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Article: The Food Plants of Hawaiʻi can be...

Staple Food

The food plants of Hawaiʻi can be divided into three groups: those known as staple foods (the principal starchy foods – kalo (taro,) ʻuala (sweet potato,) ʻulu (breadfruit,) etc;) those of less importance (to add nutrients and variety to the diet;) and those known as famine foods. (Krauss)

According to the theory underlying Hawaiian natural philosophy, all natural phenomena, objects and creatures, were bodily forms assumed by nature gods or nature spirits.

Thus, rain clouds, hogs, gourds, and sweet potatoes were ‘bodies’ of the god Lono. Taro, sugar cane, and bamboo were bodies of the god Kāne.

Bananas, squid, and some other forms of marine life were bodies of Kanaloa. The coconut, breadfruit, and various forest trees were bodies of Kū.

Wherever it was possible to grow taro, even though it necessitated complex arrangements, Polynesians did so, for taro was the basic – the original – staple of life for these people.

So far as the Hawaiians were concerned, the place of the taro in the diet, in the horticulture, and in mythology, makes this evident.

Taro as the staff of life, the land which provided subsistence, the people who dwelt on it, the ritual and festival in honor of the rain god, the role and place of fresh water upon which the life of food plants depended, the dedication of boy children to the gods of food production and procreation-these provided the basic patterns of Hawaiian culture.

The fundamental patterns of this culture were determined by the habits of growth and cultivation of taro. The terms used to describe the human family had reference to the growth of the taro plant: ‘aha, the taro sprout, became ‘ohana, the human extended family.

Taro, which grew along streams and later in irrigated areas, was the food staple for Hawaii, and its life and productivity depended primarily upon water.

The fundamental conception of property and law was therefore based upon water rights rather than land use and possession. Actually, there was no conception of ownership of water or land, but only of the use of water and land.

The term for land had reference to subsistence: ‘āina, ‘ai to feed, with the substantive suffix na. The people who dwelt or subsisted on the land were the ma-ka-‘ai-na-na, ‘upon-the-landers.’ And a native in his homeland was a ‘child of the land,’ kama-‘āina.

The fundamental unit of territory was the ahupua‘a, so called because its boundary was marked by an altar, ahu, dedicated to the rain god Lono, symbolized by a carved representation of the head of a hog, pua‘a, which was a form of Lono, the rain god and patron of agriculture.

Although women cultivated small sweet-potato patches by the shore and in the vicinity of dwellings, farming was essentially men’s work.

With their digging sticks they prepared land for cultivation, excavated and constructed ditches and lo’i (irrigated terraces) for wet taro, and cleared land on the slopes and in the upland where dry taro was planted along with sweet potato, breadfruit, banana, and sugar cane.

The breadfruit is another of the Polynesian staples that was brought from Malaysia into Polynesia. There is reason to believe that breadfruit may not have come into Polynesia until as late as the 14th century, and that the Marquesas was undoubtedly the center into which it was first introduced and from which it was disseminated.

Breadfruit is spoken of as ‘ai kameha‘i, meaning that it is a food (‘ai) that simply reproduces itself ‘by the will of the gods,’ that is, by sprouting. It is not planted by means of seeds or slips.

Of the four larger islands, Oahu and Kauai had the greatest taro acreage available and in production; and Hawaii came third in taro production, most of it mulched or forest grown. Maui produced the least taro.

In sweet-potato production it probably equaled Hawaii and outproduced Oahu and Kauai. Of breadfruit, Hawaii probably produced most, Kauai came second, Maui third, and Oahu fourth. (Richard Bordner dissertation)

Taken altogether in terms of areas cultivated and number of communities, Maui certainly ranked last. In comparison with the other islands, it must have had a smaller population. (Most here is from Handy, Handy & Pukui.)

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