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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology


A number of marginal islands on the southern and eastern borders of the Solomon Islands and east of New Ireland are inhabited by people who show certain affinities with the Polynesians. Though these islands are outside the area of Polynesia, the history and culture of the people is of great interest to students of the Polynesians. Bishop Museum has been so occupied with Polynesia proper that it has not had the time to send expeditions to follow up the work already done in these islands. However, some of the main literature is cited, though the list does not profess to be exhaustive.

Haddon in his work on Oceanic canoes enumerated the following islands, from southeast to northwest:

  • Tikopia
  • Anuda (Cherry)
  • Duff
  • Rennell (Mo Ngava)
  • Bellona (Mo Ngiki)
  • Ndai?
  • Sikiana (Stewart)
  • Ontong Java (Lord Howe)
  • Leuaniua
  • Nukumanu (Tasman)
  • Taku or Tauu (Marqueen)
  • Kilinailau (Cartaret)
  • Nissan (Sir Charles Hardy, Green)
  • Tanga (Caens, Kaan)
  • Nugeria (Abgarris, Fead)

Ray, in his study on Polynesian linguistics, also lists the Reef, or Swallow, Islands (Matema), and there are probably others.

The local traditions of the various islands state that early settlers came in canoes from the Tonga, Samoa, Ellice, Gilbert, Marshall, and Caroline Islands. On the evidence, it seems that the southern islands received settlers from Polynesia and that the northerly islands received them from Micronesia. The present population of Kilinailau and Nissan were derived from the Melanesian population of Buka, but they have adopted the type of canoe, with Polynesian names for the parts, which was evidently used by the earlier population, which they overcame and absorbed.

The non-Melanesians of most of the islands have a lighter complexion than the Melanesians, and their hair is predominantly wavy or curly but may range from straight to woolly. However, a study by Shapiro on the physical measurements and observations made by Hogbin in Ontong Java reveal that the physical characters of the inhabitants of that particular atoll have affinity with western Micronesia and not with Polynesia. Nukumanu, Taku, and Nugeria show page 121similar affinities. The presence of the loom in these northern outliers shows diffusion from the Carolines. Measurements from the southern outliers are needed.

The speech of most of the groups are dialects of the Polynesian language. Churchill accounts for their presence by the theory that the ancestors of the Polynesians passed eastward through the Melanesian chain of islands and remnants remained on the marginal islands. However, Thilenius has shown from linguistic evidence that the languages resembled those of the Samoans and Tongans who had drifted westward in comparatively recent times. There were no archaic Polynesian characters present and their absence refutes the theory of their presence being due to an ancient migration. Ray, who made an extensive study of the dialects extending from Nugeria to Tikopia, supports Thilenius and states also that there was very little word borrowing from the Melanesian language. It is interesting to note that the t, k, and ng sounds which are present in the Tasman group are represented in neighboring Ontong Java by k, the glottal stop, and n. Thus, Ontong Java has gone through exactly the same changes which have occurred in Hawaii. A grammar and vocabulary of the Sikayana [Sikiana] was compiled by A. Capell from missionary material.

The early discoverers—Le Maire and Schouten, Tasman, Cartaret, and others—contributed little to our knowledge of the people, but what they did has been included in the works of later writers. Of later writers, the missionary R. H. Codrington made references to the islands in his classic work on the Melanesians. Of government officials, C. H. Woodford made some short but useful observations. German ethnologists devoted some attention to Melanesia and Micronesia, and valuable studies were made at different times by Parkinson, Thilenius, and Friederici. The German Sudsee Expedition of 1908-1910 did field work on Luangiua (Ontong Java) and Nukumanu but the impressive report by Sarfert and Damm was not published until 1929.

Of still later work, E. W. Chinnery, government anthropologist to the Territory of New Guinea, contributed information concerning the northwestern islands in the Government Reports of the Territory. The University of Sydney took an interest in the outliers, and with the assistance of the Australian National Research Council, two expeditions were sent out. The first was by H. Ian Hogbin who spent 12 months (1927-1928) in Ontong Java and the second by Raymond Firth who spent a similiar period (1928-1929) in Tikopia. Both were followers of the functional school of Malinowski and Radcliffe Brown and devoted much attention to social organization. They have contributed a number of valuable articles to various journals. In the accompanying list of literature some of Hogbin's articles on Ontong Java have been cited with his work on law and order. Firth's two books on Tikopia cover considerable ground. In his work on the "History of Melanesian Society", W. H. R. Rivers included a good deal on Tikopia, but as Firth found out from his field page 122work that the information supplied to Rivers by his Melanesian informant was not reliable, it may be disregarded as source material on Tikopia. The studies made by Hogbin and Firth reveal that the social organization of Tikopia and Ontong Java has affinity with the Polynesian pattern.

In 1933, Gordon Macgregor, Bishop Museum Fellow, accompanied Templeton Crocker's expedition to the southeast islands and, though the stay at each island was too short to do much, a large number of excellent photographs were taken of native life. Macgregor had the opportunity of taking part in a religious ceremony on little-known Rennell Island, and he has written an interesting article on the gods of that island. Crocker's photographs and Macgregor's notes on canoes furnished valuable information to A. C. Haddon in his work on the canoes of the marginal islands. This study is included in Haddon's work on the canoes of Melanesia which forms part of the truly fine work by Haddon and Hornell on the "Canoes of Oceania" published by Bishop Museum.