Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving -- please pass the kumara!

Thanksgiving in the United States is a beloved and special holiday, on which we pause each year and gather with family and loved ones to consider all the many blessings we should be thankful for in our lives.

The traditional Thanksgiving feast contains elements stretching back to the first Thanksgiving in 1621, in which the Plymouth Bay colonists gave thanks for their first successful harvest, and were joined by Massasoit and members of the Wampanoag people who had taught them how to cultivate beans, squash and corn and who brought two deer and other food for the occasion.

One Thanksgiving staple that is part of nearly everyone's annual feast will be a dish made from the sweet potato, a traditional American cultivar unknown in the Old World prior to contact with the Americas which was known to the native peoples and an important dietary staple.

The sweet potato is also an intriguing clue in the question of whether Polynesia was originally settled from the east (the Americas) or from the west (through Melanesia or Micronesia), and may argue against an eastward expansion into Polynesia and for a westward expansion from the Americas, as Thor Heyerdahl has argued, and which is a theory for which there appears to be abundant evidence, in spite of the disdain with which this suggestion is regarded among conventional scholars today who flatly state that the question has been settled in favor of an eastward expansion from Asia.

In a 1946 essay entitled "How did the Sweet Potato reach Oceania?" anthropologist James Hornell explains the dilemma: "Botanists are agreed that America is the area within which the sweet potato was first brought under cultivation. One consequence arising from this conclusion is that the problem of the means whereby it became diffused throughout the island world of Oceania has given rise to great controversy" (cited in Heyerdahl's American Indians in the Pacific, 428).

Because the Polynesians widely cultivate the sweet potato from Easter Island to Hawaii to New Zealand and all places in between, and because it could not have come from Asia originally, ethnologists have long debated how the sweet potato became such an important part of the Polynesian diet and culture.

At first, many analysts who refused to consider the possibility that Polynesia was settled from the east (from the Americas) speculated that the first European vessels (primarily Spanish) must have brought the sweet potato across the thousands of miles of the Pacific from South America to the islands of Oceania.

The problems with this theory are quite stark. Chief among them is the extensive historical evidence, documented by R. B. Dixon in 1932, that the most remote and long-isolated Polynesian islands had extensive and ancient sweet potato plantations when they were first discovered by European voyagers (in "The Problem of the Sweet Potato in Polynesia," cited in Heyerdahl 430). He also points out that when Jacob Rogoveen became the first modern European to land on Easter Island / Rapa Nui in 1722, he and his men described "the sweet potato as abundant, grown in large plantations, and one of the mainstays of the native food" (ibid). Further, traditional history in both Hawaii and New Zealand point to cultivation in those islands by AD 1250 in Hawaii and AD 1350 in New Zealand, at the latest (Heyerdahl 431).

Another possibility that has been mentioned is the idea that a sweet potato somehow floated on its own from South America across the thousands of miles of ocean to the islands of the Pacific, and then was planted and spread to the rest of Polynesia. This speculative theory is difficult to maintain in light of the fact that the sweet potato propagates from its tubers as opposed to seeds that can be born safely along the ocean currents -- a sweet potato would not survive well on the open sea, especially because of the salt content of the ocean. Further, since the tubers grow underground, they are unlikely to simply fall into the sea like a regular seed might. Because new plants can really only be started from a tuber or a clipping, it is far more likely that sweet potatoes were deliberately carried across the oceans on ships and planted.

Nevertheless, Thor Heyerdahl records the suggestion put forward by some botanists that perhaps "a Peruvian sweet-potato might have been caught in the roots between a falling tree near the Pacific shore, and drifted with the tree" until washing up on a Pacific island thousands of miles away, to be planted in the ground by amazed islanders who had never seen one before but knew to bury it in order to get more.

Heyerdahl, however, points to a problem which puts to rest this wildly speculative, and that is the fact that "the sweet-potato was known as Cumar (Kumar) in the Quechua-dialect of Ecuador, whereas it was known in Polynesia as Kumara, with sundry dialectical variations" (429). Even if a tree managed to fall into the ocean with a sweet potato serendipitously lodged in its roots, this could not explain the fact that when it arrived in Hawaii or other points east, the inhabitants "recognized it by its original South American name" (Heyerdahl 429).

The sweet potato is known as the Cumara, Umar', Kumal, Umala, and Kuala in the Quechua language of the Andes and in variations found in other parts of South and Central America. The fact that the sweet potato is known to this day as the kumara in New Zealand (as well as in Easter Island, the Tuamotus, and Mangareva), and by variations such as Kuma'a in the Marquesas, Umara in Tahiti, Uala in Hawaii, Uara in Mangaia, Kuara in Rarotonga, Kumala in Tonga and Futuna, and 'Umala in Samoa argues strongly for actual ancient contact between the seafarers of Polynesia and the Inca and other people of South America (Heyerdahl 430).

Many today accept that the Polynesians could have journeyed to the Americas and brought the sweet potato back with them, while still originating in Asia. This theory is certainly a possibility, as it is no exaggeration to award the peoples of the Pacific with the title of "the greatest navigators our globe has ever seen."

However, Heyerdahl puts forward some powerful arguments for the alternate possibility, which is that the sweet potato was brought out of the Americas by the original settlers of the islands of the Pacific, who came from the east and sailed to the west (a possibility that in no way diminishes the argument that these seafarers became the greatest navigators our globe has ever seen, although some today seem to believe that a westward migration somehow robs the Polynesians of their seafaring accomplishments for some reason, and who call Heyerdahl's proposition "the ultimate insult" -- see the discussion in this previous post).

For one thing, Heyerdahl points out that the sweet potato's importance and cultivation was greatest in the most remote of the islands of Polynesia -- those on the very "points of the triangle" that define the vast region of the Polynesian culture: Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand (431). Some scholars have concluded from this fact that this is just the sort of distribution that would be most likely if the kumara "had been brought during the initial period of voyaging" that brought the first settlers to the islands (431).

He also points out that there are no Polynesian traditions relating a voyage to the Americas in which the new foodplant was discovered and brought back to Polynesia. In fact, he points out that "there are a vast quantity of traditions to the contrary" (traditions which state that the important food crop came from the ancient ancestral lands -- Heyerdahl 432). Heyerdahl also points out analysis from early records that relate the are over sixty varieties of sweet potato in Hawaii (arguing that it has been grown there for long centuries) and Captain Cook's records of ancient plantations and "vestiges of former plantations on the hills" (citing an account from 1778).

In short, the sweet potato (or kumara) is an important piece of evidence in the examination of the origins of the people of the Pacific islands. Alongside other evidence (such as the items discussed in this previous post), it appears to enhance the possibility that the islands of the Pacific were settled from the Americas and towards the west, rather than from Asia and then towards the east. This possibility may help clear up some of the evidence suggesting a distant connection to some aspects of ancient Egypt in the culture of Polynesia (see for instance this previous post, this previous post, and this previous post).

So, while you are enjoying your sweet potato casserole this year at Thanksgiving, give some thought to the significance of this far-ranging tuber.

Happy Thanksgiving to all the Mathisen Corollary readers around the world!