The Lost World of the Sago Eaters

Sago PalmThe previous GeoCurrents post mentioned the Manusela people of the Indonesian island of Seram, who evidently incorporate elements of Hinduism, animism, and Christianity in their religious beliefs and practices. The Manusuela rely on the sago palm for their dietary staple, as do many other peoples of eastern Indonesia and the lowlands of Papua New Guinea. (I am referring here to the true sago palm, Metroxylon sagu, not the unrelated cycads [genus Cycas] that are unfortunately given the same common name.) Sago is a most unusual foodstuff, as it is derived from the pith found in the center of the palm’s trunk. Sago boles accumulate starch that is used to support massive flowering blooms; after the seeds are formed, the starch content is exhausted and the trees die back, although new shoots later emerge from the roots. To harvest the edible carbohydrates, the trees must be cut and then the pith must be pulverized and thoroughly washed out with water. This process removes the starch from the fibers, allowing it to be collected in relatively pure form.

The process of extracting sago flour is laborious, but overall sago production requires relatively little work. Sago palms either grow wild or under conditions of “semi-domestication” that entail little care, and they produce large quantities of carbohydrates. Sago groves are, in general, more productive than agricultural fields. They also produce a number of other useful products. The dried petioles (the stalk that attaches the leaf blade to the stem), for example, are widely used to make walls, ceilings and even rafts. Owing to these advantages, sago is being intensively studied by agricultural researchers who think that it has promise as a potential crop in many humid tropical areas.*

sago palm mapAccording to the conventional view, the use of sago as a staple food is essentially limited to Melanesian people, particularly those of New Guinea but including as well some of the mixed “Papuan” and Austronesian societies of eastern Indonesia. Botanical maps and descriptions paint the same picture. According to a map produced in association with the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (reproduced here), the true sago palm was originally limited to New Guinea and a few eastern Indonesian islands, including Seram, Buru, and Halmahera. The same map also indicates that the plant has been introduced to western Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Other maps show the same general pattern. So too does the Wikipedia description, although it claims that the sago palm is also native to Malaysia and possibly the Philippines.


Other lines of evidence, however, indicate that the sago palm has (and had) a much wider distribution and, more importantly, that it once played a much larger role in human sustenance. In a 2013 PLOS One article, for example, a team of scientists claim that sago had once been a staple foodstuff of southern China. As the abstract of the article puts it:

Poor preservation of plant macroremains in the acid soils of southern subtropical China has hampered understanding of prehistoric diets in the region and of the spread of domesticated rice southwards from the Yangtze River region. According to records in ancient books and archaeological discoveries from historical sites, it is presumed that roots and tubers were the staple plant foods in this region before rice agriculture was widely practiced. But no direct evidences provided to test the hypothesis. Here we present evidence from starch and phytolith analyses of samples obtained during systematic excavations at the site of Xincun on the southern coast of China, demonstrating that during 3,350–2,470 aBC humans exploited sago palms, bananas, freshwater roots and tubers, fern roots, acorns, Job’s-tears as well as wild rice. A dominance of starches and phytoliths from palms suggest that the sago-type palms were an important plant food prior to the rice in south subtropical China. We also believe that because of their reliance on a wide range of starch-rich plant foods, the transition towards labour intensive rice agriculture was a slow process.

Although sago apparently no longer grows in southern China, that is not the case in regard to northeastern India. In a number of remote villages in Arunachal Pradesh, sago is still an important source of food, although its use seems to be declining. As reported in a recent paper by Robert Blench:

The only other region [other than New Guinea and eastern Indonesia] where [sago] is exploited extensively is in NE India, where the Puroik [=Sulung] of Arunachal Pradesh still process it (Stonor 1952; Deuri 1982; Sharma 1984; Gangwar &Ramakrishnan 1990). Peoples such as the Milang prepare it to feed to pigs but will no longer eat it for everyday consumption (Modi 2008), although it is acceptable as a famine food (Photo 5). Peoples such as the Idu also remember the processing of sago in the recent past (Bhattacharjee 1983:57).

Puroik people mapThe Puroik people, who are the main remaining sago-eaters of Arunachal Pradesh, are themselves a most intriguing group. To begin with, they were traditionally hunter-gatherers, unlike all the other people of the region, although they have recently adopted some basic forms of cultivation. Their language, moreover, is highly distinctive. It has generally been assumed to be a member of the Sino-Tibetan family, like those of most neighboring groups, but it had been little studied. Current thinking tends to regard it either as an aberrant member of the Austroasiatic family (which includes Khmer and Vietnamese), or as a linguistic isolate, not provably related to any described language family. Roger Blench, who as we saw above traces the origin of the Sino-Tibetan family as a whole to the eastern Himalayan region, thinks that Puroik is probably a linguistic isolate, based in part on the subsistence activities of the people who speak it: “The past of the Puroik as foragers, the distinctiveness of their language, and the low incidence of CTB roots suggests that it may best be considered a language isolate.”

The social position of the Puroik people, formerly called the Sulung, is itself unusual, as the entire group had been essentially enslaved by members of neighboring tribes. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “Earlier forming the bonded labour of other tribes such as the Nishi, the term Sulung indicates slavery, and they were renamed as Puroik to rid their name from this association.” The situation in earlier times was rather complicated, as conveyed in this passage from Rann Singh Mann’s The Tribes of India: On-Going Challenges (M.D. Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1996, page 389):

In their marriages, they traditionally had and still have to pay a heavy bride-price, and the people are not that sound economically to pay toward their bride-price. For obvious reasons the people had to borrow mithuns (Bos frontalis), which formed an essential part of the bride-price, from neighboring tribes… . These tribes, subsequently, started establishing supremacy over the Sulungs as they were never able to pay back the amount borrowed. Indebtedness is hence a major cause for which the Sulungs had to remain as thralls and that too for generations. …. A Sulung has developed the habit of tolerating all sorts of torture [that] his master, known as Ato, does to him because he is a Nyeru (thrall). In recent years, the Sulungs have expressed an intention to change their name to Puroik as they think Sulung is a derogatory term.

The role of the mithun, or gayal (Bos frontalis), a semi-domesticated bovine, in the economy and culture of Arunachal Pradesh was nicely depicted in Frederick and Elizabeth Simoons’ 1968 book, Ceremonial Ox of India: The Mithan in Nature, Culture, and History. This work, coincidently, help convince me to pursue a Ph.D in geography at the University of California at Berkeley, as Fred Simoons was a product of the same department. A first-rate scholar, his work never received the attention that it deserves. I would especially recommend his 1961 book, Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present.


* As argued in the abstract of a 2008 Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety article:

The common industrial starches are typically derived from cereals (corn, wheat, rice, sorghum), tubers (potato, sweet potato), roots (cassava), and legumes (mung bean, green pea). Sago (Metroxylon sagu Rottb.) starch is perhaps the only example of commercial starch derived from another source, the stem of palm (sago palm). Sago palm has the ability to thrive in the harsh swampy peat environment of certain areas. It is estimated that there are about 2 million ha of natural sago palm forests and about 0.14 million ha of planted sago palm at present, out of a total swamp area of about 20 million ha in Asia and the Pacific Region, most of which are under- or nonutilized. Growing in a suitable environment with organized farming practices, sago palm could have a yield potential of up to 25 tons of starch per hectare per year. Sago starch yield per unit area could be about 3 to 4 times higher than that of rice, corn, or wheat, and about 17 times higher than that of cassava. Compared to the common industrial starches, however, sago starch has been somewhat neglected and relatively less attention has been devoted to the sago palm and its starch. Nevertheless, a number of studies have been published covering various aspects of sago starch such as molecular structure, physicochemical and functional properties, chemical/physical modifications, and quality issues. This article is intended to piece together the accumulated knowledge and highlight some pertinent information related to sago palm and sago starch studies.

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