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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology



The field survey on Polynesia has been practically completed. Expeditions under the auspices of Bishop Museum have done field work in every island group except Easter Island, Niue, Chatham Island, New Zealand, and the Ellice Islands. Easter Island, Niue, and Chatham Island were visited by trained anthropologists from other institutions, but Bishop Museum published the results of their field work. New Zealand was left to her own capable students. Of the Ellice Islands, the atolls of Funafuti and Vaitupu have been studied by capable men, but the other atolls in the group may provide additional material to round off the picture. Thus, for Polynesia proper, it may be said that the only group now worth a field expedition is the Ellice Islands. This statement is not meant as a deterrent to people with private means who may wish to follow up some special project in the field, particularly in acculturation and psycho-anthropology.

Bishop Museum publications of the field studies have practically covered every phase of anthropology in history, legends, material culture, social organization, religion, and physical anthropology. Though the information may be thin in parts, such weaknesses are not due to the authors but to the fact that the native informants could not supply what they did not have. The information supplied by present-day informants was supplemented by earlier information contained in old native manuscripts, and the published literature was carefully combed for additional information. Thus, the data on each island group has been brought up-to-date and will save students the tiresome task of searching through other works which may not be available to them. Though I may be suspected of bias, I consider that the regional survey of Polynesia has been page 124well done and that the Bishop Museum publications may be regarded as the authoritative works on this area.

Though the regional survey has been completed with the one exception of the Ellice Islands, there remain some subjects which have yet to be worked up from field notes and the existing literature. Some of these are given below under subject headings.

Material Culture

In the islands visited, old artifacts were scarce or entirely lacking. Rich collections, however, are to be found in museums and a survey of the material in the world's museums is necessary to supplement the information gathered in the field. An analysis of their techniques would help to decide what techniques now in use are really ancient and what have been developed later for trade purposes. A large number of valuable papers are scattered through the pages of various journals, many of which have a limited circulation. Additional study is required in technology, a subject which has been neglected in earlier works, partly because of a lack of appreciation of its importance and partly because of the labor involved in recording and illustrating exact technical processes. It would be of great value to assemble the information indicated above for the regions yet undone. Intensive studies on material culture are open for the Society Islands and New Zealand.

Social Organization

The social organizations of many of the island groups have been described as part of the studies on the ethnology. For some groups such as the Tuamotus and Cook Islands, the material contained in field notebooks has not yet been assembled. For Samoa, the social organization of Manua in American Samoa has been done but Western Samoa, though dealt with by Krämer in German, needs investigation in English. Though much has been written about Hawaii and New Zealand, monographs on the social organization of the two areas would be useful in bringing scattered material together.

Studies on social organization would be useful for Hawaii, the Tuamotus, Cook Islands, New Zealand, and Western Samoa.


Religion has been dealt with usually in conjunction with social organization. For the Cook Islands, it could be worked up in a similar way. A compilation from existing literary sources would be useful for Hawaii and Samoa. Monographs on religion would be useful for the Cook Islands, Hawaii, and Samoa.

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Physical Anthropology

Though additional measurements are useful, it may be said that the field work already done is sufficient for practical purposes. However, should further field work be conducted in the Ellice Islands, the taking of physical measurements should be undertaken. Field work in physical anthropology is thus open for the Ellice Islands.


The study of native music is a specialist's project. The records made during Bishop Museum expeditions were with the type of recording machines procurable at that time. However, some studies have been made from them and the results published by the Museum. The Board of Maori Ethnological Research has made a large number of records in New Zealand. The student of music with an up-to-date recording machine would find good fields of work in the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Samoa, and Tonga.

The Polynesian Outliers

As already stated, the Polynesian outliers in Melanesia should be studied in conjunction with Polynesia. Though the literature cited shows that much has been done, a systematic survey is justified not only for the marginal islands which have been enumerated, but to follow up any traces of Polynesian elements on any of the larger Melanesian islands. Much additional Polynesian study material would be revealed by a systematic survey of Melanesia. In such a survey, particular attention should be devoted to physical anthropology and the technology of the arts and crafts. The islands which have received least attention are Rennell and Bellona, and these might well form the first points for future operations. Each group should be studied island by island before moving on to the next group. It is to be hoped that other institutions will do for Melanesia what Bishop Museum has done for Polynesia.

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.


Between the native period of the past and the mixed period of the present stretches the period of acculturation during which elements of an invading culture were accepted or imposed upon the native culture. The changes which have taken place have been, of necessity, regarded by students of the historical method as side issues which obscured the picture they were trying to regain. However, acculturation in itself forms a major study in which the changes and their causes form the important items which reveal the results of the continued impact of one culture upon another. In this study, the historical records of the natives are further augmented by the observations and works of various European writers and by official government records. In addition, the student of acculturation applies his knowledge of psychology, economics, and other sciences to interpret the significance of change. Though some works on accultu-page 127ration have been included in this appraisal, acculturation and its literature is dealt with in another report by Felix S. Keesing, who has made intensive studies on the subject in New Zealand, Samoa, and other parts of the Pacific.

Functional and Psychological Methods

Another approach to the study of native peoples is what has been termed the functional method. It is primarily associated with the names of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, who, like Moses and Aaron, lead their followers into a land of greater promise. The greater field of promise lies in ignoring the bondage of the historical past and devoting attention to the functioning present. Great importance is rightly attached to the functioning of society among the people of today. The limiting of inquiry into the case history of individual lives also saves the extra time involved in tracing families and tribes back through lengthy lineages into an uncertain past. However, it is difficult at times to know where anthropology ends and sociology begins. In dealing with case histories, a great deal of attention is devoted to the sexual life of the individual, which is somewhat reminiscent of the psychoanalytical method of Freud. The functionalists appear to pay little attention to material culture and technology. More importance appears to be attached to the intimate details of the technique of coitus and its various postures than to the technical details involved in the construction of a canoe and the methods of making it move. In the United States, some students have adopted the psychological approach to the study of culture. However, a discussion on the English and American methods of approach, together with the literature relating to Polynesia, is given in a report by Edwin G. Burrows, who has a personal knowledge of field work in Polynesia.

With regard to methods of approach, the method followed by the student is influenced by both the school from which he graduated and his own individual interest. The extent of his work is governed by the time spent in the field. Unfortunately, the financial support given to expeditions has usually been insufficient to permit of a long stay. If the student is interested in the functional or psychological approach, he has not the time or the inclination to devote to historical reconstruction or the time-consuming details of the technique of the arts and crafts. If his interest is in reconstruction and material culture, he cannot spend the time required in psychoanalyzing a sufficient number of patients. Some functionalists maintain that the historical method is full of error because the informants did not live in the periods they describe, hence their information is hearsay. I am somewhat sceptical of the veracity of informants whose life histories are being investigated. The native will usually give an investigator the information wanted, but he will conceal what he doesn't want known. In matters of intimate sex life, the informant gives the history of his neighbors but not of himself, hence the information is also hearsay. All methods page 128have their errors and all methods have their values. In the words of Rudyard Kipling:

There are nine and sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays

Topical Studies

In conclusion, it may be accepted that a vast amount of regional material has been recorded and the opportunity is afforded for making studies on Polynesia as a whole. In Williamson's exhaustive studies on social and political organization and religion (p. 78), he confined his area to what he termed central Polynesia, omitting Hawaii and New Zealand. However, there is much more material available now than at the time he wrote. Topical studies have been published on religion, fishhooks, gourds, and canoes, but there is a wide field open for other topical studies dealing with Polynesia as a whole. While single topics in material culture may be safely handled from the literature and museum specimens if due attention is paid to technique, more ambitious projects dealing with phases of social organization and religion require a certain amount of personal background derived from field work and acquaintance with the people. For students without a Polynesian background, it would perhaps be preferable to direct attention to Melanesia, the Polynesian outliers in Melanesia, and Micronesia where there are greater possibilities of untouched or imperfectly worked ground and where so much remains to be done.

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