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While there is no denying that the presence of the original humans made a major impact on the biota, possibly more so in the Marshall Islands than other places on earth. However, the opposite is true as well - the biota of the Marshalls had a profound influence on the lives of the original inhabitants of these atolls.
Just about every aspect of the daily life of these early people was interwoven into the fabric of the natural world. The land itself they lived on was wholly derived from living things, both marine and terrestrial. Of course, all food came from local biological resources, natural and introduced species, but so did all utensils and tools used to catch, grow and prepare that food. Although water is not organic, it often was naturally stored in containers such as "nien dren", the hollow that gowl made out of a "bukbuk" shell frequently occur on the trunks of coconut trees.
For tilling the soil, a piece of tridacna clam shell was lashed onto a wooden pole with coconut fiber rope (or coir). Cowry shells were fashioned into breadfruit peelers, and the centers of large "bukbuk", helmet shells, were removed to make bowls.
Houses were constructed of pandanus thatch and wild hibiscus poles, their yards paved with coral gravel brought in coconut-frond baskets from the beach. Clothing was finely woven mats of pandanus leaves and coconut dyed various colors. "Atat" (prostrate burr bush, Triumfetta procumbens) roots would give a brown, "jon" would produce a black, and "nen" yellow and red. Sleeping mats were manufactured with a larger weave of pandanus leaves, similarly dyed. The materials for all the mats were softened before weaving by beating the strips with a hard coral rock or kone pounder against a coral rock "jin" or anvil.
There were no metals or jewels such as gold, silver, copper, diamonds, jade or turquoise to make jewelry, adornments or decorations. Thus biological resources were again employed. Slices of large cone shells became bracelets and ear ornaments were made out of rolls of pandanus leaf. Tattooing was a popular art, preformed by using the wing bones of birds such as albatrosses and frigatebirds as a chisel. Pigments were made from a slurry of charred coconut material mixed with water or sap.
Play and recreation were also dependent upon the natural world. For the adults, it was singing and dancing accompanied by the rhythm of drums with a cylinder of kone wood and heads of stretched sharkskin. But of course, it was the youngsters who really developed means for finding diversion through the plants and animals around them. They came up with games such as juggling the round seeds of various trees or coral pebbles. Ripe bunches of pandanus anchored underwater gave the children a means of competing as to who could hold their breath longest, by swimming down and seeing who could bring up the most individual sections (or keys) of the fruit. The language that these early inhabitants of the Marshall Islands developed reflected the strong influence of the plants and animals around them, through place names and numerous sayings and idioms.
Transportation likewise came entirely from biological sources. Canoe hulls and outriggers were carved from breadfruit logs and drift logs by adzes of sharp pieces oftridacna tied to wooden handles. Various other plants provided other parts of the canoes - pandanus trunks for the main masts with kone at the top mast for strength and smoothness, "lukwej" (beauty leaf, Calophyllum inophylium), or "kono" as the outrigger crosspieces, coconut coir for the rigging, and woven pandanus leaf mats for the sail. As a final touch, bird feathers with special significance were placed on the sails to indicate clans and accomplishments.
These canoes afforded a means for people, to go to other islands to obtain goods, even to the nearby high islands where there were non-biologically produced materials. In Adelbert von Chamisso's early account of life on the MarshalIs, he reported that the people were seemingly quite familiar with iron, (even having a name for it), it was still a highly coveted commodity and the appearance of some caused considerable excitement. There were prehistoric basalt pillars (of volcanic origin) on Aur and Namu which, unlike pumice, could not have floated in on their own, so must have been brought by canoe.
During the atoll workshops, of the 73 plants recorded, 60 were said to be useful as medicine - compared to only 28 listed for food. All sons of medicinal and traditional uses were mentioned, for use before birth until after death. No wonder William Hatheway observed decades earlier in his 1954 report on the plants of Arno, that: "With the exception of recently introduced weeds, virtually every species of plants . . . found a specific use." The majority of these medicinal plants used by the Marshallese are native species, although there were many prehistorically introduced ones known as well. Nowadays, "kiden" is probably the best known and most widely utilized among the traditional medicine plant in the Marshalls, but others, such as "nen," "kaar" and "konnat" are also quite popular. And even newly introduced plants, such as yellow alder (Turnera ulmifolia), have begun to be employed medicinally by some people.
The original inhabitants of the islands all across the Pacific have long known the value of "nen" or Indian mulberry (Morinda citrifolia). As its English common name implies, this species probably originated in tropical Asia, around India (and Malaysia), but once people discovered what a useful species it was, they have spread it wherever they have gone. At the atoll workshops, "nen" was listed as being useful for food, medicine, firewood, posts, house construction, cigarette holders, canoe parts, dye, toys, and as an additive to scent coconut oil. But its big claim to fame is its medicinal qualities. The Marshallese readily acknowledge this small tree or shrub with its strange-looking fruit as being one of their most important sources of "uno" (medicine). To this day, people commonly collect its ripe fruit to bathe babies and women, its unripe fruit for body aches, headache and sinus problems, its leaves for fever, as well as its roots to treat a variety of ailments.
The rest of the world is coming to recognize the value of "nen." The herbal medicine market has latched onto this plant and is promoting it under its Polynesian name of "noni" for treating all sorts of ailments. Dozens of conditions from diaper rash to AIDS are said to benefit from "noni" treatment, this time, of course, no outright claim of actual cure is being made for most of these "health challenges," but it is consistently praised for the beneficial results it gives to people suffering from diabetes, ulcers, heart problems, high blood pressure, bladder infections and assorted aches and pains. Investigation into "noni's" anticancer potentials has recently been conducted at the University of Hawaii.
A half gallon of "noni" juice can sell for $82 in the United States. But, as any Marshallese or anyone else who has tried drinking the pure juice knows, this juice has an exceptionally vile taste. The alternative is freeze-dried capsules which are marketed at $10 for a bottle of 90. In order to take advantage of this popularity, the Marshall Islands is promoting "nen" farming and production. Several workshops were recently organized to help local people learn how to mass-produce "nen" and how to process the fruit into marketable juice. The traditional "nen" cultivar produces fruit about 1-2 inches long, but a commercial variety is being introduced with huge fruitage 5-6 inches long! Promoters claim that "nen" or "noni" could provide many current copra farmers with an alternative source of income. Possibly so. for although "noni" plantations are springing up throughout the tropics, production has not been able to keep up with the demand.
Oil of Calophyllum inophyllum (beauty leaf) possesses a unique capacity to promote the formation of new tissue, thereby accelerating wound healing and the growth of healthy skin. This process of forming new tissue is known as cicatrization. Beauty leaf appears to be one of the most effective known cicatrizing agents in nature. Traditionally it is applied liberally to cuts, scrapes, burns, insect bites and stings, abrasions, acne and acne scars, psoriasis, diabetic sores, sunburn, dry or scaly skin, blisters, eczema and herpes sores and is also used to reduce foot and body odor. Also is employed by women for promoting healthy, clear, blemish-free skin and is also used on babies to prevent diaper rash and skin eruptions.
The tree naturally grows profusely along coastal areas and is dispersed throughout Pacific islands when the nut-containing fruits drop from trees and float on the seas to other coastal areas where they sprout and root. Unlike most other trees, it favors salty, sandy soil. It is claimed that coastal plants are more beneficial for topical and cosmetic uses than inland.
Beauty-leaf is a botanical oddity. When the fruits of the tree are collected and cracked open, the blond nut kernel inside contains no apparent oil. But when the kernel dries on a rack for a month or so, it turns a deep, chocolate-brown and becomes sticky with a rich, pleasant-smelling oil. Using only a screw press, processors squeeze the oil from the dark kernels. The resulting oil is rich, dark-green and luxurious. While it is thick and rich, once it is applied to skin it is readily and completely absorbed. Skin then feels smooth and plump, with no oily residue.
It is a commonly told tale of how the arrival of European and American ships, and the establishment of trade with these foreigners, greatly altered things and the influence of people on the biota was forever changed. However, it can just as correctly be said that this commerce greatly altered how the biota influenced people. Non-biologically derived goods and materials—metals and stones, plastics and other manufactured items—began to be imported with ease and in quantities and ways never before imaginable. Still, the Marshalls' culture retains a remarkable amount of its heritage of bioresourcefulness. This was demonstrated by the knowledge shared by the participants of the various atolls during the biodiversity workshops, as well as in practical living.
Traditional pandanus thatch homes can still be seen on the outer islands. Sleeping mats of woven pandanus leaves remain quite popular throughout the country, even in the industrialized areas. These are still made by women who prepare the strips in the old-fashioned way. Coral gravel is still hauled up from the beaches to be spread around the houses, but nowadays usually toted in plastic bags. Medicines from plants are commonly made and utilized. Traditional fishing methods are still known and used to provide meals of local seafood, preferred source of protein of the people. The skills for building canoes—not only sailing canoes, but also small model ones—have not been lost. Furthermore, efforts have been made recently to preserve this knowledge for future generations.
And the next future generation of Marshal lese, the children of today, still know how to make playthings out of what is around them. True, this may now incorporate the use of manufactured goods, but the youngsters definitely retain a close connection with the natural world. Little girls to this day gleefully giggle as they juggle coral pebbles and round seeds from local trees. Both boys and girls know how to make pinwheels out of coconut fronds to spin in the wind and to collect together colorful assortment of seashells with which to play. When these youngsters, or even older Marshallese, desire to have a pet animal, their preference is often for baby wild birds rather than more recently introduced "domestic" animals.