By Jan TenBrugrencate

The survival kit that Polynesian voyagers brought from island to island as they populated the Pacific changed over time.

For Hawai‘i, the kit included about two dozen plants and four mammals: the rat, dog, chicken and pig. And some geckos. No one knows whether they all arrived in one canoe, or whether the earliest canoe contents were added to in subsequent voyages.

The canoe plants and animals represented a kind of survival insurance. Certainly, there would be plants that could be eaten on any new island to be found. And some familiar medicinal plants, and ones that could produce fiber. But no guarantee the food would be as nutritious as kalo and breadfruit. Or as rich in oil as kukui. Or had fiber as strong as olona.

But the canoe plants and animals were not identical in other island groups.

Most of what is now French Polynesia has the same mammals and many of the same introduced plants, which supports the suggestion that there was significant contact during the voyaging period between Hawai‘i and the Marquesas, Tahiti and associated islands.

But move farther afield and the situation changes.

The easternmost Polynesian island, Rapa Nui or Easter Island, did not get the full complement. Voyagers brought chickens and rats, there is no evidence that dogs or pigs made the trip there.

Pigs were absent from Aotearoa, or New Zealand, either because they weren’t brought there, or didn’t survive the colder weather of those islands, compared to the more tropical Polynesian islands.

Among plants, breadfruit is missing from the most southerly islands, probably because the climate is too cold for them. Some of the Pacific coral atolls had fewer than the two dozen Hawaiian varieties of Polynesian introduced plants. But likely that was because the low, salty, coral soils would not support several of the introduced species.

As you go west, the number of Polynesian introductions of plants goes up. One suggestion is that islands in western Polynesia, which were inhabited first, may have 70 or more species of Polynesian-introduced plants.

As the great Polynesian migration eastward into the Pacific progressed, plants were dropped from the survival kit. It isn’t entirely clear why. Perhaps some died out on certain islands, and weren’t available to carry forward. Perhaps some were deemed unnecessary.

It is also true that the ocean voyages were often shorter in Western Polynesia, where the islands are generally closer together, so maybe some more fragile plants simply didn’t survive the voyages, or perhaps there were fewer voyages “home” to pick up additional supplies.

It is after all, just 500 miles from Fiji to Tonga and 500 more from Tonga to Samoa.

But it’s more than 2,000 miles from the Marquesas to Hawai’i, and even farther from the Marquesas to Rapa Nui.

But even though the Hawaiian voyaging survival kit contained only a quarter of the original east Polynesia kit, it did the trick, helping the Hawaiians develop one of the most successful and productive societies in all the Pacific.

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.