubiquitous, as to have come, once again, from no single source. 

The "full roster" of Lapita food plants referred to by Kirch and Green has accordingly dwindled to a handful, and Micronesia has emerged as an area of no less significance than Melanesia.

>>> Chapter 12. Domestic animals

[3] Both terms are glossed in the Tokelau dictionary as ulu, and as varieties of Artocarpus altilis, but with qualifying terms of 'Elihe' and 'Samoa', signifying introduction from Tuvalu and Samoa respectively (Office of Tokelau Affairs 1986:45).

[4] Merrill points out as well that in pre-colonial times boundaries were different and the term Peru applied to part of what is now Ecuador (Merrill 184:94).