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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology


The people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia are termed Polynesians. The problem of naming the people as a whole was similar to that of naming island groups, for neither had native names. The need did not exist until a contrast appeared, in the person of the European. The New Zealanders then termed themselves Maori, meaning native to the soil, and coined the word pakeha for those who were foreign and exotic. The distinction applied equally to animals, plants, and introduced goods. The indigenous wood pigeon was a manu maori (local bird) as against the pheasant which was a manu pakeha (foreign bird); and the kahikatea pine was a rakau maori (indigenous tree), as against the weeping willow, which was a rakau pakeha (exotic tree). Other parts of Polynesia coined words to distinguish the foreigners from themselves. The Society and Cook Islands used the term papa'a, the Samoans papalagi, and the Hawaiians haole. They did not coin distinguishing terms for themselves, but the foreigners used the general term native or used the name of the islands on which they lived (for example, Hawaiians and Tahitians). Though the term maori as meaning native or indigenous was present in most parts of Polynesia, the native people did not apply it to themselves as a distinguishing term. It had become so established as the name for the New Zealanders that it would have created confusion to apply it as a general term. Some attempt to coin a general term was made by white scholars who combined Savaii (Samoa) and Maori in the form of Savaiori, which meant nothing except to the inventors. Thus the regional term of Polynesian came to stay.

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The Polynesians' traditions, with few exceptions, trace their descent back to seafaring ancestors who came from elsewhere in voyaging canoes, the names of which are remembered with pride. Tales of lost continents and sunken archipelagos which supported an archaic civilization are neo-myths created by foreign writers for a mystery loving white public. The Polynesian myths run in the opposite direction and favor the emergence of lands instead of subsidence. The theme of islands being fished up out of the ocean depths by gods or heroes is widely spread and may be a mytho-poetic pattern derived from some early deified ancestor, who, by discovery, fished the islands out of the sea of the unknown. The submerged continent lies in the Melanesia area, where the islands contain continental rock formations. Geologists hold that the Polynesian islands are oceanic islands forming isolated peaks, which have not been connected within the history of man. The flimsy evidence advanced by theorists in favor of an ancient civilization which preceded the Polynesians, is untenable when subjected to critical examination, for none of the accomplishments credited to that mythical people was beyond the powers of the ancestors of the Polynesians.

The subject of the direction from which the Polynesian ancestors came is fascinating. The traditional narratives contain frequent references to voyages toward the rising sun, and myths state that after death the spirit of man turns toward the setting sun to retrace the long journey to the ancient homeland in the west. A frequent objection raised against the early voyages from west to east is that the Polynesian voyaging canoes could not have overcome the insuperable barrier presented by the prevailing trade winds, which blew from the general direction of east. However, it is well known that westerly winds prevail for certain parts of the year, and there are recorded instances of canoes and ships traveling hundreds of miles to the east on westerly winds. Thus, in the early voyages from west to east through Polynesia, adventurous explorers could have sailed east on the westerly winds and returned home on the trade winds to report their discoveries. The fact that the traditions of the inhabitants of Hawaii and New Zealand trace the origin of both peoples to the Society Islands, is ample proof that the Polynesian voyagers were capable of working their way north and south. Thus, when the belated European explorers made their way into the Pacific, they found every habitable island within the Polynesian triangle occupied by the descendants of an earlier race of deep-sea navigators.