Anecdotal theories about traditional uses of Polynesian woods in relation to social and religious practices were tested using comparative wood identification. The woods used to make 135 figure carvings from the Hawaiian archipelago were identified and compared with 23 figure carvings from elsewhere in Polynesia (especially Tahiti and the Marquesas). Prior to this study, the majority of Hawaiian images were believed to have been made from wood of Metrosideros polymorpha, the commonest forest tree on the archipelago. The results confirm that Metrosideros was relatively popular in Hawaii (13% of Hawaiian carvings, compared with 4% in central and south-eastern Polynesia). However, more unexpectedly, over 18 different genera were utilized for figure carvings in Hawaii. The genus Cordia accounted for 20% of Hawaiian figure carvings identified here, compared with 26% elsewhere in Polynesia, and Thespesia for 4%, compared with 30% in Marquesas. Use of some woods, such as species of Acacia, was not previously recorded for this purpose, including the first record of Artocarpus wood for large Hawaiian temple images. Many species—especially those that were less popular for ritual figure carving—were also used for various other purposes, including food, canoe building and medicines. This study demonstrates that the early Polynesian settlers brought with them traditions of using certain trees, but also took advantage of elements of the extensive indigenous flora.
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