Polynesian history: more botanical evidence
   Author:   Yuri Kuchinsky 
   Date: 1998/08/12
   Forums: sci.archaeology, sci.anthropology, rec.arts.books,


Let's now look at some of the other South American plants that were found
growing on Easter Island at the end of the 19th century and later. These
are pineapple, tobacco, small tomato (Solanum Zycopersicum), manioc, and
the "dry-land taro" (Xanthosoma atrovirens). The first four were described
on EI by the American expedition that arrived in 1886 aboard USS Mohican.
Paymaster Thomson, and others, spent eleven days on the island, and they
have done a lot of valuable work there. The fifth one, the taro, was
described by Heyerdahl as growing on EI in a wild state even recently.

It is important to see what varieties of these plants we are discussing
here, and how exactly they grew on EI. Botanists generally divide
cultivated plants into two categories, cultigens, and cultivars.

The "Dictionary of Anthropology" (Winick, Greenwood Press, NY, 1956) gives
"cultigen" as "A plant which is dependent upon man for its survival".
These are the usual agricultural plants that we are all familiar with.
They need cultivation, i.e. they are far removed from their natural state,
and they depend on the humans for survival. Such plants normally cannot
survive in the wild by themselves, because they will be overcome by the
more resilient wild plants in the area. One example of such a plant is
maize, which is totally dependent on the humans for its survival.

The Funk and Wagnals Standard College Dictionary defines "cultivar" as "a
horticultural variety of plant or flower [CULTI(vated) and VAR(iety)].
Cultivars are the plants that are not so far removed from their natural
state, and they can usually revert back to nature, and grow in the wild if
the climate is appropriate.

So the distinction here is between plants which can be grown in gardens or
live wild, and those which can only survive when tended by humans. In
other words, compared to cultigens, cultivars are plant varieties that are
more "archaic", i.e. they are the plants that were used by ancient

David Wilson offers a discussion on the difference between a "cultivated"
plant vs a "domesticated" plant in his book _The New Archaeology_, Knopf,
1974 (paperback), chapter 8, p. 161.

The five plants mentioned here so far are obviously cultivars, since they
were found growing by themselves in remote and isolated areas of EI.

Thomson described pineapple, tobacco, small tomato, and manioc.


This is a special kind of pineapple. The fruits are small, much smaller
than the standard pineapple that we're familiar with, but they are very
fragrant, and apparently quite pleasing to taste. It is well attested on
great many Pacific islands, and commonly found growing mostly in drier
upland areas. Besides EI, it is also described, according to Heyerdahl, in
the Marquesas group, in the Cook islands, and in Hawaii.

In his younger years, in 1937, Heyerdahl spent quite some time on
Fatuhiva, in the Marquesas. (These were his "back to Nature" years, and he
wrote about them in his book FATU-HIVA.) He describes these small
pineapples in this area,

     "The smallish aboriginal pineapple was abandoned in the
     deserted areas of the Marquesas Islands when the larger and
     better quality was introduced by the Europeans [beginning of
     the 19th c.], and the islanders made a clear distinction
     between the two types..."  (Heyerdahl, EARLY MAN AND
     THE SEA, p. 229)


Thomson wrote,

     "We saw tobacco plants growing in secluded spots, but were
     unable to determine by whom or when they were introduced.
     The natives maintained that the seed was included among
     that which was brought to the island by the first settlers"
     (Thomson, p. 256; in Heyerdahl, EARLY MAN
     AND THE SEA, p. 226)

Heyerdahl adds,

     "The local name for the plant was _ava-ava_, indicating that
     the leaves had been chewed, like _ava_ or _kava_, whereas
     European smoking tobacco is _odmo-odmo_, to suck, or
     _puhi-puhi_, to blow. In the Andean area prior to the
     European introduction of the North American smoking habit,
     tobacco was cultivated for chewing."


Thomson wrote,

     "Tomato plants were also found growing wild, and on several
     occasions proved a valuable addition to our limited fare."
     (Heyerdahl, EARLY MAN AND THE SEA, p. 226)

And Heyerdahl adds this about both tomato and pineapple,

     "They were recorded growing wild in pre-missionary
     settlement areas on the east coast, an area abandoned by
     the Easter Islanders who all moved to Hangaroa on the west
     coast when the first Europeans settled ashore in that place."

Thomson also recorded tobacco in the same areas, and also our
old friend manioc.


We have already spent much time discussing this South American
crop. It was recorded as _yuka_ on EI way back in 1770 by the
Spanish expedition under the leadership of Gonzalez, but
subsequently this word was mistranslated by the British scholar
Corney in 1908. This error was corrected in 1988 by Robert
Langdon. Later, the critics of Heyerdahl tried to discredit this
Spanish testimony. I suppose they did not bother to read either
Thomson, or the Heyerdahl's publications dealing with this subject.

And finally,

THE DRY-LAND TARO (Xanthosoma atrovirens)

This plant is also known as _tarua_ in Tahiti and the Marquesas
(not the be confused with the Asian taro -- Colocasia antiquorum).
This is an indigenous American plant. It is described in America by
Sauer and Cook. According to Heyerdahl, it is

     "the only kind of taro which in EI grows locally in the dry soil
     between scattered lava blocks." (Heyerdahl, EARLY MAN
     AND THE SEA, p. 233)

The fact that these American plants were found growing in the wild state
on EI clearly removes the possibility that they may have been introduced
by the Europeans. The Europeans could not have been introducing obscure
"archaic" varieties of SA plants.

These cultivars were found growing in the areas of abandoned ancient
settlements on EI. Clearly they were brought to EI many centuries ago and
were cultivated at that time. Later, some catastrophe befell these
settlements, and they were abandoned by the people who built them. But
their plants obviously survived, and began to propagate on their own.

Some early European botanical introductions to EI have been recorded, and
Heyerdahl writes about them, but none of them before the 19th century
produced any lasting results.

So here we have these five unusual American plants found on EI. A few
more can be added to this list of course. Sweet potato (kumara) is
the centerpiece of the collection, and it is generally accepted as a
pre-European introduction from SA. Also chili and achira have
already been discussed. Good evidence also exists for

- Polygonum acuminatum (fresh-water medicinal plant),
- husk-tomato (Physalis peruviana), which is yet another kind of a tomato
- Cyperus vegetus (edible roots), and
- Lycium carolinianum (edible berries).

But how many do we really need to establish without any doubt
that EI was visited in ancient times by Native South Americans,
and received strong cultural influences from that direction?



US Nat. Mus. for the year ending June 30, 1889, Washington, DC

Heyerdahl, Thor, EARLY MAN AND THE SEA, Allen & Unwin,
1978, London

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