Pacific Ocean Societies

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PACIFIC OCEAN SOCIETIES. Oceania, the collective name for islands in the Pacific Ocean, consists of high volcanic islands, atolls, and two larger continental islands. On the volcanic and continental islands, the topography, climatic range, and rich soil allow a range of foods to be grown. On atolls, in contrast, the poor soil, shortage of fresh water, and exposure to salt spray restrict the plants that will grow. Fiji thus has a wider inventory of foods than the atolls of the Marshall Islands and Tuamotus. Increasing population size also places stresses on local plant foods.

The islands of the Pacific Ocean are surrounded by seas that cover half the surface of the globe. They have been settled over the last three thousand years by people who sailed east from Southeast Asia, carrying the planting material for taro, yam, and breadfruit, and possibly coconut. Later westward voyages from South America carried other plant stock, such as sweet potato, cassava, and Xanthosoma taro, that added to the biodiversity. The settlers on the various islands gradually developed autonomous groupings and discrete identities and languages, along with different food preferences. These Pacific island societies became subject to colonial control from the early nineteenth century until the 1960s, when each society sought independence on its own terms. Coconut and sugar cane became plantation crops, while coffee, cocoa, and other plants were introduced. With the development of a cash economy, imported foods such as rice, flour, and canned meat have played an increasing role in people's diets.

Staple Foods

Root and tree crops are the starch staples of Pacific Ocean societies. These roots and edible fruits are usually eaten with fish, or, if none is available, then a piece of coconut. Several varieties of the root crops and tree starches have been developed in situ, so that Hawaiians had seventy-two different types of Colocasia taro that they used for food. Sago is another starchy tree crop that is widely used throughout New Guinea. The coconut tree provides nuts, the meat of which is a major accompaniment to any of these starches. Coconut juice is a pure beverage, and other parts of the tree are used in food preparation and other products. Rice imported from countries is a recent and ubiquitous addition to the diet (Malolo et al., 1999; Pollock, 1992).

All these plants only reproduce vegetatively, so they had to be transported by people who knew their value. Over time many varieties have been selected for size of the root or fruits, extended seasonal availability, and reduced acridity. Taste has become more varied as fermented roots and fruits are either processed directly, or added to the fresh pulp, and then cooked. Cassava, sweet potato, and Xanthosoma taro (Xanthosoma chamissonis) have been added to the inventory, brought from the Americas. While widely accepted for household use, they have lesser status for ritual and ceremonial occasions. Taro and yam remain the major status foods for both household and ritual occasions (Pollock, 2002).

Diet and Nutrition

These starchy foods make up the bulk of the diet, because "they make us feel full" (Leota, in Pollock and Dixon, 1997:7275); in local languages they are termed "real food" (Fijian kakana dina ). About 80 percent of daily intake comes from one or a combination of these starches (including rice) (Malolo et al., 1999). But the starchy food must be eaten with an accompaniment for people to say they have "eaten." That accompaniment may be a piece of coconut or fish, or shellfish, and is vital to the feeling of satisfaction from eating. Outsiders may term these two components a "meal," though that is a concept introduced from the West (Pollock, 2000).

Local starchy foods are high in energy, and they provide some protein, minerals, vitamins, and dietary fiber (Malolo et al., 1999, p. 11). The nutrient content of the foods generally consumed by peoples of the Pacific islands is considered good (Dignan et al., 1994). Some Colocasia taro varieties can have 7 grams of protein per 100 grams, while Xanthosoma taro has a high Vitamin C content. Cassava is high in energy/calories but low in protein so is best consumed along with other root crops. The major source of fat in the diet comes from coconut and fish, though fried doughnuts and chicken are recent delicacies that are eagerly consumed when available, mainly in towns.

The traditional diet was high in fiber but low in salt, fat and sugars. However, the introduced foods, such as fried chicken, turkey tails, and soft drinks, have increased the amount of fat, salt, and sugar in the diet and are thus considered to be major contributors to health problems, notably diabetes, hypertension, and obesity (Coyne, 1984). The Pacific Islands Nutrition newsletter, which is distributed in all the island communities, stresses the links between diet, health, and lifestyle and suggests how diet can be improved (i.e., no. 43, March 2000).

Production of local starchy foods is diminishing as land is diverted to cash crops. Farmers can get a high price for their taros or yams when sold in the local market and in urban centers, but the returns from export crops such as sugar and ginger are better. Competition with low-priced imported foods, such as rice and flour, is a concern to nutritionists, since these imported starches have less nutritional value than the local starches. Local campaigns, such as that run by the Fiji Food and Nutrition Committee, have highlighted the attributes of local foods with an "Eat More Local Foods" slogan.

Food Preparation and Eating Habits

The traditional manner of eating once a day, or perhaps only three or four times a week, has changed with Western ideology and practices. Early visitors to the Pacific islands decried the large amounts of food they saw being consumed at feasts, terming it "gourmandizing"or "gluttony." They taught the people to regulate their food intake, that is, to eat at least once a day (Pollock, 2000). Today people eat two or three times a day.

That earlier pattern of irregular eating was well suited to the seasonal nature of the root and tree crops as well as to the organization of daily life. People ate what was available, and then waited until the next occasion when the roots and fruits had been harvested and cooked in the earth oven. But that pattern of gluttony and abstinence was deemed uncivilized by the early missionaries. The regularity of meals is one contributing factor to the obesity that is being recorded today (Pollock, 1995).

Cooking of the root and tree starches is essential to render them edible. The earth oven was the most ubiquitous form of cooking, but it has been largely replaced by quicker forms of cooking, such as frying and boiling. In the earth oven, the peeled starches together with fish, or pig for a feast, were placed on hot coals and covered for a couple of hours, so the food was steamed. Much of the cooking in Polynesia was young men's work, with the women peeling the roots and fruits for the men to cook in the earth oven. Today women cook in the kitchen, using quicker processes, while the earth oven is used mainly for communitywide ceremonial feasts. The earth oven is more economical in the use of wood fuel, but the newer forms of cooking are a problem for those Pacific communities without access to electricity.

Fermented foods were in part a means of storing any excess but also a means of adding a distinct taste to the rather bland root and tree foods. At the end of the main breadfruit season, the Marshallese (and other Pacific peoples) devised a system of placing the ripe breadfruit in a pit in the sand lined with leaves, where it fermented for a few months. The resulting paste, which is said to resemble cheese, could then be prepared either on its own, or mixed with some fresh breadfruit and baked as a loaf. These pits were a valuable means of storage for times when the breadfruit trees were decimated by hurricanes, or the taro pits were inundated by a tidal wave. In Hawaii, poi was an important product of fermented taro that was highly valued when eaten with fish. Food researchers have commercialized poi, as it has properties that make it suitable for sick babies, the elderly, and those suffering from grain crop allergies.


Feasts, an integral part of Pacific island life, are marked by a proliferation of foods, many prepared in more elaborate ways than the daily meal. These foods are generally referred to as "puddings" though they are unlikely to contain sugar. Whole fish, turtle, pork, and suckling pig (particularly in Tonga) form the centerpiece. Foods not eaten by those present at the feast are carried home to be shared with other household members. Traditionally, such feasts were the means of honoring a chief or important visitors. They still highlight important events, such as the coming of age of a Tongan princess. The feast is often part of a wider social display that is likely to include dancing, sports such as krikiti (cricket) in Samoa, and music.

Problems of Food Security

Sharing food is a hallmark of Pacific Ocean societies and continues to be a major way of fostering a feeling of food security. Food has been and still is exchanged on a daily basis between households and communities. Brothers and sisters send food to their mother and father. Well-being is assessed in terms of types of food available, abundance, and generosity toward extended family members and others. Such exchanges have contributed to the diversification of foodstuffs. They have evened out disparities so that no family should be shamed by failing to have enough to provide for others.

Imported food from outside the Pacific islands has increased markedly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It adds further variety but only for those with the cash to buy those foods. Reliance on rice as a cheap everyday food is blamed for many of the nutritional and health problems now appearing for the first time in Pacific Ocean societies. Food poverty is a major concern noted in the Fiji Poverty Study (1996). Worst off are urban family households with only one income, which may have to feed some twelve or fifteen people. At the state level, governments have been trying to reduce the high proportion of food imports, which ranges between 12 and 35 percent of total imports. Support for local food producers is essential if the islands are to resolve the food crisis.

Food security is the key concern for the future. The gap between the food-poor and those with adequate food is increasing. Rice and tea or bread and tea may be all a family can provide on a daily basis if they have no land and little money. Weaning infants on sweet tea mixed in rice gives them a poor start in life. The problems of food security thus range from overeating to undereating: some island peoples consume too much fatty food and pop drinks, while many struggle to feed the growing numbers in their households.

Household food security has thus become a major concern for island peoples who until the 1960s had established a regime, both social and material, that met their needs. Today's needs are more complex and require complex solutions.

See also Cassava ; Fruit: Tropical and Subtropical ; Southeast Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines ; Tubers .


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Nancy J. Pollock

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Pacific Ocean Societies

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Pacific Ocean Societies