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Vikings of the Sunrise

3. Whence Came They?

page 20

3. Whence Came They?

We came from Hawaiki-the-Great
From Hawaiki-the-Long, from Hawaiki-the-Distant.

Hawaiki is a symbol of the distant home whence came the ancestors of the first discoverers of the heart of the Pacific. The peoples on the western base of the Polynesian triangle at Samoa and Tonga speak of Pulotu as the land to which the soul of man returns ‘along the slippery path, the sliding path of death’. Most of those who penetrated farther into the triangle cherish the memory of a homeland in distant Hawaiki. From Hawaiki, their ancestors set out on the trail of the rising sun, and to Hawaiki the souls of their dead return along the golden train cast on the ocean by the dying rays of the setting sun. It is as it should be; the morning sun for youth and adventure, the setting sun for age and rest.

Whither the souls of our ancestors arrived we may not know, for the Maori poet says, ‘They have passed along the path that beckons the thousands, the path that calls the myriads, the path that sends no messenger to the rear.’ On almost every island from Samoa to Easter, from Hawai‘i to New Zealand, there is a traditional departing-place-of-spirits, from which the human soul sets out on its return journey to the west. There is no recorded instance of the Polynesian page 21 myth-makers forcing the tired soul to continue exploration to the east. They conceded the spirit homing instincts and allowed it to return to a western homeland.

Such an indefinite idea of a land of origin does not satisfy those of another culture who have studied us. From a wider horizon of comparative study, they can interpret our language, myths, traditions, genealogies, and historical narratives in a manner that is impossible to a native people embedded in the isolation created by lack of written records. How could we know that our word ra for the sun, by coinciding with ra in Ammon Ra, the Egyptian sun god, could be accepted as evidence that we came from Egypt? A Maori reference to dwelling in the Land of Uru has been interpreted as pointing to a sojourn in Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia. Perhaps it is beside the point to remark that Uru in the dialect of the tale merely means west. The occurrence of names similar to Polynesian for a district named Ora and a port named Mana in the ancient kingdom of Irania has been suggested as proof that we once dwelt in Baluchistan. A tradition of living in Irihia has moved us a stage farther east into Vrihia, an ancient name for a part of India. A Rarotongan legend states that an ancestor named Tu-te-rangi-marama dwelt in the land of Atia-te-varinga-nui which means Atia-where-vari-was-abundant. In Rarotonga, the word vari means mud, but a connection has been seen between vari and the south Indian word padi meaning rice. It has thus been thought that the Polynesian ancestors lived in a land where rice was grown in mud and that after they had left the rice lands behind them, they applied the word vari to the mud of taro swamps. Percy Smith, founder of the Polynesian Society, believed that Atia was located in the basin of the Ganges. Perhaps the location is right, but the name Atia page 22 looks suspiciously like a Polynesian form of Asia. And so by isolated words and place names students have tried to prove that we travelled from the Land of the Pharaohs to India en route to the shores of the Pacific.

Another approach to elucidating the past has been the interpretation of Polynesian genealogies. Probably no people have been prouder of their lineages than the mariners of the Pacific. In Polynesian mythology, the god Tane moulded the first woman out of earth, brought her to life by magic power, and made her the mother of the first human being. The descendants of this first union thus partook of divine attributes by direct physiological inheritance. This may appear irrational to scientists who claim descent from anthropoid apes, but it gave great confidence to chiefly leaders, who in moments of stress could call upon their divine ancestors for assistance whereas western man may expect little help from his remote arboreal progenitors. Faith in the Divine breeds confidence and dissipates fear, which after all is what man needs when facing the unknown. The European applied his faith to guiding him into a safe haven in the journey after death, but the Polynesian applied his faith to inspire confidence in this life to voyage into unknown seas.

The oral transmission and memorizing of genealogies was a routine part of the Polynesian system of education. Succession to chieftainship rested on priority of birth in the senior male line, which was closer to the famous ancestors, the culture heroes, and the gods themselves than were the junior lines. The relationship terms which grouped parents, uncles and aunts, and senior cousins under a similar term were meant to bind people together in a unity of co-operation and blood kinship. The finer degrees of physiological relationship were distinguished by a knowledge of genealogies. page 23 Thus kinship terms and genealogies form one inseparable unit in the structure of Polynesian society. Even the commoner could trace his lineage and family connections for generations with a certainty which a family of position in western society might envy. The chiefs and priests could trace their ancestry back to the gods. The experts took pride in reciting lineages before public gatherings, and the audience admired such demonstrations of classical knowledge. In New Zealand, the expert sometimes demonstrated with a beautifully carved, notched stick, touching the successive knobs as he recited the ancestors in chronological sequence. In the Marquesas, a knotted braid of coconut fibre was used in a similar manner, each knot representing an ancestor. Usually the fingers of the outstretched hand were ticked off as each ancestor's name was spoken.

The recital of genealogies was an established technique in social life and served as a chronology of historical events associated with the sequence of ancestors. How far back this sequence may be relief upon depends not only on the limitations of human memory but also on the interruptions that may have occurred to direct and orderly transmission of titles. Most islands have their own genealogies covering the period from the present back approximately five hundred years to the arrival of the colonizing ancestors who took up their permanent abode on the island. Beyond this settlement period is the migrational period of indefinite length during which remote progenitors felt their way from island to island, exploring the unknown spaces of the sea. The names of these ancestors, who dwelt in land designated as Hawaiki, Tahiti, Vavau, ‘Uporu, Manuka, Iva, and numerous others, are common to the genealogies of such widely spread groups as New Zealand, Cook, Society, Tuamotu, Austral, Marquesas, page 24 Gambier, and Hawai‘i, and indicate a common ancestry within historic time for all Polynesian peoples.

Beyond the period of heroic ancestors and their voyages, the genealogies take us into the realm of sheer myth. The lineage of heroes and demigods link up with the gods. The gods themselves carry back the genealogies in ordered sequence to various natural phenomena that were personified as if they were actual human ancestors. Thus we have the Void, Abyss, Night, Gloom, Dawn, Light, Thought, Conception, and various other ideas recited as a genealogy, not because the learned men really thought that they were human ancestors, but because the genealogical recital was the literary technique for recording not only historical events but also the order in which nature presumably came into being.

Genealogies, after they pass the settlement period and the latter part of the migrational period, cannot be relied upon for the exact or even approximate times at which the Polynesian ancestors occupied various mainlands and island groups in their voyages from Asia to the scattered islands of Polynesia. Even within the settlement period all manner of contradictions occur. Rarotongan genealogies state that the ancestor, Tangiia, who was the last ancestor to arrive at Rarotonga, landed on the island twenty-six generations back from 1900. Accepting twenty-five years as the average span of a generation, Tangiia must have arrived about 1250 a.d. Genealogies of the neighbouring island of Mangaia state that the sons of the god Rongo occupied that island for the first time seventeen generations back from 1900, thereby placing the origin of man on Mangaia two hundred and twenty-five years after the last settlement in nearby Rarotonga. Thus it is evident that when human memory failed, the gods crossed the forgotten years and came closer to the sons of men.

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The longer genealogies have been studied by European scholars, whose faith in these feats of memory has led them to overlook certain flaws which exist in the alleged human sequences. In some, the names of various lands at which the ancestors sojourned have been included, perhaps accidentally, as human beings. Various qualifying terms, as long, short, large, small, have been added in a sequence to the same name, but each is treated as a generation. The method is a convenient technique for lengthening a lineage. In others again, personifications of natural phenomena that belong to a mythical period have been interpolated into the human succession. Individuals have falsified records in order to give prestige to families newly risen to power or to hide the bar sinister that somehow cannot be avoided in long descent. The Hawaiian historian, David Malo, truly said that the expert genealogist was the wash-bowl of the high chief. It may be difficult for people who learn by eye from the printed page to fully appreciate the great feats of memory accomplished by people who could learn only by ear. Yet even for a people so intellectually endowed as the Polynesians, there must be some admission of the limitations of human memory.

The Rarotongan genealogies go back for ninety-two generations to the ancestor Tu-te-rangi-marama who dwelt in a land that Percy Smith believed to be India. The arbitrary estimate of twenty-five years to a generation places him at about 450 b.c. The period of time covered by ninety-two generations is 2300 years, and the distance in space is from India to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Is it possible that any group of people subjected to the accidents of flood and field and war for over 2000 years of time and over many thousands of miles of land and sea could keep from generation to generation an accurate record of human succession page 26 by memory alone? With all my love for my mother's stock, my father's unbelieving blood gives me pause.

We may sum up the present position by saying that in remote ages the ancestors of the Polynesian people probably did live in some part of India and worked east, but myths and legends transmitted orally do not reach back that far. They must have sojourned in Indonesia in order to reach the Pacific; the Polynesian language has affinities with Indonesian dialects. During their stay in Indonesia, the sea salt entered into their blood and changed them from landsmen to seamen. When the pressure of Mongoloid peoples pouring in from the mainland became oppressive, the Polynesian ancestors turned their gaze toward the eastern horizon and embarked upon one of the greatest of all adventures.