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Taro irrigation is one of the oldest and perhaps the most widespread of the traditional agricultural practices of Oceania. Senri Ethnological Studies 78 brings together a range of perspectives and geographical case studies on this ancient agronomy across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The volume is the product of a special session on irrigated taro held during the 19th congress of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. Archaeological studies and views are well represented, but other biological, ethnobotanical and anthropological (including historical) studies are reported. In the cross-disciplinary and geographical coverage of research on Asian and Oceanic wet taro cultivation, the collection is unprecedented. It will be of interest to archaeologists as well as ethnobotanists, social anthropologists, and Pacific historians, geographers and plant scientists.

Three historical chapters introduce the volume. Spriggs considers early documentary accounts of taro irrigation in Oceania. He also reviews the speculative interpretations of scholars who considered wetland constructions as evidence of diffusion, perhaps most notably W.H R. Rivers who argued that taro production was spread by an early ‘megalithic’ culture. Spriggs is candid enough to recognize “disturbing parallels” in more recent debates as to whether pondfield irrigation was distributed by Austronesian speakers or invented independently “at multiple locations” (p. 12). These debates are referenced, but not resolved, by other authors in this volume. Blench reviews linguistic evidence for the Indo-Pacific origins of taro. While much of Blench's discussion is of necessity speculative, some stimulating suggestions are highlighted, such as the possible transfer of taro names to paddy rice as argued by Ferlus. This section concludes with the translation of a 16th century AD Chinese Book of Taro on the preparation of wild and cultivated forms.

The remaining sections of the volume are organized geographically. The Eastern Pacific section is introduced by the posthumous publication of Robert Bollt's essay on the “taro wars” of the Austral Islands. The details of historical politics and warfare in this chapter may be of less interest to the botanist, but they make fascinating anthropological reading. The discussion of Rapa's novel fortified hilltops on an island where taro production was economically central is especially enlightening, as is the suggestion that the “lone dry” Vitaria chiefdom of Rurutu turned to “predatory expansion” across fertile, wet valley taro systems and chiefdoms. The last interpretation acknowledges Kirch's 1994 study of economic and sociopolitical tensions between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ Oceanic agronomies. McCoy and Graves also explore some of the factors that might elucidate expansionary behavior in a chapter on the limitations of surplus taro production from a small Hawai'i Island valley system. Earle presents the other side of Oceanic taro irrigation in a chapter that emphasizes the contribution of irrigation systems to the emergence of a state-level political economy in the Hawaiian group. This section also includes chapters on the complexities of dating Hawaiian wetland systems (McElroy), the pit and trench cultivation of wet taro on the Tuamotu atolls (Chazine), and an evaluation of the reasons for the abandonment of large-scale irrigated taro production systems on Fiji (King). Sociopolitical and technological diversity, persistence and conflict are common themes.

The Western Pacific section covers diverse developments in taro irrigation for some of the largest islands of tropical western Oceania. Sand argues that the evidence of extensive terracing for water-fed taro systems on New Caledonia challenges assumptions about the relative importance of dry yam and wet taro to the Kanak economy of the last millennium. In contrast, Bayliss-Smith and Hviding argue that taro production and expansion in the Western Solomon Islands were constrained by malarial infection which “acted as a brake on political expansion”. The chapters by King on Fiji, Caillon, and Walter and Tzerikiantz on Vanuatu, and Bourke on Papua New Guinea consider historical and contemporary practices of, and evidence of impacts on, wet taro production. Both of the Vanuatu chapters identify highly sustainable and productive irrigation systems, as well as the social and subsistence contributions of wet taro. Bourke documents the historical decline of taro irrigation in PNG. Here, as in the Solomon Islands to an extent, sweet potato has emerged as the new crop staple in many places given its tolerance for dryer and less fertile soils, and generally better disease resistance.

The final essays of the volume consider taro in Southeast Asia, although not necessarily in irrigation contexts strictly speaking. Collectively, these last case study chapters argue for the antiquity of taro production, at least in Asia. Oliveria reports the “probable” archaeobotanical identification of Colocasia from Timor-Leste dated 3360-3160 BP. Acabado argues that the monumental Ifugao rice terraces (with a UNESCO World Heritage listing) are likely to be post-Hispanic, and that “irrigated taro preceded wet-rice cultivation” in the northern Philippines. There is a resonance here in the linguistic argument of Ferlus, as reported by Blench. Matthews et al. consider the contemporary ecology, distribution and use of wild taro in the Philippines so as to reflect on the historical introduction (or not, possibly) and spread of taro in the archipelago, and beyond.

A salient feature of the volume concerns the reported diversity of historical, environmental and political situations in which wet taro production has been documented. A number of these authors also point out that more work is needed to identify the historical origins or to further clarify the sociopolitical contexts of taro irrigation in Oceania. In general, the case studies in this volume offer new ideas and challenges to stimulate fresh research in these areas. Just as significantly, the volume highlights the relative success of taro irrigation in both small-scale, constrained production and intensive, large-scale systems, even allowing for the impacts of historical and modern environmental change. As Spriggs and Matthews note in their concluding chapter, “the crop can respond positively to almost any level of effort” (p. 342). This would seem to be an important consideration for further research into the origins, history and future of wet taro production in the Pacific.

  • Ian Barber

  • University of Otago