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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

The Polynesians

The Polynesians

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.

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.

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.

Polynesian Culture

The ancestors of the Polynesians did not enter Polynesia empty handed or empty headed. They carried with them a good assortment of food plants and domestic animals from one tropical region to another. They brought with them a knowledge of certain techniques and handcrafts suited to dealing with the raw material provided by a tropical environment. They were led by able chiefs and guided in certain directions by priests skilled in observing and interpreting natural phenomena. The people were in family groups, which expanded into tribes claiming a common ancestry and ruled by chiefs who succeeded by primogeniture in the male line. They deified worthy ancestors and appointed gods to deal with the various needs and activities of life. The gods were placated and induced to render assistance in mundane affairs by material offerings made by the people and ritual conducted by the priests.

The fundamentals of this culture were established in the first group of volcanic islands encountered on the eastward movement from the Gilbert Islands, where the voyagers left the Micronesian chain. The group is now known as the page 14Society Islands and, as I have stated, it formed the geographical center of the island world the newcomers were destined to occupy. The Society Islands are divided into a leeward and a windward group, and it was upon an island in the leeward, or easterly, group that the temporal and spiritual heads of the expedition settled. The island was named Havaii (Hawaiki) evidently after some previous home in the west. This island, afterwards named Raiatea, formed the center of the cultural development which spread throughout the group. In later years, Tahiti, because of its greater size and fertility, developed greater temporal power, but priority of prestige in chiefly rank and priestly sanctity remained with Raiatea.

Traditional narratives record early expeditions that reached and settled in Hawaii in the north and New Zealand in the south. Both expeditions were without domestic animals and cultivated food plants. Thus, if the theory is correct that the foods came from Melanesia through Samoa, it is possible that the two expeditions left central Polynesia before the animals and plants arrived from the west. These early settlers in the north and south had to search for vegetable foods in the local flora, and nature, though generous with fish and fowl, offered few edible plants.

With the continued development of culture in the Society Islands, there was also the natural increase in population. Rivalry in chieftainship and disputes over land, women, and food led to quarrels and battles. Expeditions to explore the seas and to "fish up" new lands had taken place and many of the outlying islands had been reported. Settlement expeditions took place wherein large voyaging canoes with adequate provisions and water carried family groups with their women and children to seek new homes along the sea paths radiating from the central hub of Havaii (Raiatea) and Tahiti. They carried with them the material goods, domestic animals, and food plants which were present in the center. They also took with them the form of social organization and religion that had developed at their time of leaving. Thus, in the course of time, between perhaps the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, habitable Polynesia became inhabited.

Though a more or less common culture was carried from the center and superimposed upon the simpler one in the groups already inhabited, the later culture adopted much from the earlier one in the direction of local knowledge, adjustment to changed environment, and adaptation to different raw material. These changes occurred particularly in the arts and crafts. Pandanus was the general material for making mats and superior satchels, but as pandanus did not grow in either Easter Island or New Zealand, substitute local material was sought for and experimented with. In Easter Island, the people used rushes (Scirpus riparius), which were indigenous, and the outer skin of the trunks of banana plants, which they had introduced. The mats made of rushes were not plaited, but the rushes were sewn together with bast fiber, an entirely page 15new process used nowhere else in Polynesia. The baskets were made of rushes and banana bark by the process of plaiting in which the main technical details were similar to general Polynesian techniques with some slight differences in plaiting the rim. The banana plant is widespread throughout Polynesia, but the Easter Islanders were the only people to use the bark for plaiting material. In New Zealand, the local plant popularly termed flax (Phormium tenax) was used as a substitute for pandanus in both mats and baskets. As the material was harder and stiffer than pandanus, the plaiting technique employed had to be changed in certain details, such as the join in mats, to suit the difference in material. This is only one example of the many changes and developments which took place in the different island groups. Change and development also continued in the Society Islands after the period of dispersal.

Mistakes have been made in past studies and general works in assuming that Polynesian culture as a whole was homogeneous to the extent that information gathered in one island applied equally well to all the other islands. Thus, Lewis Morgan, on learning that brother-and-sister marriage occurred in Hawaii, took it for granted that it prevailed throughout Polynesia and, as a result of an unchecked assumption, held that Polynesian culture was in the low stage of promiscuity as regards the relationship between the sexes. Further investigation would have revealed that brother-and-sister marriage as an institution was present only in Hawaii and that it was a late development among the highest chiefly families to preserve the purity of their lineage. Similarly, Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, on finding that the power of the sister's son and brother-and-sister avoidance were present in Samoa and Tonga, assumed that they were present throughout Polynesia and advanced the hypothesis that the similar customs which were present in Melanesia had been derived from Polynesians who passed through Melanesia. The two customs do not exist in the rest of Polynesia, hence it is more feasible to conclude that the customs were Melanesian and diffused to Samoa and Tonga from Fiji.

At the time that the island cultures were functioning in their purity, when first contact was made with white foreigners, there was no one Polynesian culture. The only period when there could have been a common culture was when the people were living in one island group before dispersal took place. After that, each island or island group went on developing its own culture, and while some fundamental elements of an early common culture were retained or only slightly changed, the various groups specialized in different directions and reached peaks not shared with others. If we use the term Polynesian culture as applied to the culture which was functioning at the time of European contact, it should be realized that such a term is an abstraction referring to common features or general similarities that underlie the local differences in culture within Polynesia. Any one island may be taken as an introduction, but it cannot be regarded as establishing a general pattern. Neither can any cultural page 16elements from any island be applied to another on the assumption of a common pattern, but confirmation or denial must be sought locally in each island. When the Polynesian area as a whole is compared, similarities and differences will be observed. It may then be argued that the similarities belong to an earlier common stage and that the differences indicate later local developments.