Essays on the Marshallese Past

Breadfruit Peelers old technology but still high tech

The traditional material culture in the Marshall Islands has come under heavy pressure. Many western items and products have replaced the traditional ones, in some cases even if the western ones are inferior or economically less sound.

One tool is an exception: the breadfruit peeler or Libbukwe in kabwiro. The peeler is a cowrie shell with a ground edge on one end and a hole punched into the other end (see figure). It is held with the basal (slotted) side towards the palm of the hand, it is moved downward and away from the body and basically functions like a carpenterˆs plane or a modern potatao peeler. The sharp edge cuts off the skin, which leaves the shell through the hole in the other end. These tools are remarkably rapid and effective, superior to any European tool for peeling breadfruit.

The peeler, which can be made from a clean shell in about 15-20 minutes, takes just a much rind off the breadfruit as needed, but not too much. Thus, not only is it easy to use and non-corroding in the harsh climate, it is also the most economical tool, far superior to western iron knifes.

The tool set of the prehistoric and pre-European Marshallese was limited by the raw material available on the atolls. They comprised wood and leaves, shells, corals, fish, bird bones and human bones and teeth.

Marshallese Breadfruit Peeler (Libbukwe in kabwiro) seen from the top (left), bottom (middle) and the side (right)

The raw material for the scrapers are either tiger cowries (Cypraea tigris) or their close allies in size and ornamentation, Mauritian cowries (Cypraea mauritiana) which are amongst the most popular shells of the tropics and adorn mantlepieces worldwide. Cypraea tigris has a distribution throughout the Indo-Pacific region. The molluscs feed mainly on sponges but also browse on other tiny animals and plants. Their habitat is predominantly sandy patches between rocks and corals on the reef. During hours of intensive sunshine the cowries hide under overhanging boulders.

It should be noted that the distinction between a vegetable scraper and a vegetable peeler is not well defined in the literature. Basically, peelers are used to cut off the skin of vegetables in a similar manner to the modern potato peeler or wood shaver. Scrapers, however, are predominantly utilized to scrape off the charred skin of roasted breadfruit and yams.

In the ethnographic record of Micronesia two main types of breadfruit peelers can be distinguished: The dorsal side of the shell has a large hole ground into it at both the anterior and posterior end. Usually the hole at the posterior end is larger than the one at the anterior end. A variation is to grind only one hole and to knock in the second one, thus giving only one working edge, the ground one. Specimens are known from the Marshall Islands, from the Marquesas, from Hawaii and the Society Islands.

Marshallese Breadfruit peeler (Libbukwe in kabwiro) in action

For the other version the anterior (front) end of the shell is cut off cleanly. The columellar side is broken off at the posterior end to allow the breadfruit peel to emerge. Such specimens are known from Chuuk, and atolls in the Eastern Carolines, such as Pulowat and Satowal, but apparently also from Mangareva (Eastern Polynesia).

Marshallese shell tools. Top: Breadfruit peeler made from cowrie shell in use. Bottom: a shell trumpet from a Triton shell (left) and armring made from a cne shell (right), both collected in the 1880's in Jaluit (Knappe Collection; Photographs Courtesy Museum f‘r Th‘ringer Volkskunde, Erfurt)

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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