Prof. Friedrich Ratzel

The Races of Oceania

Labour, Dwellings and Food in Oceania

Similarities and coincidences in labour and implements of labour


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On how insecure a basis, however, the life of these islanders rests is shown by the only too frequent times of dearth. Among articles of diet the chief place is taken by vegetable products and the spoils of fishing, and great groups of these races are wholly vegetarian. Dietary laws forbid the eating of beasts or plants which are atuas of the tribe. Where pigs and dogs exist, these delicacies are reserved for the upper classes or for festive occasions. Contrary to our usual ideas of the diet of these tribes, the fat and blood of the pig are among the dainties served at the banquets of the chiefs. "No Greenlander was ever so sharp set upon train-oil as our friends here," says Cook, of the Maoris; "they greedily swallowed the stinking droppings when we were boiling down the fat of dog-fish." Rats are eaten as a rule only by the common people, in Tahiti only by women. Most birds are reckoned sacred.

Among vegetable articles of food the chief is bread-fruit; then taro, yams, and sweet potatoes. Bread-fruit is sometimes eaten fresh-baked, sometimes leavened; Fiji being the only part of Melanesia where the latter is usual. The taro is washed to remove the acrid part, and the flour that remains as a sediment is kneaded. By letting the dough ferment the Polynesians obtain poi, their favourite food, resembling slightly sour porridge. It will keep for a long time; and baked yam will keep for a year. In Tahiti the sweet potato is eaten only so long as there is no ripe bread-fruit. We have already mentioned the coco-nut, and its great value as a food supply. In the smaller Polynesian Islands the entire stock of vegetable food is provided by coco and pandanus-palms, with taro. Kababo, or pandanus-meal, dried and roasted, forms, when pressed together, a valuable preserve. Here we may mention the famous earth-eating habit of the people of New Guinea and New Caledonia. The truth of it is that the former eat great quantities of a greenish steatite, the latter of a clay containing iron and magnesia, which is kept in dry cakes with a hole through them. They do not do it for hunger, but for pleasure, and after copious meals.


Taro (Caladium esculentum)

In regard to the manner of preparing all these food-materials, it is a significant fact that most of the Polynesians and many of the Melanesians possess no earthenware vessels, and still less any of metal. They boil their water in wooden vessels by dropping in red hot stones; but they do not use this for cooking, only to make shells open more easily. Cooking with hot stones was formerly more frequent, but has become unusual; coco-nut milk is boiled in the fresh shells over the fire. The most common method is to lay the food between hot stones. It indicates a certain progress when we find the stones, after heating, sprinkled with water, the whole covered with leaves and earth and so left to itself. Since the days of Cook and Forster many Europeans have extolled meat steamed in this way far above our roasts. Simple roasting or broiling at an open fire is pronounced a method of dressing fit only for persons in a hurry or for slaves. Cooking is the duty of the men in Pelew, of the women in the Mortlocks. European travellers in Hawaii have been amazed to see a fowl tied up in a bundle with a hot stone, to be produced cooked at the next halt.

They eat in the open air, sitting on the ground, which is strewn with fresh leaves; hot food being carried wrapped in banana leaves. The Polynesians use no salt, but season their complicated fish and meat dishes with sea-water. The art of salting pig-meat is said to be known in Hawaii. In many parts of Melanesia salt is only known as a delicacy. To carve and distribute the meat is not held unworthy of the highest chiefs. Special formalities are observed in eating; yet within the limits of these there is room for an unseemly degree of avidity. In most places men and women must not eat together, nor either partake of what the other has prepared. With almost equal anxiety they avoid eating out of the same vessel with another. In ordinary times they take two meals in the day; but if a great quantity of food has been provided, they sit at it, with occasional interruptions for dancing, play, and so on, till it is all devoured.

Among agricultural implements the chief place is taken by the primitive stick, cut slanting at one end like a pen, and of about the length of a hay-fork. The men who break up the ground with these are followed by boys carrying sticks to break the loosened clods still smaller, and at last the earth is, if necessary, rubbed fine with the hands, and piled up in little mounds, in which the seeds or cuttings are placed. Among the Motus of New Guinea six or seven men stand one behind another with a light pointed beam, which they run into the ground, heaving up at the word of command a huge clod of earth. Weeds and brushwood have in many places previously been removed by means of a narrow paddle-shaped sharp-edged tool of hard wood, about 2 feet long. Some weeks later the roots are grubbed up with a kind of hoe, which the workman uses in a stooping attitude, almost level with the ground.

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