Thursday, 29 June 2017

Were Māori the first New Zealanders?

(Spoilers: Yes. Yes, they were. Unequivocally, yes.)

In this time of resurgent racism and “alternative facts”, I suppose we should have expected to see yet another version of the “Māori Were Not Here First” myth bob up to the surface. And so it has. First, a couple of months ago, one Jaylene Cook posed nude for photos high up Mt Taranaki, which is sacred to the local Māori people, and so sparked a comment-war on Instagram. I’m not going to pass judgement on the photoshoot – I haven’t seen the photos and don’t know how sexual or otherwise disrespectful they were. I mention it because, during the comment-war, Cook stated that “Maori are not indigenous you ignorant t...” (redaction by Stuff).

Not long after that, some guy called Noel Hilliam dug up some Māori skulls and reportedly sent them to an Edinburgh University pathologist, who told him they were three thousand years old and Welsh. Whether he told the pathologist where they came from is a critical, and unanswered, question. See, if I were a pathologist and somebody sent me a skull, I’d assume they’d found it somewhere near my place of work and contacted me because I was local, and I’d start my search for matching features in nearby collections. To determine the age, you might first think of carbon-dating, but bones can easily be contaminated with ancient carbon and no archaeologist trusts an uncorroborated carbon-date anyway. I’d most likely look at the teeth, get some idea of what the person ate, and match it to a place and period when people seemed to be eating a similar diet – to a standard of “close as we’re going to get, probably”. So even if the nameless pathologist was an actual qualified pathologist (Edinburgh University denies having had any such contact), Hilliam’s ignorance of scientific procedure would pretty much guarantee a worthless result.

But, being so demonstrably ignorant of scientific procedure, Hilliam of course drew sweeping conclusions about New Zealand’s prehistory from this one piece of data. Or rather, he had already drawn those conclusions and desecrated a Māori burial site merely to confirm them. He went public with a “reconstruction” of one of the skulls:

Sketch of a woman’s face, showing white skin, blond hair, narrow nose and thin lips, with a very wide jaw-line and solid cheek-bones.

There is of course no such thing as a distinctive “Welsh skull”, but there are some characteristic features you can use, if you come across a skeleton in the South Pacific, to tell whether it belonged to an Islander or an early European visitor. In this case, I have to say those are an awfully wide, rounded jaw-line and robust cheek-bones for a European woman; they would be entirely unremarkable in a Polynesian face. The hair, skin tone, nose profile and thin lips are all guesses on the part of the sketch artist. I gather Hilliam claims his “expert” told him this person had blond hair, which means that either he or the “expert” are talking nonsense. You can’t tell hair colour from a skull.

Hilliam didn’t get his notion of white pre-Māori New Zealanders from the facts, but he didn’t get it out of the blue either. These “alternative prehistory” ideas have been going around since at least the 1990s in certain sectors of the Pākehā (white New Zealander) population. No surprise, they’re closely correlated with racist politics. Hypothetically, it should be possible to believe that someone else settled New Zealand before the Māori did and still support Māori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, since nothing in the Treaty is predicated on Māori being indigenous. But no-one actually seems to take that position. Conversely, people who publicly maintain that Māori are unfairly privileged by the Treaty disturbingly often turn out, in unguarded conversation, to also believe that Māori are a bunch of primitive savages who couldn’t possibly have navigated the oceans by themselves. For a taste of the kind of pseudoscience typical of the group, have a read of this dialogue excerpted from a Facebook comment exchange. Some snippets from the pro-Hilliam corner (all ellipses original):

So tell me why it is impossible? Vikings have been around for such a long time, with origins in ancient Scythia (Ukraine) area and later know [sic] as Scots. All very able navigators before Maori even got out of bed.

Not only were Vikings (morphed) Sycthians... [sic] Sakae – Early Saxons navigators of rivers and coasts of Europe... rivers from the Mediterranean to the Baltic... there is ample evidence they coast hopped from the Red Sea... Indian Ocean and South East Asia ...anything beyond that very feasible calling time on your assumption that these Danites were not around in navigable craft 3000 years ago... pfft

Then I think you are unaware of early European history... well they may not have been known as Vikings... I did say morphed... it is without doubt they were navigators and the same people group known as Caucasians... emanating via the Caucasus. One only needs to read the Declaration of Arbroath written by ones closer to the time than say... yourself.
The irony of your assertions is that in your mind... only Polynesians and Micronesians were capable navigators to find the way to and from NZ... a concept I find completely absurd given the 150 year into the past [sic] only exhibited craft that were simply hollowed out logs.

Throwing something more into the mix. The folk coined as Vikings, were Sakae, Caucasians, Danites – who were of course from the tribe of Dan of Israel collective, that went through the diaspora. They left their mark in the way, hence you have Ireland (anciently called Tuatha Da Danann – the tribe of Dan – Firbolgs), Swe(den), Scan(dan)navia, Dan(ube) Dn(eiper) etc.
In Hebrew there are no vowels, so the name Dan is written dn, or its Hebrew equivalent. Thus words like Dan, Din, Don, Dun, Den, or Dn, correspond to the name of Dan. The Bible recalls when the Diaspora was going on a lament 750–520 BC; – That Dan stood afar off in their ships.

Linguistically there are a lot of similarities between Hebrew and Gaelic, and language can die out and morph very quickly in the right circumstances.

Historians, archaeologists, geneticists, comparative linguists, and other scholars of the human past are advised not to play any games where you drink every time this guy trumpets nonsense as established fact, because alcohol poisoning causes severe liver damage. I don’t even know where to start, to be honest. Hebrew vowels are the opposite of the free-for-all this theory requires – they usually don’t need to be written down because they’re so restricted that in context there’s only one possibility that makes sense. The Declaration of Arbroath can be forgiven for connecting Scotland with Scythia in its preamble because it was written in mediaeval Europe when the only resources for reconstructing the past were the Bible and the Graeco-Roman classics. But what you should particularly notice is the contrast between the 3000-year-old Hebrew tribe “morphing” indiscriminately into Caucasian Scythian Scottish Vikings, and the Polynesian ancestors of the Māori who rode in “hollowed-out logs” and hadn’t “even got out of bed”. The writer is equally wrong about both sides of the contrast.

Then there’s Martin Doutré and his book Ancient Celtic New Zealand. Doutré neither knows nor cares where ancient Celtic people lived or anything about their culture. As far as he’s concerned they’re the same thing as Ancient Egyptians, or maybe Phoenicians or Chinese or Indians, just as long as we are crystal clear they weren’t Māori. His knowledge of ancient cultures begins and ends with stone-circle observatories like Stonehenge – which, if you didn’t know, is pre-Celtic. Now Stonehenge really is an observatory; its stones are aligned to point at the rising sun at midsummer and midwinter. Many people therefore draw the naïve conclusion that all the other ancient stone circles around the world are observatories as well. Trouble is, of course, there are so many stars in the sky it’s hard to find a pair of randomly placed rocks that don’t line up with the rising of at least one of them on at least one night of the year. But although the evidence for most stone circles being observatories is dubious, at least they are clearly artefacts. Somebody moved some stones into a regular shape for some reason, even if it wasn’t to point at the sky.

Not so with Ancient Celtic New Zealand. The bulk of the book consists of a minute geometrical description of what could not be more painfully obviously a natural, chance assortment of boulders. Doutré’s special-plea is that when the Māori invaded (his own word), they had such hatred and contempt for the people they conquered that they destroyed every vestige of their civilization, to the point of systematically throwing their sacred stones out of alignment. But if there were even a sliver of truth in his hypothesis, that wouldn’t be the half of it. Doutré’s supposed pre-Māori civilization left behind no graves, no middens, no ash-pits, no foundations, no post-holes, no disturbances of the earth whatsoever. Did the Māori invaders perform geoengineering to a degree no technology has ever replicated and return the soil to pristine condition out of spite? Or did these Egyptian Phoenician Celtic New Zealanders not grow food, make tools, light fires, build houses, bury their dead, throw out rubbish, or go to the toilet in between gazing at the stars?

For completeness I should also mention Gavin Menzies’ book 1491. 1491 was the year, according to Menzies, that Imperial China sent out a great fleet to explore the Pacific, and some of them found their way here. However, while the fleet was away from home there was a regime change in China, and when they got back the new rulers, distrusting the expedition as supporters of the rulers they’d displaced, had all the ships burned and the shipyards destroyed so no-one could follow them. Now Menzies’ picture of Chinese history is at least not nonsense on the order of the other theories we’ve seen so far; but alas, his case for their reaching New Zealand is just as tendentious as Hilliam’s or Doutré’s. A key piece of his evidence is the herd of feral horses in the Kaimanawa Ranges in the central North Island. Menzies spends several pages ridiculing the idea that these horses could have arrived with the Māori, correctly noting that the horse was unknown in the pre-colonial Pacific. Somehow the notion that they might have come from Britain with the Pākehā fails to so much as cross his mind.

Why does this nonsense keep coming back? Racism is one factor. Another is that New Zealanders more than a few years older than me were taught at school that Māori were second-comers to Aotearoa (for foreigners, that’s the Māori name for this country), and so ideas that echo that notion sound right to them. Now by the time I was at primary school in the early 1980s, we had to greet our teachers in te Reo Māori in the mornings, and Māori myths and legends were part of the curriculum. I could have told you three or four of the exploits of Māui before I ever heard of Hercules or Odysseus. But I gather we were the first generation to get that. My parents in the 1950s got a very different version of New Zealand prehistory. A central element was a mysterious race of primitive people called the Moriori, who – their generation were solemnly assured – had been the aboriginal population of New Zealand and had, to the very last one, been killed and eaten by Māori invaders. It is almost entirely untrue, but of course that word “Moriori” had to come from somewhere. The facts, as archaeology and oral history can piece them together, appear to be as follows.

Polynesian people arrived here about 800 years ago, mainly from the island clusters now known as the Cook Islands, Tahiti, and to a lesser extent the Marquesas. Within a couple of centuries a group based in the South Island set off again eastwards and settled the little windswept islands that Pākehā call the Chathams. They themselves called the biggest island Rekohu. Unfortunately, most of the crop plants they’d brought from the tropical Pacific withered and died in Aotearoa’s winters. Even the hardy sweet potato or kūmara (of which I shall have more to say later) couldn’t handle South Island frost or Rekohu wind. The people in those areas therefore resorted to hunting and gathering. Their languages drifted apart over the centuries they were separated. When Pākehā missionaries came to write them down, the word for “normal” or “familiar” in mainland New Zealand was māori, but in the Chatham Islands – you guessed it – moriori. Each culture in the 19th century began using their respective word to distinguish themselves from the influx of European colonizers.

Early on in their isolation, a Moriori leader known to oral history as Nunuku-whenua instituted an absolute prohibition, Nunuku’s Law, against killing any human being for any reason. Following the arrival of the HMS Chatham in 1791, Moriori food sources were despoiled by British sealers, their lands taken over by both Pākehā and Māori, and their population decimated by influenza. Worse, however, was to come. In 1835 a group of Māori displaced by colonization in the North Island attacked Rekohu and proceeded to kill and enslave the Moriori inhabitants, who in accordance with Nunuku’s Law did not strike back. Accounts collected from both aggressors and victims agree that the former cooked and ate a number of the latter. I should note that this is controversial. Some anthropologists dispute claims of cannibalism on principle; I don’t mind admitting I used to belong to that camp myself. The central argument is that although many cultures say they used to eat people in the past, none has ever been directly documented actually doing it. The problem, of course, is that “directly documented” here means “witnessed by a white anthropologist”, as if non-white cultures’ histories can’t be trusted otherwise.

Shared ethnicity – I wish this went without saying – does not imply shared guilt; the fact that these aggressors were Māori says no more about other Māori than the fact that they were North Islanders says about other North Islanders. The Pākehā occupation of Māori New Zealand has included some acts no less abhorrent, apart from the alleged cannibalism, than what those aggressors did to the Moriori. Two generations later, a great Māori peaceful resistance movement, including members of the same iwi (tribal nations) as the group who had invaded Rekohu, fenced off and ploughed lands that had been confiscated by Pākehā and disobeyed orders to leave but raised not a hand to fight. In 1881, Crown troops invaded the Taranaki settlement of Parihaka, arresting hundreds of men, who became slaves in all but name, and assaulting and raping untold numbers of women. Under instruction from their leader the prophet Te Whiti o Rongomai, the movement offered the soldiers no violence. (The Crown finally apologized for the wrongs it did at Parihaka a couple of weeks ago).

The incident was hushed up in New Zealand, and even in my time we didn’t get taught about it in schools. The only events between the Treaty of Waitangi and the First World War that I remember being taught about were the Otago gold-rush and women getting the vote in 1893. But liberal newspaper columnists were still writing about it in London in the 1890s, where they were read by a young barrister by the name of Mohandas Gandhi. Between Gandhi’s accomplishments in India, the decolonization movement it sparked around the world, and the inspiration his philosophy of satyāgraha provided to Martin Luther King Jr., the world may owe a great deal to Parihaka. But researching this, I’ve found myself wondering whether Te Whiti, who was five years old when the Rekohu attack took place, himself first got the idea from hearing about the Moriori and Nunuku’s Law.

Or am I just making up a connection to salvage some meaning out of the horror? Being Pākehā, I need to be careful about that when I’m speculating about other people’s history. Like indigenous people everywhere, Māori are often portrayed according to two opposing stereotypes: as stupid thuggish “savages” who should be grateful they were colonized, or as spiritual “noble savages” too busy vibing with Nature to concern themselves with such trivialities as politics and property rights. My purpose here is to educate my fellow Pākehā and try to scrub out some of the myths we’ve gotten ingrained over a century and a half of justifying our presence in the Pacific to ourselves, and that means regarding both stereotypes with an eye that’s sceptical to the point of being suspicious.

Such are the facts about the Moriori, as best we can discern them. So where did the Moriori-before-Māori myth come from? Partly from an honestly mistaken reading of the archaeological data. Early South Island artefacts closely resemble Moriori ones, which is consistent both with the correct hypothesis that the Moriori’s ancestors were South Island Māori and with the incorrect hypothesis that there were Moriori living in the South Island when the Māori first arrived. The right answer emerges when we take linguistics, Moriori oral history, and geographical considerations into account. (Genetics has not been much help because the last Moriori person who didn’t have Pākehā or recent Māori ancestry died in 1933.) But what tipped earlier scholars in the wrong direction to begin with was not an honest mistake. It was the pseudoscience of Victorian racism, which had been accepted as fact throughout the Western world for about two centuries and still holds sway in popular form amongst alarmingly large pockets of disaffected whites.

Fair warning: this theory is not nice. “Man” was divided into perhaps a half-dozen “races” who differed not only in their physical features but also their intelligence, courage, perseverance, and various other virtues. The white race was of course at the top of every heap (the “nerdy East Asian” stereotype is a later development). Naturally, the more technologically and politically complex cultures belonged to the more competent races. The Māori had crops, multi-level social hierarchies, big wooden fortresses called , and finely-crafted tools and weapons. The Moriori were foragers with no permanent leadership, minimal shelter, and simple wooden clubs for hunting seals. Clearly then they must be of a lesser race than the Māori, just as the Māori by the same theory were lesser than the Pākehā. Now when a superior race confronted a lesser race, the lesser race was inevitably either subjugated or destroyed – how kind we are, one imagines the Victorians telling themselves, to the people we colonize – so if there were signs of Moriori culture in New Zealand’s past but none remaining in the present, it could only mean that the Māori had arrived here later and exterminated them.

For all the present failings of white academia, at least it can truly claim to have rejected Victorian racism, albeit with the buck-passing you always get when people gradually realize they did wrong and hurt someone. (The humanities, despite what humanities scholars will insinuate, are just as complicit as the life sciences.) Unfortunately most academics leave open the question to which racism claimed to be the answer, which is: why do different cultures have such different levels of technology? Why were Māori people using canoes and stone weapons when Europeans were inventing railways and machine-guns? The usual answer, “You shouldn’t ask that, it’s racist,” only convinces people that racism is true and liberal academics are covering it up. I’m afraid I don’t have space to address the matter properly here. I alluded to it earlier when I mentioned that Moriori returned to a forager lifestyle because tropical crop plants didn’t survive on Rekohu. Most new technologies depend on old technologies, and all technologies ultimately depend on natural resources. Eurasian cultures developed new technologies first because Eurasia has the greatest variety of natural resources. Let me refer you to Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel, and move on.

There remains one further source of claims of people in New Zealand before Māori arrived: Māori oral history. Many iwi have stories of finding other people already living here when they arrived. Sometimes these people seem to be more or less ordinary (Māori) humans, but in other stories they’re the otherworldly beings known as patupaiarehe, tūrehu, ponaturi who seem to live in the sea, or pākehakeha. You’ll notice that that last one looks a lot like the Māori word for white New Zealanders; this is not a coincidence. A couple of features these beings all have in common are white skin and red hair, and Māori people repurposed one of the words for them to refer to the pale-skinned, often light-haired people whom they began to encounter in the late 18th century.

Understandably, we Pākehā get all interested suddenly when we hear about the white skin and red hair. Those sound like us. Are these stories good evidence for Europeans having got to Aotearoa before Māori did? If the stories were all we had, if we had no archaeological or geographical data to take into account, we’d have to take the possibility seriously. Westerners have of course been dismissing indigenous knowledge as nonsense ever since the beginning of colonialism, and today scholars are quite rightly pushing back in the opposite direction. Certainly we should not privilege Western witnesses over indigenous ones for credibility. But outsiders should be cautious about naïvely taking other cultures’ lore at face value. A story might be a record of something that really happened, or it might be a fable to convey a moral, or it might be a reminder of when to harvest a particular plant or how to make a particular technology, or it might express a deep truth about the human condition. Outsiders don’t know and shouldn’t presume. If you, reading this blog, are Māori or a Pacific Islander, I welcome any corrections or additions you have to offer. My purpose, as I’ve said, is to educate Pākehā.

What’s going on here? It becomes less mysterious once we abandon another old racist theory that New Zealand schoolchildren used to get taught: that the ancestors of the Māori arrived here by accidental drift voyaging, blown off course in a freak storm. That wouldn’t be likely to happen twice. I’m sorry to say it took computer simulations of canoes drifting in the Pacific to demonstrate to some anthropologists’ satisfaction that an accident like that would not have been survivable. The earliest Polynesian explorers came here on purpose. They were looking for something; my own uneducated guess is that they were following the summer migrations of seabirds to find what land they nested on. Having scouted out Aotearoa, they turned their boats around, sailed home, and told their friends and family about it. Word spread through the Islands of an unclaimed country in the southwest. Multiple expeditions made the journey over two or three generations. Of course the later groups found people already settled when they arrived. Once here, they lived in close enough communication that they all continued to speak essentially the same language, the language which evolved into te Reo Māori.

What about the white-skinned, red-haired otherworldly beings? Racists in New Zealand will laugh off all the rest of Māori lore as superstition or lies, and then seize on that one detail as incontrovertible proof that Europeans got to New Zealand first. It’s about as good evidence for ancient Europeans in New Zealand as the small size of the British and Irish fairy folk – pixies, goblins, brownies, boggarts, leprechauns – is for ancient Bambuti people in the British Isles. I’m afraid if any real fairy folk exist, they have a perfect record so far at hiding their ancestors’ remains from archaeologists. And no, the skull Hilliam dug up doesn’t count. Nor does the preserved head Doutré describes in Ancient Celtic New Zealand which has Māori tā moko tattoos and red hair.

Why not? Because you need more than one single unusual human to establish the existence of an entire otherwise vanished population, that’s why not. Humans live in groups and modify our environment like no other species, and the modifications are highly variable with culture. If one culture displaces another in a given area, it’s immediately obvious in the archaeological record – as long as your archaeologists are looking at sites, rather than fixating on human physical features. Yet again we bump into a false racial theory that has become an unquestioned assumption. It is quite true that there are more multiracial people nowadays than there once were, as barriers to meeting and marrying people from different cultures have been gradually eroded by technological, social, and legal progress. What’s not true is the idea that you can extrapolate backwards, that there was ever a time in the past when everybody was of “pure racial stock” and all the people in any single ethnic group looked exactly the same. Specifically, it is not the case that all Pacific Islanders have black hair until it turns grey with age. Red and blond hair are common in the western Pacific, especially in the Solomon Islands, and were recently found to have a genetic origin quite distinct from the same colours in European hair.

Though rarer in Polynesia proper, which is usually technically defined to begin just east of Fiji, red hair seems to have appeared often enough in pre-contact Māori society that they had a saying for it: a red-haired man was a “pouākai decoy”. Pouākai are legendary giant birds, and they appear in at least two different contexts in Māori lore. The pouākai of Aotearoa are bad news; they catch people, carry them off to their nests, and eat them. Are they real? More or less, yes. Aotearoa has an extinct giant eagle, whose bones have been assigned the scientific name Harpagornis moorei. Before humans came here it used to hunt the big flightless birds that the Māori named moa (a word which elsewhere in Polynesia means “chicken”), which like many island species didn’t reproduce fast enough to replace their population under human predation. Most books will tell you that Harpagornis died out when the moa did because it had nothing to eat. But of course humans are roughly the size of the average moa – quite a bit smaller than the largest ones – and just as easy to knock over and kill. According to the stories, the pouākai was deliberately exterminated for the threat it posed to human health and safety, and red-haired men made the most tempting bait.

So the red hair of the patupaiarehe and tūrehu, like the small size of the British fairy folk, most likely reflects the rare appearance of that feature among the people telling the stories. It doesn’t give us grounds for believing they were Europeans, and there is a compelling reason for believing that they weren’t: Europe is on the opposite side of the globe, with great big continents blocking every route they might have used. We moderns with our trains and aeroplanes and cruise-ships take long-distance travel quite scandalously for granted. Many ancient peoples mastered the art of coastal navigation – the Phoenicians even sailed all the way around Africa – but traversing oceans with no landmarks is a much more daunting proposition. Admittedly, the Norse made the crossing from Norway to Iceland to Greenland, and briefly forayed into Canada. But the Canada colony (Vinland) failed because they didn’t have the infrastructure or political will to mount a well-provisioned expedition from Europe, and Greenland couldn’t supply necessities like iron, horses, or a food surplus. And that was a bare tenth of the distance they’d have had to go to get to Aotearoa.

The story of the first ocean voyagers begins some 40–50,000 years ago, in late Pleistocene Indonesia. At that time sea levels were lower, and Sumatra, Java and Borneo were all connected to the South East Asian mainland. To the east, Papua, Australia and Tasmania formed another single landmass which archaeologists, for reasons I’ve never learned, refer to as Sahul. But there were still several hundred kilometres of sea separating Sahul from Asia. The fact that humans made the crossing therefore constitutes the earliest archaeological evidence of the existence of boats. When the ice sheets over North America and Eurasia melted, the seas rose, opening a new era of climatic stability but also cutting off Australia from Papua and leaving its interior a desert. People took advantage of the newly stable climate to invent agriculture in half a dozen independent places around the world, all about 10,000 years ago; and one of those places was the Papuan highlands, which gave the world the banana and probably sugar-cane. Another was mainland South East Asia, where people first grew taro and tamed the red junglefowl, known domestically as the chicken. And a third was in southern China, which is where rice comes from.

Nine thousand years ago, when my ancestors in north-western Europe were still foraging in deerskins, a group of rice farmers set sail into the South China Sea. They settled initially in Taiwan, then the Philippines, and then spread out into Indonesia. Some of them from there struck out westward and crossed the breadth of the Indian Ocean to land in Madagascar. Others went east, and in Papua they met and intermarried with the descendants of the Pleistocene voyagers. Their own descendants, victualled with a fusion of South East Asian and Papuan agriculture, and accompanied by dogs, pigs, chickens, and rats, set out into the Pacific. As you go east from Papua the islands get gradually smaller and further apart, and in the Southern Hemisphere the voyages stopped, for reasons we don’t know, when they had got about as far as Sāmoa, Tonga, and Tokelau. (North of the Equator another group of Papuan explorers spread out into the islands that Western geographers collectively call “Micronesia”.)

And then something happened that would have looked rather like this:

...although probably without the magic drum and the cave. Yes, that’s a Disney children’s movie, and yes, those sleek double-hulled craft are accurate representations of scholars’ best guess as to what the Polynesian voyagers travelled in. A touch more seaworthy than “hollowed-out logs”, wouldn’t you say? Māori oral history says that they come from a place called Hawaiki (or Hawaiki-nui). The resemblance you’ve already spotted surely isn’t a coincidence, but no, Hawai‘i can’t be Hawaiki. It’s too far away from the hub of the Polynesian expansion. The Polynesian voyagers arriving on the Big Island must have named it after their old home, just as the Pākehā colonizers in New Zealand named many towns after places in Britain. Where was that old home? Well, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i and te Reo Māori both have H sounds where Gagana Sāmoa preserves the ancestral S; and the largest island of Sāmoa, right in the heart of Polynesia, is called Savai‘i.

How did the Polynesians navigate? How did they find such tiny islands, again and again, in the world’s largest ocean? Such small targets would be perilously easy to miss even if you knew exactly what you were aiming at, and the Polynesians were striking out into the unknown. Researchers are still rediscovering the many methods they used. Apparently the movement of the swell changes subtly as you approach an island, even tens of kilometres out, and if you’re in a traditional canoe you can feel it. Islands tend to have birds that fly only short distances out to sea, so as you get closer, you see and hear more of them. Islands just over the horizon reflect a greener colour onto the undersides of clouds than the ocean’s usual blue. Most Pacific Island archipelagos form gentle curves running roughly east-west, reflecting the movement of the Pacific tectonic plate across underlying volcanic hot-spots for ten million years, which means that if you sail in a near-parallel direction and you just miss one island, you’ve got a good chance of hitting the next. More importantly, though, the prevailing wind in the tropics is easterly, so if you sail eastwards and you haven’t found anything by the time half your food runs out, all you have to do is turn your boat around and ride the wind home.

So how far east did they get? At least as far as Rapanui, called Easter Island in English and Isla de Pascua in Spanish. The big question, of course, is: Did they make it across the remaining 4000 kilometres to South America? I don’t wish to join the ranks of the crackpots and conspiracy-theorists, so I’m going to exercise caution and stick to what’s backed up by solid evidence. The answer is “Probably.” The solidest piece of evidence is the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, a tuber of South American origin. It’s called lots of different names in South American languages – one, misapplied to the wrong plant, gave us the English word “potato” – but the word in Aymara and Qichua, spoken in Peru and northern Chilé overlooking the Pacific, is kumar. And in the Polynesian languages it’s kumara or variants thereupon: kūmara in te Reo Māori, ‘umala in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i. That’s a bit close for coincidence. In New Zealand English we say “kumara”; I gather Australians call one variety a “kumara” and another variety a “sweet potato”.

There is a traditional Māori story connected with the kūmara. It was originally created (like so many other things) by the demigod Māui, but it was brought to Aotearoa by a voyager named Pourangahua, who sailed out into the eastern ocean searching for a new food that would satisfy his child’s hunger. Eventually he came to Hawaiki-nui, where he saw many wonders, including people flying about on the backs of pouākai – Hawaiki’s pouākai being less ferocious than those of Aotearoa. The locals not only gave him a basket of kūmara to plant, but lent him a tame pouākai to ride home on. Now, not all the details of this story can be true. Pourangahua can’t have lived in Aotearoa, because the Polynesians already had kūmara when they got here; presumably his descendants brought his story with them. The country he landed in can’t have been Savai‘i, because that’s westward of most of Polynesia and it isn’t where the kūmara was first cultivated. But it so happens that the kūmara’s real native continent is also the home of the largest flying bird that’s still alive, the Andean condor Vultur gryphus. This story is therefore broadly consistent with a pre-colonial Polynesian landing in South America.

Such an extraordinary event would also have left its mark on the South American side, but there I’m afraid the evidence is patchier. A few years ago now somebody gene-sequenced some pre-Columbian chicken bones from an archaeological site in Chilé, and preliminary work suggested that they were of Pacific origin. News articles announced that the Polynesians had, indeed, reached South America. Unfortunately those particular results have since been cast into doubt, but even without the chicken connection you still have to explain the kūmara. Unlike the coconut or the bottle gourd it doesn’t have big fruit that could float across the ocean carrying its seeds, and if it did there’s still the name to account for. The sceptics point out that the kiore or Pacific rat Rattus exulans hitched rides to all the Polynesian islands, but there is no sign of it on the South American continent. But the kiore in New Zealand has been pushed into the margins by just three competitors – its European counterparts R. rattus, R. norvegicus, and Mus musculus – after hundreds of generations of being the only rodent wherever it went. South America’s hundreds of rodent species would have posed an even greater challenge.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of the last few weeks looking up Andean cultural sources to see if anything looked like Pacific Islanders. I’m not coming up blank exactly, but none of what I’m finding is any stronger than the sort of tendentious connections Gavin Menzies makes to put the Chinese in Aotearoa in 1491. I’m hampered of course by not being an academic who can use dedicated research databases, and by not having the money to go spend years talking to indigenous people in the Andes myself. Apparently there are people in Chilé and Argentina called the Mapuche whose visual culture suggests Polynesian influences – strongly enough so that there’s apparently research currently being done on the connection, involving at least one researcher from my university. Unfortunately their word for the kūmara seems to be poñü, so Pourangahua can’t have got it from them. I’ve also found some histories of Peru written down by Spanish clerics in the 16th or 17th century, which mention people coming over the Pacific in a couple of places; but if they have anything to do with the Polynesians then they’ve been severely garbled. (One story features merchants carrying gold, the other invading giants armed with iron.)

But whether the Polynesians reached the Americas or no, there is no question but that they had the boats, the resources, the will, and the opportunity to get to Aotearoa centuries before anyone else could have. I would like to think that now the question is settled, my fellow Pākehā will finally stop coming out with silly racist myths and conspiracy theories. Sadly of course the question was settled long ago and that hasn’t stopped us so far. The trouble isn’t anything unclear about the facts. The trouble is that Māori are marginalized in today’s New Zealand, and there are two basic theories to explain why. The one still popular among Pākehā, seldom openly stated but constantly implied, is that Māori and Pacific Islanders are lazy and stupid and live on handouts from the Government, and obviously this doesn’t sit well with the fact that they are the most daring ocean voyagers the world has ever known. The alternative is that white colonization was a global crime that we Pākehā are still profiting richly from. And some people will make up any ridiculous lies rather than face that responsibility.


  1. THANK YOU! I recently had a "discussion" with a not-unintelligent tradie who was determined to believe that Maori were not the first colonisers of this country. It is very frustrating!

  2. Related to "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (sort of) let me recommend "The Most Powerful Idea In The World" by William Rosen. It's an account of the evolution of steam power, and it's really interesting in the way it lays out both the technological and social prerequisites for any new technology to take off.

  3. relates to the sweet potato in Peru and fair skinned and fair/red-headed people in NZ History.
    (delete if this has no relativity to this story)
    does hope this may extend your and our journey of mystery maori lost heritage and find the end to the puzzle, yes very fustrating not able to solve a never-ending story

    1. This is the same kind of nonsense I'm debunking in this article. It even has Noel Hilliam and Martin Doutré in it. Contextless carbon-dating, check. Glacial boulder assemblages mistaken for artefacts, check. Vague visual resemblances between artefacts from different cultures trumpeted as proof of common origin, check. Counter-evidence handwaved away or ignored, check. Māori lore plundered out of context for things that look like confirmations of the thesis, check. Te Reo Māori systematically mispronounced (revealing paucity of familiarity with the culture), check. Ever-ballooning conspiracy theories preferred to considering the possibility of error, check. You can add "Plummtree Productions" to the list of cranks and crackpots.