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Linguistic Evidence/Oral Traditions | Polynesians: An Oceanic People | European Explorers | Heyerdahl and Sharp | The Archaeological Response | Experimental Voyaging | Hokulea: The Rediscovery | Introduction

Early Polynesians and Europeans
Early Polynesians and Europeans at sea.
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Until the development of modern archaeological research programs in Hawai'i and New Zealand during the 1950s, the most prominent lines of inquiry into the Polynesian settlement issue involved the study of the languages of the Pacific and the tales Polynesians told of the voyaging exploits and migrational feats of their ancestors.

Joseph Banks and James Cook used word comparisons to establish that the languages spoken on different Polynesian islands were nearly identical, and that these languages were related to those stretching across the Pacific to Southeast Asia. In his journal, for example, Banks lists Tahitian and New Zealand Maori words side by side to show that the two languages are nearly identical, and then (using lists of words from languages in Melanesia and Indonesia) uses the same method of vocabulary comparison to trace a linguistic relationship westward all the way to Southeast Asia.

Subsequent explorers and the scientists who sailed with them collected more island vocabularies and extended these comparisons, while philologists in Europe and America systematically compared the languages of the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Their findings confirmed that Cook and Banks had been on the right trail. All the languages of the Pacific islands (except those spread over the interiors of New Guinea and adjacent islands) were indeed related and formed part of a great language family centered in island Southeast Asia. They also confirmed that this language family was not only spread over the Pacific Ocean, but had also been carried across the Indian Ocean to this great island of Madagascar off the African coast. As such, these linguists established the existence of what was the most widely spread language family in the world until Europeans began to sail beyond the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.

Today this group of related languages is usually referred to as the Austronesian family. The spreading of this language family by seafarers from Southeast Asia seemed obvious to the linguists and other students of the problem, simply because everywhere that Austronesian languages were spoken there were also ocean-going canoes.

Oral Traditions

While language studies support the theory of Cook and Banks that the Polynesians originated there, these studies did not shed much light on the precise location of the original homeland, or on the migrational routes followed in entering and then spreading over the Pacific, nor could they say anything about how the Polynesians had been able to sail so far into the ocean. During the late 1800s and early 1900s a major effort was mounted to examine the traditions of epic voyages told by the islanders themselves in hopes that they could provide the clues needed to reconstruct the Polynesian migration.

Scholars working in New Zealand, for example, found a wealth of traditions about the discovery of their land, and the coming of colonizing canoes from Hawaiki, the legendary homeland which these scholars identified with the Society and Cook Islands. In contrast, those working in Hawai'i found in Hawaiian traditions a wealth of tales connecting Hawai'i with Kahiki, which, arguably, is the Hawaiian way of pronouncing Tahiti. These are not just about single voyages, but tell of the adventures of chiefs and priests who sailed repeatedly back and forth between the two centers. One of the best known of these legends is that which tells of eight different voyages made by Mo'ikeha, a chief who lived (according to genealogical reckoning) sometime around the 12th century, and his sons.

Professional anthropologists began to study the Polynesian problem in earnest during the period between the two world wars. Through surveying the remains of stone temples and other structures, and comparing the cultural traits and physical characteristics of the islanders, these anthropologists sought to shed further light on Polynesian origins, but with little success. Without a program of sub-surface archaeology to work out the routes, sequences, and chronologies of settlement, and without a method for finding out how the Polynesians could have sailed and navigated over such a great expanse of ocean, Polynesian studies were stalled.