Volume 20 1911 > Volume 20, No. 2 > The cocoanut and the peopling of the Pacific, p 60-62
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AMONG our recent exchanges is “Contributions from the United States National Herbarium,” Vol. XIV., part 2, being the “History of the Cocoanut Palm in America,” by O. F. Cook. This is the second paper by the same author on this subject, and contains further historical and botanical evidence to the effect that the cocoanut is a native of North-west South America. The author shows very completely that De Caudole was mistaken in supposing that this wide-spread palm was a native of Indonesia or Asia. If this contention is proved (as it seems to be), there are some interesting questions arising out of it in connection with the early peopling of the Pacific.

The author shows, we think conclusively, that the cocoanut does not propagate itself by accidental drift across the ocean. At any rate, if it ever does so, it would only be in cases where the drift is for very short distances. It follows, therefore, that the cocoanut has been spread over the tropics by the aid of man.

If so, it would appear probable that there must have been migrations from South America to the isles of Polynesia; and this theory the author maintains, but supposes it to have occurred in very ancient times. He says, p. 296, “The period in which the cocoanut was first carried westward across the Pacific was in all probability so extremely remote that shore lines and land masses may easily have been different from what they are now.” He adduces some instances of the extent to which the South American aborigines carried their voyages in ancient times, but does not give any instances of their reaching the islands; indeed, it is probably impossible to do so from other than botanical evidence. We may remember, however, in this connection that the Easter Islanders relate that the ancestors of the “long-eared people” who were found in occupation of that island when the Polynesian people arrived there some twenty to thirty generations ago, are said to have come from some very hot country away to the east. And again, that Dr. Carroll holds that the Easter Island hyrogliphics are related to those of the Peruvian Quichua people. The Marquesans have a tradition (according to Captain Porter) that they obtained their cocoanuts originally from some island or country called Ootoopoo (probably Otupu in modern Polynesian), lying to windward or eastward of that group.

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Even if there had been such migrations from South or Central America to the Central Pacific bringing with them the cocoanuts, the probability is that the Polynesians exterminated the people when they overran the Pacific in the fifth and following centuries. There is little, however, to support this view of a prior population in the islands to be deduced from the well-preserved tradition of the present inhabitants, beyond the Easter Island story.

We think it quite possible, with the known powers of navigation of the Polynesians, that they at one time or other did extend their voyages to the coasts of America, and may have brought back with them both the cocoanuts and the kumara (or sweet potato). But here arises a question that the present writer feels unequal to solving, i.e., “Is the American cocoanut so nearly identical with that of Central Polynesia as to allow of its having been obtained from the former country within the Polynesian period, or, say within the last fifteen hundred years? Could the variations (if any) have become fixed within that period?”

Mr. Cook himself adduces some evidence of the easterly drift of a Polynesian population to the shores of America. He says (p. 295), “As an indication that some of these expeditions from Polynesia reached the American continent, we may refer to the banana—a plant certainly a native of the Old World, and also widely distributed in pre-Spanish America. Balboa 1 found on his first expedition across the Isthmus of Panama a tribe of dark-skinned heavily tattooed people, with frizzled hair, which various historians have described as negroes, following a statement to that effect by Peter Martyr:—‘There is a region not past two dayes iorney distant from Quarequa in which they founde only black Moores, and those exceedynge fierce and cruell. …’ Oviedo's much more detailed account of these people makes it apparent that they were not negroes. Peter Martyr's statement is in the nature of a casual report echoed from second-hand information. Oviedo's narrative was drawn up on the isthmus when he arrived in 1513, the year after Balboa crossed. It embodies the direct testimony of Balboa himself and other eye-witnesses of the event of his remarkable expedition.”

“It is evident enough from Oviedo's account that the black frizzle-haired people encountered by Balboa were recent intruders and not ordinary Indians, but there is not the slightest indication, expressed or implied, that they were African negroes, who were quite unable to make voyages to America either by design or accident. … . The Pacific, however, was the scene of a maritime activity, - 62 as shown not only by the Polynesians, but by the dark frizzle-haired Melanesian people who were extending themselves to the eastward, and had reached not only Fiji and Tonga but Tahiti and the Marquesas. The place where these frizzle-haired people were found by Balboa was close to the Pacific Ocean and very far from the Atlantic.”

Now this would be good evidence of the arrival of some Polynesians on the Pacific Coast of the Isthmus of Panama were the people not described as “frizzle-haired.” No true Polynesian is frizzle-headed in the ordinary use of the term, though the description would apply to the Fijians, a mixture of Polynesian and Melanesian. Nor could these people have been true Melanesians, for they do not tattoo, nor are they extensive voyagers like the Polynesians; unless, indeed, they were taken by the latter on their voyages as sailors and servitors—a thing that has apparently not been infrequent. We know that there were Melanesians (or half-bred Melanesians) in Ra'iatea Island, near Tahiti, as late as the twelfth century, if not later, and many things seem to point to their having been in Hawaii and Tahiti as late as the fourteenth century, when the great migration to New Zealand took place from the latter island. But these people had been taken there by the Polynesians, to whom they stood in the relation of serfs; they were not natives of those islands. Hence, one would be inclined to think that Balboa's “frizzle-haired” people of Panama were the crews of some Polynesian navigators who had crossed the ocean to that part, were it not that none of the straight or curly-haired people are mentioned such as the Polynesians are.

The whole of Mr. Cook's paper (seventy-two pages) is most interesting reading, and no one who deals with Polynesian history in the future can afford to neglect it.

1   Balboa, the so-called discoverer of the Pacific Ocean in 1513. It is almost needless to say that Polynesian navigators had traversed large parts of this great ocean nearly a thousand years before Balboa saw it.