Thor Heyerdahl - Sea Routes To Polynesia

Coconuts on Cocos Island

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Cocos Island, south-west of Costa Rica, lies 300 miles out into the Pacific. It was so named by the Spaniards because there was an abundance of Coconut trees growing on it in great Groves.

One of the first visitors was Captain Wafer who called at the Island in 1685. He also reported that Groves of Coconuts covered the island. In 1956 when Thor Heyerdahl visited Cocos Island he found nothing but dense virgin jungle, and that all the coconuts had disappeared.

The Coconut Palm, cocos nucifera, first became known to the Europeans when they discovered India and Indonesia, long before the discovery of America, however it is now generally believed that the Coconut originated in America. To quote the botanist O.F.Cook [1910], "if the Coconut could be submitted as a new natural object to a specialist familiar with all other known palms, he would without hesitation recognise it as a product of America, since all the score of related genera, including about 300 species, are American. With equal confidence the specialist would assign the Coconut to South America, because all other species of the genus Cocos are confined to that continent. He would further locate it in the north-western portion of South America, because the wild species of Cocos of that region are much more similar to the Coconut than are those of the Amazon Valley and eastern Brazil."

The uses of the Coconut have been most highly developed in the Pacific Islands because the lack of other plants has compelled the inhabitants to depend on it more and more, but the plant itself had to be brought from the only part of the world where such palms grew, South America.

The presence all the large numbers of Coconuts on Cocos Island in the time of Wafer [1685] and their subsequent disappearance should be considered as evidence that the island was formerly inhabited, or its lease to regularly visited, by the maritime natives of the adjacent mainland. Even without a permanent population coconuts may have been planted and cared for by the natives of the mainland for use during fishing expeditions, a plan still followed in some localities in the Malay region.

Ethnologists may find in this hitherto unsuspecting primitive occupation of Cocos Island additional evidence of maritime skill of the Indians of the Pacific coast of tropical America, and be more willing to consider the possibility of prehistoric communications between the shores of the American continent and the Pacific Islands.

The idea that the Coconut Groves on Cocos Island were planted by man is substantially enforced by the fact that the island is bounded by high cliffs, apart from two small landing areas where streams run into the sea. There is simply no way that the coconuts could have been transported from the sea up the cliffs onto the plateau where the Spaniards discovered the groves, without the aid of Man.

The nearest possible Polynesian source from which coconuts could havebeen brought to Cocos Island is the Marquesas group. It would be reasonable to ask if there is any legendary memory within Polynesia as to the existence of any island east of the Marquesas. On the remarkably correct chart made for Captain Cook by Tupia of Ulitea, there is actually marked to the east of the Marquesas group an unidentified island named Utu [in English spelling Ootoo].

The natives of the Marquesas also independently told Captain Porter that there was an Island to the east of their group, known to them as Utupu [Ootoopoo]. He writes: "none of our navigators have yet discovered an island of that name, so situated; but in examining the chart of Tupia, we find nearly in the place marked by the native of Nukuhiva and island called Ootoo. This chart, although not of the accuracy which would be expected from our hydrographers, was, nevertheless, constructed by Sir Joseph Banks, under the direction of Tupia, and was of the greatest assistance to Cook in discovering the island he had named."

What is remarkable, however, is that the only memory recorded by Porter as associated with the easterly island was that this was the place from which the early Marquesans had originally obtained the coconut.

It is the opinion of Thor Heyerdahl that the extensive coconut groves on the Cocos Island would be of little use to anyone unless we assume that the island was either densely inhabited or else favourably located for voyagers who frequented the area and were in need of convenient supplies. He states that from his personal experience he could testify that no natural product was better suited as a provision for seafarers than newly picked, scarcely mature coconuts, which will withstand almost any amount of water spray and rough storage, and yet yield fresh liquid and substantial food for weeks during a voyage.

In recent years there has been an increasing tendency among archaeologists to explain the rapidly accumulating evidence of cultural contact between Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru, as the result of direct ocean trade between the two areas. A glance at the map will show that Cocos Island is located directly on the sailing route between these countries.

The presence of pot shards on the Galapagos Islands, and aboriginal knowledge of centreboard navigation with sailing rafts in north-western South America, are strong arguments in favour of Cocos Island having been an important location as a port of call and supply station providing water and coconuts to the pre-Spanish navigators inthe open ocean off Panama.
The Statues of Easter Island
Coconuts on Cocos Island
Balsa Raft in Aboriginal Navigation of Peru & Ecuador
Feasible Ocean Routes in Pre-Columbian Times
The Kon-Tiki
The Kon-Tiki Film
Scandinavian Rock Art Index
Easter Island Section
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