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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

The Early Home

The Early Home

The theory that the Polynesians came from South America was probably based originally on the exaggerated value placed on prevailing winds. Later, some weight was attached to studies which apparently showed some affinity between lists of selected words from the Polynesian and some American Indian languages. In studies made by people without an accurate knowledge of the languages being compared, the chances for error are serious. Misspellings in page 11source material may create a false similarity, and such misspellings in early source material are notorious. A word composed of a root with a prefix may resemble another word with a totally different root and a suffix, and the importance of roots may be ignored in the desire to increase the list of similarities. The number of affinities may be increased by using some form of Grimm's Law, the origin of which is known only to the author. A number of similar words could probably be hand picked from any two languages in the world, but unless supported by other evidence, such lists may form a series of interesting coincidences with no scientific value. Modern linguistics has become a special scientific study, and the methods so popular in the past have produced results which may be not only valueless but actually misleading. However, the preceding remarks were not meant to criticize individuals but rather the methods used. The studies were made in all good faith according to the scientific methods then prevailing. They mark the process of experiment and error by which science has advanced to higher standards of accuracy. The later school of linguistics holds that the Polynesian language has affinity, not with South America, but with the languages extending west to southeast Asia.

Further evidence is provided by the animals and plants which the Polynesians introduced, carrying them on their voyaging canoes to the islands upon which they decided to settle. The introduced animals were the pig, dog, and fowl, which belong to the Indo-Malayan area. The pig and fowl were not introduced into America until post-Columbian times. The introduced food plants were the coconut, breadfruit, banana, taro, yam, sweet potato, and arrowroot, which, except the sweet potato, belong to the Indo-Malayan botanical area. Like the domestic animals, they did not find their way into America until after its discovery by Europeans. According to botanists, the original home of the sweet potato is South America. As it was present in Polynesia before European ships visited America, it must have been brought in by some voyaging vessel from South America in pre-Columbian times. Since the South American Indians had neither the vessels nor the navigating ability to cross the ocean space between their shores and the nearest Polynesian islands, they may be disregarded as the agents of supply. If the present theory of botanical authorities is correct, the only solution left is that some Polynesian navigator actually reached South America on a westerly gale, which took him farther than he anticipated. Not liking the country, he returned to Polynesia on the trade winds with the sweet potato as an adjunct to his food supplies. Another introduced plant from the Indo-Malayan region is the paper mulberry, which was carried to every volcanic island in Polynesia and cultivated to supply the material for the bark cloth (tapa) used as clothing.

The western origin of the Polynesians is further supported by the studies on their physical characters. They are a mixed people, but the predominant characters indicate a major Caucasoid origin. Some intermixture with Mela-page 12nesians may have taken place in the Pacific, but the Mongoloid intermixture must have taken place in the Malay Archipelago or the adjoining mainland. Attempts have been made to trace the Caucasoid elements back to India, but as the evidence depends on oral tradition and selected genealogies, such theories may be regarded as interesting academic studies which await supporting evidence difficult, if not impossible, to procure. Hawaiki, as one of the names of the homeland, has been carried along and applied to various islands in memory of the past, but the original Hawaiki lies buried under the accretions of time.