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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

The Route to Polynesia

The Route to Polynesia

Another problem which has caused conjecture is the route by which Polynesia was reached from the Malay Archipelago. It is safe to say that when the Polynesian ancestors were pushed out of the Malay Archipelago by Mongoloid hordes, the only way open to them was the sea to the east, which was dotted with islands. It was the existence of chains of islands which rendered the ultimate arrival of the voyagers in Polynesia possible. It may be assumed that the various islands were discovered and occupied and that, as local populations increased and created complications, some of the settlers moved on toward the east to discover new homes. Thus, the process was a gradual movement by short voyages from island to island over some centuries of time. Some authorities hold that the Polynesians left the Malay Archipelago at about the beginning of the Christian Era and arrived at western Polynesia somewhere between the fourth and fifth centuries. This chronology was based on Polynesian traditional history and on genealogies, which are too uncertain for exact dates.

Two routes by island chains were possible, a southern route through Melanesia and a northern route through Micronesia. Early writers appear to have taken the Melanesian route for granted, and this unchecked theory has led to the assumption of Melanesian elements in Polynesia without critical analysis. A number of outlying islands along the eastern fringe of Melanesia were found to be occupied by non-Melanesian people, speaking pure Polynesian dialects, who were regarded as remnants of the early Polynesians left behind along the Melanesian route. More recent studies, however, show that many of these islands were peopled from Samoa and Tonga at a later period. The dialects, instead of retaining traces of an early archaic form, show close affinity with modern Samoan and Tongan. If the Polynesian ancestors had infiltrated through Melanesia, their descendants should show more Melanesian intermixture, such as deeper skin color, more woolly hair, depressed nasal bridges, prognathism, and slimmer calves. The bow and arrow, the Melanesian projectile weapon, is absent as a weapon in Polynesia. Some Melanesian social customs such as power of the sister's son and brother-and-sister avoidance are present in Samoa and Tonga, but they are apparently late influences from Fiji which never penetrated to the rest of Polynesia. Similarly, the wooden neck rest and the kava page 13bowl with a suspensory lug show Fijian influence, which never reached farther than Samoa and Tonga. Thus, elements of culture in Polynesia which were assumed to have a Melanesian origin are found, upon careful analysis, to be subject to a different interpretation.

The Micronesian route has much to recommend it. It accounts for the negative evidence against the Melanesian route. An analysis of Tongan mythology reveals that it has far more affinity with Micronesia than with Fiji, which is so close at hand. A significant item is the fact that the sling which was used in Micronesia was also the Polynesian projectile weapon. The many differences between the culture of western Polynesia and the rest of Polynesia is more readily accounted for if we assume that the main tide of the Polynesian movement flowed through Micronesia and directly from the Gilbert Islands to central Polynesia with minor streams diverging south to Samoa and Tonga. Had the main current been through Melanesia, the great efflorescence in Polynesian culture should more likely have taken place in Samoa than in the Society Islands.

One objection to the Micronesian route is the question as to whether or not the Polynesians could have carried their domestic animals and cultivable food plants with them through the eastern atoll end of the Micronesian chain. It is known that certain cultivable plants, such as the banana and breadfruit, have been reported as growing in the Micronesian atolls, but the subject requires tracing. However, the food plants and animals from the Indo-Malayan area reached Fiji through the Melanesian chain, and they could have been relayed later into central Polynesia through Samoa, even though the main human movement had not flowed that way.