Sunday, April 16, 2017
A new look at Polynesian voyaging. After initial contact, maybe it was all about goods and services.
Polynesians maintained distant voyaging links through much of the history of their Pacific occupation.
It was a kind of connectivity that helped new island occupations succeed, and kept voyaging communities vibrant. And why? Some of it may have been just business--meeting the need for trade.
This ocean connection “was a deliberate enabling strategy essential for colonising the remote Pacific…this process played out on a canvas of different archipelagos with contrasting resources, both small and large islands, and with varying levels of ecological diversity and remoteness,” wrote Marshall Weisler and Richard Walter, in a new book, The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization.
The evidence of the long-term connection between distant islands comes in many forms.
One example, of course, is a famous adze, sourced from a quarry on the Hawaiian island of Kaho`olawe, and found by archaeologists in the Tuamotu islands far to the south. It proved that the Polynesian voyaging that led to the discovery and population of the Hawaiian Islands was not a one-time accidental event, but that there were return voyages.
How important was that?
“One Tuamotuan adze was identified as originating from the Hawaiian islands, a distance of ͠ 4000 km—making it the longest known, continuous maritime trip in world prehistory,” they wrote.
In the Cook Islands, there was evidence of active trade. Basalt for adze blades has been found on coral islands without hard rock of their own. And pearl shell for fishhooks and scrapers has been found on volcanic islands where the pearl oysters didn’t grow. The assumption is that the fine-grained basalt and black-lipped pearl shell were traded by voyagers.
And there is also a strong oral tradition of voyaging that backs up the archaeology. In the Cooks, there are stories of the famous navigator-voyagers Tangi`ia, Karika and others. Hawai`i has the stories of Mo`ikeha and his voyaging son Kila.
Weisler and Walter argue that goods traveled back and forth, not only resupplying small island communities, but also bringing goods back to parent communities. The voyagers brought not only rock and shell, but planting material, volcanic glass for fine cutting, and even marriage partners.
Hawai`i even has a tradition of the priest Pa`ao, who felt Hawaiians were lacking adequate leadership, sailing to Tahiti to bring back a chief to rule them. The chief was Pilika`aiea.
For some islands, such voyaging was critical to the survival of the community. The small, isolated Pitcairn group could only have survived with the assistance of “repeated resourcing from the parent populations on Mangareva,” the authors wrote.
Not every island group had much to offer in material goods, but some had other values. The Tuamotu Islands, for example, have few resources, but they sprawl across the ocean, and they’re hard to miss. That being the case, they are a convenient stopping place to establish a voyager’s position, so it would have been valuable to keep their residents part of the “family.”
Hawai`i's voyaging canoe Hokule`a has regularly used the Tuamotus as an intermediate stop, to confirm the accuracy of navigation.
“There was little economic reason to travel to the Tuamotus, but their location made them a navigational screen that captured any movement in the region, and no doubt they benefited from this,” Weisler and Walter wrote.
Limits are one of the hallmarks of island societies. There is a point at which further population increase, or further drawdown of resources, cannot be sustained.
“In Mangareva during late prehistory food scarcities drove people to steal growing crops and rob breadfruit storage pits (the main staple), and there are even instances of fresh meat cannibalism and unearthing graves of newly buried corpses for food,” they wrote.
Some anthropologists argue that population pressure was a promoter of new voyaging, to find new islands and new resources. But perhaps the opposite was sometimes also true. Population pressure could have rendered voyaging difficult or inadvisable.
“Constructing ‘expensive’ voyaging canoes and resourcing their crews was no longer a priority. Indeed, it was risky to leave agricultural lands unprotected to engage in long-distance voyaging trips,” Weisler and Walter suggest.
So, maybe islands full of people and short of resources caused societies to look inward instead of outward, ending the great Polynesian traditions of voyaging.
That said, the cultural memory of the voyaging days has resulted in a paradigm that still exists today. “Interaction and exchange is …a part of the fabric of Pacific life,” the authors wrote.
© 2017 Jan W. TenBruggencate