Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, May 23, 2005

Coconut pollen found on Laysan

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Archaeologist Stephen Athens has found coconut pollen deep in the sediments of the salt lake on Laysan Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — an unexpected find that has excited the Hawai'i scientific and cultural communities.

One plant, numerous uses

Cocos nucifera is known in Hawaiian as niu.

The coconut is the classic tree of Polynesia, and one of the most important plants to residents of the islands. It grows in brackish to near full-salty conditions. The wood of very old trees is quite hard and has been used for flooring. Its fronds can be used for thatching and weaving. The fibrous husk around the nut can be twisted and braided into cordage, called sennit. The hard shell of the seed makes containers and can be shaped into implements and buttons. Inside the seed is fresh drinking liquid, even on the smallest islands where no fresh water is available. The meat of the seed can be eaten, dried, or scraped and pressed to generate a fat-rich milk. The dried coconut meat, called copra, can be pressed for oil that can be used as a skin lotion, for soap-making and in cooking.

Sources: "A Tropical Garden Flora," "La'au Hawai'i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants"

If the coconut got to remote Laysan — 930 miles northwest of Honolulu — on its own, it is the first evidence coconuts ever made it to Hawai'i without human help.

If Hawaiians brought it, it is the first physical evidence that Hawaiians ventured that far up the archipelago. The only archaeological evidence of Polynesian visits to what some

call the Kupuna Islands is stonework and artifacts found on the nearest ones — Nihoa and Necker, or Mokumanamana, the latter 460 miles northwest of Honolulu.

"It is fascinating. I wonder how they got there," said Hawai'i botanist Derral Herbst, co-author of a new book about the plants cultivated in the Islands, "A Tropical Garden Flora."

Athens said he is sure the coconut pollen was deposited sometime between 5,500 years ago and the time of the first European visits to the Islands — but because of the quality of the sediment, he can't date it for certain more closely than that.

"It is so deep that it seems that it could be a natural introduction, but it is plausible they were planted," Athens said.

Either alternative is big news in the scientific world. Athens has not yet published the report in a scientific journal, but his findings are in a report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, entitled "Holocene Paleoenvironment of Laysan Island."

Athens did his work under contract with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which hopes to revegetate Laysan with the native plants present before Western contact, when firewood harvesting, guano collection, the introduction of rabbits and other activities denuded the place.

Laysan is roughly rectangular in shape, less than two miles long and just a mile wide. A large depression in its center contains a super-salty lake. Since water can preserve pollen, Athens hoped to find clues to the former vegetation in the sediment layers at the lake's bottom.

In the summer of 2003, he plunged a coring device into the sediment, which continued down for 70 feet before it hit rock. The cores were studied by Jerome Ward, a palynologist, or pollen expert, who also found that ancient Laysan had a dense forest of Pritchardia palms, or loulu; 'ilima bushes; an unidentified hibiscus; and an aquatic plant whose presence proved that Laysan's lake was once brackish.

The first botanical survey of the island in the late 1800s found, among other plants, sandalwood, a few remnant loulu, sedges and clumping grasses, as well as a fragrant, night-blooming shrub known in Hawai'i as maiapilo. But no coconuts.

Athens said the oldest part of the core, dating as far back as 7,000 years ago, does not have coconut pollen, suggesting the species had not yet arrived there that early. He said the previous work done by him and other researchers show that coconuts were moving into the Pacific during that period. Pollen samples on Guam have found coconuts were there long before humans — as early as 9,000 years ago.

University of Hawai'i archaeologist Terry Hunt said that work in the Cook Islands found evidence that coconuts were present there before humans were, as well.

"These findings are consistent with their (coconuts') biology," Hunt said.

Coconuts are uniquely suited to survive for a period of time on the ocean. University of Hawai'i ethnobotanist Isabella Abbott said she can recall finding sprouting coconuts washing ashore in Hawai'i when she was a child. And her book, "La'au Hawai'i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants," cites research that coconuts could still sprout after being in salt water for as long as four months.

Laysan has a small grove of coconuts now, which was planted in the modern age. Athens said the uppermost — therefore most recent — parts of the lakebed core sample contain pollen believed to be from these trees.

"This is an interesting natural history phenomenon," said Sheila Conant, a University of Hawai'i biologist who has studied extensively on Laysan and other Northwestern Hawaiian islands. "My first thought was that when we're doing restoration, now, we can leave those coconut trees."

But if early Hawaiians were voyaging between the distant islands northwest of Kaua'i and O'ahu, it is likely they could have been a source for the coconut. Cultural historian Kepa Maly said his conversations with

Ni'ihau elders found that they recalled discussions in which coconuts were named among the items brought on long voyages.

"It seems logical that if kanaka had traveled there, they would have carried coconuts with them," Maly said.

He said that there is plenty of evidence in chants and traditions that Hawaiians knew about the multiple islands beyond the main Hawaiian islands. Maly, in fact, suggests that Necker Island, also known as Mokumanamana, may be misnamed. Some old sources use the term Namokumanamana, which may be translated "the fragmented pinnacle islands," and Namoku'aha, or "the line of islands."

These may be terms that show that early Hawaiians knew the many islands beyond Kaua'i and Ni'ihau.

"There is a good enough body of native tradition of traveling to those islands," Maly said.

Athens said he would like to do additional core samples in Laysan's lake to try to better tie down the dates when coconuts were present. He said he would also like to do core samples at the neighboring island, Lisianski. Lisianski had a lake like Laysan's, but when rabbits ate all the island's vegetation in the first decades of the 1900s, the resulting sand storms filled it. It could tell whether there once were coconuts on that island as well.

Botanist and Hawaiian cultural expert Sam Gon III said that whether the coconuts got deep into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands naturally or were brought by Hawaiians, the finding from a scientific point of view is "a fun, exciting thing." He further muddied the theory on the pollen's origins by suggesting still another alternative route for the tree — that early Polynesians could have brought them to the main Hawaiian Islands, and that they drifted on their own from there to Laysan.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.

• • •