Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Polynesian migration: Western atolls populated East Polynesia?

One of the problems of Polynesian migration theory is that a direct eastern Polynesian connection from Samoa just doesn’t sound quite right.

Doesn’t sound right, meaning that from a language standpoint, Eastern Polynesian—including Hawaiian, Tahitian and Marquesan—has a lot more similarities to the Polynesian Northern Outlier islands of the Western Pacific than it does to the Samoa area of the central Pacific.

In a densely researched review of the dialects of Polynesia, William H. Wilson of the University of Hawai`i at Hilo suggests that Eastern Polynesians are comparatively distant, language-wise, from Samoa.

“Anthropologists and linquists have long assumed that East Polynesia was first settled from Central Western Polynesia, most likely from Samoa. Presented here is a very different history,” writes Wilson in his paper,“Whence the East Polynesians? Further Linguistic Evidence for a Northern Outlier Source,” published in the December 2012 issue of the journal “Ocean Linguistics.”

One of the problems Wilson identified is that recent archaeological evidence suggests most of eastern Polynesia was occupied by 1000 AD, give or take a couple of hundred years.

“It has become increasingly difficult to explain how East Polynesian languages could have come to be as different as they are from Samoan over such a short period of time,” he said. 

Two of the Pacific’s premier scientists, Australian linguistics professor Andrew Pawley and noted Berkeley archaeologist Patrick Kirch, said Wilson’s work identifies valuable new avenues of research, but may not be the final answer to the Polynesian migration problem. Their comments below.

Language comparisons involving the dozens of dialects of the Polynesian language across the Pacific, point to a dramatically closer connection between Eastern Polynesia and the Polynesian outlier atolls far to the northwest of Samoa, than with the language of Samoa itself, said Wilson, a professor of Hawaiian Studies and Linguistics at the university’s Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language.

His conclusion: “The ancestors of the East Polynesians—Hawaiians, Tahitians, Easter Islands, New Zealand Maori—did not come directly from Samoa as long thought be anthropologists. Instead they entered East Polynesia by way of tiny Polynesian Outlier atolls far to the northwest of Samoa.”

Following the language, he said, suggests that while the Fiji-Tonga-Samoan area may be the place where the unique Polynesian culture matured, it did not hop directly from there into eastern Polynesia.
Instead, Wilson argues that voyagers swept north and west first—to the Polynesian outliers of the Solomons  and atolls around them, where they developed something much closer to the eastern Polynesian dialect, and also developed a mature fishing culture that is missing from Samoan culture.
And then, perhaps passing through now-uninhabited islands of the Phoenix and Line Islands groups, they moved into the eastern Pacific.

“Descendants of early atoll dwellers would have taken a well developed fishing technology with them when they settled East Polynesia, explaining the distinctive fishing artifacts of early East Polynesian archeological sites,” Wilson writes.

He found dozens of both vocabulary and grammar similarities between the languages of the residents of the northern atolls and the eastern Polynesians. “All of these unique words and grammatical features go back to an ancient Northern Outlier ancestral language that gave birth to Proto East Polynesian, the unifying ancestor of Hawaiian, Tahitian, Marquesan, Rapanui, and Māori,” Wilson said in an email.

Working against the Samoa-to-east Polynesia hypothesis, in part, he said, is “no linguistic data has come to light specifically connecting the Samoa-centered area with East Polynesia.”

Wilson argues that a “northern pathway” from the northern atolls over the northern side of Samoa was a likely source of the population of eastern Polynesia.

“The shared innovations of (the early Northern Outliers and Eastern Polynesian) stand in stark contrast to the lack of comparable linguistic data supporting the commonly assumed settlement of East Polynesia along a southern pathway originating in Samoa or in Western Polynesian archipelagos relatively close to Samoa such as Tokelau or Tuvalu,” Wilson writes.

He says that understanding the connections is critical, because the evidence of those connections is at risk.

“Today all the Northern Outlier atolls are threatened with ocean inundation due to global warming.  The Northern Outlier peoples, their languages, and the archeological sites on the islands are all highly endangered. Also threatened are archeological sites in the Phoenix and Line Islands that likely show early evidence of the settlement pathway into East Polynesia,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s Northern outliers include Kapingamarangi, Nukuoro, Taku`u, Luanguia and others. Other Polynesian outliers near or in the Solomons include Pileni-Taumako, the Rennell Islands, Tikopia and others. The eastern Polynesian languages include Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian, Marquesan, Rarotongan, Tuamotuan and Rapa Nui’s dialect.

Pawley, an emeritus linguistics professor at the Australian National University, said there may be more complexity to the situation than Wilson suggests.

“He (Wilson) finds that Eastern Polynesian languages share a number of changes to Proto Polynesian uniquely with the Northern Outliers (those Polynesian languages situated on atolls north of the Solomons and on the fringes of Micronesia). This indicates that these languages share a more recent common origin with each other than with Samoan. I think he is right about this,” Pawley said. 

But he said there are still problems, including the fact that the outlier atolls would not have had high island trees, but eastern Polynesian languages include the names of those trees. 

“Wilson argues that mobile atoll-dwelling sailors would have been very familiar with high island trees but I rather doubt this.  So while Wilson's paper is an advance, it is not the last word on this matter,” Pawley said.

Kirch said that Wilson’s connections between the distant regions fail to convincingly prove the theory that the Northern Outliers were the source of East Polynesians. He said there may be an alternative solution: that both the Northern Outliers and the Eastern Polynesian islands were inhabited from a place that spoke a language no longer in existence.

“I'm very skeptical about a direct migration from the Outliers to East Polynesia. More likely that East Polynesia and the Outliers have a common source in Western Polynesia. This could as likely have been a ‘Samoic-Outlier’ dialect that is no longer in evidence, such as what would have been spoken on 'Uvea or Niuatoputapu around A.D. 1000 (both those places were later heavily affected by Tongan influence),” Kirch said.

The citation: Oceanic Linguistics Volume 51, Number 2, December 2012 pp. 289-359 | 10.1353/ol.2012.0014

© Jan TenBruggencate 2013

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