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But How Did They Get There?
Explaining the Puzzle of Polynesia. Reviewing ‘Sea People’ by Christina Thompson
When I was young, I remember a book on my grandpa’s shelves, Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. I shelved a dozen more when I later worked at a used bookshop. It turns out everyone had a copy. Something like ten million copies in languages galore have sold since its publication in 1948.
Kon-Tiki is a riveting true story of a rudderless raft adrift on the Pacific. It’s also an attempt to explain what author Christina Thompson calls the puzzle of Polynesia.
The Polynesian Triangle is vast: 10 million square miles with a thousand or so mostly tiny islands rising from the waves: Tonga, Tahiti, Samoa, and so on. At the extreme north of the triangle juts Hawaii, which is one of the biggest in the bunch. And at the southwest of the triangle stands the biggest of all, New Zealand, home of the Māori.
But how did the Māori get there—or the Tahitians to Tahiti, the Samoans to Samoa, the Hawaiians to Hawaii? It’s not exactly like they could walk. The distances between these islands or anything resembling land is so vast it boggles the mind.
How could ancient peoples have navigated from Point A to Points B, C, and D, settling and expanding through this enormous range of open ocean? And where was Point A, exactly? Where did they come from?
One way to explain it is to say they didn’t navigate at all; they got lucky and drifted there. The currents make drifting eastward from the western Pacific unlikely. Hence Heyerdahl’s famous solution: They drifted in balsa wood rafts from South America.
Unfortunately for Heyerdahl’s theory—and for all the people who still have a copy of his book on the shelf somewhere—there’s practically nothing to support his idea beyond his own experiment and the strange mystery of the sweet potato; no one knows how it, a native plant of the Americas, got to Polynesia either.
But as Thompson shows in Sea People, everything else argues for population from Asia: plantlife, animals, genetics, linguistics, and more. Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia—these are all better candidates than Peru. But the mass of evidence only heightens the mystery: How did people find their way across the seas if the currents were working against them?
A World Without Writing
Complicating the question, it’s tough asking the Polynesians themselves. Upon contact with European seafarers beginning in the late sixteenth century, Polynesians had no written language of their own. Their culture and history, myths and lore were all transmitted orally, one generation to the next.
Polynesians demonstrated “prodigious feats of memory,” says Thompson:
One Māori man from New Zealand was reported as having dictated eleven volumes of traditional material entirely for memory . . . another was able to recite the genealogical descent of every member of his tribe going back thirty-four generations; a third dictated a genealogy consisting of nearly two thousand names.
But, as Thompson notes, there’s a limit to what a person can recall. “Modern studies of nonliterate cultures have shown that even the most remarkable feats of memorization are not exact,” she says. Information is shaped with memorability, not precision or thoroughness, in mind.
Further, the only information retained is what’s relevant to the present generation.
Unlike writing, which fixes words in a given sequence, oral traditions can never be said to be “archival.” They are fluid and mutable and change over time, both accidentally—in the way that anything repeated over and over again changes—and strategically, in response to people’s evolving experience and needs.
The Polynesians had origin myths, but not history as such, let alone detailed migration records.
In lieu of written history, nineteenth century Europeans tried to tease out deeper layers of truth from Polynesian lore and language. This was mostly unhelpful, generating all sorts of speculation and theories that never panned out, including the notion that the original Polynesians were Aryan or came from Lake Titicaca up in the Andes (Heyerdahl’s pet theory).
Later scientific investigations—such as measuring body parts and skin tones—were fruitless as well and often poisoned by racism. Eventually, though, archeology and radiocarbon dating offered a path forward.
Solving the Puzzle
Pottery unearthed in the late 1940s in New Caledonia, which sits to the west of the Polynesian Triangle in Melanesia, pointed to an ancient culture almost three thousand years old: the Lapita People.
Subsequent work showed Lapita expansion into the western side of the Triangle. Pushing east, carrying the plants and animals they would need to survive, they sailed looking for new homes.
The travel was relatively easy at first. “Almost all the islands in the one-thousand-mile chain that begins in the Bismarcks [western Melanesia] and ends in the Solomons [central Melanesia] are intervisible, with water gaps generally smaller than forty miles,” writes Thompson. “But from there to the next group of islands, the distance is 250 miles, and it’s 500 miles from there to the group after that.”
And, of course, they eventually pushed further still with even greater gaps between landfall. The skill and daring required to sail in these conditions is astonishing—and they do seem to have sailed, not merely drifted.
Computer simulations in the 1960s showed the odds of drifting anywhere meaningful in the Triangle were infinitesimal. But modeling that included the ability to steer toward land dramatically improved the odds.
Despite the lack of advanced navigational tools, it appears the ancient Polynesians were expert seafarers and navigators. Experimental voyages in the twentieth century employing traditional Polynesian methods attest to their abilities, including following the stars, reading bird behavior, and identifying sea currents by feel.
The migrations took a long time. The New Caledonia finds of the precocious Lapita people may go back almost three thousand years, but modern radiocarbon dating says another two thousand years passed before the far corners of the Triangle were settled. Hawaii and Easter Island stood unpeopled until the end of the first millennium A.D., maybe later still in the case of New Zealand.
Nobody knows why the Polynesian children of the Lapita stayed so close to shore for so long before venturing out again, but once they were underway again, they accomplished feats of sailing unknown beyond their society until the modern era.
The Adventure of Knowing
Known or unknown. How do we know? That’s fundamentally what Thompson’s book is about. After all, the puzzle of Polynesia is a mostly European problem, or at least it has been; the Polynesians knew well enough for their own purposes.
The challenge came when two alien worldviews came into contact. If the habitable land in the Polynesian Triangle is sparse, so was the common ground between the Polynesians and the Europeans who first encountered them.
The strength of Thompson’s Sea People is to treat both traditions as legitimate as far as possible, leaving the two worlds in tension until the very end of the book. One way of knowing, of being, isn’t necessarily superior to the other. Rather, they are simply concerned with different questions and different reasons for asking.
Overlap does exist. Working with Polynesian oral genealogies and founder myths, for instance, Europeans were able to work out chronologies that show expansion and settlement around the end of the first millennium A.D., a timeframe subsequently confirmed by the new radiocarbon dating. Going further back, however, the traditions are less reliable as history. But, of course, they were never intended as that exactly.
What emerges from Thompson’s treatment are two adventure stories. First, there are the doughty Polynesian seafarers who left relative comfort in Melanesia and pushed their canoes into the wild unknown, hoping to build homes in places unseen, gaining as they sailed an unprecedented knack for navigation and seamanship.
Second, there’s the challenge of knowing—knowing anything at all, really. We take for granted our ability to know the past, to know what it means, and to what uses we can put it today. But many of our narratives and explanations are flawed; all are partial and rest on provisional understandings, ready to be challenged and upset by incoming data.
The encounter with Polynesia reminds us that the frontiers of knowledge are attainable, but the horizon remains beyond our grasp no matter how much progress we make. Some might find that discouraging, but there’s another way to view it: Adventure always awaits.
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