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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Chapter VI — The North Pacific and the Polynesians

page 47

Chapter VI
The North Pacific and the Polynesians


(1) Homesickness is a feature even of modern emigrants, especially if the home has been left too far off for frequent returns. Though it becomes fainter with years and new development, the actual migrants never lose it. And amongst the posterity legend and story keep the new country linked with the old sentiment.

(2) The more primitive the people the less is the emotion blanched by Other phases of life, and in earlier ages of mankind it must have prevented any but slow and gradual migration, long distances from the starting-point being achieved only in centuries. And when distance intervened and return became impossible, imagination gradually omitted all the offensive features of the homeland and enhaloed it. Religion took it up thus idealised, and made it the paradise of the race, whither all its finer spirits were permitted to return at death.

The Polynesian Spirit-road

(3) It is often, then, an indication of the route the primitive emigrants took if the souls of their dead make in a definite direction when they depart to their underworld. The name of the paradise or spirit-home might even, if not too mutilated or transformed by passage through the generations page 48or by contact with peoples who speak other tongues, indicate one starting-point of the migration. Thus Bulotu, one name for the paradise of the Northern Polynesians, has led to innumerable speculations, some identifying it with a Persian Gulf locality, others with Celebes. Hawaiki, the more common name of the Polynesian paradise, has been still more fertile of speculation, as in some of the islands it is the name of the original or birth-land, and it has been applied to other islands on the route.

(4) There is one feature of the spirit-route, however, in which all the central groups of Polynesia agree; and that is in the direction. They all fix their spirit-leaping-off-place on the western-most point of the group. The soul, when it leaves the body, has there to leap into the sea, and thence take its way back to the home of the race. But there are two significant exceptions in Polynesia. The Hawaiian group in the north and New Zealand in the south send the spirits of their dead away on their shadowy journey in a north-west direction. Mr. Percy Smith explains this with regard to the southern country as correct orientation of the route, when the canoes had sailed so far away to the south-west. But this will not apply to the Sandwich Islands. Their Polynesian migration reached them from the south, and the leaping-off place should therefore have been oriented to the south instead of the north-west.

(5) There is no escaping the conclusion that this is a sign of migration from the north into Polynesia. There are the two largest land areas in the region. Each of them has as much superficies as nearly all the other Polynesian groups put together, and their mountains and forests would give easy shelter to defeated tribes. In the other islands extermination, or at least obliteration, of the original inhabitants would be no very lengthy process. In the Hawaiian group and in New Zealand the small number of the immigrants page 49and the extensive and intricate refuges inland would extend it over centuries, and mean in the end absorption often on a basis not unlike alliance. And, though the aristocracy would be at first mainly of the new-comers, and the genealogies of the old inhabitants would vanish, many of the aboriginal beliefs and ways of life would be adopted. The mere introduction of the women into almost every household of the immigrants would ensure this. And it was the women that had chiefly to do with death and the dead. The warriors and the men in general were polluted by touching the corpse.

(6) Hence the spirit-route in New Zealand, as in Hawaii, is that of the pre-Polynesian inhabitants. The spirits of the coast-dwelling Maoris do not take the shortest route to the Spirit's Leap, near Cape Maria Van Diemen. They make for the nearest mountain ridge, and then travel along it from south to north till they reach the final point of spirit-departure. And so afraid are the natives of the northward passage of the spirits of their dead that they build their kumara-stores and their important houses facing north lest the travelling souls should cross them and so taint or destroy their sacred contents by the contamination of death. The Chatham Islanders also sent the spirits of their dead in a north-westerly direction, and, though this is a minute group, it is explained by the fact that, according to tradition, they had mingled with the aborigines of New Zealand before they left its shores, and, having absorbed the natives of their new home in a peaceful way, they had always loved peace.

Japan and Polynesia

(7) Thus the colossal-stone route, and the spirit-route of the largest groups, those on the extreme north and those on the extreme south, both point the same way to the Japanese page 50Archipelago. In a cultivated people like the Japanese we are not likely to find much that shows kinship with so primitive a people as the Polynesians, unless perhaps faint traces in the minuter folklore of the less educated Japanese. And the Ainos and the People of the Hollows, whom they subdued, come between their predecessors, the megalithic people, and them. Yet there are some affinities that might have arisen from early contact or intercourse. The elaborate tattooing of birds, beasts, fishes, plants, and monsters all over the body in the Eastern groups of Polynesia, especially in the Marquesas, approaches nearer to the Japanese art than any other method of tattooing in the world, and both in their origin, like most tattooing, have something of the religious. It is the same with the keeping of domestic fowls in both regions; the perch is found beside every Shinto temple in Japan, and there was a religious element in the favourite sport of Tahiti, cockfighting, and in the elaborate stone fowl-houses on Easter Island. Football, wrestling, and archery were of equal importance in Japan and Tahiti, and were engaged in as parts of religious festivals. And the korotangi, a stone bird beautifully carved, and almost worshipped by the Maoris, leads the mind to Japan.

(8) But it is useless seeking for affinities between peoples so widely separated in race and culture. And, though the Ainos are of the same division of mankind as the Polynesians and they are in much the same stage of culture, they can show few ethnological likenesses; for the former are separated from the megalithic people, that the Polynesians absorbed, by the People of the Hollows. They have been modified too much by intercourse with their conquerors, the Japanese, to retain many of the affinities that they might have had. Unlike the Polynesians, they are users of the bow, makers of pottery, weave cloth from bark-threads, and have long had metal implements and dishes. Yet some of their page 51ethnological resemblances to the Maoris are striking; for example, the women produce and cook the food, make the cloth, and do everything but war, fishing, and house and canoe building; they are excluded from all religious rites, they are allowed to woo and propose, and they tattoo the lips before marriage. Both peoples think that the child derives its spirit from the father, and fear to use the name of a chief or of a deceased husband; they have a rude musical instrument in the shape of a Jew's harp; they fear to let the hair that is cut get into the hands of an enemy lest he employ it in witchcraft, and generally they believe in the efficacy of sorcery; in agriculture they avoid the use of manure, and they abandon a plot after culture for one or two years. The basis of their social economy is the village community with headship partly elective, and the basis of their religion is the worship of the ancestral spirit, with a belief in an after-world that is underground, although the great original gods dwell in the heavens period. There is here sufficient to show that in primeval times the ancestry of some element in the two races had ethnological connection or proximity.

The North-west Coast of America and Polynesia

(9) But the North Pacific on its American side shows most affinities with Polynesia. In the lacework of islands and fiords that frets the coast of British Columbia there live tribes that, though Americanised in their faces, are as different in ethnology from the American Indian as in appearance from the Polynesian. The Thlinkeets in the north, the Nootkas in the south about Vancouver Island, and the Haidahs between differ somewhat from each other; but they differ still more from the Indians on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. The characteristics of the country page 52they live in have much to do with the difference; instead of broad prairies to roam and hunt over, they have but a strip of forest between the mountains and the sea, and therefore they live on the margin of it and in their canoes. There are no such intense extremes of cold and heat as to the east of the Rocky Mountains; the tropical currents that brush the western fringe of the continent raise and equalise the temperature. And the sea gives a never-failing supply of food. But this does not explain all the difference. There are differences of beliefs, social customs, folklore, and developments of art that might as well belong to dwellers on plains margined by forests and ironbound by winter. In their legends and folklore they are much more like the Ainos on the opposite Asiatic coast and the Micronesians farther south; the resemblance has been worked out by Boas.

(10) But what has struck observers is the general ethnological resemblance between these British Columbians and the Polynesians. Most of them are puzzled by it; and a few account for it on the principle of similar conditions acting similarly on the human mind. It is, in fact, generally quoted as the crucial instance to demolish the ethnological maxim that likeness of ways of life argues unity of origin or at least primitive proximity of origin.

The Polynesian Steam-oven is North Temperate or
Sub-Arctic in Origin

(11) But there is community in features of the life that is not to be rejected so lightly. To take one instance, the method of steaming food that is universal in Polynesia is as common on the coast of North-west America, whilst all around both regions there is little or no trace of it. In Melanesia it is used in one or two groups; but this can be proved to be due page 53to infiltration from Polynesia. In Papuasia, Indonesia, and all along the south of Asia there is nothing to be found like it. None of the tribes over the Rocky Mountains, and none of the Esquimaux to the north have it It is also true that the Ainos do not use it; but we have seen reason to believe that they were not first in the Japanese Archipelago, and have been greatly influenced in their habits of life by their conquerors and the materials and vessels that they supplied.

(12) The natural genesis of the custom is easily explained in British Columbia, and especially amongst the Thlinkeets on the borders of Alaska. A fire kindled and kept up in the deeply frost-bound earth would suggest it. As the soil melts and the water escapes from it in steam, it sinks, and ultimately the fireplace becomes a hole in the ground lined with red-hot stones; if, when the smoke disappears and the fire dies down, a covering is placed over the mouth of the hole, there is at once a cooking-place like the Maori oven.

(13) It is not so easy to explain its origin in a tropical region like Polynesia. There the open fire would be the natural method of cooking; there would be no excessive accumulation of heat, and the fuel could be scattered and the flame extinguished rapidly. The principle of the steam-oven is that the heated stones keep their heat for long periods, and this would be offensive in the neighbourhood of dwellings in the tropics. Moreover, the natives of luxuriant forest regions of the torrid zone avoid, wherever they can, digging holes in the rich humus. Experience has taught them that the practice leads to disease and death. They never live like the dwellers in frost-bound regions, half underground, but prefer to raise their houses on stone or wooden piles so that the air may circulate freely underneath the floor. And here we may note that there are ancient groups of hollows in the ground in several parts of New Zealand, as, for example, in the Marlborough Sounds, and near Lake Manapouri in Otago, that page 54seem to be the remains of half-underground dwellings, and the Maoris often have their open fire in a hole in the floor of their whares. That the pre-Polynesians in New Zealand had used steam-ovens is evident by their having been found as much as fourteen feet below the surface of the soil, as, for example, on the Manuherikia Plains in Central Otago.

Pottery, Steam Cooking, and Stone Lamps

(14) Nor does the absence of pottery vessels account for the method of steam cooking, although this is a feature of both the regions that employ it, Polynesia and the British Columbian coast. The Ainos still, even when they have iron, make cooking-pots of cherry-tree bark, which boil their meat well and last many times hung over a slow fire. And the natives of the North-west American coast use wooden vessels and even wicker baskets to boil their food in by means of hot stones placed in the water. So the Maoris got the oil out of the titoki berries by putting them bruised into a wooden pot with water and hot stones. And the method of roasting and broiling food at an open fire was no uncommon thing with them. But the introduction of the European iron pot has in both regions, as amongst the Ainos, driven out the more primitive methods of cooking, which retained in the meat the juices and the best sustaining elements, instead of bleaching them out. The natural indolence of man prefers the method that economises time and trouble to that which saves the digestion and at the same time the essence and flavour of the food.

(15) Nor is there any essential connection between steam cooking and the boiling of water by throwing hot stones into a vessel or into a hollow in the rock. Else the Esquimaux and almost all Arctic peoples would not only use the latter as they do, but the former. The vapour or steam bath produced page 55by placing hot stones in water is universal around the Arctic circle, as it is amongst the British Columbians and the Maoris. But steam cooking is confined to the two latter, whilst cooking over a lamp is the Esquimaux and Aleutian method. Without the stone lamp the Arctic peoples would never have been able to subsist or spread. It is found amongst the natives of the North-west coast of America and amongst the Maoris; but its use is confined to lighting purposes, the readiness with which they can procure firewood and get to the earth even in winter making other methods of cooking easy. Besides the stone lamp and a number of traits and habits that belong to many primitive peoples, the Maoris have in common with the Esquimaux salutation by the rubbing of noses.

Affinity of Polynesian and Columbian Social Systems

(16) But resemblances must go much deeper before we can assume any primeval community or proximity of race. It is in the social and political system first of all that we must search for kinship. In a country whose whole method of existence is based on mother-right we have two great divisions of these British Columbians with a strong patriarchal tendency. The Thlinkeets in the north, though exogamous or inclining to choose wives from another division of the race, pass on their hereditary nobility through the males. The Nootkas towards the south tend to the patriarchate, though there are traces of mother-right; the chiefship is hereditary by the male line. And though, as in Polynesia, polygamy prevails in both tribes amongst the well-to-do, the women have great influence. The Haidahs, between the two, follow the American practice of the matriarchate; their rank is nominally hereditary, chiefly by the female line, and the chieftainship often passes to a woman. But, as all along the coast and as in Polynesia, there is. a certain democratic electiveness about all their page 56honours, depending on skill and feats in war and practical life.

(17) The tribes are independent in both regions; but the village community rules the social life; hence the great houses in which all the families of the village pass most of their life, in winter at least. In both regions the women prepare the fish and game for winter use, manufacture cloth and clothing, and increase the stock of food and cook it, whilst the men make the houses, boats, and implements, snare birds, catch fish, and engage in war. Women have nothing to do with religion, and yet they are much respected by the men, and some of them are looked up to as seers and sorceresses; in married life before the advent of the whites they were chaste; yet in order to limit the families, abortion and infanticide were not uncommon; they had to bring forth their children in a place away from the household, as they were considered unclean; the marriage ceremony was very slight, although all other occasions in life were surrounded with solemn rites, and divorce was easy.

(18) War was one of the main functions of social coordination; for war was the outcome of vendetta, and supplied the slaves that were so essential to the primitive warrior and the primitive household. When prisoners were not suitable for slaves, they were generally slaughtered; nor were they ever tortured by the Maoris or the British Columbians, in spite of the likeness of the latter to the American Indians; nor were they ever scalped; their heads were cut off as war trophies, as in Polynesia. The methods of warfare were much the same in the two regions; the warriors alike preferred ambush and stratagem to open fighting. And hence they were in both regions masters in the art of choosing an impregnable position for their villages and of fortifying it; they placed them on some cliff overhanging a river or the sea, and carefully guarded the approaches to it by stockades and entrenchments.

page 57

Houses, Canoes, and Carving in Polynesia and
North-west America

(19) And here we touch on one of the most striking resemblances between the cultures of the two regions. The Haidahs and the Nootkas, though they follow the American Indians in the construction of their summer dwellings, making them lodges of poles covered with skins or mats, build their permanent and winter houses more like the Maoris; these are rectangular, with huge ridge-pole and sloping roof, grotesquely carved wall-posts and central pillars, side-planks tied together, the entrance at one end, as a rule the only exit for the smoke of the fire, which is generally in a hole in the centre of the floor, and the floor covered with mats, on which the residents squat by day and sleep by night. But the feature that impressed most early travellers in the North Pacific was the luxuriance of the carving, resembling, and yet surpassing that of the Maoris in elaboration. The inner walls are covered with fantastic human figures, and so, too, are posts in front of or between them, the figures being crowded from top to bottom, so that the features and the limbs are broadened or distorted out of the human. The same luxuriance of carving is seen on all their weapons and implements and utensils. But in the north this is executed not merely in wood, but frequently in stone; the Maori prefers wood, although his ear and neck ornaments are carved in the hardest of all stones, jade, and ancient carved steatite vessels have been found in New Zealand. In Polynesia proper, the carving is feebler and less artistic than in British Columbia or New Zealand. The result is that, even though in the lace-like arabesque of some of their carved work the Maoris surpass all but the most advanced artistic nations, the general level of Polynesian carving is held to be lower than that of the Haidahs and Nootkas, who revel in repro-page 58ducing grotesquely the figures of men and animals. In human sculpture they and the Maoris are about equal. They delight in broad distortions of the features and the limbs, as if they looked at men through an uneven magnifying glass. There is nothing exact or true in their sculpture, though they both attempt to give realism to the eyes by the use of discs of gleaming haliotis shell. And the use of the eye, not only in the human figure, but in other ornamentation, is a common feature of both regions.

(20) But it is on their canoes that they lavish their finest and most elaborate carving, especially on the prows and the sterns, which are in both regions raised into an upstanding curved post. There is generally the outline of some monstrous figure, either animal or human, to give the solid core to the finer lace-like carving. The haliotis shell is again introduced with effect. But, quite apart from their art-work, the two regions, New Zealand and British Columbia, agree in adhering to the dugout, both large and small. The Maori once preferred the double canoe, and some, if not all, of the six canoes were of this truly Polynesian type. But in their new country they completely abandoned it, as well as the outrigger canoe, even though their coasts were stormy. This latter has its genesis on the surf-beaten open shores of South Asia, and especially of India, and developed into the double canoe in the Pacific. And in the islands the canoe is generally built high from a solid bottom by planks bound together with sinnet or cocoanut cord. But in New Zealand even the huge war-canoe was dug out of a single tree trunk, with only one plank, or at most two, to raise the sides; and in this it agrees with the huge canoe of the North-west coast of America.

(21) The megalithic pioneers evidently found their way from the North Pacific into Polynesia, and finally into New Zealand, the cul-de-sac of the Pacific, in huge single dugout page 59canoes, without outrigger; whilst the South Asiatic immigrants found their way into the same regions in half-dugout, half-plank-built canoes, made steady by outriggers, and afterwards by duplication. The ultimate dominance of the former in New Zealand was doubtless greatly aided by the extensive world-old forests that covered the islands. The North Pacific people who migrated into the Hawaiian Archipelago along the line of islets and reefs that stretch north-west from the group towards Japan had a far longer gap of unisleted ocean to cross from the coast of Asia; and when they got to their ultimate land-area, they found less gigantic trees and smaller forests; and hence the final predominance in this group of the Polynesian canoe, plank-built and outrigger or double. The tribes that went northwards and eastwards from the Japanese Archipelago could coast along islands or the mainland all the way, taking shelter at night or in storm, by the Kurile chain, Kamschatka, and the Aleutian chain. This is probably the reason the Aleutians and the British Columbians have kept to the huge single dugout canoe, and the reason why, unlike the Polynesians and the Maoris, they never used sail, but always paddled. The general resemblance of both the North Pacific and the Maori far-voyaging single canoe to the ship of the Scandinavian vikings, with its ornamented prow and stern, is not to be rejected as meaning nothing ethnologically after we have followed the megalithic track across from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and seen traces of fair-haired and blue-eyed peoples all the way, and the contrast between these ships and the bark canoes of the Arctic, races and of the American Indians has equal significance.

No Difficulty in the Seeming Racial Differences

(22) Nor need we be stopped from finding racial affinities by the strongly Mongolised appearance of the natives of the page 60North-west American coast. That region, with the coast to the south, has been a cul-de-sac into which the American Indians of the plains have driven the defeated tribes of their race. Here wave after wave of Indians must have swept over the aboriginal coast tribes who had coasted from Asia, and must have obliterated not only their face-form, but their head-form; for these weaker tribes, finding plenty of sea-food, never re-crossed the Rockies. And hence there is a perfect tangle of not merely dialects but stock languages on the Pacific Coast. Of Powell's fifty-eight linguistic families in North America forty belong to this strip between the mountains and the Pacific. Hence, too, a great mixture of long and short and intermediate heads in every tribe and almost every village, although the short or round Mongol head predominates; whilst many of the natives, especially amongst the women, show, when washed, skins fairly white and ruddy cheeks, with hair soft and often brown; amongst the Haidahs especially, the men when they do not, according to custom, pluck out the hair, have a fine beard and moustache. Holmes says of them: "Amongst the Haidahs or Queen Charlotte Island tribes exists a family of coarse red-haired, light-brown-eyed people of fair complexion"; and Sproat says: "Their young women's skins are as clear and white as those of Englishwomen." These seem to be traces of the megalithic Caucasian sea-going race that had lived on the north-east coast of Asia and had been already, perhaps, liberally Mongolised in the process of being driven north and east the same race that, un-Mongolised, went south-east into Polynesia.

Innumerable Ethnological Resemblances

(23) It would need several articles to enumerate all the ethnological points of contact between the Maori and the British Columbian. Niblack draws a parallel between the page 61Maori and the Haidah: "The political organisation of the tribe, their ownership of land, and their laws of blood-revenge are similar. The men tattoo with designs intended to identify them with their sub-tribe or household, and they ornament their canoes, paddles, house-fronts, and so forth in somewhat the same manner." But he continues his parallel only to show how these likenesses spring from the like tendencies of the human mind under the same external conditions. And Ratzel, after again and again showing how the culture of the British Columbian coast has an echo in it of Polynesia, and especially New Zealand, reluctantly abandons the effort to find where the community could have come in.

(24) A few more instances of likeness may be given; the importance attached to witchcraft and dreams, the introduction of incantations into the cure of disease, the revenge for deaths believed to be due to witchcraft, the cutting of the hair and the laceration of the body in mourning, the tendency to elongate the heads of children into a cone, the love of painting the body, the house, and most other things with red, the piercing and elongation of the earlobes, the making of cloth from the bast inside the bark of trees, the absence of any intoxicating drink and of the use of salt, the appetite for oil and oily foods, sporadic and half-suppressed cannibalism, the worship of ancestors and the fear of the spirits of the dead, the importance attached to oratory and the recitation of legends and genealogies, and the development of a type of dancing that makes less use of the legs than of the other limbs.

(25) But these two critics went on the assumption that the Polynesians all came from the south of Asia. A study of the northern megalithic route, and its trend into the islands of the Pacific, would have put them on the right track, and led them to see that racial elements in both British Columbians and Polynesians had once had proximity page 62and intercourse, if not intermingling, on the north-east coast of Asia.

Northward-pointing Traits in Polynesian Culture

(26) Only a few traces of the memory of a North Pacific origin need be pointed out in Polynesia. Ratzel suggests that as most of the Polynesian and South Asiatic hooks are unbarbed, the barbed ones that we find, especially in New Zealand, are to be assigned to the North Pacific. An occasional ornament is met with in the islands made of walrus ivory. And along with this may be placed the strange figure called the marakihau often found in the carved houses of the East Coast natives; with the lower part of the body like the tail of a fish, and two long tubes or tusks issuing from the monstrous mouth, it might be explained as a reminiscence of the walrus, as Mr. Percy Smith suggests. The use of combined leggings and sandals suggests the Indian mocassin, and the tattooing of the leg from knee to ankle and even to toe so frequent in the islands seems to indicate a former use of leg-coverings in a colder climate. The ancient pihanga in the Maori house, a square opening in the roof covered with a louvre, takes us to the houses of the North Pacific peoples, and so does the takuahi or hearth defined by four stone slabs on end, and the moulding of the earth up the sides and half over the roof, with the floor half underground. The reckoning of time by nights shows a far north origin, in a zone in which the long nights were more than the days and more important. The name for evening, ahiahi, the time of fires, used all over Polynesia has no tropical or subtropical origin; whilst the division of the year into two great seasons, winter and summer, and the half-dozen names for the former and only one for the latter (Raumati), seems to point up to north temperate or subarctic regions, where the winter is the dominant season, and the short summer breaks forth with sudden warmth, page 63dryness, and splendour. And, to close this enumeration, there is a picture of a North Pacific winter in the translation of an Easter Island inscribed tablet, recited by a native to the Americans who visited the islet in 1886: "In that happy land, that beautiful land, where Romaha formerly lived with his beloved Hangora, that beautiful land that was governed by gods from heaven, who lived in the water when it was cold, where the black-and-white pointed spider would have mounted to heaven, but was prevented by the bitterness of the cold." The chief god of Easter Island has the shape of a bird, and the gods mentioned here are probably water-birds.

(27) These are only indications; but, if taken with the large number of ethnological resemblances between the North Pacific and Polynesia, the megalithic route and the spirit-way of the Maoris, we may accept it as certain that they have no mere fanciful significance.