Traditional Anutan cuisine involves a wide variety of puddings, baked tubers (like sweet potato) and corms (like taro), cooked greens, and a good deal of fresh fish. Here is a recipe for an Anutan delicacy called uoua taro.
Food production on Anuta, like everywhere, is an important aspect of the community’s economic life. Here are a few passages on the topic adapted from Richard Feinberg’s book Anuta: Polynesian Lifeways for the 21st Century (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2011, chapter 2):
Trees and perennial plants require the least attention. Harvesting with long poles seems to be the greatest labor investment in the care of fruit trees. The weeding, thinning, and occasional planting of Cyrtosperma [a.k.a. “swamp taro”] are performed with a knife; a digging stick is used for making planting holes. The pollarding of Antiaris [the tree from which Anutans make bark cloth] is done at early growth stages of the tree and is an activity incidental to other chores—picking off the young side shoots as one is walking to other gardens, or to one’s ablutions at te vai (the island’s water supply). No transplanting of breadfruit “suckers” was observed during our stay, for it was said that it was too dry, even though there was no regular season for such planting.
Other chores—such as the mounding of D. nummularia yams, and thinning banana stands and providing windbreaks for them—are difficult to describe for there seems little order, system, or periodicity to them.
Techniques employed in the growing of manioc, and especially taro, are somewhat more ordered and complex. The normal sequence of events is more or less as follows.
First the planter clears a garden plot of trees and brush with axe and knife, and if the ground cover consists of a type of low fern (Nephrolepsis biserrata), the area is burned in order to suppress the rhizomes. A week or so later taro planting begins. The gardener makes holes in the ground with a digging stick, and taro tops, which have been cut from harvested corms, are placed in the holes. The loose soil then is gently packed by hand around the cuttings.
The sensitive taro does not stand up to weeds much better than it does to rain or uninterrupted sun. Therefore, the plots must be weeded from two to three weeks after planting and at regular intervals thereafter, until the crop is ready for harvest. The weeds, along with grass which is brought in from elsewhere for the purpose, are then used for mulching. Windscreens are erected on occasion, although this is more frequently done with tobacco than taro. Some people are more diligent than others in their cultivating activities, and when climatic conditions are favorable, a few Anutans may do away with the mulching altogether. More industrious agriculturalists may put down as many as six applications of mulch before the crop achieves maturity.
If all goes well, in five to seven months the taro is ready for harvest, and the corms, with stem and leaves still attached, are pulled out by hand. If the crop is to be used for immediate consumption, some corms may be left in the ground for over a month after they have matured. When it is to be stored as a fermented mash known as ma, an entire plot may be harvested and prepared within a matter of days.
After the taro has been harvested, it is time to begin planting manioc. The gardener pushes defoliated sections of manioc stem, a foot or more in length, into former taro holes until the garden has again been filled. Weeding and mulching may be done as with taro, but for the sturdy manioc this is not mandatory, and the mulching process may be largely ignored. In four to seven months, the plants mature and the root is harvested with the aid of a digging stick. When this has been completed, the cycle begins anew with the planting of taro, and usually without any significant fallow period.
Anuta’s climate is subject to noticeable seasonal variation. With a location of about 11°40’ south of the equator, it is generally exposed to the southeast trades from April through October. During this period, brisk winds blow almost constantly from the southeast quadrant with considerable force. At this time, known as te tonga, it is frequently overcast and temperatures may be chilly, but it tends not to rain a great deal. In the raki or ‘monsoon season’, which usually lasts from October through April, winds, blow sporadically from the west. During this season the weather is unpredictable. There may be extended periods of clear sky and blazing sun, interspersed with protracted downpours. Sometimes the wind may fall off completely for days at a time, but it is also during the monsoon season that the island experiences its occasional cyclones.
As it is, the Anutan crop rotation is one of the most intensive recorded in Oceania, at least by this investigator. It is rivaled only by the irrigated terracing systems for taro‑growing, e.g., in East Futuna…
By contrast, the perennial and tree crops require maintenance and cultivation on a casual basis only, and harvest is the main activity. Again, seasons are poorly marked, but breadfruit has two flowering periods, September‑October and May‑June, when often some fruit from the previous flowering remains on trees. This, with varietal differences, accounts for the often‑recorded claim that five to six harvests of breadfruit may occur in a year. Seasonal variation is also recognized, and years with “big winds” can drastically curtail breadfruit production.
The Anutan environment is generally favorable to agricultural production, and the people make the most of it. With a 1972–73 population density of something like 1000 per square mile, more food was available than the Anutans could possibly eat. Even in 2000, when a government census had just placed the island’s populace at 340, creating an astounding population density of over 2000 per square mile, Anuta’s gardens and fishing grounds kept the people well fed! On occasion, however, natural disasters create periods of shortage. With this in mind, Anutans store a certain proportion of their produce in underground pits where it is subjected to a process of semianaerobic fermentation. Such fermented fruits and vegetables, known as ma, may be kept for years as insurance against famine.
Manioc, because of its abundance and its relatively mild taste, is the commonest material for making ma. Taro is a distant second, followed by breadfruit, banana, Cyrtosperma, and Burckella in that order. A single pit may be up to twelve feet deep and more than a yard in diameter. Thanks to the surplus from times of plenty and the practice of storing it for periods of hardship, no one went hungry in the wake of the cyclone which preceded my [Richard Feinberg’s] arrival [in 1972].
Fish and Game
In contrast to the proliferation of vegetable life, the variety of animal species on Anuta is quite limited. The only nonhuman land mammal to inhabit the island in precontact times was the omnipresent rat, to which cats were added some decades ago for the purpose of rodent control. Several years before my first visit, an Anutan brought a dog to the island, but the animal made a nuisance of himself by eating cats and chickens and threatening to bite the people. So one day when the owner was away, a group of irate neighbors rid Anuta of the pest. In the years since 1973, Anutans have tried two or three more experiments with dogs, but with similar results.
In the middle of the 20th century, during Pu Teukumarae’s reign as the island’s senior chief, Anuta boasted a few pigs—apparently obtained sometime after the British Admiralty expeditions of the 1870s. However, they turned out to be more trouble than they were worth, eating people’s food, destroying gardens, and creating a health hazard. Thus, they soon were banned from the island. In November 1972, toward the end of my first stay, two piglets were imported on the Levers’ labor recruiting vessel as presents for Pu Nukumanaia and Pu Nukutamaaroa. And during the 1980s and 90s Anutans made a few more attempts at pig domestication. But by the time of my 2000 visit, these experiments were also abandoned under orders from the chiefs and their advisors.
Other terrestrial animals include several types of lizard, some coconut crabs and a few other varieties of land crab, spiders, centipedes, and a variety of insects. Birds are available in large numbers at certain times of the year, but their variety is also limited. Anutans hunt wild birds at times when it is difficult to obtain fish, and a supply of chickens was introduced from Tikopia during the 1950s. The chickens, which used to be left to run free around most of the island, now tend to be confined to coops. They are used to provide meat at feasts when other sources of animal flesh are unavailable; the eggs are not eaten. Patutaka [an uninhabited island that is Anuta’s nearest neighbor] is a productive spot for hunting birds, but it is rare for there to be more than one or two voyages in a single year.
By far Anuta’s most productive source of animal protein is the sea. Islanders exploit dozens of varieties of reef fish, as well as dolphin fish (matimati), bonito (atu), tuna (varu, kakati), shark (mangoo), barracuda (paravao), wahoo (paramauni) and large billfish such as sailfish and marlin (takura), all of which abound in the offshore waters. Whales and mammalian dolphins sometimes appear and remain near the island for weeks at a time, but the Anutans make no attempt to catch them. They refer to these aquatic mammals as nga ariki o te moana ‘kings of the ocean’ and say that, should someone become lost at sea, dolphins may appear and lead the sailor back to shore.
The island has no crocodiles or terrestrial snakes although Anutans are familiar with these reptiles from other parts of the Solomons. They occasionally encounter sea snakes (unukorokoro), which have an extremely venomous bite, similar to a cobra’s. But they tend to be lethargic and pose no serious threat to the human population. Sea turtles (ponu) sometimes appear, but they are difficult to catch, and I never saw Anutans eat one. Octopus (peke) is common on the reef and is a preferred fish bait. Children sometimes spend their leisure time searching the reef for crabs, snails, and cowries and cooking them on the beach. Spearfishermen occasionally pick up crayfish near the surf line on calm nights. Giant clams of the genus Tridachna (nga toki) are abundant in the ocean a short distance beyond the breakers. Limpets (matapiu) adhere to the cliffs on the north coast and at Patutaka, but they can only be gathered on unusually calm days. Sea cucumbers and starfish are present on the reef but generally go unused. At one point Anutans collected and dried sea cucumbers (puroria) in an attempt to establish a commercial export business, but it proved to involve a great deal of hard work for little payoff. An abundance of shells along the beach testifies to the existence of a small abalone‑like creature (te matapiri), but I saw none of these animals alive. Pearlshell (tipa) and trochus (karikau) have not been found on Anuta for many decades, but they may be obtained from Tikopia.
Among Anutans’ myriad techniques for catching fish, the most productive involve use of hook and line from a canoe. When canoes are not in use, they are covered with leaves to protect them from the sun and the rain.12 They are stored well up on land in Rotoapi, where there is a sea wall to protect them from the waves and there are few trees to fall on them in the height of a storm. On the day that a canoe is taken out, the crew uncovers it, carries it down to the water, and inside the reef, one of the fishermen paddles it around to the passage. While this is going on, other members of the crew search the reef for an octopus, which will be used for bait.
The crew loads its gear into the canoe in the vicinity of the passage, and it is ready to set off. The men push the vessel to the edge of the breakers, where they wait for a momentary lull in the surf. Someone gives a signal, and everyone begins to push at once. When some momentum is achieved most of the crew hops in, and the men paddle with all their strength to try to get well out to sea before another curl has time to come up and break upon the craft. Meanwhile, one or two men in the stern continue to push as long as they are able to stand on the reef. Once the canoe is safely past the surf line, the men who stayed behind to push swim out and climb aboard. If the wind is right, the crew sets sail; otherwise, they paddle to the fishing grounds.
Beyond the surf and for a distance of several miles in each direction, the bottom forms a series of concentric rings at depths ranging from 30 to 150 feet. Scattered through this region are hundreds of coral heads and other marine features. The island’s expert fishermen (tautai) have mentally recorded the locations of all these reefs and other features, as well as the types of fish which tend to frequent them. The tautai locates the general area by lining up with landmarks on Anuta and two large offshore boulders. Then the crew looks down to find the reef’s precise location. Most fishing is done in 60 to 80 feet of water, which means that one cannot see details on the bottom. However, the sea is clear enough that it is usually easy to make out the dark patches which indicate the presence of a coral head.
If there is little wind and a moderate current, everyone may fish except the sternman, who continues to paddle to keep the vessel hovering over the desired spot. If the wind or current is fairly strong, it is often necessary to have the bowman assist to keep the craft in place.
Fishing equipment for these inshore waters consists of nylon monofilament line in the 60- to 80-pound test range, wound around some sort of spool and used as a hand line. Hooks are also currently of European manufacture, replacing the bone, wood, and shell of earlier times. Anutans occasionally section lead bars and fashion them into sinkers. Owing to a scarcity of lead, however, many fishermen continue to make do with stones as they did in olden days.
Using this technique, known as tau vae, in inshore waters, four fishermen are fairly confident of catching 50 to 100 fish in the one- to three-pound range. If fewer than 40 fish are captured, it is a very poor day, while hauls of over 100 per canoe are not uncommon. On occasion, I have seen a canoe with two or three fishermen come back with more than 200 fish. However, for adventure and variety, and to avoid overfishing the inshore reefs, Anutans sometimes take canoes to the blue sea in search of large game fish. If only one canoe is fishing on a particular day, it usually remains close to the island for the certain catch; if there are several vessels, one or more may go offshore in quest of the big ones.
For a trip to te roto ‘the deep sea’, the fishermen start out as they do when exploiting nearby reefs, except that they begin earlier because of the long trip ahead. Armed with the usual octopus for bait, they head for a reef that lies in the direction of their destination, and there they fish the bottom until a supply of the normal reef fish has been obtained. Then they head out to the open sea, perhaps four or five miles beyond. Still employing hand lines, but now of about 150-pound test, with large hooks and no sinker, they chop up some of the fish they have caught on the reef, bait the hook, and let if float freely at the end of perhaps a hundred yards of line. Usually one person fishes at a time to avoid fouling the lines in case of a large strike. Anutans call this fishing method pakataataa.
After a large game fish strikes, it is pulled in by hand. When it is close to the canoe, someone grabs the tail. Should the fish be small enough, it is taken aboard and clubbed to death with a heavy stick (te tuki) which the crew has brought along for that purpose. If the fish is too large to be safely pulled in alive, it is held by the tail and clubbed into senselessness before being brought aboard. By this method, Anutans commonly catch small sharks, tuna, and dolphin fish; at the upper end, I have even seen them land a six‑foot shark and an eight-foot marlin.
Another method of fishing from a canoe is taki ‘trolling’. One does not go out specifically to troll; but on the way to the fishing grounds, and again on the trip home, a light line with a small hook and a strip from the end of an octopus’ tentacle is frequently dragged behind the canoe. Flying fish (ttave) and large needle fish (aku) are the commonest varieties to be caught in this way.
A very different type of canoe fishing is rarama, night fishing for flying fish. A canoe goes out well after sundown—perhaps as late as 10:00 or 11:00 P.M.—with a long-handled net and either a leaf torch or a flashlight. The light attracts flying fish, which leap from the water in the vicinity of the canoe, and the net handler scoops them out of the air. In contrast with some islands where an entire evening may be spent collecting flying fish to take home and eat, Anutans typically keep at it only until they have caught a few. They then head out to deeper water where they use the flying fish for bait to catch the larger species. Fishing at night is generally more productive than during the day, and when the fishermen get home the next morning they usually have a good catch to show for their efforts. Getting through the passage, however, tricky as it is during the day, is doubly difficult at night. Consequently, this kind of fishing is normally reserved for the tradewind season when the passage is at its calmest.
A canoe requires many months to build, and it takes years for a tree to grow large enough to be used for a hull. Therefore, if there is any question about the weather being too rough, canoes are not taken out, and fish must be obtained by other means. On perhaps a third of the days that I spent in on the island, the passage was too rough to be safely traversed by canoe.
One of the most popular methods of catching fish when the passage is impassable by canoe is for a man to grab a small fishing line in his hand, tie a basket around his waist, throw some bait into the basket, and swim out to sea. Most Anutans have inexpensive diving goggles with which they can easily see the bottom and follow the terrain to one of the nearby reefs. Then, while floating in the ocean, hovering over some large rock, they fish the bottom. When a fish takes the hook, it is pulled to the surface. The fisherman bites his quarry through the head to kill it, and he places it in his basket.
By this method, known as taukurakura, one does not have the same flexibility of movement as in a canoe. One may swim to reefs from a half mile to a mile offshore, but a distance of several miles is impossible. Thus, the fish tend to be of a smaller variety. Still they are often caught in large numbers. A single fisherman catching fifty vanevane fish in three hours is not uncommon; and occasionally a good sized fish is pulled in. I have seen a two‑foot shark landed by this method, and using a slight modification, I saw one man catch a five‑foot barracuda. A variant of this method, sometimes used by children or young teenagers, involves fishing for immature rock cod (nepunepu) and related species near the surf line. Anutans call this technique taunepunepu.
Yet another method of obtaining fish is to swim past the surf line with a homemade spear gun, usually fashioned from rubber inner tube material and a metal rod that has had one end sharpened to a point. Spearfishermen stay fairly close to shore since they must be able to dive to the bottom where the reef fish congregate, and the Anutans’ diving range is only about 30 feet. However, one can sometimes spear a fish that will not bite a hook, and at the same time one may dive for clams which are fairly abundant at such moderate depths. This procedure (called panapana) was in common use during my first visit in 1972–73; more recently spearfishing beyond the fringing reef was banned in order to prevent the fish from developing a fear of humans.
An important mode of fishing on which there are many variations is tiiti ‘fishing with a pole and line’. This method is most usefully employed when the sea is too rough to take out a canoe. The commonest variation is to tie a two- or three-fathom length of eight-pound test monofilament line to a bamboo pole, lash a tiny hook to the end of it, and bind a small hermit crab to the hook with fiber from a banana leaf midrib. The fisherman stands on the beach, casts the bait out as far as he can into the water, and slowly moves the rod in such a way as to pull the hook back toward shore. In fact, bound as it is with banana fiber, the “bait” cannot be eaten and really acts more as a lure. Usually the fish caught by this method from the shore are very small, averaging perhaps only three inches in length. However, when they are running, they may be caught in considerable numbers, so that in an hour or two a man may catch enough to feed his household for the day.
Other tiiti variations include standing at the surf line at low tide with a larger hook and heavier line, or walking onto one of the rock ledges at the base of the cliff and casting into the surf. Sometimes a fisherman even carries a pole out to sea and casts while treading water or standing on a submerged boulder. These variants produce much larger quarry than does casting from the shore; and fish in the three- to four-pound range are common.
While Anutans sometimes use spears in the ocean, they are most often employed on the fringing reef, either in communal fish drives during the day, or by lone fishermen or in small groups at night. Night fishing requires a spear, diving goggles, and a waterproof flashlight. One may fish by oneself, but more often people go in small groups. Frequently, at least one youngster is included in the party to carry the fish. While the tide is approximately at its mid point, the fishermen wade into the waist‑deep water covering the reef. Bending over so that their heads are in the water, they walk along, shining their lights into crevices and under rocks. The light temporarily blinds any fish that might be there, and they become easy prey for an expert spearsman. Also during such nighttime fishing expeditions Anutans frequently capture crayfish, either by spear or by hand. Women sometimes fish the reef at night with scoop nets, on occasion with a good deal of success. Overall, however, this is not one of the more important methods of food acquisition.
There are many forms of the communal fish drive, but all work on the same principle: a large number of people surround the fish and frighten them into an area where they may be speared or netted. In the simplest variation, Anutans form a large circle around a rock on the reef flat when the tide is about half full. Then, shouting and beating the water with hands and sticks, the people close the circle. Frightened fish swim away from their pursuers, and as the circle closes they seek refuge beneath the rock. The fishermen then dive down and take them with their makeshift spear guns.
Another version has people form a line across the reef from the beach to the breakers and walk forward, again with a maximum of commotion. This time they frighten the fish into a weir which has been made by piling stones in such a way as to produce a long passage that funnels the prey into a rocky enclosure, where they are netted or speared by hand. Yet another method is for the fishermen to line up across the reef when the tide is low and move systematically in the direction of one of the raised ends which is totally exposed. As the fish are driven into ever shallower water, they lose room to maneuver and are easily netted, speared, or clubbed into insensibility, after which they are picked up by hand.
In addition to the serious methods of catching fish, Anutans often improvise. More than once I have seen a young child reach his hand into a crevice in the reef, to emerge a few seconds later holding a fish.
This discussion of Anutan fishing casts doubt on the common assumption that the absence of a lagoon implies a shortage of fish. Two canoes carrying a total of eight to ten men rarely have difficulty providing as much fish as the island can consume. On more than half the days I was in residence, the sea was calm enough to take out the canoes; and when it was not, there were many less efficient but quite acceptable methods of acquiring fish for the community. When it comes to other sources of animal protein, however, the picture is not quite so bright.
The only terrestrial animals to be eaten on Anuta are several types of land crab, and this is only done by children for entertainment. Birds, on the other hand, are sometimes fairly plentiful, and they may be hunted as an alternative to catching fish. There are essentially two ways of catching birds—one sneaks up and grabs them by hand or with a noose (a method known as tangotango), or one nets them with a long handled net (veu). Both techniques can be employed in daylight, but they are far more effective at night.
Veu involves climbing a tree and waiting for an unsuspecting bird to come along. When the bird comes to rest on a nearby branch the hunter quickly nets it, pulls it in, and breaks its neck. The simplest version of tangotango is to see a bird dozing in a tree, climb up behind, and grab it. Unlikely as this may sound, I have seen it done successfully on more than one occasion. A more productive method, however, is to wait in a carefully selected tree for birds to come of their own accord. Yet another variant of tangotango is to use a noose on the end of a long pole to grab the bird. This is usually done with large species on the island’s northern cliff face overlooking the sea, or on the peaks of Patutaka. When all goes well, these techniques offer impressive results. On two occasions during my first stay, groups of five young men set out in the evening and returned the next morning with catches of about a hundred boobies, noddies, and other good sized birds.
As a sort of insurance against being faced with an important ceremonial occasion and not having animal flesh of any kind available, the Anutans keep a stock of chickens. These, however, are reserved for special situations.