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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

The Historical Method

The Historical Method

The literature now available on Polynesia is very extensive. The regional surveys conducted by Bishop Museum have followed up the work of earlier writers by filling in gaps in the record and supplying much new material. Some students have criticized the Bishop Museum material on the grounds that it paid too much attention to the past and not enough to the present. However, before the present functioning of native society can be fully understood, it is necessary to gain a picture of native culture as it existed before the changes due to foreign contact began to take place. Though changes occurred in the pre-European period, they occurred in a population with one culture and were due page 126to development and adaptation in a purely native environment, both material and social. The changes which took place after European contact were due to the impact of a totally different culture which introduced foreign elements. The foreign introductions—material, social, and spiritual—created new needs and new desires. Iron, cloth, pigs, and potatoes caused drastic changes in Maori economics, as trade goods did throughout Polynesia. The acceptance of a new religion involved changes both religious and social. Finally, the seizure of governmental control created changes which were enforced by the application of new sanctions formulated by the invading culture chiefly for its own benefit. To reconstruct the lost native background, the method followed was what in anthropology has been termed the historical method. Traditional history, supported by genealogies, legends, and myths, has been recorded and studied to gain a knowledge of what occurred in the past development of material culture, social organization, and religion which culminated in the form the native culture had attained at the time that European impact became more or less continuous. At the late period of a recent study, however, the true native picture had been obscured by the accretions of over a century of contact with a foreign culture. Here again, the historical method was useful in clearing off the layers which covered the stone age stratum beneath. By using the historical method in Polynesia, the maximum of possible information was obtained from native informants, because their present system of society was based on the past and revealed by oral historical records. Though certain historical events and genealogies may show inaccuracies when subjected to comparative analysis, their particular versions are the ones accepted by the people. Thus the historical method is the one which functions among the Polynesians even to the present day. I would repeat that in the study of a vanishing culture, a picture of what the culture was is required before it can be determined what has vanished and what remains.