Essays on the Marshallese Past

Traditional Land Management in the Marshall Islands

Laura, or Majuro Island, used to be the centre of settlement on Majuro Atoll. As with all other other large islands, it was the most fertile and thus the most suitable for human settlement. But there are other factors which influence the suitability of an island for human settlement, and these are the availability of ground water in a large ground water lens (which all large/wide, but not the small/narrow islands have), the make up of the soils, its position with regards to winds and waves and last, but not least, the presence of a beach where canoes could be pulled ashore.

We will have a brief look at the traditional lay-out of a land allotment (wato) on a large leeward island and the cultural plants grown here. As we will see, there is a distinction to be made between the traditional and the European lay-out, which we can see today.

In the traditional way of setting out the land, a household would own a wato running from the lagoonal to the ocean shore. The vegetation pattern would show a clear zonation and sorting of plants from the lagoon to the ocean shore which is correlated to the soils and the wind action; thus, having a slice of land running from shore to shore allowed people to have access to all types of resources. Only in more recent times, when the population increased to the maximum the atolls could carry, the land allotments became split, with some families having no land bordering the lagoon or the ocean.

Let us take an imaginary walk through one such wato, and let us start at the ocean side. The vegetation on the oceanside commonly consisted of a mixed broadleaf forest, with a few tree species and a number of shrubs, usually utilomar (Guettardia speciosa), kiden (Tournefortia argentea), Pandanus (Pandanus tectorius), kno (Cordia subcordata), Pipi (Hernandia sonora), ke (Pemphis acidula) and knnt (Scaevola serica). These plants are very resistant to the salt-laden air the constant wind brings in from the breaker zone at the reef. The soil at the ocean shore is very gravelly with little humus content. The soil in this zone would consist of boulders and large cobbles, thrown up by the waves of the sea to a distinct strand wall, resembling the backbone of an island.

Going inland, the soil would gradually become finer, first gravel and then coarse grained sand, and the humus content would increase. In this zone an abundance of breadfruit trees would have been planted, providing food. In fact the trees were planted in such an abundance that we can speak of a breadfruit forest.

In the very centre of the island, there where the underlying ground water lens would be the thickest, taro patches, artificial depressions in the ground, would be present. These taro patches, in which swamp taro (Cyrtosperma chamissionis) would be grown, were surrounded by Pandanus trees, preferable the low growing variety, not used for food but for mat-weaving.

These Pandanus would act as a windbreak for the large taro leaves, and would also act as screen to filter out any salt spray the winds may bring. We have to imagine that every piece of ground in the centre would have been taken up by taro patches, Pandanus plants and roads/tracks. Going further towards the lagoonal shore the vegetation zonation would once again show a wide zone of breadfruit forests which would make way to utility and ornamental shrubs along the rear side of the household units.

Typical traditional vegetation zonation pattern of an inhabited large, leeward atoll islet.

Typical modern vegetation zonation pattern of a leeward atoll islet.

Typical vegetation zonation pattern of an inhabited windward atoll islet.

In this area we have to imagine the cemeteries. In view of the limitations on available land only the higher ranking people would be buried, while the bodies of the commoners were pushed out to sea. Next would come the coral gravel spreads on which the houses were built. The houses would have a cook house, as well as a rubbish dump in the rear. Towards the lagoonal shore, the "show-side" of the houses, there would be a sand-covered road, and then a low shrub or weed zone with some coconut. This zone provided access to the lagoon and allowed canoes to be dragged above the high-tide mark. The uninhabited and uncleared stretches of the lagoonal shores would show a coconut shrubland with an abundance of kiden and knnt. Coconut, today an ubiquitous plant throughout the islands, as well as along the lagoonal shores and inland, would have been distributed only along the immediate lagoonal area, such as the zone of the houses and their backyards.

Such a lay-out of a wato did not come about by itself. If one wants to see largely unmodified but fertile islands, as little as there are left in the Republic, then one should go to Nadikdik (Knox) Atoll. Such islands can still be seen, because following a devastating typhoon killing all but two inhabitants of that atoll, nature had over 80 years time to overcome human influence. An island largely untouched by people will have a few coconut trees along the lagoonal shore but none inland. The ocean broadleaf forest will be very thick and tight, while the centre will have a forest made up of ironwood trees kaal (Pisonia grandis) and the like, with a great number of ferns and mosses growing on the ground.

If we have a look at Laura we notice that there is a concentration of houses along the lagoonal road, which tallies well with the description given above, but there is also a concentration of houses along the ocean side road. What came first in that instance: road or houses?

In the beginning it was mentioned that in the traditional way of setting out the land, a household would own a wato running from the lagoonal to the ocean shore to allow access to all types of resources. When the families grew beyond the size of cohesiveness, then the land allotment would be split in the middle, making it more narrow. One can do this for some time, but then comes the point that this is no longer sensible and the allotment is split into an ocean and a lagoon part. Those owning the ocean half of the former wato, then had to build a new house. In order to waste as little fertile land as possible, the house was built at the fringe of the breadfruit zone, between the breadfruit zone and the coastal forest. So a second row of houses developed over time. There is an abundance of archaeological sites at this very line, clearly demarcating the former and present settlement area. The road, as we know it, is merely a creation of the Japanese Mandate Administration to provide a transportation system for people already living there.

What then, is the difference between the European and traditional lay-out of the land? With the Europeanisation of the Marshallese agroforestry, copra production became the driving economic force and as much land as possible was placed under coconut. Thus a systematic replacement of breadfruit forests by coconut plantations for copra production took place. The German and Japanese wide-spaced coconut plantations penetrated far inland, where coconuts would have never occurred naturally. Thus, islands, coconut studded throughout, are a European invention.

The large islands represent over 2000 years of careful and systematic improvement in order to maximize the return of the land. Unfortunately many large islands, because of their size, have seen large scale development and destruction of all these fruit trees and taro patches. It began with the establishment of the German copra plantations, then the large-scale land clearings necessary for the establishment of the Japanese military bases on Mile, Wotje, Maloelap, Jaluit and Kwajalein and is still continuing with present development schemes.

Use of local wood then and now. Top: Marshallese church on Ebon Island, built of breadfruit (Artocarpus). Bottom: top end of an aje drum made of jon (?) wood with a drum lining made from a shark's stomach. Collected in the 1880s in Jaluit (Knappe Collection; photographs Courtesy of Museum fr Thringer Volkskunde, Erfurt).

Traditional Marshallese food plants

Name       Edible parts
Scientific Common Marshallese Normal times Emergency
Alocasia maccrohiza Giant taro babai Tubers  
Artoc. mariannensis Breadfruit (w. seeds) m Fruit, Seeds  
Artocarpus altilis Breadfruit (no seeds) m Fruit  
Boehemia nivea   armwe   Leaves, grated wood
Cocos nucifera Coconut ni Nuts, Sap, old wood
Crinum bakeri Spider lily kieb Roots, Stem  
Cyrtosperma chamissionis Swamp taro jaraj Tubers  
Ixora casei       Grated wood
Musa sapientum Banana binana Fruit  
Pandanus tectorius Pandanus bb Keys (Pulp) Keys (Seeds), Roots, Bark Sap
Tacca leontopetaloides Arrowroot makmk Tubers  
Triumfetta procumbens   ata   Leaves, grated wood
Wedelia biflora   markubwebwe   Leaves, grated wood

Introduced food plants grown and utilised end of last century and/or today

Scientific name Common name Marshallese Edible parts
Brassica sp. cabbage kapej leaves
Carica papaya pawpaw, papaya kenapu Fruit
Colocasia esculenta Dry-land taro ktak Tubers, Leaves
Cucurbita pepo Squash baanke Fruit
Saccharum officonatum Sugarcane to Stem

Marshallese plants used for medicinal purposes.

Scientific Marshallese Utilised parts Used for
Allophyllus timorensis Ktaak leaves Physical energiser for children; general body massage
Boerhemia nivea   Leaves General healing plant
Brughiera gymnorrhiza Jo Bark Against fish poisoning
Clerodendrum inerme Wlej Young leaves Psychic energiser
Cocos nucifera Ni Sheath Broken limbs (support)
Crinum asiaticum Kieb Trunk Splintered limbs (support)
    Leaves Headache
Guettardia speciosa Utilomar Flower Purgative; headache
Ixoria carolinensis Kadjo Leaves General pain relief
Messerschmidia argentea Kiden Root Fall
Morinda citrifolia Nen Flower, leaves Stomach pain relief; treatment after having given birth
    Young leaves & bark Gonorrhea
Ochrosia oppositifolia Kbjar Peel/skin Energiser
Pandanus tectorius Bb Sap Treatment for coitus captivus
Pisonia grandis Kangl Leaves Open wounds; purgative
Polypodium spp. Kino Leaves Headache
Premna corymbosa Kaar Leaves Weakness of limbs; headache
Pseuderanthemum astropurpureum Tirooj Young leaves Headache
Scaevola frutescens Knnat Young leaves Psychic energiser
    Leaves Treatment after having given birth
Triumfetta procumbens Atat Leaves Cuts, open wounds
    Young leaves & bark Gonorrhea
Wedelia biflora Markubwebwe Flowers Psychic energiser
Related uses      
Baringtonia asiatica Wb Seeds Fish poison

Marshallese plants used for traditional manufacture/construction

Scientific Common Marshallese Utilised parts Used for
Allophyllus timorensis   kedak stem fishing pole
Artocarpus altilis/ A. mariannensis Breadfruit M wood canoe hulls outrigger floats,
        canoe bailers, Pandanus (legs),
        food bowls, drums, graters (legs),
        weaving panels
      sap glue (for canoe caulking)
Boerhemia nivea   armwe stems cordage, men's skirts (chiefs),
        nets, sowing thread
Bruguiera gymnorrhiza Mangrove Jo wood dancing spears, fishing spears, house construction,
        canoes (sacrificial keel), canoes
        (outrigger assembly: kie, apit, kein-eon erre), copra huskers
      young stems fishtraps, arrowroot sieves (waliklik)
      bark dye, cordage/rope, fishing nets
      propagules dye
Callophyllum inophyllum   lukwej wood beaters, pounders (for breadfruit), canoes
        (outrigger assembly: kie, apit)
Cassytha filiformis   kann vines sieve (for arrowroot)
Cocos nucifera Coconut Ni wood houses, fishing spears, spears (weapons)
      frond skin weaving
      frond stems stickcharts
      fronds thatching, floor cover of houses
      leaves baskets, weaving (mats)
      leaf cloth sieve (for arrowroot),
      (spathe) fishing gear (lure/bait
      husks rope, men's skirts, fishing line,
        line to tie canoe parts, fishing
        nets, netyss for breadfruit cleaning,
        belts, sanitary pads, sling shots,
        caulking material for canoes
      shell fishing gear (float), fish
        hook, containers (flour, water etc.),
        cups, bowls, ladles, to scrub clothes,
        Pandanus scrapers (bowls), beads
        (for necklaces)
      shell (burnt) dye
Cordia subcordata   kno stems men's skirts
      wood Canoes (outrigger assembly: apit & kie)
Fragrea   wut wood fire plow,Pandanus or coconut graters (legs)
Hernandia sonora   Pinpin wood fishing gear (net handles), canoe ornaments, canoes
        (parts of the outrigger assembly)
Hibiscus tiliaceus   lo stems (bark) men's skirts, fishing line, fishing nets, belts, fishing gear
        (blinkers), weaving (ornamentation for mats)
Lumnitzera littorea Mangrove kimeme wood Canoes (outrigger assembly: apit & kie),
        canoes (sacrificial keel piece)
Messerschmidia argentea Tournefortia kiden wood Canoes (outrigger assembly: apit & kie)
Morinda citrifolia   Nen roots dye (red)
Musa sapientum Banana   leaves fibres
Pandanus tectorius Pandanus Bb leaves weaving (mats, sails, fans, hats,
        belts), thatching, baskets, mat bags,
        caulking (canoes), balls, ear ornaments,
        fishing gear (blinkers), sling shots, sanitary
      wood neck rests
      aerial roots fishtraps, wall covers of houses,
        arrowroot sieves (waliklik), putty
        for caulking canoes (scrapings from
        the roots)
      roots (sap) tanning of drum typana
Pemphis acidula   ke wood Pandanus scrapers (legs), beaters,
        caulking chisels, canoes
        (outrigger assembly: apit & kie),
        fish traps, pounders (for breadfruit)
Pipturus argenteus   armwe stalks fibres, cordage, fishing lines
Pisonia grandis Pisonia kangl wood house construction, drums, copra
        huskers, head-shaped forms for hat weaving
      root shark hook, parts of fish traps
Premna corymbosa   kaar stem fishing pole
Scaevola frutescens Scaevola knnat wood canoes (outrigger assembly: kie, apit)
Sonneratia caseolaris Mangrove knpat wood canoes (sacrificial keel piece)
Tacca leontopetaloides Arrowroot makmk stems weaving (hats)
Terminalia samoensis   Kkon wood canoes (outrigger assembly: kie, apit)
Triumfetta procumbens   atat stems light cordage, men' s skirts, belts, fine weaving
      roots brown dye
Wedelia biflora   markubwebwe    
Bamboo Bamboo   stems containers (needles, glowing coals
        etc.), spears (weapons, fishtraps
Redwood   kmej wood canoe hulls, drums

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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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