Bananas from Rapa Nui and its cultural uses.

Bananas from Rapa Nui and its cultural uses.

Maika

Bananas from Rapa Nui and its cultural uses.

by Roberto Rojas Pantoja

The banana of the Musa genus is one of the most important plants for the people who live in the tropical and sub-tropical zones of the world. Originating from Southeast Asia, it propagated toward the south and west of the Pacific Ocean, finally reaching Hawaii and Polynesia through several stages.

On Rapa Nui, the maíka (banana) was mentioned by the first European visitors as part of the food offered to them as provisions. Following his visit in 1774, Cook indicated that bunches of bananas were baked in the umu, or earth ovens with hot rocks, and that these were almost the only vegetables that were consumed on Easter Island. Later, the leaves of the banana were used to wrap meat or fish which were then also placed on the steaming rocks of the umu. Certain types of maika were used to make desserts with milk or were boiled to accompany a stew. Around each home, there were always one or more varieties of maika, which were considered more important than other species such as papayas, mangos, avocados, oranges, lemons or the usual ancestral tubers, such as taro, manioc and sweet potato.

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However, the maika was not only used for food. The trunk of the banana has been used for a long time in the sport of haka pe’i (sliding on banana trunks) and is an important source of fiber for making textile artifacts and clothing, along with the mahute (paper mulberry). The maíka cloth is called kakaka and is still being made today for native dress and crowns through a technique of oblique braiding and then adorned with the little flowers of the maika, which are also used to make necklaces.

Maika en/in Haka Pei

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This cloth was generally the material used to make up the world of objects on Easter Island. Some were used to wrap or cover while other textiles were used as containers. The wrappings were connected with ritual and mystical experiences that were valuable for the cohesion of the community and had, in general, some ceremonial association with mana (supernatural powers that derived from the ancestors) or tapu (a series of restrictions which protected individual as well as objects). The containers were associated with food and everyday domestic life, that is to say with the human aspects. The divinities were allowed to directly enter these objects as the artist gave them life through working the plant fibers. All food, as well as textile objects, could become gifts for exchange and were considered sacred.  They were not considered individual private property but belonged to the extended family and represented the identity of the group or of the society as a whole.

The anthropologist and ethnologist Alfred Metraux (published In 1941) indicated that, in 1934, the islanders could distinguish ten varieties of bananas, some of which had been recently introduced from Tahiti, whereas others had already gone extinct in those years. Today there are very few of the young people who can even recall these 10 or 11 varieties of maíka. It is necessary to recover consciousness about the importance of the island flora and of the maíka for the Rapanui culture.

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