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Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga



With most, if not all, branches of the Polynesian race, the theory of medicine is associated with religious concepts. Certain symptoms which denote a departure from normal health were regarded as manifestations of the displeasure of the gods. They were punishments inflicted for infringing prohibitions that had been established in connection with religious observances. Thus, a swollen foot or a swollen tongue was a punishment by the god Hika-hara. Urticarial skin rashes and digestive troubles were associated with the family food prohibitions, which had come to have a supernormal significance. It is not clear whether or not a treatment through ritual to placate the supernormal cause had been in use. It is difficult to obtain exact details from a people who have come to regard “heathen” practices with shame.

The power of causing illness and death to others by the use of occult powers, or black magic, was not referred to in any conversations, except in the story of one Whakaheo ariki. He went to Honolulu after European transport was available and is said to have caused the death of a chief there by putting a hair from his head in the chief's bowl of kava. But for this isolated example, the Whakaheo and Whainga-aitu chiefs seem to have restrained their displeasure with their people to calling up rain, thunder, and lightning through their influence with their gods.

A people with a psychological attitude toward the manifestations of ill health usually seeks a psychological remedy by consulting priests and going through the established observances and ritual. There is no incentive to explore the field of herbal remedies, and the native pharmacopoeia is thus a very limited one, even supposing that medicinal plants grew on the islands inhabited.

The one plant used for minor ailments was the coconut. The diet of children was formed from the special use of various stages of the coconut, as described on page 101. The hinu romonga oil was used in massaging babies. The general term for massaging was kotikoti; pressing movements with the fingers were termed tauromi and stroking movements, maoro. The oil was also used to make the hair grow. The hinu takataka oil from the takataka nut was used as an application for boils (tahora) and any such obvious tumors as sebaceous cysts. It was also used as a dressing for burns, ulcers, and cuts. The sediment from the hinu pipiro oil was applied to ringworm (hune) after the part had been washed in salt water. The uto puni stage of the coconut was used for cuts and wounds to stop the bleeding. A slice of the uto was placed over the cut and changed two or three times until the bleeding ceased. A fresh piece was applied and kept on for one or two days. Coconut cream was used as a purgative.

page 217

The atolls are remarkably free of endemic diseases. The medical officers of late years report but little yaws. I saw one case of elephantiasis of the feet, but the patient had been to other islands and may have become infected there.

Leprosy has been known from time to time, but the origin is attributed by the natives to Hawaii. Dr. Andrews, Surgeon on H.M.S. Ringdove, made a medical report on the islands in a New Zealand Parliamentary Paper printed in 1893. He stated that the first case was developed by a man named Tukerau, who, at the age of 18 years, left for Honolulu in an English trading barque (25 years before 1893). Tukerau developed leprosy on his return. The second leper was a man, Akatu, who visited Honolulu in 1874 and lived with a leper family. On his return in 1876, he developed the disease. The origin of the disease in the neighboring atoll, Tongareva, is also attributed to Hawaii.