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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology


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Names ending in nesia (Greek nesos, an island) have been used, appropriately enough, to designate large groupings of islands in the Pacific. To the west, the Malay Archipelago received the alternative name of Indonesia, the prefix Indo indicating its comparative nearness to India. Eastward above the equator, the islands extending from Palau to the Gilberts and including the Marianas have been grouped together as Micronesia, because the islands are relatively small (micros). South of the equator, the chain of island groups extending from the east of New Guinea to Fiji in the southeast have been termed Melanesia because the skins of the inhabitants are black (melas). The remaining part of the Pacific east of Micronesia and Melanesia is studded with islands, which, because there are many (poli), have been included under the name of Polynesia.

With a few exceptions, the Polynesian islands lie south of the equator. The northern limit across the equator is formed by the Hawaiian Islands, and the easternmost limit by Easter Island. Though New Zealand, because of its size and situation in the south temperate zone, does not qualify for inclusion in the geographic area of tropical Polynesia, it is included in the ethnographic area of Polynesia because New Zealand was inhabited from central Polynesia by people of the same racial stock. If a base line is drawn from Hawaii to New Zealand and side lines from the ends to meet at Easter Island as the apex, a vast triangle is defined in which practically all the islands of Polynesia are situated. Within the Polynesian triangle, the greatest distance from north to south is roughly 5,000 miles, from west to east about 4,000 miles. The base line separates Samoa and Tonga in Polynesia from Fiji in Melanesia and the Gilbert Islands in Micronesia. The few Polynesian islands not included in the triangle are the Ellice Islands, Uvea, Futuna, and Alofi, which lie a little to the west of the base line. This division omits a number of islands situated in the Melanesian area but inhabited by Polynesian-speaking people.

Types of Polynesian Islands

The islands of Polynesia vary in type and size, and both these factors influenced the culture which developed upon them. They may be thought of as forming three main classes: volcanic, or high islands; coral, or low islands; and raised coral islands.

The volcanic islands, as the name implies, were formed by volcanic agency, which pushed basaltic masses high above the surface of the sea. Time and wear have produced high hills or mountains and intervening valleys with rivers, streams, and fertile, alluvial land. The natural assets, however, vary from the abundant rainfall and rich soil of the Society Islands to the meager water supply and poor soil of Easter Island. The coast line is fringed with a coral reef, in places close to the shore and in others running out some distance to enclose an page 6outer lagoon, in which fish abound. Some lagoons have deep water with good passages through the outer reef, as do those of Tahiti, and others have but small, shallow passages such as those in the Cook Islands. At the outer side of the reef edge, the sea falls suddenly to such depth that ships cannot obtain anchorage. Hence, the character of the reef and the lagoon have exercised an important influence on the visits of foreign ships. Some volcanic islands have an outer fringing reef which surrounds the group of individual islands with their own fringing reefs, the Mangarevan Islands, for instance. Volcanic islands have many advantages, apart from their size. They provide a variety of raw material in the form of plants, timber, and stone, and the alluvial soil is suitable for the growth of cultivated plants. At the time of Polynesian discovery, however, the native flora provided little food beyond a few berries and roots and the pith of tree ferns. However, fish, crustaceans, and shellfish were abundant in the surrounding waters.

The coral islands were built by coral animals on a submerged reef which formed a large ring enclosing a central lagoon, sometimes several miles in extent. The islands, irregularly spaced on the reef, range in size from those of several acres in extent to mere rocky protuberances bare of vegetation. This combination of reef, islands, and central lagoon is termed an atoll. The individual islands are narrow, because they are limited by the width of the reef; and their length is determined by the breaks in the supporting reef. They are low and rarely rise more than 10 to 20 feet above sea level. The surface is flat and without streams. Water, which is brackish though potable, can be obtained by sinking wells. Some atolls, termed wet atolls, have sufficient rainfall to produce fairly abundant vegetation though limited as regards the variety of plants. Other, dry, atolls have poor, stunted, and sparse vegetation because of meager rainfall. The soil, formed of broken down coral, is capable of growing the coconut and pandanus in profusion, but the food plants such as the breadfruit, banana, taro (Colocasia esculenta), yam, and sweet potato, did not grow on Polynesian atolls. When the Polynesians settled on them, the only native plants that could be used for food were pigweed (Portulaca) and the fruit of the Morinda citrifolia. A large-leaved coarse taro, termed puraka (Cyrtosperma chamissonis), was cultivated in trenches dug down to subsoil water, but this plant was introduced. The paper mulberry, which provided the material for tapa cloth, and the Hibiscus tiliaceus, which provided a suitable fiber for lines and nets, did not grow. The lagoons, however, were rich in fish, crustaceans, and shellfish, and the shell of the Tridacna was a poor but useful substitute for basalt in the manufacture of tools.

Some atolls have deep passages through the reef capable of admitting schooners into the shelter of the central lagoon, but in most, the passages are so narrow and shallow that only canoes can be piloted through them. Immediately outside the reef, the sea sinks to unanchorable depths.

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The raised coral island, as illustrated by Niue, was originally a small atoll which was raised by volcanic forces. After a fringing reef was formed, another volcanic elevation took place which formed an island with a central, high plateau, depressed in the middle, and an encircling lower plateau with cliff-girt shores 80 to 90 feet high in places. The formation is entirely coral with large blocks and broken down soil, somewhat reddish in color. The soil is evidently much more fertile than that of atolls, for the native vegetation includes some fairly large trees and the Hibiscus tiliaceus, the bark of which provides fiber for cordage and skirts. The taro, giant taro, yam, sweet potato, arrowroot, coconut, banana, and paper mulberry all grow there, as does the breadfruit, which is a late introduction. The rain does not supply streams but flows into underground reservoirs which provide the water supply of the people. Thus, conditions on a raised coral island enabled a richer native culture to be developed than was possible on atolls.

Naming of Islands

The original Polynesian discoverers usually gave a distinctive name to each island, but as each island in a group remained independent under the government of its own chiefs, the inhabitants of a group evidently saw no necessity for coining a special name for a unity that never existed in their day. An exception is the name of Samoa, which was apparently applied to the group before European contact and which was not shared by any individual island in the group. From the Polynesian point of view, an atoll was treated as a group of islands and each individual island, down to the smallest rocky islet, received an individual name. Here again, an exception occurs in the name of Tongareva, which was applied to the whole atoll and was not shared by any individual island. The group name of Tokelau was probably used as a general term by the Samoans in referring to islands to the north. It was later adopted as a convenient term to replace the earlier applied English name, the Union Group. The omission of group names was followed in principle in some atoll islands divided into districts which had never become united under one command, much in the same way as the individual islands of a volcanic group. The most important island in the Tongareva atoll was originally divided into two districts, because two different family groups settled at either end and then worked toward the middle, where they met and established a boundary. One district was named Omoka and the other Motukohiti. The two districts fought each other repeatedly, but neither conquered the other permanently to the point of absorption. Hence, visitors from other islands came to either Omoka or Motukohiti. A single name that would combine the two districts was never needed and would not have meant anything within the atoll. The government agent and traders now live in the village of Omoka in the district of Omoka, and the wharf to which the trading schooners come is Omoka. There is no village in page 8the Motukohiti district, and nothing happens there to keep its name before the public. The whole island will eventually be called Omoka, when there are no native historians left alive to lodge a protest on behalf of Motukohiti. Some other islands in Tongareva and in the Tokelaus follow this naming pattern. Of the volcanic islands, Easter Island, according to its inhabitants, had no early island name and this may be quite correct.

European voyagers gave European names to the islands when they discovered them, and additional European names were given by later explorers who were not aware that they had been found and named. Fortunately, the governing powers who annexed the various islands have given official priority to the native names and thus offered some tardy recognition to the original discoverers. Even so, it is difficult when reading of the early European voyages to find the native synonym of the foreign name and harder still to accept some alleged synonyms, such as that of the La Sagittaria of Quiros for the Tahiti of the Society Islanders.

In group names, however, no priority could be given to what did not exist. It was the foreign powers which brought individual islands into a group under one rule. Even the native kingdoms—Hawaii under Kamehameha I, Tonga under George Tubou I, and the Society Islands under Pomare I—were established after European contact and would not have been perpetuated without foreign assistance. Names for the island groups were necessary for official purposes and for geographers. Some of the names given by early explorers, such as the Marquesas and Society Islands, were accepted and retained; whereas other names, such as the Sandwich Islands and Hervey Islands, were accepted in general usage for a time but officially changed later. Some confusion, however, was created in the giving of native names to groups which did not possess native names. In the system followed, the name of a principal island in the group was officially designated as the group name. Sandwich Islands was abandoned in favor of Hawaii as a name for the group. Hence, references to Hawaii may mean the group as a whole or the island of Hawaii in particular. Similarly, the Mangareva (Gambier) Islands are also referred to as Mangareva, which is the principal island in the group. In using these names, the distinction should be clearly indicated.

Distribution of Islands

The distribution of the islands within the Polynesian triangle is shown on the map (p. iii). Some writers, probably influenced by the theory that the Polynesians came by the Melanesian route through Samoa, have referred to Samoa and Tonga as central Polynesia, and others have called the area nuclear Polynesia. However, a glance at the map shows clearly enough that the Society Islands form the center of the Polynesian area and that Samoa and Tonga form the main groups in western Polynesia. The Society Islands are not only the page 9geographical center, but the traditions of the various islands clearly indicate that they were the center of distribution from which exploring expeditions, followed by colonizing expeditions, radiated north to Hawaii, northeast to the Marquesas, east to the Tuamotus, southeast to Rapa, south to the Australs, southwest to the Cook Islands, northwest to the atolls of Manihiki, Rakahanga, and Tongareva, and even west at an early period to Samoa. Mangareva in the east was peopled from both the Tuamotus and the Marquesas, and Easter Island was probably peopled from the Marquesas. Samoa formed a western center, which peopled Tonga and some nearby islands, and later, Tonga took part in colonizing expeditions to Niue and parts of Fiji. Some of the outliers in Melanesia appear to have been settled from both Tonga and Samoa.

As the culture that developed in different parts of Polynesia was affected to some extent by the type of islands, they are here listed according to type. Volcanic or high islands: Society, Hawaii, Marquesas, Mangareva (Gambier), Easter, Pitcairn, Samoa, Tonga, Uvea, Futuna, and Alofi. Coral or low islands: Tuamotu, Rakahanga, Manihiki, Tongareva, Pukapuka, Tokelau, and Ellice. Raised coral islands: Niue, Makatea.

The individual islands in the groups are given later in dealing with the literature of individual groups.