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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology


The Chatham Islands are 536 miles east of Port Lyttleton in the South Island of New Zealand. The main island is 31 miles long on the northern coast, but the other islands are rocky islets where the albatross and other seabirds breed. As the latitude is 43°48′ S., it is too cold for the sweet potato and other Polynesian food plants to grow. The bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) is abundant, and the rhizome furnished starchy food as it did in New Zealand. The karaka (Corynocarpus laevigata) was also present, and the cooked kernels of the berries provided an important food.

The people and the language were Polynesian. Some statements as to Melanesian affinities are disproved by the skeletal material. Native traditions indicate that the island was settled before the later Maori migration to New Zealand in approximately 1350. The material culture has much in common with that of the South Island Maoris. There were no domestic animals. Fish, shell-fish, and wild fowl abounded. Suitable trees for canoes were lacking, and the people were reduced to making rafts from bundles of the dry flower stalks of the native flax. The last full-blooded Moriori, as the natives were termed, died some years ago, but intermarriage had taken place with the Maori invaders of 1837 and their descendants.

The first European visitor was Lieutenant W. R. Broughton in command of the tender Chatham in 1791. The Chatham had become separated from Vancouver's ship Discovery on the voyage from New Zealand to Tahiti. Broughton's log, which is also included in the account of Vancouver's voyage, gives an excellent firsthand account of the natives. Later material was collected by Alexander Shand who lived on the island for many years; a valuable study on the skeletal material was made by Professor Scott; and, after studying the Moriori artifacts in British and New Zealand museums, H. D. Skinner visited the island and wrote a valuable memoir on the native culture. Information contributed by Percy Smith, Tregear, Travers, and others in various articles has been incorporated by Skinner in his work. After a second visit, Skinner collaborated with William Baucke, an old resident, and a joint work was published by Bishop Museum.