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Ben Finney | Ask the Experts | Pose Your Question

SpacePortrait by Herb Kawainui Kane
Portrait by Herb Kawainui Kane.

Anthropologist Ben Finney answered questions about interactions between early European explorers and the Polynesians, and other topics as well. You will need to download RealPlayer to listen to the interview.

Q: How did early European explorers react when they first found the Polynesians?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) When Europeans did find islands and found there were people on [them], they couldn't understand how they could have got there. Because the Europeans themselves just had the technology to get into this huge ocean, yet here were these people without ships, without compass, without iron, with nothing but these little canoes. They [the Europeans] couldn't figure out how could they get there. So they came out with some different theories. One theory was that there was a continent in the South Pacific, and then it sank, leaving the mountain tops which became the islands, and that's how the people got there. Other one was that there was another continent further to the south, and they walked out from Asia and made short little trips in their little canoes to the islands. And the third one was even more outrageous, although it was in tune with the times. That's that God created them there.

Q: Captain Cook was the premier explorer in the second age of Polynesian exploration. When he left Polynesia, did he take anyone with him?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) The first Pacific Island navigator that any of the Europeans met and really talked with was a man named Tupai'a from Tahiti. So when Cook leaves Tahiti, he takes him with him, to help him find his way across the ocean. As they sailed, first down to Antarctica and over toward New Zealand, thousands of miles, twists and turns, they could ask Tupai'a, "Where's Tahiti? Point to it." He would say, "Oh it's over there." Or if they were on another course, he would say "It's over there" They didn't know how he did it, but it- but it always checked out with their navigation. He was always right.

Q: Tell us about Thor Heyerdahl.

A: (Listen in Real Audio) In 1947, Heyerdahl the Norwegian adventurer, makes this wonderful trip on a raft from South America to Polynesia, saying this is how the first people got to Polynesia. Nice trip, bad theory, because it's based on a faulty premise. His idea was since the winds always go from east to west, the trade winds across the ocean, early voyagers could never have sailed against the winds, they must have come with the winds. But he didn't know, and what he didn't think of is that the Polynesians that are ancestors who came from the west; we know that from linguistics and archeology, sailed smart. They learned how to wait when the tradewinds stop. They don't blow all the time. And the west wind comes, and they played the westerly winds, island by island, epoch by epoch, and worked their way across the Pacific that way.

Q: How does Thor Heyerdahl measure up to archeological and linguistic evidence?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) It's not supported whatsoever. You know, if Heyerdahl was correct, we should find Peruvian artifacts, pot shards and other things on these islands, but we don't. What we find [is that] the trail of artifacts comes out of Asia. But it doesn't come all at once, it's island by island over hundreds and in some cases over thousands of years. Heyerdahl wants to make one big trip, fine, finished, we settled the place. The easy way. No, they did it the hard way, working their way against the prevailing winds by learning their environment, by learning the wind-shifts. Heyerdahl thinks the trade winds were permanent because he happened to sail in the part of the Pacific where they're most dominant, and he sailed during the trade wind season. If he had sailed during an El Nino year, he might have got blown back to Peru.