An Arab proverb states that: “If humans were to appear on the Earth with no more than a coconut palm, they could live quite happily and contented for all eternity”. Given its value for mankind, the palm could not fail to find a place in the beliefs and myths of various peoples. In folklore and legends the coconut palm is important for the identity and cultural cohesion of entire populations. It is sacred in India, where the coconut represents the “goddess of fertility”. Kept in temples, it is presented to women who wish to have a child.

In the Philippines it is said that humans originated from two coconuts washed up by the sea onto a rocky shore. From one originated Lalaqui – the male – and from the other Baye – the female –. This legend bears a clear reference to the notion that the coconut palm came from the sea (CHIOVENDA, 1921). According to another legend common to many islands in Polynesia, coconuts only germinate where they can “hear” the sound of the sea and of human voices. This poetic image again suggests that the coconut palm is dispersed both by sea currents and by humans (MILNE and MILNE, 1967).

In Africa the coconut palm symbolises birth. It is the custom of many peoples to plant a tree of life when a child is born. The Swahili bury the placenta and umbilical cord of the new-born nearby, and after seven days they plant a coconut in the same spot, together with the first nail cuttings and tufts of hair of the child. The fruit represents the child’s navel, thus linking it to the life and prosperity of the plant. In Asia and the Pacific also, for example in Bali, Java and in Celebes, a coconut is planted for every new-born. When a child is born in Borneo, the witch-doctor is called to perform a magic rite which extracts the soul from the child’s body and transports it into the coconut. With its extremely hard husk, the coconut guards the soul until the child becomes strong and able enough to defend himself from life’s perils. At that point, the soul returns to its proper place, leaving the “nut-safe”.

In Asia and the Pacific, the coconut palm is also linked to the origin of food. Archetypal myths claim that food-plants originated from the body of a dead person or of a god. In Polynesia it is said that the first two coconut palms originated from the buried brain of a species of giant eel, Te Tuna, lord of the sea. It was killed by the semi-divine Malayan hero Maui in a duel over Hina, the beautiful goddess of the sky. In the coconut the Polynesians perceive the two eyes and the mouth of Te Tuna (LIPP, 1998). A Chinese legend states that the coconut derives from the head of Prince Yue, who was decapitated by his enemy, Prince Lin-gi, the head then hung from a tree (CHIOVENDA, 1921).

A germinated coconut floating on the sea near to the shore of the island of Guadalcanal (Melanesia) is the concluding image of the film “The Thin Red Line” by T. MALIK(1998), set during the 2nd World War. It represents the collective soul and life itself which, against all odds, continues to exist despite a cruel and destructive war between peoples.





Once, the islands of the Pacific were totally uninhabited. Then, over the millennia people began to arrive there by different routes. Many agree with the theory which excludes mass migration, maintaining that the migration wave towards the islands of the Pacific began in the West from Malaya, across New Guinea, then continuing East and North. Between 40,000-50,000 years ago, when the first migrations by sea took place, groups of hunter-gatherers set off on their journey across the seas of Southeast Asia, colonising Srï Lanka, Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines. Thousands of years were then to pass before humans ventured even further east and, from New Guinea and the Melanesian islands, they reached the islands of the Pacific.

The first Polynesians were nomads. They crossed the open sea in small canoes, and “hopping” from one land mass to another, they populated the most remote strips of the Pacific Ocean. It seems that the last wave of expansion came from New Guinea less than 4000 years ago. It is also possible that bold navigators on crafts of extraordinary agility landed accidentally on the new islands. The risk of ending up adrift is still a possibility today: islanders fishing beyond the reef are sometimes swept off by currents or storms, ending up on islands hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away, after drifting for a number of weeks (STEVENSON and TALBOT, 1994).

The Polynesians were numerous, and when an island became too crowded, a group of families went off to reconnoitre neighbouring islands with the intention of settling there, taking with them a variety of provisions which included coconuts. In this way they very likely contributed to the diffusion of these tropical trees towards the East Pacific. It would seem that thanks to one of these journeys 1500 years ago, coconut palms were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands. It was their reserves of coconuts which enabled them to undertake these daring canoe journeys from one island to another, as the coconut is a sort of natural flask containing fresh liquid and food. Moreover, since coconuts float, they could be retrieved if the canoe capsized (MATTHEWS, 1992; MILNE and MILNE, 1967). The many travellers arrived in the Pacific islands by different routes, arriving in particular from Southern America: this is rendered all the more credible if we consider raft journeys undertaken today.

Another hypothesis is that coconut palms originally came from Africa, brought over by the first populations to colonise the South Pacific (MILNE and MILNE, 1967). One of the oldest historical testimonies of man transporting coconut palms from one island to another is from 920 A. D. and comes from the Persian write A. ZAID. He reports on the existence in India of a religious sect with the humanitarian aim of planting coconuts on uninhabited islands (CHIOVENDA, 1921).


Historical background

  • The coconut palm is referred to for the first time in the Sallier papyrus which states that there was a specimen of this plant in the botanical collection of Tothmes I (around 1650 B. C.). In the oldest document on Indian medicine, Susrutas Ayur-Veda (1400-1000 B. C.), it is cited as a medicinal plant. In ancient times, coconuts were also well-known to the Greeks, or at least to Greek scholars. The physician, Ctesias (around 415 B. C.), wrote that he had seen these fruits in India.
  • Apollonius of Tyana (1st century A. D.) reported that coconut palms originated on the fertile plains of the Ganges. The Mahavanso, Ceylon’s oldest chronicle, indicates that the plant was well-known on the island 161 years B. C. TENNENT (1860) affirms that there were more than 20 million coconut palms on the island in his time. 5 million were cultivated to produce toddy, 11.5 million provided around 460 million fruits, and the remaining 3.5 million were for other purposes.
  • The Polos’ departure from Venice. In 1271, the Venetian merchant M. POLO set off on a journey to China with his father and his uncle. They crossed Asia by the main Silk Road. Polo wrote of his travels in “Il ”, known in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo”. In this book he reports that the coconut palm was found in abundant supplies in various parts of India and on the Malabar coast. In Europe only the fruit of the palm was known. A description in 1510 by the Italian traveller and naturalist L. VARTHEMA introduced Europeans to the plant which produces them.
  • F. MAGELLAN, the Portuguese navigator, contributed most to the knowledge and conquest of our planet. It is thanks to him that we first became aware of the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, and he was the first to provide practical proof that the Earth is round. Magellan was killed in 1521 on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. His ships continued westward, however, and the voyage was successfully terminated by J. S. EL CANO. Magellan’s true merits were recognised thanks to the Italian navigator, A. PIGAFETTA, author of the famous “Magellan’s Voyage around the World”. In this report, Pigafetta accurately described the uses of the coconut palm in the Pacific Islands.
  • ƒIn 1577, SIR F. DRAKE found coconut palms on the islands of Cape Verde (Atlantic Ocean). He noted in his logbook that the coconut contained “A very white substance, as good and sweet as almond milk”. Drake was one of the most renowned admirals of the Elizabethan Age. He carried out the second successful circumnavigation of the globe, after that of Magellan.
  • During Captain J. COOK’S first circumnavigation aboard the “Endeavour”, he found and charted New Zealand (1768-71). Thanks to him we know that coconut palms grew on most of the islands in the South Seas. Perhaps the plant had arrived there before him from Southern America, the place of origin of other plants related to the Cocos genus, floating and drifting to distant lands such as Tahiti, where Cook arrived in 1769. Cook was one of the greatest explorers of all time. During his travels he demonstrated that the southern continent, the so-called Terra Australis did not exist. In his cartographical surveys and in his sketches of the oceans and the lands he visited first appeared the outline of the world as we know it today.
  • …SIR J. BANKS was one of the most important explorer-botanists of the second half of the XIX century. President of the Royal Society and Director of Kew Botanical Gardens, he was one of the most prominent figures in the golden age of botany. He took part in Cook’s first journey with the aim of “Contributing to the promotion of natural knowledge”. During this trip, his attention was attracted by the coconut palms on Tahiti.
  • In 1818, R. BROWN proposed that the coconut palm originated on the islands and equatorial beaches of Asia. A famous explorer and naturalist, he earned the title of the first botanist of Britain. His studies were extensively based on microscopical observations. He was the first to describe the plant cell nucleus and the universal phenomenon of random molecular collisions, which he had observed while studying pollen grains and which came to be known as “Brownian movement”.
  • In 1853, A. R. WALLACE proposed that the coconut palm came from the coral islands of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Wallace was a British naturalist who, at the same time as and independently of C. DARWIN, proposed the principle of natural selection. Though firmly believing in evolution, he defended the idea that man’s higher mental capacities could not have developed through evolutionary processes.
  • ˆO. BECCARI, the great Italian explorer-botanist, affirmed at the beginning of the XX century that: “The coconut palm, native of lands and islands which were once connected to the Austro-American continent, now lost, dispersed naturally in the islands of the Pacific”.
  • Still at the beginning of the XX century, another botanist, O. F. COOK, published a monograph which contained a great deal of evidence in favour of the coconut palm coming originally from the Americas. He excluded the possibility of dispersal by ocean currents, accusing his predecessors of “Botanical romance”.