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Ethnology of Tongareva

Traditional History

Traditional History

The study of the social organization of a Polynesian community is best introduced by a consideration of traditional history, which retains the accepted facts of ancestral origin and settlement upon the land, together with the social status through inheritance of all members of the community and their rights to land through occupation and succession. For the Polynesian the recital of historical events lacks conviction unless it is accompanied by the appropriate chants and songs; the mention of historical characters lacks force unless descent can be traced from them. Literature, history, and poetry are combined in the oral recitals which are listened to with the greatest of interest and attention even to the present day.

The chronological sequence of events is maintained in family pedigrees, and the learned historian is also an expert genealogist. The preservation of traditional narratives is in the care of respected experts of priestly or chiefly rank, the recipients of previous knowledge instructing suitable members of the next generation in order to preserve the family records. Family pedigrees are no longer memorized but written down in notebooks which are referred to when occasion demands. Some old men have been careless, and their families have had to seek advice from others. The genealogical method used by Rivers (21, a) in his study of Melanesian society is in reality in constant practical use among Polynesians in analyzing their position and relationship in their own social structure. Polynesian genealogies may be divided roughly into three periods that may be designated the mythical, exploratory, and settlement periods. The early lack of scholars is evidenced by the shortness of the genealogies dealing with the migrational and mythical periods, but complete pedigrees from the settlement period are preserved in detail by every family.

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The settlement period is definite, for most Polynesians recognize the ancestral migrations to the islands they now occupy. The traditional history gives the names of the progenitors who came from another land and usually gives such details as the name of his canoe, the names of some of those who accompanied him and anything of note that was brought. If more than one canoe brought settlers the genealogical line to each one is preserved. If settlement occurred at different periods the difference in time is usually correctly indicated by the differences in length between the lines of descent. The historical narratives supplement the tables by reference to contemporaries and to the marriages between distinct lines. The genealogies of the later immigrants, who usually became dominant, are generally clear-cut, but those of the older settlers are sometimes obscured. Obscurity may have been brought about because of untrained historians in the earlier migration or through the forgetting of details in tracing descent to the later, more socially important arrivals with whom the older lines intermarried. The pedigrees covering the settlement period retain the names of both husband and wife and generally of all of their children. In Tongareva the definite commencement of the settlement period is traced from Mahuta-nui, through the descendants of his two wives, and Taruia, but a third line seems to have been in occupation before either of them.

The exploratory period covers the time occupied between leaving a remote homeland and the settlement upon a certain island. The genealogies covering this period vary considerably. In Mangaia there is no exploratory period, for the sons of the well known god, Rongo, drew the island out of an underseas spiritual Avaiki to its present material position, with themselves upon it. With them commences the settlement period which thus links directly with the mythical period. In some localities, such as Rarotonga, the exploratory period may cover 60 generations or more, and the explorations of different ancestors figuring in the tables are given with fair detail. The local differences are doubtless due to the absence or presence of scholars in the different migrations, the social status of the immigrants, and accidents that removed recording historians. Details concerning the nearer ancestors may be preserved in bilateral pedigrees giving collaterals. In this period the names of famous explorers appear in the genealogies of separated groups, thus showing common descent. As the period becomes more remote, details disappear, and the pedigree becomes a single list of names. The single list merges into the mythical period, from which it is often not clearly defined.

Genealogies of the mythical period may contain allusions to a fatherland from which the migrants set out into the Pacific. They may embody a theory of creation. Most of them give a list of gods and derive them from two primary parents representing a sky father and an earth mother. A philosophy page 17 of the order and sequence of natural phenomena may also find expression in a pedigree in which the exploratory and settlement periods are linked together.