The History and Culture of Food and Drink: The Pacific Islands

Nancy Davis Lewis. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

In the Pacific Islands (or Oceania) great distances, distinct island environments, and successive waves of peoples reaching island shores have all shaped food-ways, including gathering, hunting, and fishing, agricultural practices and animal husbandry, and modern food distribution systems.

The peoples of Oceania (which was subdivided by Eurocentric cartographers into Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia) arrived at their island homes over a span of many thousands of years. The various islands have substantial differences in natural resources, and the inhabitants have had different experiences with explorers, colonizers, and missionaries. But since the 1960s, many of the peoples and lands of Oceania have had in common their own decolonization and integration into the global economy. What follows is a description of the history and culture of food and nutrition in the Pacific Islands that recognizes diversity yet also attempts to leave the reader with an impression of the whole.

The Pacific Region

In the vastness of the Pacific Ocean are some of the world’s smallest nations and territories. Politically there are 22 states, excluding both Hawaii and New Zealand. The region’s giant is Papua New Guinea. With a total land area of 462,000 square kilometers, it is over five times larger than all the other Pacific states combined. This nation, inhabited for many thousands of years longer than the rest of the region, is also home to over 60 percent of the region’s population of 6 million individuals, whose diversity is illustrated by the more than 800 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea alone. Fiji is the only other Oceanic territory with a population of more than 500,000. By contrast, Tokelau, a territory of New Zealand, is made up of three coral atolls with a combined land area of 10 square kilometers and a population of 1,600. Cultural definitions of the region, however, incorporate New Zealand as well as Hawaii. New Zealand is treated elsewhere in this work, but for comparative purposes, this chapter includes several references to its original inhabitants, the Maori.

The Environment

The island types of Oceania range from the large, mountainous eastern half of the island of New Guinea, which the nation of Papua New Guinea shares with Indonesian Irian Jaya, to tiny coral atolls dispersed across the central and eastern Pacific. The dominant tectonic feature of the region is the Pacific Plate, which is moving slowly to the northwest and underthrusting the Asian land mass. Its western boundary forms the Pacific “Rim of Fire,” characterized by volcanism and earthquake activity. In broad outline, the region presents a continuum of environments, from larger continental islands, extensions of the Asian land mass, and andesitic volcanoes in the western Pacific to basaltic volcanic islands and coral atolls in the north and east.

There are three major island types: continental, volcanic, and coral atolls. The islands in the west, many of which are continental islands, tend to be larger and geologically complex. Typically they include intrusions of andesitic volcanic rock and are surrounded by fringing and barrier reefs. These islands have a varied topography, contain metal-bearing ores, and can develop diverse soil types, rendering large areas suitable for agricultural development. The volcanic islands, produced by andesitic, explosive volcanoes west of the Andesite line and basaltic shield volcanoes in the Pacific Basin, are much more homogeneous. Weathering produces islands with steep, rugged interiors. Fertile soils may develop on weathered slopes and in the rich alluvial deposits on valley floors.

Coral islands are the third major island type in the region. Some cultures of the Pacific are found exclusively on these resource-limited islands. Most islands in the tropical Pacific are surrounded by barrier or fringing reefs. As the final stage in the evolution of these islands, only the coral remnants remain, leaving either an atoll, a ring of coralline islets surrounding a central lagoon, or a raised coral reef. Several variations of these two main types exist. Coral islands have a more limited agricultural potential, although the upraised limestone islands may develop fertile soils under some conditions. Water is often a limiting factor because of a lack of orographic precipitation and limited storage capacity.

The Climate

Whereas almost all the islands fall within the tropics and have high year-round temperatures, these conditions are moderated by oceanic location and offshore winds. In the eastern Pacific, north of the equator, the dominant trade winds are from the northeast; south of the equator, they are from the southeast. But in the western Pacific, seasonal monsoons inf luence weather patterns. The northwest monsoon reaches as far east as Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, and the Carolines, bringing storms and rain in the winter. During the rest of year, the dry southwest monsoon often brings drought. Trobriand islanders refer to this as the molu, or hunger season.

Between the two trade-wind belts are the doldrum areas, the largest of which extends as far west as the Solomons. The doldrums are characterized by low wind velocities, high humidity, cloudiness, and high temperatures. There, atolls with no orographic precipitation, especially those close to the equator, such as the Northern Line Islands in the eastern Pacific, can be subject to extreme drought. On high islands in the trade-wind belts there is significant dissymmetry between wet windward and dry lee shores. Typhoons (hurricanes) are also a threat throughout the region.

In addition to influencing climate, the ocean currents of the Pacific have played a major role in determining flora and fauna of Oceania. Those currents, along with prevailing wind patterns, also set the parameters for long-distance sea voyaging. Oceanic peoples with sophisticated navigational techniques and maritime skills reached these remote islands in the Pacific to complete humankind’s occupation of the globe about a thousand years ago.

Flora and Fauna

The flora and fauna of the island Pacific are products of their distance from Asia and, to a lesser degree, from Australia. They are also products of the great distance between islands in the eastern Pacific and North and South America. Other variables include rainfall, altitude, soil, soil salinity, groundwater, insolation, and human activity (Oliver 1989). Terrestrial plants had to have reproductive parts capable of being carried by wind or birds or humans, or of surviving immersion in salt water. Generic diversity drops significantly as one moves from west to east. As the water gaps become larger, this tendency is increased, producing a significantly more depauperate flora and fauna in the eastern Pacific.

Oliver (1989) has listed the natural vegetation complexes encountered in the region. Seacoast or strand vegetation, confined to narrow coastal areas, is found on most islands. Additional lowland vegetation types include mangrove forest, swamp, and rain forest found on both continental and volcanic mountainous islands. Lowland rain forest, the most widespread vegetation type in the Pacific, provides important resources for food, medicines, fiber, and building materials. But population pressure and the search for exploitable resources such as lumber have led to encroachment and environmental degradation.

Other vegetation types are more restricted in their distribution. With increasing altitude or distance from the equator, for example, at 3,000 feet in equatorial Papua New Guinea and at 900 feet in Fiji, high montane cloud forests are found. Alpine vegetation is encountered only on the highest islands—extensively only on Papua New Guinea and Hawaii and in patches on the Solomons. Finally, grasslands and savanna woodlands, resulting from either insufficient rain or anthropomorphic processes such as burning, occur on New Guinea and lee areas on some of the other islands of Melanesia (including Viti Levu), on Hawaii, and on Easter Island in Polynesia.

The fauna is equally depauperate. West to east, there is a severe attenuation of terrestrial vertebrate genera. When the Polynesians first reached Hawaii’s shores, the only mammals they found were the hoary bat (Lasiurus) and the Hawaiian monk seal (Monaachus). A similar attenuation can be seen with land birds. There are 869 species in Papua New Guinea and only 17 in Tahiti. This pattern is also evident in freshwater fauna. Marine species are more widely distributed; however, the marine biota is also less diverse in the eastern Pacific than in the west. For example, there are 60 species of cowries in the Marianas Islands in western Micronesia and only 35 in Hawaii.

Peoples of the Pacific

The complex history of the Oceanic peoples is less well understood than the region’s natural environment, and it is a history that is continually being revised as archaeologists, linguists, ethnobotanists, and geneticists uncover new evidence.

In discussing the interplay of productive practices and social systems, the geographer B. Currey (1980) borrowed from earlier ethnographic depictions to characterize the Melanesians as gardeners, some of whom developed complex systems (revolving around the raising of pigs) in which status was more individually than communally derived, and leaders were seen as “Big Men.” Polynesians were depicted as gardeners and fishermen, with societies built on group solidarity and relatively equal access to food (although some highly stratified societies developed, especially in Tahiti and Hawaii). The Micronesians were described as traders who developed interisland trading networks and various forms of class stratification. Although this is a gross generalization, for our purposes it is a useful one. But where did these people come from?

It is now evident that Pacific Island peoples, and most of their domesticated plants and animals, originated in Southeast Asia. Between 60,000 and 8,000 years ago, two distinct “races” of modern-type humans inhabited the islands to the west of New Guinea: Mongoloids in the north and west and Sundanoids (also known as Australoids or old Melanesians) in the south and east (Oliver 1989). By 40,000 years ago, during periods of lowered sea level, Sundanoids moved into New Guinea and the Sahul shelf of Australia (Bellwood 1979). The earliest occupation of New Guinea, however, was probably even earlier, although permanent sites were not established in the highlands until 25,000 years ago (Gorecki 1986).

Oliver (1989) has suggested that between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, four important introductions reached the Pacific Islands: (1) genes carrying Mongoloid traits, (2) languages of the Austronesian family, (3) objects relating to animal domestication and plant cultivation, and (4) knowledge to improve seagoing craft and boat handling. The latter began an era in which the far reaches of the Pacific were discovered and inhabited.

By 5,000 years ago, most of the Sundanoid peoples of Southeast Asia had been replaced or absorbed by others with different traits, such as lighter skin, straighter hair, rounder crania, and flatter brow ridges. These pioneers began to move into the Pacific Islands, possibly from the region bordering the Celebes Sea. They reached western Micronesia (Palau and the Marianas Islands) about 3,600 years ago, having crossed open ocean distances of some 500 miles. At about the same time, another group that was more or less Mongoloid moved along the north coast of New Guinea to the Solomons, Vanuatu, and Fiji.

These eastward-moving peoples were farmers and fishermen, who kept dogs and pigs, developed sophisticated fishing techniques, and also hunted. Their cultivated crops included taro, yams, bananas, sugarcane, breadfruit, coconut, the aroids (Cyrtosperma and Alocasia), sago, and, probably, rice, although at the time of European contact rice was found only in the Marianas.

The absence of rice in most of the Pacific Islands is one of prehistory’s most tantalizing questions. Works by Peter Bellwood (1979) and J. Clark and K. Kelly (1993) suggest that rice was somehow lost from the horticultural complex and that sagos and taros replaced it in swampy areas, whereas yams and tree crops were grown in dry fields and swamp-garden margins. But in another interpretation, M. Spriggs (1982), who posited a Southeast Asian origin for Pacific agriculture, has argued that the techniques used for irrigated taro reached the Pacific before rice was established as a staple in Southeast Asia.

Some 3,500 to 3,300 years ago, a wave of Mongoloid-featured, Austronesian-speaking migrants moved southeast across the Pacific and rapidly established settlements in Fiji, and then in Tonga and Samoa. Those who arrived in Samoa and Tonga were the ancestors of present-day Polynesians. They brought with them Lapita ware—a type of stamped and incised pottery that probably originated in the Admiralty Islands and the Bismarck archipelago. They had a well-developed maritime technology, were expert fishermen, and also were horticulturalists who raised pigs and chickens. They developed sophisticated exchange networks, transporting goods across long distances. Some 600 years later, another migratory group from the west, with different traits, reached Fiji to mix with the islanders and become ancestors of the Fijians (Oliver 1989).

From Tonga and Samoa, the rest of Polynesia was settled over time with differentiation in language and other aspects of culture. Spriggs and A. Anderson (1993) have argued for settlement dates of A.D. 300 to 600 for the Marquesas, sometime after A.D. 750 for the Society Islands, and A.D. 600 or later for Hawaii. Anderson (1991) has suggested dates of A.D. 1000 to 1200 for New Zealand and the end of the first millennium for Easter Island.

There has been less research for Micronesia, in part because it presents a more difficult environment for archaeological investigation. As mentioned previously, the Marianas were settled by Austronesian-speaking Mongoloids at least 3,600 years ago. Recent evidence suggests that descendants of the first inhabitants of Palau and the Marianas moved east into the Caroline Islands before Oceanic-speaking peoples migrated to Micronesia via the Solomons, Gilberts, and Marshalls (Oliver 1989). Migrants had reached the southern Gilberts by 3,500 to 3,000 years ago.

Plant Foods of the Pacific

Because they share a tropical and subtropical climate, as well as a flora and fauna with common origins, it should be no surprise that there are many similarities in the history and culture of food and nutrition among the peoples of the Pacific. Some plants have been identified as specifically Pacific cultivars, notably the fruited pandanus, sugarcane, and the Australimusa banana. The coconut may have had multiple domestication sites (Sauer 1971). The major staple root crops, yams (Dioscorea) and taros (Colocasia esculenta, Cyrtosperma chamissonis, and Alocasia macrorrhiza), are from Southeast Asia, as is the Areca catechu palm (Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom 1992). Bellwood (1979) has discussed evidence of gardening and pig raising in the central highlands of New Guinea from 5,500 to 6,000, and possibly as many as 9,000, years ago. More recent evidence suggests that agricultural techniques appeared independently in Papua New Guinea 9,000 years ago, possibly predating their development in neighboring Southeast Asia. There is evidence of 9,000-year-old domestication and cultivation from the Kuk Swamp in Upper Wangi, New Guinea (Gorecki 1986), but it seems likely that intensive and continuing horticulture was not established in highland Papua New Guinea until about 4,000 years ago.

Yen (1991), the preeminent Pacific ethnobotanist, has recently proposed a model that attempts to explain the diffusion of agricultural crops across the Pacific: Agriculture began with the independent early domestication of endemic species in the New Guinea region about 10,000 years ago. It was accelerated by the introduction of species from Southeast Asia (about 6,000 years ago), and again by the advent of crop plants from the Americas, most notably the sweet potato. These arrived in Polynesia in prehistoric times but were not introduced into western Melanesia, including Papua New Guinea, until Western contact.

The timing of the introduction of the sweet potato and its role in the development of highland New Guinea’s complex agricultural systems, which supported very large populations, has been the subject of considerable academic speculation. A parallel controversy surrounds the timing of the precontact introduction of the sweet potato into eastern Polynesia (see the discussion under “Root Crops”).

Root Crops


Taro refers to four members of the Araceae family, Alocasia macrorrhiza (giant taro), Cyrtosperma chamissonis (giant taro or swamp taro, grown largely on atolls), Xanthosoma sp., (kong kong taro or American taro, a post-Columbian introduction from South America), and Colocasia esculenta (true taro). The last is the most widely distributed, and in many places in Oceania, it was the favored staple. Ancient Hawaiians, perhaps Oceania’s most sophisticated agriculturalists, recognized between 150 and 175 distinguishable varieties of taro (Murai, Pen, and Miller 1958). Taro was the main staple of Hawaiians and Samoans.

Colocasia taro is believed to have been among the first root crops to be domesticated (Pollock 1992). Traditionally, it was found from South Asia through Indonesia to the Pacific. Recent evidence suggests widely distributed multiple sites for the domestication of taro, with one of those sites being highland Papua New Guinea (Yen 1993). Polynesian taro, however, could be derived from a narrower genetic base that had its origins in Indonesia, although New Guinea may have been the immediate area of domestication (Yen 1991). Archaeologist Spriggs (1982), relying in part on similarities in the irrigation technologies of New Guinea and island Southeast Asia, argued that taro originated in Southeast Asia and diffused from there into the Pacific.

Recent evidence suggests human use of Colocasia 28,000 years ago in Kilu Cave, a Pleistocene site in the Solomon Islands. This discovery supports the hypothesis that the natural distribution area of Colocasia, and perhaps other aroids, included Australia, New Guinea, and the northern Solomons (Loy, Spriggs, and Wickler 1992). Colocasia (true taro), whose corm and leaves are both eaten, grows best in shady, well-watered settings, such as lowland and montane rain forests to about 7,000 feet (Oliver 1989). As was the case in Indonesia and Melanesia, Colocasia was also produced in sophisticated valley terrace systems in the Cook Islands, in eastern Polynesia, and with a system of aqueducts in Hawaii.

Cyrtosperma taro grows in coastal freshwater marshes. It is a much larger tuber that remains edible in the ground for several years and was an important crop in Micronesia because of its tolerance of stagnant, brackish water. Shoots of the rootstock are also planted, with compost and soil, in pits dug into coral to reach the freshwater lens. Cyrtosperma is labor-intensive, and some island peoples have surrounded its production with much secrecy while growing huge specimens for ceremonial exchange. Alocasia taro requires the least moisture and is the hardiest, but the edible starchy stem contains oxylate crystals and must therefore be processed prior to consumption. Usually a subsidiary food, it is highly valued in Samoa and Tonga.


Dioscorea are grown throughout the tropical world, and the relationship of those in the Pacific to those in Africa, tropical America, and Asia has not been fully established. Dioscorea alata and Dioscorea esculenta, the most common Pacific species, may well have been domesticated in Southeast Asia. In order to produce a large tuber, D. alata needs a prolonged dry season and, thus, in the Pacific tends to be an upland rather than a lowland crop. Yams also need deep planting in light, well-drained soil; where good drainage is wanting, the technique of mounding is employed, with the vines trained to climb poles or trees.

The tubers, which can reach 9 feet in length and more than 100 pounds in weight, are often prized for size rather than food value, as the flesh of such large specimens is too coarse to eat. Their production, like that of Cyrtosperma taro, is often surrounded with much ritual and secrecy. Farmers gain prestige for their skill as gardeners, and yam production is at the center of a number of Melanesian societies. In Fiji, where yams were the focus of the diet, the calendar revolved around their growing season. The tubers can be left in the ground or stored for months. Traditional yam storage houses are sometimes very elaborate, as those in the Trobriand Islands.

Sweet Potato

As already noted, the presence of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), like the absence of rice, has been the subject of much speculation by those concerned with the history of Oceania. This is because at the time of European contact, the sweet potato (an American plant) was found in almost every high-island archipelago, and those who suggest a New World origin for Pacific human populations have made the plant a part of their argument.

Yen (1974), citing botanical and linguistic evidence, has suggested that the sweet potato reached the Pacific from South America in three separate introductions, all via human agency, because the sweet potato does not propagate after lengthy immersion in seawater. According to this hypothesis, the plant was first introduced into the Marquesas, in the eastern Pacific, between A.D. 400 and 800. This took place after the first settlement of the Marquesas and before the subsequent settlement of Hawaii and Easter Island. From there the sweet potato was carried to other parts of Polynesia and eastern Melanesia. What this implies for proponents of eastward or westward voyaging is one of the intriguing dilemmas of Oceanic prehistory. Another hypothesis posits a second post-Columbian Portuguese introduction, in which the sweet potato supposedly traveled (via Africa and India) through Indonesia to New Guinea and New Britain during the sixteenth century. Finally, it is believed that in the seventeenth century, still another introduction took place in the Manila Galleons from Mexico to the Philippines; after that, sweet potatoes were carried to the Marianas and East Asia.

Sweet potatoes grow in a wide range of conditions and can be cultivated at high elevations. They are fairly tolerant of dry, sandy soils and typically are grown in mounds. Sweet potatoes were part of the highly complex agricultural systems that evolved in Papua New Guinea and were also important in Hawaii and Easter Island. Because of the difficulty of production in cooler climates, they became a valued luxury in temperate New Zealand.

Tree Crops

A large array of fruit and nut crops are found in Melanesia, but they become fewer in the more restricted environments that occur as one moves to the east. Only the main food tree crops—coconut, sago, breadfruit, pandanus, and banana—are discussed here; Areca catechu (betel nut) is treated along with kava and toddy in a later section.


Perhaps the Pacific region is associated more with the coconut palm, found along the littoral of most tropical islands, than with any other plant. Cocos nucifera is widespread, but because of temperature requirements, it is not found in New Zealand above about 1,000 feet, and it has been extinct on Easter Island for over 600 years. Although considerable debate has surrounded the role of humans in the distribution of the coconut palm, and although the plant can propagate itself, most stands have been planted by humans (Oliver 1989). It is a very important supplement to starchy staples throughout the region.

As a result of centuries of selection and propagation, Pacific Islanders recognize many horticultural varieties of the coconut. The immature nut is filled with liquid, which, over time, turns into a layer of hard, white meat. The meat is often eaten as a snack, and it is also scraped and pressed to produce coconut “cream,” an important component of Pacific dishes. At full development, the center of the nut contains a spongy, jellylike mass of embryo known as “spoon meat,” which is sometimes fed to infants or to those who are ill. The “milk” of immature nuts (“drinking nuts”) is an important source of liquid when water is in short supply. Coconut oil can be extracted after grating the meat and exposing it to the sun for several days.

The production of copra (dried coconut meat) for export has been a mainstay of Pacific economies since the 1860s, as it can be stored on and transported from the most remote of island locations. Copra, however, is an intermediate commodity; the ultimate product is coconut oil for food and industrial purposes. Unfortunately, global economic changes, transportation costs, the increasing use of substitute oils, and alleged health risks associated with consuming coconut oil have rendered copra an increasingly marginal export commodity.


Metroxylon sp. is a pinnate-leafed palm that reaches 30 to 50 feet tall and grows in swampy areas as far east as Samoa and the Caroline Islands. The trunk is filled with a starch that the plant employs to nourish its inflorescence; thus, the tree is commonly harvested just before flowering (at about 8 to 15 years of age). Sago palms are high-yielding, producing about 300 pounds of starch per tree. The tree is felled, split, and the pulp pulverized. The starch is then washed out of the fiber and allowed to dry, producing sago “flour,” which keeps for months. The flour is made into pancakes, cooked as a porridge, and can also be used as a thickener for other dishes. Sago has been a staple for many groups in Papua New Guinea and a dietary supplement for others there and in the Solomons and Vanuatu, although it is not now as widely exploited as it once was (Connell and Hamnett 1987). It was rarely used in Polynesia or Micronesia.


Artocarpus sp., with origins in the Malay archipelago, is a handsome tree growing to 60 feet in height, with large, shiny, lobed leaves. It does especially well in the Marquesas Islands, where it provides the staple food. William Dampier, who found breadfruit on Guam in 1686, may have given it its English name (Murai et al. 1958). One hundred years later, Captain William Bligh’s fateful voyage of the Bounty began as an effort to carry breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. The plant was successfully transported there in 1792 but did not become a food for slaves as was originally intended. They refused to eat it.

Artocarpus altilis and Artocarpus incisus are both seedless, whereas Artocarpus mariannensis, the variety found in Papua New Guinea, contains seeds. The fruit, cultivated primarily in Micronesia and Polynesia, is round or elliptical and reaches up to 10 inches in diameter. Breadfruit tolerates less salt than both coconut and pandanus and, hence, is more restricted in its coastal distribution. It is also drought-intolerant. The fruit is eaten cooked, but the seeds may be consumed raw. Where it is an important staple, the fruit is traditionally preserved for months or years at a time in a covered pit, in which it ferments, producing a distinctive and, to Pacific Islanders, delicious flavor. Production is seasonal, with a large summer harvest and a smaller winter one.


Pandanus sp. (also called the “screw-pine”) is an Indo-Pacific genus with several species. It has long, narrow, prickly leaves and aerial roots. Both edible and inedible varieties grow in the Pacific region. In some parts, cultivated and semicultivated plants are a primary food source, most notably among some groups in Papua New Guinea and on the coral islands of Micronesia and Polynesia. In the latter areas, a number of parts of Pandanus tectoris are eaten: the “heart” or terminal bud of the branch, young leaves, the tips of aerial roots, and the seeds and fleshy portion of the fruit (Oliver 1989). In cultivated varieties, the fruits can weigh as much as 30 pounds, with 50 or more phalanges or keys with seeds at the end.

Pandanus is high in sugar, carbohydrates, and vita-min A. It can be eaten raw, but it is also cooked and made into a flour or a paste, both of which can last for months. In some parts of the Pacific, the paste is wrapped in plaited pandanus leaves and tied with coconut cord. In former times, these bundles could reach up to 6 feet in length and 1 foot in diameter (Murai et al. 1958). Pandanus is a major staple on coral atolls and once provided an important food source for long-distance voyaging.


Before European contact, the bananas of Oceania were either “cooking bananas” or plantains, and not the sweet ones eaten raw, although Musa paradisiaca (sweet bananas) and Musa troglodytarum (cooking bananas) are both of Southeast Asian origin and have a number of cultivars. In most cases, bananas were a supplement to the diet rather than a staple. Today, some of the varieties introduced by Europeans are preferred in the green stage for cooking, as in Samoa. In Polynesia, bananas were grown both as part of shifting cultivation and as perennial herbs in gardens and around settlements. Western perceptions to the contrary, the traditional diets of Pacific Islanders were not complemented by an abundance of fresh fruits. Citrus fruits and pineapple were introduced to Oceania by Westerners. Pacific fruits like the papaya were typically given away or, in modern times, sold. Both papayas and mangoes are fed to pigs.

Other Crops


Saccharum officinarum, which when chewed satisfies both hunger and thirst, and ti (Cordyline fruticosa, Cordyline terminalis), with a root very high in sugar, were among the plants that Polynesians carried with them on their voyages, and both became widely established species. The former is best known in Oceania as a plantation crop on Hawaii and Fiji.

Manioc (Cassava)

Manihot esculenta or Manihot utilissima, an American plant, was introduced early into the Pacific by the Spaniards, but it did not become widespread as a food until the middle of the twentieth century. Since then, it has become an important staple in the Pacific, as elsewhere in the developing world. In Fiji, manioc superseded taro decades ago in total area under cultivation (Thaman 1990). Sometimes perceived as a lazy man’s crop because of its ease of cultivation, it has been planted in areas where cash crops have captured the most productive land. With long, thin, tuberous, edible roots, most varieties contain toxic hydrocyanic acid and must be processed before consumption. Manioc grows best in wet climates, but it can survive dry periods. Usually baked or boiled, it can be processed and stored like flour. It is high in starch but low in vita-mins and minerals, and, hence, its widespread displacement of traditional staples is decried by some nutritionists.

Food Production Systems

Oliver (1989) has noted that a major generalization which could be made about food production in Oceania is that individual plants have been planted and tended there, in contrast to the sowing of large quantities of seed. Fire, adzes, and axes were used to clear the land, and digging sticks were employed for planting. Weeds and pigs were common problems, and islanders appealed to the supernatural for protection against crop pests and diseases. During recent research in Fiji, an Indian farmer suggested to me that it was still much better to pray than spray.


Agricultural production systems are closely tied to land tenure, which in most Pacific societies was, and to a large degree remains, communal. Land itself has a deep spiritual meaning in Pacific societies (Bonnemaison 1984). P. Cox and S. Banack (1991) have noted that in much of Polynesia, land and most equipment was the common property of descent groups and was allocated at the lowest unit of the group. This practice was modified in the most highly stratified societies, as in Hawaii, where at the time of Western contact, chiefs directly controlled the land. Many groups in Oceania had access to several microenvironments, such as strand and swamp. Typically, in Polynesia, the units of land tenure were pie-shaped wedges, from mountaintop to outer reef, that spanned four or five ecological zones. These lands were used both for production and for hunting and gathering (Oliver 1989).

Writing of Polynesia, P. Kirch (1991) has argued that the range of production systems reflected an adaptation not only to the wide range of environments that the islanders encountered but also to demographic and sociopolitical circumstances such as expansion and intensification. The agronomic complex of any location was also influenced by other factors. Not all food plants and animals made or survived voyages to new islands, and the voyagers themselves may not have been vested with all the agronomic lore of their home islands.

As already mentioned, there is a west-to-east decline in numbers of cultivated and husbanded species of plants and animals that mirrors, to a degree, the decline of indigenous flora and fauna but may also reflect the attrition wrought by long voyages. Moreover, as islanders moved from high to low islands, there were many adaptations in food production that reached their extreme in temperate New Zealand, where most tropical crops did not thrive. Taro could be grown in the north, but not very successfully, and other important crops, such as coconut, breadfruit, and banana, did not become established. The edible fern, Pteridium esculentum, became an important staple, and New Zealand Maori were highly dependent on both the rich avifauna and marine species.

In general, according to Oliver (1989), extended kin groups (those who slept together and ate together) constituted food-producing units, except in societies where gender segregation dictated eating and sleeping patterns. In Melanesia, males were primarily responsible for site preparation, climbing high trees, and felling sago palms. Females were usually, although not universally, responsible for weeding, planting, and harvesting. Kirch (1991) wrote that in Polynesia most agricultural labor was done by males, with assistance from women in weeding, mulching, harvesting, and carrying crops. But in other societies, especially where dry-field cultivation was the norm (as on the islands of Hawaii and Maui), more female labor may have been required. Even in the 1990s, the role of women’s labor in agricultural production was underestimated. Women’s roles in gardening and pig rearing in Melanesian societies also had implications for women’s roles in political and ritual life in these societies (Manderson 1986).

Types of Production Systems

Kirch (1991) described five types of agricultural systems in Polynesia, and these can be modified for Oceania as a whole. The initial phase in most high-island locations was shifting cultivation with aroids and yams. It was often succeeded by arboriculture and field rotation.

The second, dry-field cultivation, developed out of the intensification of shifting cultivation. Both shifting cultivation and dry-field cultivation are practiced today.

Water control, a third system, included inundated fields created by terracing, drained garden systems in swampy areas, and pit cultivation. The most highly developed forms include the miles of intricate drainage systems for sweet potato gardens on the marshy valley floors in highland New Guinea and the sophisticated taro drainage and irrigation systems found in New Caledonia, Fiji, Hawaii, and elsewhere in Polynesia. Yen (1991) has noted that irrigation has been the most commonly used method of raising Colocasia taro. Growing taro under irrigation is highly productive, resulting in considerable surplus, and Kirch (1984) has argued that such surpluses were important to the rise of Polynesian chiefdoms in late precontact Hawaii.

Arboriculture, the fourth system, was typical of lowland Melanesia with a mix of fruit- and nut-bearing species. Although arboriculture declines to the east, monocropping of breadfruit (Artocarpus sp.) did develop in Polynesia, especially in the Marquesas. Other important tree crops include the almost ubiquitous coconut, Spondias dulcis -vi or Kafika apple, and Inocarpus fagifer, the Tahitian chestnut.

Kirch identified animal husbandry as a fifth system in his classification and noted that pigs, dogs, and chickens (the Southeast Asian triad) were the three species raised in Polynesia, although one or more may have been absent in marginal eastern Polynesia and on some atolls. Most were found on Pacific islands at the time of Western contact, although chickens were absent in much if not most of Melanesia. In some New Guinea societies, wild cassowaries were captured and raised for food (Oliver 1989). Dogs were more marginal than pigs in most Pacific societies and usually survived by scavenging, except in Hawaii, where they were tended and fed. The chicken (Gallus gallus) was also a scavenger, although it was carefully husbanded on Easter Island (where the dog and the pig were absent), and there it served some of the ceremonial purposes that pigs did on other islands. Dogs were used in hunting where there were sufficient ground animals, as in Melanesia and New Zealand, but also served as food themselves in Hawaii and the Society Islands (Oliver 1989).

Pigs played a central role in many of the cultures of Oceania, especially in Melanesia. They were probably introduced to New Guinea from Indonesia as early as 5,000 years ago, but their range did not extend to Micronesia or, as noted, Easter Island, and they were not found in New Caledonia or New Zealand at the time of Western contact (Oliver 1989).

These pigs (Sus scrofa) were thin, long-legged “razorbacks,” unlike today’s much larger and fatter domestic pigs. Different husbandry strategies for pigs evolved, such as letting them forage exclusively, or feeding them occasionally, or constraining and feeding them all the time. In parts of Melanesia, much attention was lavished on pigs; their births were surrounded with ceremony, and they were suckled (as were dogs in some places), bathed, and fed premasticated food. They were a very important symbol of wealth and central to ritual, social relationships, and political power. In highland New Guinea, sweet potato gardens supported the production of large numbers of pigs, typically for ceremonial exchange (Megitt 1974), although many pigs were also slaughtered for ceremonial purposes (Oliver 1989) and consumed by kin and other social groups.

Hunting and Gathering

Hunting, gathering, and fishing in coastal and riverine locations were the only food-producing activities of humans in Oceania for the first 20 or so millennia (Oliver 1989). In most traditional societies (exceptions were a few in Papua New Guinea), hunting, although an important source of protein, did not provide the bulk of calories, which came from wild plants, grubs, insects, and, especially, marine foods.

Because of the paucity of mammals on the islands to the east, the hunting of avifauna, for both food and feathers, was well developed. In New Zealand, the arrival of the earliest inhabitants rapidly led to the extinction of 11 species of moa—giant flightless birds—and other species as well. In many parts of Oceania, the gathering of seabird and turtle eggs supplemented the diet, and fruit bats were hunted as far east as Samoa and Tonga.

It bears repeating, however, that the major constraint on hunting and gathering in the islands of the eastern Pacific was the severe attenuation of indigenous species of both plants and animals. E. S. C. Handy and E. G. Handy (1972) listed the wild species used in Hawaii as six species of ferns, six of roots or tubers, eight of nuts and berries, two of tree fruits, four of leaves, numerous species of seaweed, and many species of birds, but only one insect, the grasshopper.


There is also an attenuation of both freshwater and marine fish species from west to east. Marine foods were a key to the peopling of the Pacific, and fishing was and remains a very important food-securing activity in the region, especially on the high islands and atolls of the central and eastern Pacific. Traditional fishing methods were many and varied. Relatively sessile marine creatures, such as mollusks and sea urchins and other slow-moving animals, were caught by hand in the inshore waters. Harvesting sea turtles was also common in many locations. On the reef and in the lagoon, stupefacients were used, as well as mesh nets, draft nets, spears, nooses (for eels and, in Hawaii, sharks), traps and snares, and lines for angling (Oliver 1989).The fishhooks of Oceania reveal a fascinating array of special-purpose applications.

The collection of limu (seaweed) has been particularly important in Polynesia, as was documented in the extensive work of I. Abbott (1991). There are 63 Hawaiian names for edible marine and freshwater plants, representing about 30 separate species. Hawaiians considered limu and poi a particularly satisfying dish. Elsewhere in Polynesia, limu was typically consumed with coconut cream or grated coconut, and the fact that limu was not eaten with coconut in Hawaii has been used to argue for a relatively late arrival of the coconut there (Handy and Handy 1972).

Culinary Practices

Beginning with the early explorers, discussions of the meaning of food and of meals in Oceania have been confused by Western preconceptions. For example, Nancy Pollock (1986, 1992), using evidence from Fiji, Hawaii, Tahiti, and elsewhere, has noted that the concept of a “meal” is less important than it is in Western societies (although the meaning of meals may be changing with the fast-food culture in the West). Typically, meals, as defined by Westerners, were consumed once or twice a day and consisted of a starch and an accompaniment, with perhaps a condiment, such as salt, mashed shellfish in brine, crushed insects, or seaweed.

Oliver (1989) has described the main meal, usually freshly cooked, as generally eaten in the late afternoon after the day’s work was over. The first meal of the day might have been a light one consisting of leftovers from the previous day, and lunch was often foodstuffs collected and cooked during work, such as breadfruit roasted over an open fire. Oliver (1989) has also made some interesting generalizations about the various food habits of the region, which, although diverse, share many similarities. The peoples of Polynesia and Micronesia have tended to have more food recipes, even though they had fewer nonmarine food resources, than those of Melanesia, and oven baking has been more common in Polynesia and Micronesia. Polynesians and Micronesians also had more food-preparation instruments—pounders, graters, spitters, and fire tongs. The implements used in eating included breadfruit or ti -leaf “plates,” sharpened sticks, and sometimes wooden bowls, baskets, and seashells. Fingers also served as eating implements.

Food Preparation

Some Oceanic foods were eaten raw—small fish, marine invertebrates, pandanus “keys,” coconut, and some fruits—although, as already noted, the adult diet typically did not include much fruit (Oliver 1989).

Cooking methods included broiling over fire or on hot ashes or stones, with the food either uncovered or leaf-wrapped, and sometimes hot stones were put in the body cavity of an animal. Where clay pots were part of the material culture, foods were sometimes boiled. In the early 1800s, whalers and missionaries introduced boiling pots and frying techniques.

The most distinctive cooking style, and one that is indigenous to Oceania, involves the use of the earth oven or umu. There are both household and communal ovens (Pollock 1992), with the latter a significantly larger version of the former. There were variations in the oven preparation, but generally a pit was dug and lined with stones upon which a fire was lit. Following this, the heated ash was brushed aside, some of the stones removed, and the remaining stones covered with green leaves. The foods to be cooked were placed on the stones, then covered with hot rocks and ash, leaves, fronds, perhaps earth, and, today, a burlap sack. Although such a slow-cooking technique is laborious, it persists in the region, particularly for feasts and Sunday meals.

No regionwide survey of cooking responsibilities has been carried out, but examples from 21 societies in Oceania revealed situations where women did all the cooking, others where women did the daily cooking and men cooked for feasts (which may be the most common), still others where both men and women cooked daily and for feasts, and the example of Truk, where men did most of the cooking on a daily basis as well as for festive occasions. In at least one society (Yap) each gender regularly cooked for itself, and in Tahiti there was some prohibition against women eating foods cooked by men (Oliver 1989).


The storage of food, especially for times of natural disaster or human conflict, was well developed in parts of Oceania, perhaps especially so in the more environmentally sensitive areas. Pollock (1992) has argued that this practice developed not only for times of shortage but also because of a preference for the added taste of fermentation, as in poi, the taro dish of Hawaii, or in fermented breadfruit. In the famine-prone Marquesas, breadfruit was traditionally prepared by young men (it was believed that it would store longer if the men were virgins), fermented, and placed in ti-lined wooden vessels, and the ma was stored in underground pits for months or years. Similarly, taro and breadfruit paste were left to ferment and, sometimes, stored for 10 years or more.

Polynesian arrowroot and, more recently, manioc were preserved as flour. Sago starch was dried, fish were dried and/or salted, and bananas could also be dried or stored in tightly wrapped packets. Well-aired storage houses were used for yams, and food was also preserved by not harvesting it. As already noted, Cyrtosperma taro grown in pits can survive in swampy areas for a number of years, and both Dioscorea yams and manioc can be left in the ground.

Feasting and Ceremonies

Because they figure so predominantly in Pacific life, feasts have received a great deal of ethnographic attention. They were often dictated by political motives and defined by structured social relationships and religious considerations. They were also important mechanisms for exchange and had considerable economic significance.

Feasts, surrounded with rules and rituals, usually involved large numbers of individuals and a great amount and variety of food. In some societies, all food was prepared and eaten at the location where the feast took place; in others, cooked or uncooked food was given to guests for later consumption (Oliver 1989).

In Melanesia, feast preparations might have included the slaughter of hundreds of pigs. As mentioned previously, there and elsewhere, as in Pohnpei in Micronesia, gardeners would jealously and often secretly raise huge yams. No longer edible, these tubers nonetheless displayed the agriculturalist’s prowess and earned credit in ceremonial exchange. Often an enormous amount of food was prepared—much more than could be consumed—and this also carried ceremonial and sociopolitical significance.

Food Taboos

Throughout Oceania, eating was governed by taboos based variously on age, sex, marital status, pregnancy, social grouping and rank, illness, and bereavement. According to Oliver (1989), the most widespread prohibitions were those based on totemism whereby groups would not eat food items (including many wild species) with which they were perceived to have a spiritual relationship. Food taboos for women in Oceania were common, and in ancient Tahiti, women were generally prevented from eating pig, dog, turtle, albacore, shark, dolphin, whale, and porpoise—all foods highly valued or in short supply (Manderson 1986).

Jocelyn Linnekin’s book Sacred Queens and Women of Consequence (1990) has described a situation in Hawaii in which the dichotomies between chief and commoner or male and female defined social reality. Women were prohibited from eating with men, and cooking was men’s work. The choicest foods were offered to chiefs and sacrificed to the gods. Such foods were prohibited to women, although female chiefs were exempt from punishment (which could be death) for infractions.

Further light is shed on food taboos for women in Polynesia by Pollock (1992), who cited J. Williams’s (1838) comments about the Cook Islands:

Females at Rarotonga were treated as inferiors. They were neither allowed to eat certain kinds of food which were reserved for the men and the gods, nor to dwell under the same roof with their tyrannical masters, but were compelled to take their scanty meal of inferior provisions at a distance while the “lords of creation” feasted upon the “fat of the land” and the “abundance of the sea.” (Williams 1838: 180)

Women typically had even more restricted food choices during pregnancy, as the maternal diet and development of the fetus were directly associated (Manderson 1986). A woman might, for example, have avoided eating a fish with a displeasing appearance for fear that her child might resemble the fish. Taboos were not, however, exclusive to women. Pork, a highly valued food, was prohibited to women in a number of Pacific societies, but in a few others, for example among the Etoro of New Guinea, the situation was reversed. For men, pork consumption was believed to deplete strength (Rappaport 1968). In the stratified societies of Polynesia, chiefs also imposed prohibitions on certain foods (e.g., pork, specific fishes, or food crops) for sociopolitical reasons, to assure the supply or protect the resource. Feasts might accompany the lifting of such prohibitions.

Eating and Body Size

In most of the societies of Polynesia, and especially among the nobility, large stature and obesity were highly regarded in both men and women. Large size was associated with status and hospitality; thus, a fat chief signified a wealthy society. Moreover, in some societies, such as that of Tahiti, obesity meant increased sexual attractiveness (Oliver 1989). There are numerous accounts of individuals of chiefly rank consuming seemingly impossible quantities of food and achieving a size that rendered them largely immo-bile. But even ordinary individuals took great pleasure in gorging on huge quantities of food, especially in Polynesia. One explanation for this practice is that it was a response to the seasonal availability of food. Pollock (1992) has noted that if taro was plentiful, it was not unusual for an adult to eat 5 to 10 pounds of it at a sitting.

Oliver (1989), though, referring to the work of M. Young (1971), pointed out a contrasting example, the Kalauna people of Goodenough Island in southeastern New Guinea, whose goal was “full gardens and small bellies.”The latter was associated with physical beauty and was attained by hunger-suppressing magic and willpower.


The role that cannibalism played in the Pacific has probably been exaggerated, and in fact there is evidence to suggest that in some instances, tales of cannibalism were fabricated by islanders to shock naive Europeans. Labeling enemies as cannibals was probably also a popular strategy. There are, however, credible reports of the practice of cannibalism in New Guinea, the Bismarcks, the Solomons, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Fiji, New Zealand, the Marquesas, the Gambiers, and Easter Island (Oliver 1989).

The practice was most prevalent in Melanesia (although not all Melanesians were cannibals), to which the appellation “Cannibal Isles” was applied. Oliver (1989), with some reservations about attributing motive, distinguished three categories of cannibalism. In the first, the purpose was to obtain meat (or, specifically, human meat); the second involved punishment, usually of a foreigner or, less commonly, of a local offender, and the practice also was used as a gesture of extreme contempt toward the victim. The third category invoked the realm of magic: In this case, the eating of an enemy, friend, or relative was done to absorb one or more of his or her important attributes. In this latter case, only specific parts of the body, such as the brain, the eye, the heart, the liver, or the genitals, were consumed.

Cannibalism for the purpose of punishment seems to have been the most widely practiced form, and cannibalism for magic ends was more common in Polynesia than Melanesia. In Micronesia, the only evidence we have of cannibalism has been the consumption of token parts of deceased relatives in Truk. A similar practice in highland New Guinea, where parts of the brain were consumed, especially by women and children, led to the transmission of the slow viral disease kuru. Cannibalism in the region probably reached its height in Fiji and the western Solomons after firearms were introduced. In the Solomons, firearms rendered raiding and head-hunting more efficient, and in eastern Viti, Levu chiefs imposed a levy of human bodies for consumption. The material culture of Fiji included special wooden cannibal forks, which today are reproduced for sale as tourist “art.”

To Drink and Chew


With a few localized exceptions in the western Pacific, Oceania has had only two traditional drug plants, kava and betel, but only kava, a narcotic infusion of the pulverized root of Piper methysticum, is indigenous to the region. V. Lebot, M. Merlin, and L. Lindstrom (1992) have argued that kava was domesticated in the northern islands of Vanuatu about 3,000 years ago. Although kava is not technically classified as a drug because it does not promote addiction or dependence, its active ingredients, kavalactones, have mild narcotic, soporific, and diuretic properties. It is also a muscle relaxant.

The origin of kava is a prominent theme in Oceanic mythology (Lebot et al. 1992). Uprooted after several years of growth, the roots are dried or, less frequently, prepared green. The preparation of kava is often surrounded by highly ritualized ceremonies, and it is an integral part of religious and social life, especially in Tonga, Fiji, Pohnpei, and Samoa.

Two traditional patterns of kava use can be distinguished. In Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Rotuma, Futuna, Uvea, and Vanikoro, the primary use has been ceremonial and the effects mild. The dry roots are prepared with a substantial quantity of water. But in Hawaii, eastern Polynesia, Vanuatu, Choiseul, and parts of New Guinea, where drinking has tended to be a more individual activity, green roots were often employed with less water added. This mixture was more potent and often resulted in sleep and paresis of the lower limbs.

Whereas kava consumption has generally been and remains a male activity, some age and gender restrictions have been relaxed, and practices are not uniform throughout Oceania. In Fiji, it is believed that drinking moderate amounts of kava when pregnant is good for the fetus and that it will ease childbirth. The drinking of kava during breast feeding is thought to favor the production of milk. In other Pacific societies, infertility has been attributed to kava, and it was also used as an abortifacient. In addition to its ceremonial role, kava has a more general place in Pacific societies. Laborers in rural areas share kava after a hard day’s work, and in the towns, others gather at bars for the same purpose (Lebot et al. 1992).

In recent years, kava has become a cash crop in several Pacific countries, and it is now exported from Vanuatu, Tonga, and Fiji to other island countries and nations with Pacific Island populations. There is also an increasing market to meet the demands of the European pharmaceutical industry.


Betel is the other traditional Pacific drug, although betel chewing is more restricted than the consumption of kava and is found primarily in parts of Melanesia and western Micronesia, notably Palau, the Marianas, and Yap. Betel is employed in exchange and has some ceremonial significance, but its use is not nearly as ritualized as that of kava. It is not usually prohibited to women, although it is more commonly chewed among men.

The shorthand term “betel” refers to a combination of the hot and acrid nut of the Areca catechu palm, the bean or stem of the Piper betel vine (of the same family as kava), and slaked lime (from either seashells, coral, or mountain lime).There are various methods of using betel, but typically the ingredients are made into a wad, chewed in the mouth, and pressed against the cheek, irritating the mucous membrane and producing a localized sensation. The red fibers and juices are expectorated. The alkaloid arecoline is a stimulant with nicotine-like properties, and betel chewers believe it increases work capacity. As a rule, users of betel have darkened teeth and red stains around the mouth.


Another drug used in some Pacific societies, most notably in Micronesia, is palm wine or “toddy,” made from the sap of the coconut palm. The practice of collecting the sap from incisions made in the bound spathe of the palm’s inflorescence probably originated in the Philippines. The sweet, milky-white sap is high in vitamin B and is consumed fresh. It is considered an ideal food for infants, the sick, and the elderly; it is also used as a flavoring agent in cooking and is boiled as a confection. Processed, it was sometimes stored as a famine food, but left to ferment for several days, it becomes an alcoholic drink.


Alcohol use has become common in the Pacific, although patterns of consumption vary throughout the region. In places where ceremonial kava drinking was traditional, the use of alcohol (usually beer) tends to be a social rather than a solitary activity, and drinks are consumed quickly—an entire bottle of beer in one draft, akin to drinking the entire bowl of kava.

By contrast, in his studies in Papua New Guinea, M. Marshall (1982) found that beer drinking tended to be patterned more on the Australian “mateship” and egalitarian model. Although per capita consumption of alcohol is less than it is in developed nations, high levels of individual intake are common, with drunkenness the major goal, especially among young men.

The Contemporary Pacific

Dietary Colonialism?

In most Pacific Island societies, explorers, whalers, and ships’ crews stopping for provisions provided the earliest contact with the West. Later, the economic history of the Pacific came to be dominated to varying degrees by colonization, missionary influences, land alienation, and the production of primary products for export. At first it was the production of copra that altered patterns of daily life and land use in much of the region. Following this it was sugar, bananas, cacao, coffee, oil palm, pineapple, and other tropical export crops.

In Fiji and Hawaii in particular, such activities also altered the ethnic composition of the population, which has influenced the cuisines that we find in those places today. For example, beginning in the 1880s, East Indians were brought to Fiji as indentured laborers for the sugar plantations, and today approximately half the population is East Indian. No wonder that curries are common there.

At the northeastern anchor of the Polynesian triangle, in Waikiki, one can, if so inclined, order rice and Portuguese sausage at McDonald’s. This offering, however, is but a pale example of the diversity of cuisines available on almost any business street in Honolulu, largely a legacy of the successive waves of immigrants—Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Filipino—who began arriving in the 1850s to labor on the sugar and pineapple plantations of Hawaii. Later immigrants, the largest numbers from Korea and Southeast Asia, have added to the rich tapestry of ethnic cuisines. In the 1990s, chefs of Hawaii blended the culinary techniques and flavors inherited from the Pacific, Asia, California, and Europe to create their own versions of the new regional cuisines (Henderson 1994).

The Political and Economic Context

Although the Pacific’s most international cuisines are found in Hawaii, some foods and foodstuffs from distant places have long been available to those in the urban and port areas throughout Oceania. The salt beef, weevil-laden flour, stale cabin biscuits, and moldy apples that were the fare of the earliest missionaries have been supplanted by tinned fish, frozen meats (including lamb flaps and turkey tails—leftovers from the livestock and poultry industries of Australia and New Zealand), rice, soft drinks, and “cheese twists.” In addition to Western food staples, elements of a simplified Chinese-style cuisine, such as dried fish imported from Asia, rice, and condiments, are found in the many parts of the Pacific with Chinese immigrants, and one can find “take-aways” selling “chop suey” in Apia, Western Samoa, whereas “chicken longrice” (rice noodles) and lomi lomi salmon (an adaptation from the salt salmon of sailing ships) have become part of the typical “traditional” Hawaiian luau.

Nonetheless, although by the 1990s the island states of the Pacific were, to a greater or lesser degree, integrated into the global economy, in many ways they continue to occupy its fringes, or, as a prominent geographer has suggested, “the Earth’s Empty Quarter” (Ward 1989). Although the majority are politically independent or self-governing, true economic independence eludes most, and this marginal role in the global economy can (with remoteness and a continued dependence on agricultural exports) influence contemporary diets in complex ways. The agricultural mosaic that one finds in the Pacific has been strongly influenced by the colonial experience, when economic activities focused on the production and export of primary crops produced on plantations, either through myriad cooperative schemes or as cash crops. But despite the beginning of decolonization in the early 1960s, this pattern has continued, with development officials and international aid agencies strongly urging the production of export crops, hailing such activity as the “road to development.”

Consequently, prime garden lands were often converted to the production of cash crops, and subsistence plots were moved to more distant and more marginal land. Especially in Melanesia (Hau’ofa and Ward 1980), where women are the primary subsistence gardeners, such events increased the workload of women, demanding more of their time and energy, which may in turn have had a negative nutritional impact on the entire family, or at least on the young children.

By the early 1980s, as the nutritional and economic fallacy of cash-crop dependence became increasingly apparent, a more balanced approach, stressing food self-sufficiency and the production of indigenous crops, was adopted. This new approach reflected general changes in development thinking, but it was also the result of the efforts of academics, nutritionists, and others (Parkinson 1982) who advocated changes in government policy. The shift took place at a time when Pacific nations began to gain their political independence, and advocating food self-sufficiency became an important symbolic component of the process.

The production of food and other agricultural products remains the dominant economic activity for most of the population of Oceania. Yen wrote in 1980 that a mix of subsistence production and cash-cropping was the most common form of agriculture in Oceania, and this was probably still true in the 1990s. Pollock (1992), using data from 1980 to 1985, noted that foodstuffs constituted approximately 25 percent of total imports by value, but thought that this proportion was beginning to drop, perhaps because of efforts at food self-sufficiency. Data from eight of the countries in the region in the mid-1970s indicated that from 15 to 26 percent of total import dollars was spent on food, with the average somewhat under 20 percent (Lewis 1981). More recent data have suggested rates closer to 15 percent, especially for the more populous countries like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. But there are exceptions such as American Samoa, whose people spend 62 percent of total import dollars on food (South Pacific Economic and Social Database 1993) and a few islands where virtually all food is imported.

Urban and Rural Diets

Approximately 30 percent of the population in the Pacific can be classified as “urban,” although this is a relative concept in the region. Many families produce some garden crops in periurban and urban areas, and many also receive produce through members of their extended families who reside in rural areas. It is no surprise that there tends to be a continuum from traditional to Western (or modern) diet as one moves from rural to urban areas and, for that matter, from the less “developed” parts of the region, like highland Papua New Guinea, to the more developed, as for example, Guam.

Families in rural areas are more dependent on locally produced foodstuffs, both because less imported food is available and because they have less money with which to purchase it. But it would be a mistake to assume that today’s rural diets are the same as precontact diets (Pollock 1992). Rural producers in periurban areas may also have diets dominated by imported staples. Employing a household strategy designed to meet an increasing need for cash, rural producers may sell a truckload of taro and other produce and then, at considerably lower cost, purchase enough rice and flour to feed their families. The diet may be less expensive and less nutritious, but cash will be available for other needs.

Moreover, although the situation is beginning to change, in part as a response to government policy and incentives, it is not uncommon, depending on the season in urban markets, to find traditional staples, such as yams, taro, or sweet potatoes, and fish priced beyond what many urban consumers can afford (except, perhaps, for special occasions).

What People Eat

Since their earliest encounters with the West, Pacific peoples have been introduced to new foods, and these have become part of both the regular diet and, in some cases, the status food employed for ceremonial exchange. It is thought that the first canned product encountered by the Samoans was canned pea soup (pisupo)—a term used today for another imported and highly valued product, corned beef. Not only is pisupo common fare in Samoa, but kegs of beef in brine and case upon case of canned fish make up part of the exchange that accompanies ceremonial occasions.

As already noted, a rough continuum with respect to diet exists in the region, although only rural peoples in Melanesia and, perhaps to a lesser degree, remote parts of Fiji, Polynesia, and Micronesia have diets similar to those eaten by their forebears. In urban areas, people eat a mélange of traditional and Western foods on a daily basis and also patronize “take-aways” and fast-food establishments. At one time, the McDonald’s in Guam was the largest in the world, and although it has lost this distinction, there are now three McDonald’s franchises on that island. But for ceremonial occasions, and perhaps on Sundays (particularly in Polynesia), urban dwellers, like their rural counterparts, prepare a traditional meal and share it with the extended family.

Although one might decry the dietary change, the reasons for it are not difficult to understand. Foremost among them are the cost, degree of availability, and preparation time required for many traditional foodstuffs, as well as the influences of advertising and changing tastes. Certainly the highly refined imports of flour and rice, sugar, soft drinks, frozen meats, and high-fat corned beef make up a large part of the urban diet. Probably the most likely to be malnourished are the poor, often recent migrants to the towns, who have the least access to garden produce and the least cash to buy nutritionally sound foodstuffs. They may also be living in circumstances that do not facilitate food preparation.

Pacific Markets

Urban markets have existed, often in the same location, since colonial times, as products of the introduced cash economy. In one section there will be mounds of root and tree crops—yams, taro, sweet potatoes, cassava, coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, and other traditional foodstuffs. In another section, tables are piled with market garden produce and vegetables—greens, cabbages, squash, onions, and pumpkins. Fish and marine products are displayed in yet another section, whereas in still another, partly in response to increasing tourism, handicrafts may be found—woven pandanus and coconut-frond mats, baskets, hats, and fans, tapa, shells, shell and tortoiseshell jewelry, and wooden carvings of varying quality. In a central market there may be booths that sell a limited assortment of grains and canned or processed food. In Suva or Lautoka, Fiji, there are stalls selling yaqona (both kava root and the powdered form), and others with burlap bags overflowing with tumeric, chillies, and garam masala, the colorful Indian spices. In addition, prepared food and drink is often available.

Larger urban centers have supermarkets that sell fresh, frozen, and canned imported products and, sometimes, a limited selection of local ones. Some of these stores are modern versions of the old Burns Philp’s or Morris Headstrom outlets of the colonial Pacific. But there are also smaller, less well-stocked groceries.

Rural stores tend to be small and often precarious business operations. In remote areas, tinned meats or fish, flour, rice, cabin biscuits, cooking oil, and tea may or may not be available. More prosperous operations may have a freezer with fish and meat, but the frozen food is often of questionable quality given the vagaries of electricity and appliance repair.

Health and Nutrition

A great deal has been written about diet, health, and nutrition in the Pacific, with much of the focus on the nutritional and health consequences that have resulted from incorporation into the global economy. This transition has been accompanied by an “epidemiological transition” (Omran 1971), in which dietary change and concomitant obesity have emerged as causal factors (Taylor, Lewis, and Levy 1989), and chronic and noncommunicable diseases have taken the lead as causes of death in the more modernized or “Westernized” parts of the Pacific.

Early studies of hypertension, such as that of more than 30 years ago by I. Prior and F. Davidson (1966), found that blood pressure did not increase with age in some traditional Pacific societies. But more recent studies show increases in blood pressure with modernization: Examples include elevated blood pressure (above 160/95) in 36 percent of males in Nauru and 34 percent of male Chamorros in Guam. Elevated blood pressure is also found in 7 percent of urban Fijians, as compared with 2 percent of rural Fijians (Coyne 1984). Hypertension is more common in the more developed Polynesian and Micronesian societies than those of less developed Melanesia. That lifestyle appears to play a significant role was made clear by P. Baker and J. Hanna (1981), who found blood pressures among the lowest in the world in a traditional Western Samoan village and among the highest in the world among Samoans in Hawaii.

Researchers have also found some of the world’s highest rates of diabetes mellitus II (DM) in the Pacific. Prevalence rates in the region ranged from none in highland Papua New Guinea to 30.3 percent in adults in Nauru and were generally higher among females than males, as is typical elsewhere (Taylor and Bach 1987).The DM rates in Nauru rival those of the Pima Indians of the United States, previously thought to have the highest rates in the world. Other studies found elevated rates (over 12 percent) in both urban and rural Fijian Indians, Western Samoans in San Francisco, urban dwellers in Papua New Guinea, and Wallasians living in New Caledonia (Lewis 1988). Recent data for Hawaii give age-adjusted DM rates of 46.2/1,000 for Hawaiians and 22.5/1,000 for nonHawaiians (State of Hawaii 1992). In the over-65 population, rates for Hawaiians are almost three times those of non-Hawaiians. A number of risk factors have been identified, including genetic predisposition, obesity, diet, levels of activity, and more subtle effects of modernization.

Baker (1984) has elaborated on the “thrifty gene hypothesis” proposed by J. Neel (1962) to suggest that long-distance voyaging and bouts of acute short-term starvation following natural disasters (trials endured by those who settled the remote Polynesian and Micronesian islands) produced genotypes suited to such conditions. With the adoption of modern lifestyles, however, these genotypes may be predisposed to elevated blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes mellitus.

The role of diet in shaping contemporary health patterns in Oceania is complex and much remains to be discovered. Pollock (1992) calls researchers to task for equating “traditional diets” with modern rural diets in urban–rural studies. There are also important biological differences between populations, and such studies have employed a Western biomedical framework of analysis that largely ignores the meaning of food in Pacific societies.

Unfortunately, undernutrition as well as overnutrition is a problem (and an increasing one) in the Pacific, particularly, but not exclusively, in urban areas. As elsewhere, it is the nutritionally vulnerable young children and, sometimes, the elderly who suffer the most severe consequences. Throughout the region, the high cost of imported goods, a lack of knowledge about healthful diets, and a lack of gardening land in urban areas have served to undermine nutrition. In the Solomon Islands, a national survey found malnutrition affects 22 percent of children aged 0 to 4. In the Marshall Islands, 11 percent of urban children are underweight, and one-third of all deaths are of children under age 5. At the other end of the nutritional spectrum, 30 percent of the urban population over age 15 have diabetes (Republic of the Marshall Islands 1990, cited in Bryant 1993).


We have only an incomplete understanding of the role of diet in health and disease in the Pacific region. We have a somewhat better, but still incomplete, picture of what people are eating. It is a mix of foods that tends to more closely mirror traditional diets in the less developed and more rural parts of the region, although these diets are certainly not unmodified. But in other parts of the Pacific, especially in urban areas, diets are made up of imported foods, often of poor nutritional quality. However, traditional meals and feasts are still important in the Pacific.

There are cultural as well as economic and nutritional reasons for reexamining traditional diets within a framework that is relevant for the populations involved. Food remains an important cultural symbol and can be an important component of cultural identity. The Waianae Diet Program, a community-based program developed in response to high rates of obesity and chronic disease among native Hawaiians, is founded on traditional diets and cultural values and includes group support and a weight-loss protocol that is not calorie-restricted. Short-term results indicate significant reductions in weight, blood pressure, serum lipids, and serum glucose (Shintani et al. 1994). Although long-term research is needed and the positive results for individuals may be difficult to maintain over time, this culturally sensitive program is an example of the efforts being made to reassess and encourage traditional Pacific diets.

Holo i’a ka papa, kau ‘ia e ka manu. This Hawaiian proverb, literally translated, means: “When the shoals are full of fish, birds gather over them”—a familiar and welcome sight to island fishermen. Its proverbial meaning is that where there is food, people gather (Puki 1983). The sharing of food—for ceremonial or merely social purposes—remains a dominant thread in the complex, rich fabric of culture in the Pacific. The thread and fabric will continue to evolve and change as they have done over the course of history, as the islands and islanders, increasingly less isolated, nonetheless continue to reassert their Pacific identities in a rapidly changing modern world.