Volume 111 2002 > Volume 111, No. 4 > Correspondence, p 413-414
“Continuity of Bodies” and Similarity of Practices in Polynesia
Bruno Saura's paper, “Continuity of Bodies: The Infant's Placenta and the Island's Navel in Eastern Polynesia” (JPS 111 (2): 127-45) is most interesting, and I would like to add a few bits of information about similar practices from other parts of East Polynesia.
While I have no information of the placement of the placenta in ancient Hawai'i, in past times Hawaiians used piko holes as receptacles for the umbilical stump of newborns; this practice is well known and widespread, particularly on the Big Island of Hawai'i. A similar custom also has been noted for Easter Island.
In Hawai'i, certain locations were considered sacred; these could be hills, rocks, caves, oddly shaped rocks, and so on. Petroglyphs on the big island of Hawai'i were not randomly placed in the landscape, but they were created at some ritual site or where the petroglyphs, as prayers or offerings, would be the most efficacious (Lee and Stasack 1999:7, Lee 2002:81). One of the more significant locales is Pu'uloa, in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Here, centred on a large lava dome, are thousands of piko holes. The ethnography clearly connects them with the practice of the placement of the piko of a newborn. The name, Pu'uloa, translates to 'Hill of Long Life”. By placing an infant's piko at the site, a long life would be assured for the newborn. The anthropologist Martha Beckwith collected tales about Pu'uloa. An informant related that,
You make a puka (hole) by pounding with a stone, then in the puka you put the piko, then shove a stone in the place where the piko is placed. The reason… is to save the piko from the rats…. If they had ten children they would make ten pukas…. (Cox and Stasack 1970:56).
The popularity of the practice of creating a piko at Pu'uloa can be seen in their numbers. The site has at least 23,566 petroglyphs, and 84 percent of those art piko holes (Lee and Stasack 1999:90).
Upon Captain Cook's arrival at the Hawaiian Islands, Dr Samwell's journal mentions a scramble to place piko on the ship. He noted that women directed their men as to where on the ship they should put them (Beaglehole 1967:1225). This event was triggered by Cook's arrival, for he was believed to be the god Lono, and what better place to put a piko.
As for Easter Island, Métraux (1970:103) noted that: “Sometimes the cord was buried under stone, and a charm pronounced over it: ‘Ka noho hiohio koe i toou kainga!’ (May you stay strong in your country!) The land in which the umbilical - 414 cord was concealed was tapu; if anyone trod upon it, his legs were covered with white spots (kino).”
The custom on Easter Island varied in that the umbilical stump seemingly was placed in a small natural bubble in the lava and covered with a stone. A member of a traditional Rapanui family related the practice to me. This came about during a visit to an uninhabited part of the island where I was searching for some petroglyphs (Lee 1992). My companion, a young Rapanui woman, called me over and pointed at a rock. “Here”, she said, “this is the place where my father-in-law placed my son's piko.” She lifted off a flat stone to reveal the depression. That spot had been chosen because of the family's relation to that part of the island in ancient times, and because the site caught the first rays of the sun. She added that the custom was widespread in the old days, but since women began having their babies in the hospital, it had been discontinued. I asked her if she knew that the Polynesians of Hawai'i had the same general practice and she was astonished to hear it.
Aside from my informant and the mention by Métraux, I know of no other reports of the special placement of the umbilical cord for Easter Island. That these bits of information exist at all is of interest, for they suggest a remarkable timeframe for the practice, in that wide dissemination indicates connections far back across Polynesia.
Georgia Lee Easter Island Foundation.