ToKanao- The First Coconut in PNG

Keeping with our tradition of how the coconut tree came to the South Seas islands, here is an interesting legend about how the first coconut came to the be in Papua New Guinea. The story can be found in the book The Turtle and the Island: Folk Tales from Papua New Guinea. Enjoy!

ToKanao- The First Coconut

In a village beside the sea, in the days long ago, there lived a clever fisherman called ToKanao. None of the other villagers caught so many fish as ToKanao. Indeed, it often seemed impossible that any man could catch so many. No one ever saw ToKanao go fishing; he did not join the other fishermen and women on moonlit nights when they waded into the phosphorescent sea with blazing torches and spears. He always fished by himself during the day and returned laden with strings of glittering fish strung across his shoulders, so many that sometimes he could scarcely stagger home. Even at those seasons when all the fish seemed to have disappeared from the sea, ToKanao would bring home his catch.

One of the other villagers, a man called Talia, was especially jealous of ToKanao’s skill. He was determined to discover the secret of ToKanao’s success, and began to watch him carefully. It wasn’t long before his chance came. One morning ToKanao set off for the beach carrying the long strings of plaited vines on which he used to fasten his catch. But Talia noticed with surprise that he carried no spear nor any other implement with which to catch the fish. Stealthily Talia followed in ToKanao’s footsteps, taking care to make no sound as he made his way through the bush. At last they came to the shore where the sea lapped against the white, sandy beach. Here Talia hid himself under a tall tagia tree and watched to see what ToKanao would do next. He was utterly astonished to see ToKanao put both hands to his neck and began to unscrew his neck.

“Aiee! Can a man remove the head from his own shoulders?” Talia marveled. This was strong magic!

ToKanao left his head on the warm sand, under a shady bush. Then he waded out into the water until all his body was below the surface. He stayed like that for some time while Talia waited impatiently to see what would happen next. At last ToKanao resurfaced and waded back to the shore, then walked along the beach to the bush where his head lay. Here he bent over, and out from his hollow neck poured a shimmering, slippery stream of fish. After he had emptied his body of all the fish, he went back into the sea once more.

No sooner did he disappear beneath the water than Talia ran from his hiding-place, grabbed ToKanao’s head and ran away with it. Then he hurled it far along the beach into the undergrowth that grew along the shore.


“ToKanao- The First Coconut,” illustration by Tara Bonvillain, copyright 2017.

Presently ToKanao emerged from the water again, and emptied his body of fish a second time. Then he felt about under the bush for his head using his hands to try to locate it. When he could not find it, he began to move his hands more wildly and urgently but was no use: his head was not there. As Talia watched, he saw the fisherman return to the sea for the third and last time and disappear beneath the water forever. No one ever saw ToKanao again.

It happened some years later that Talia, walking along that same stretch of beach, came to the place where he had hurled ToKanao’s head into the undergrowth. He was amazed to see that a new, strange tree had grown up from the exact spot where the head had fallen. A tree such as no one had ever seen before. It was tall and slender, and its trunk, which bore ridges all around it like the bracelets on a woman’s arm, leaned to one side, and bore a topknot of graceful leaves like a head-dress of feathers. And growing amongst the leaves were a number of large, round fruits. One had fallen to the ground; Talia picked it up and began to remove its fibrous covering. Then he saw that he held in his hands a hard brown nut the size and shape of a human head. And on one side it bore three marks very like the eyes, nose and mouth of a man.

“Aiee! The skull of ToKanao planted itself in the ground and sprouted this strange tree of many heads!” he exclaimed.

Talia took the strange fruit back to the village. When it was tapped, sweet liquid flowed from it. When it was broken in half, soft white flesh was discovered. And the villagers named the new fruit ‘coconut’ in memory of ToKanao the great fisherman.

About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
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