Polynesian voyagers visited nearly every island in the tropical and subtropical Pacific, and they colonized and remained on most of them.
But a remarkable few were abandoned, despite apparently having the resources to maintain a population. Pitcairn is one of those.
This remote high island in the eastern South Pacific is best known as the refuge that the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian friends went to, to hide from the British navy. Pitcairn was uninhabited at the time. But it had been inhabited.
Canoe-sailing Polynesians had moved there a millenium ago, apparently thrived for 400 years, and then vanished. Like a sailing ship found drifting with no one aboard, its story is a mystery. Even today, as a British Overseas Territory, it has difficulty attracting people. An immigration site for Pitcairn is here.
There is something eerie about Pitcairnʻs Polynesian history. Where did these islanders go? Did they abandon their island. Were they killed off by disease? Did war play a role? Or starvation?
One thing they may not have been is alone.
In a major study of the Pacific-wide connections between island samples of paper mulberry (wauke, or Broussonetia papyrifera), which this blog covered in an earlier post, the plants collected on Pitcairn display deep genetic connections to Polynesiaʻs ancient past.
Wauke was a canoe plant—one of the critically important plants that all Polynesian voyaging canoes carried on their missions of colonization. It was important because it was the key plant for making fabric.
In studying the genetic differences and similiarities of wauke collected on different islands, the researchers found that Pitcairnʻs plants had strong genetic roots elsewhere in Polynesia.
For example, they found that "New Guinea is directly connected to Remote Oceania through Pitcairn."
There are distinct cultural differences between portions of Polynesia that were occupied at different times. For example, Fiji, Tonga and Futuna are an older Polynesian culture, which the authors call Western Remote Oceania (WRO). Islands like Niue, the Cook Islands, the Marquesas, the Austral Islands and Rapa Nui are understood to have been populated later. They are called Eastern Remote Oceania (ERO). New Guinea, in Near Oceania is outside that range and is considered even older in Polynesian history.
Yet, then there is Pitcairn.
"We found Pitcairn plants in a pivotal position between WRO and ERO. In addition, Pitcairn accessions linked with genotypes from New Guinea in Near Oceania," they write.
How to explain that? Pitcairn is physically in the newer area of Eastern Remote Oceania. Yet its wauke tells a different story, a story of ancient connections: "The link between these... groups was Pitcairn," the researchers write.
But the authors suggest that this does not suggest that Pitcairn was an ancient voyaging crossroads that maintained voyaging connections across thousands of miles of open sea. "We do not propose a direct migration route from New Guinea to Pitcairn," the authors write.
The explanation, they suggest, is simpler.
Pitcairn was occupied so long ago, and also abandoned so long ago, that it retained the ancient genetics of the wauke that the earliest voyagers carried with them.
"This relationship between samples from New Guinea and Pitcairn represents the survival of old genotypes on Pitcairn Island due to centuries of isolation after initial colonization by Austronesian speaking peoples. We suggest that these genotypes were probably lost on other islands that represent the intermediate steps of dispersal and migration," they write.
Hawaiʻi, the Marquesas, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Pitcairn are also linked genetically through wauke.
"The connections observed in our study through the genetic analysis of paper mulberry plants... show ties between Rapa Nui and Marquesas and between the Marquesas and Hawaii," the write.
Ultimately, the work confirms the conclusion that all Polynesia is connected, and that a thousand years ago, this stone age culture was tightly connected.
©Jan TenBruggencate 2019