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).