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10.2: Polynesian introduced plants

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    Polynesian Introductions are plants introduced by early Polynesians who migrated to the Hawaiian islands from other islands in the Pacific. The history of Polynesian migration is well documented through archeological, linguistic, and DNA studies as well as through oral histories passed on through generations. Humans started to migrate eastward from Southeast Asia and Melanesia around 3,500 years ago (Kirch, 2010). They initially migrated to islands that were relatively easier to get to, as ocean levels were lower at this time. As they moved east, the distance between islands became greater and the biodiversity decreased. This meant the technology for successful voyaging had to become more advanced, such as the development of double-hulled canoes that could withstand longer journeys in open water. The dependency on domesticated plants and animals also increased because more distant islands did not have wild plants and animals that could be used for food and other survival means, compared to islands closer to Asia.

    Polynesians arrived in Hawai‘i around 800 years ago (Kirch, 2010) and brought with them approximately 23 species of plants (Table 1). These plants were incredibly important, as they ensured the survival of the newly established human populations. While the first arrivals could survive for a time on native bird populations and seafood, successful human settlements depended on the successful introduction and production of domesticated agricultural crops (Kirch, 2010; Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Example of a Polynesian introduced plant brought to Hawai‘i on long-distance voyaging canoes. Kalo (Colocacia esculenta) growing in lo‘i (wetland) system on the left and māla (dryland) on the right.© 2021 by DutraElliott is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 via Flickr.

    The plants introduced by Polynesians did not all arrive at the same time, as there were multiple trans-oceanic voyages to and from the Hawaiian Islands. For example, ‘ulu (Artocarpus altilis, Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)) arrived much later, and voyages to acquire it are well documented through oral histories.

    Breadfruit full tree and fruit.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): ‘‘Ulu or breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis). The variety shown here is ma‘afala, a Sāmoan and Tongan variety introduced more recently. © 2021 by DutraElliott is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 via Flickr.

    ‘Uala or sweet potato (Ipomea batatas, Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)) was very likely acquired by Polynesians who traveled by canoe from islands in the Pacific Ocean to South America where this plant was first domesticated by indigenous people there.

    Sweet potato.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sweet potato or ‘uala (Ipomea batatas) is a Polynesian introduction that came from South America. © 2021 by DutraElliott is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 via Flickr.

    These plants were part of highly sophisticated agricultural systems developed over time and passed on from generation to generation. For more information regarding traditional agricultural systems in Hawai‘i, see Lincoln and Vitousek (2017).

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Plants introduced by the Polynesians to Hawai‘i.


    Common Name(s) Species
    Kukui/Candlenut Aleurites moluccana
    ‘Ape Alocasia macrorrhizos
    ‘Ulu/Breadfruit Artocarpus altilis
    Wauke Broussonetia papyrifera
    Kamani Calophyllum inophyllum
    Niu/Coconut Cocos nucifera
    Kalo/Taro Colocasia esculenta
    Kī/Ti Cordyline fruticosa
    ‘Ōlena/Turmeric Curcuma longa
    Uhi Dioscorea alata
    Hoi Dioscorea bulbifera
    Pi‘a Dioscorea pentaphylla
    ‘Uala/Sweet potato Ipomea batatas
    Ipu Lagenaria siceraria
    Noni Morinda citrifolia
    Mai‘a/Banana Musa spp.
    ‘Awa Piper methysticum
    Kō/Sugarcane Saccharum officinarum
    ‘Ohe/Bamboo Schizostachyum glaucifolium
    ‘Ōhi‘a ‘ai/Mountain apple Syzygium malaccense
    Pia Tacca leontopetaloides
    ‘Auhulu/Fish poison Tephrosia purpurea
    ‘Awapuhi/Shampoo ginger Zingiber zerumbet
    Unknown origin (native and/or Polynesian Introduced):  
    Hau Hibiscus tiliaceus
    Hala Pandanus tectorius
    Milo Thespesia populnea

    *Based on Whistler (2009).

    This page titled 10.2: Polynesian introduced plants is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniela Dutra Elliott & Paula Mejia Velasquez.

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