A Brief History of
Patrick V. Kirch
Introduction: Polynesia Defined
The concept of Polynesia was an invention of the European Enlightenment,
a direct consequence of the great voyages of Pacific exploration associated
with the names such famous navigators as Louis de Bougainville, James
Cook, George Vancouver, and La Pérouse. The first use of the term
(derived from the Greek words for “many” and “island”)
is generally attributed to De Brosses, in his 1756 Histoire des Navigations
aux Terres Australes, where it applied to all of the islands of the
“Great South Sea.” The modern definition of Polynesia, as
the islands found within the vast triangle subtended by Hawai’i
in the north Pacific, New Zealand in the southwest, and Easter Island
(Rapa Nui) in the far southeast, dates to the French explorer Dumont d’Urville.
In his 1832 “Notice sur les Iles du Grand Océan,” Dumont
d’Urville set Polynesia apart from Melanesia, the islands of the
southwestern Pacific from New Guinea to Fiji, and from Micronesia, islands
north of the equator ranging from the Marianas and Palau in the west to
the Marshall Islands in the east. This tripartite segmentation of Oceania
continues to have geographic salience, even though its value for historical
understanding has been greatly diminished.
Culture historians such as Roger Green (1991) have recently recognized
that a more meaningful way to partition Oceania is between Near Oceania
(comprising New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands),
and Remote Oceania (comprising all of Micronesia, the Melanesian archipelagoes
of Vanuatu, Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, Fiji, and all of Polynesia).
This distinction recognizes the deep history of Pleistocene human occupation
of Near Oceania (beginning at least 40,000 years ago), and the relatively
late expansion of Austronesian-speaking peoples into Remote Oceania (after
ca. 2000 B.C.). Nonetheless, Polynesia retains considerable salience,
for the island cultures found within this vast triangle (along with a
few Polynesian “Outliers” scattered to the west of the triangle
proper) do cohere as a single cultural region.
The high degree of relatedness among the peoples of Polynesia was first
recognized, on the basis of language similarities. by the Enlightenment
voyagers such as J. R. Forster, the naturalist of Captain Cook’s
second voyage, who published a comparative table of Polynesian words in
1778. Modern historical linguistic studies confirm that the 36 documented
Polynesian languages form a single branch of the great Austronesian language
family. They can all be traced back to a Proto Polynesian language, for
which more than 4,000 words have now been reconstructed (Kirch and Green,
2001). As biological populations, the Polynesian islanders have also been
observed to exhibit considerable phenotypic homogeneity, and common genetic
markers. Recent studies in molecular biology suggest that the Polynesian
ancestors passed through a “genetic bottleneck” at some point
in their early history, quite probably associated with the initial colonization
the Fiji-Tonga-Samoa region.
Ethnographically, Polynesia is generally subdivided into two major sectors,
Western Polynesia which includes
Tonga, Samoa, Futuna, ‘Uvea, and a few smaller islands in this region,
and Eastern Polynesia including
both the central-eastern archipelagoes of the Cooks, Australs, Societies,
and Marquesas, along with the more isolated islands of Hawai’i,
Easter, and New Zealand. The formal distinction between Western and Eastern
Polynesia was first defined on comparative ethnographic evidence by Edwin
G. Burrows in 1939. Archaeological research has subsequently demonstrated
that Western Polynesia was settled first, around 1000-900 B.C., and was
the geographic homeland of the Ancestral Polynesians (the speakers of
Proto Polynesian language; Kirch and Green 2001). Subsequent dispersals
out of this homeland region, to the east, north, and southwest, led to
the settlement of Eastern Polynesia. Dating the settlement of Eastern
Polynesia remains controversial, but scholars would agree the process
began sometime after 500 B.C. and was completed by A.D. 800-1000.
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We have already noted that the late 18th century voyagers recognized the
coherence of Polynesia (Captain Cook wrote of the “Polynesian Nation”),
and they began to advance theories of Polynesian origins, generally suggesting
that the Polynesians were related to similar peoples found in the Malay
Archipelago (modern Indonesia). Again, linguistic similarities provided
By the early decades of the 19th century, the islands of Polynesia were
becoming the targets of increasing European interest, first by itinerant
traders, followed by various missionary sects, and by mid-century, imperial
efforts at colonization. The French annexed Tahiti and surrounding archipelagoes,
while the British took political control of Aotearoa (New Zealand) from
the indigenous Maori (but not without a protracted war of resistance).
Somewhat later in time Samoa fell to German and then American and British
interests, while the legitimate Hawaiian government was overthrown by
a cabal of American expatriates in 1893. As was typical in other parts
of the colonized world, scholarly interests in the newly-subjugated populations
followed missionary and imperialist expansion. The origins of modern anthropology
and prehistoric archaeology, as many have argued, are closely intertwined
with global European expansion.
Many missionaries and colonial officials who found themselves in Polynesia
conducted pioneering ethnographic and linguistic research, and used such
data to construct theories of Polynesian origins and history. While a
few archaeological ruins were studied (such as the Hawaiian temple or
heiau sites recorded by Thomas Thrum in Hawai’i), archaeology
per se played little role in these 19th century endeavors. Rather, great
emphasis was placed on indigenous Polynesian oral traditions and narratives,
by such scholars as Sir George Grey, Abraham Fornander, and S. Percy Smith.
While their particular accounts varied, these authors generally traced
Polynesian origins back to Asia, with protracted migrations through the
western Pacific into the Polynesian triangle. Fornander’s Account
of the Polynesian Race (1878) remains a classic of this genre, tracing
the Polynesians back to “the Vedic family of the Arian race,”
eventually “driven out of India,” and gradually spreading
out into Indonesia and beyond.
In New Zealand, however, direct archaeological evidence in the form of
prehistoric stone implements (flake tools and ground stone adzes) came
to the fore when these were found in association with the bones of several
species of giant, extinct ostrich-like birds, the moa. As early as 1872
Julius Von Haast was excavating “moa-hunter” sites in the
South Island of New Zealand, and using such evidence to argue for a race
of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who had preceded the classic Polynesian
Maori in these southern islands.
By the fin-de-siècle, such ad-hoc scholarship was giving
way to more formal academic enterprises, associated with the founding
of museums, universities, and other institutional bases from which ethnological
and archaeological research would henceforth be sponsored. The Polynesian
Society was established in New Zealand in 1892 to promote such research,
and the Journal of the Polynesian Society remains a prominent publication
today. The Otago
Museum and Dominion
Museum in New Zealand, and the Bernice
P. Bishop Museum in Hawai’i became leading centers for archaeological
and ethnographic research. The Bishop Museum, in particular, would come
to play the dominant role in Pacific archaeological research throughout
the first half of the 20th century.
Problem of Polynesian Origins”
In the first decades of the 20th century, archaeology began to come into
its own in Polynesia. Katherine Scoresby Routledge, a remarkable woman
and scholar, led a three-year private expedition to Easter Island, to
investigate that island’s enigmatic, giant stone statues. Routledge
combined archaeological survey and mapping of the ruins with ethnographic
inquiries among the surviving Rapa Nui people, to arrive at the conclusion
that the statues and temples upon which these stood were “the work
of the ancestors” of the Polynesian-speaking Rapa Nui themselves,
not the vestiges of some vanished race (Routledge 1919:291). In Hawai’i,
John F. G. Stokes carefully surveyed the remains of stone temple sites
on Hawai’i and Moloka’i Islands, to determine whether a sequence
of temple forms could be inferred and possibly correlated with Hawaiian
oral traditions of religious change. Stokes also conducted stratigraphic
excavations on the island of Kaho’olawe, finding a succession of
fishhook types in the Kamohio Rockshelter, although the significance of
his results would remain unappreciated until nearly 50 years later.
The greatest impetus to Polynesian archaeology, however, occurred in 1920
when geologist Herbert E. Gregory acceded to the directorship of the Bishop
Museum in Honolulu, convened the first international Pan-Pacific Science
Conference, and proclaimed the study of Polynesian archaeology and anthropology
should be a major research priority (Kirch 2000:20-24). Gregory, who continued
to hold a professorship at Yale University, had important connections
with the east coast establishment in the United States, and was able to
secure major funding for a series of research expeditions to several Polynesian
archipelagoes. The Bayard Dominick Expeditions of the Bishop Museum, from
1920-22, were designed to implement the emerging Americanist vision of
a holistic anthropology, combining multiple lines of evidence from ethnography,
archaeology, ethnobotany, and physical anthropology (somatology). Research
teams combining these disciplines were dispatched to Tonga, the Austral
Islands, the Marquesas, and Hawai’i, to carry out parallel investigations
designed to address the over-arching “problem of Polynesian origins.”
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In retrospect, however, archaeology played a subordinate role in the Bayard
Dominick Expeditions, leaving the field to be dominated by the comparative
ethnologists. In the Tongan expedition, for example, archaeologist William
C. McKern (later to become famous for his work on North American ceramic
taxonomy) focused his efforts largely on mapping of large stone monument
sites, with only limited excavations in a few caves and “kitchen
midden” (McKern 1929). McKern did recover an elaborately decorated
form of pottery in these excavations, but in the absence of any method
for direct dating, interpreted this as a late prehistoric variant of Fijian
trade ceramics. Only decades later would McKern’s sherds be properly
recognized as part of the Lapita cultural complex, dating to the early
first millennium B.C., and associated with the first human settlement
In the Marquesas Islands, Ralph Linton (best known for his later ethnographic
work in Africa) directed the archaeological, but completely failed to
recognize the potential for stratigraphic excavations. Without even bothering
to test excavate, Linton simply concluded that “no opportunity was
afforded for the gradual accumulation of stratified deposits,” and
that “no kitchen midden or shell heaps exist in the islands”
(1925:3). Thus Linton focused his entire energy on mapping of late prehistoric
and early post-contact monumental structures, interpreting these strictly
within the context of a static, ethnographic reconstruction of “traditional”
Marquesan culture. Even the possibility of cultural change or time depth
was thus eliminated.
Thus despite a renewed emphasis on modern, scientific methods of archaeological
survey (and sometimes excavation), the interpretation of Polynesian prehistory
from the 1920s until World War II was largely dominated by comparative
ethnology. In part, the failure of archaeology to take hold resulted from
the absence of any evident method for direct, or even relative, dating.
Radiocarbon dating was still a thing of the future, and the methods of
seriation being developed in North America and elsewhere for generating
relative chronologies were seen as not applicable in Polynesia, given
the general absence of pottery. Thus the stone structures and stone tools
mapped and recorded by archaeologists in Polynesia were fitted into a
largely static, ethnographic reconstruction, and subsumed under the rubric
of “material culture.” To be sure, a great deal of fundamental
survey work was carried out during these years, such as the work of Kenneth
P. Emory in the Society Islands (Emory 1933) and elsewhere, or that of
Wendell C. Bennett (1931) on Kaua’i Island (Bennett would later
make his mark in Andean archaeology). This was archaeology, but it was
Theories of the Early Twentieth Century
With the failure of archaeology to provide a real temporal framework for
culture change and culture history in Polynesia, the interpretive field
was left to the comparative ethnologists, who adduced the new archaeological
survey data only rarely. Dominant among this group of scholars was Edward
S. Craighill Handy, who had led the Marquesas party of the Bayard Dominick
Expeditions in 1920. Handy’s theoretical perspective was closely
allied to that of the European Kulturkreise school (e.g., F. Gräbner
1905), in which the origins of a particular people or culture were sought
through comparison of trait lists with neighboring, or even far-flung,
cultures. Thus Handy developed an elaborate theory of Polynesian origins
and migrations in which Polynesian cultural traits were correlated with
“Brahmanical” and “Buddhistic” cultures ranging
from India to China (Handy 1930). Rather than seeing variations among
the various Polynesian cultures as deriving from a lengthy process of
cultural change in situ, all variation was interpreted as the
outcome of successive “waves” of migration.
A more influential theory of Polynesian origins came to be promulgated
by the Maori scholar Te Rangi Hiroa (also known as Sir Peter Buck), who
had succeeded Gregory as director of the Bishop Museum in 1936. Hiroa
was a seasoned ethnographer, with experience throughout much of Polynesia.
He had, however, little use for archaeology, finding it a “dry subject.”
Hiroa relied more upon the salvage ethnographic work of Bishop Museum
scientists to develop a migration theory that traced the route of Polynesian
voyages into the Pacific not via the large archipelagoes of Melanesia,
but through the small coral atolls of Micronesia. In his widely read book,
Vikings of the Sunrise, Hiroa argued that “the master mariners
of the Pacific [the Polynesians] must be Europoid for they are not characterized
by the woolly hair, black skins, and thin lower legs of the Negroids nor
by the flat face, short stature, and drooping inner eyefold of the Mongoloids”
(Hiroa 1938:16). Hiroa’s racially-charged theory can be understood
in retrospect in light of the severe racial prejudice he himself suffered
at the hands of the dominant White academic society, and in terms of the
racial pigeonholing that characterized much of anthropology in the early
20th century (Kirch 2000:24-27). His theory was, however, a highly forced
contrivance, and later 20th century archaeology has lent no support whatsoever
for a Micronesian migration into Polynesia.
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Within the genre of migrationist theories of Polynesian culture history,
we must also mention the highly influential writings of Thor Heyerdahl,
a Norwegian zoologist and adventurer who captured the world’s attention
in 1947 with his daring 1947 Kon Tiki raft voyage from South
America to the Tuamotu Islands. World War II had already focused much
attention on the Pacific Islands, and Heyerdahl now claimed to have a
theory that explained the Polynesians as deriving from successive migrations,
not from Asia, but from the Americas. The full theory was published in
a massive volume (Heyerdahl 1952) a few years after the Kon Tiki
voyage, and Heyerdahl funded his own archaeological expedition to Easter
Island and other Eastern Polynesian islands in 1955-56, in an effort to
prove his origins theory. The Heyerdahl theory has not survived the test
of modern archaeological research, but he must be credited with helping
to spur a reinvigoration of Polynesian archaeology in the period immediately
following World War II.
Archaeology and Culture History
After several decades of being relegated to a minor supporting role in
Polynesian studies, archaeology suddenly emerged in the aftermath of World
War II as the primary source of data on Polynesian culture history. This
intellectual transformation can be traced to several developments. One
was the heightened scientific interest in the Pacific Islands generated
in the wake of the war itself (a number of influential American anthropologists
and scientists had worked closely with military intelligence in the Pacific
theater). Thus in the later 1940s, renewed archaeological studies in the
Pacific were initiated by such scholars as Edward W. Gifford of Berkeley
in the Fiji archipelago, and Alexander Spoehr of the Field Museum in the
Marianas Islands (Gifford 1951; Spoehr 1957). Rather than continuing with
surface surveys of monumental architecture, which had dominated pre-war
field research, these new efforts emphasized a return to stratigraphic
excavations. Significantly, both Gifford and Spoehr, working outside of
Polynesia proper, in island groups where pottery had been manufactured
and used by the indigenous inhabitants, were able to demonstrate sequences
of material cultural change, primarily in ceramic styles. Thus materially
documented time depth and culture change were finally shown to exist in
Oceanic archaeology. Within Polynesia proper, Kenneth Emory of the Bishop
Museum also began a program of excavations in Hawaiian archaeological
sites, beginning about 1950. The prehistoric Hawaiians had never used
pottery, but Emory and his colleagues Yosihiko Sinoto and William Bonk
realized that they could apply the methods of seriation to changing styles
in bone and shell fishhooks, thus outlining a culture historical sequence
for the Hawaiian Islands (Emory et al. 1959).
Equally important to the reapplication of stratigraphic methods was the
discovery and implementation of the method of radiocarbon dating, by Willard
Libby beginning in the late 1940s. Emory, Gifford, Spoehr and others were
quick to take advantage of Libby’s offer to date samples from various
parts of the world, and by the early 1950s a number of radiocarbon dates
had been published for sites ranging from Hawai’i to New Caledonia
and the Marianas. The significance of this technological development cannot
be underplayed, for it provided an independent means of assessing chronology,
and the dates themselves left no doubt that the time depth of Polynesian
prehistory could now be counted in the thousands--not hundreds--of years.
As Kenneth Emory put it, radiocarbon dating “...opened up undreamed
of possibilities for reconstructing the prehistory of [Polynesia]”
(in Emory et al. 1959:ix).
By the mid-1950s, there was a veritable resurgence of field archaeology
throughout Polynesia. In New Zealand, the pioneering excavations of Roger
Duff (1950) at Wairau Bar were followed by a series of careful excavations
conducted by Jack Golson, a young Cambridge-trained archaeologist who
had been appointed to a faculty post at the University of Auckland (Golson
1959). As mentioned earlier, Thor Heyerdahl privately financed and led
his own Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and other
Eastern Polynesian locales in 1955-56, with excavations conducted by four
professional archaeologists (Heyerdahl and Ferdon, eds., 1961, 1965).
Their work also put the statue cult of Easter Island within a radiocarbon
framework. At the same time, Robert Suggs of the American Museum of Natural
History took up where Ralph Linton had left off in the Marquesas Islands,
quickly demonstrating that the latter’s assumptions about a dearth
of stratified sites had no empirical justification. Suggs found a wealth
of artifact-rich deposits, and his monograph outlined one of the first,
well-defined culture sequences for a Polynesian archipelago (Suggs 1961).
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Coming less than two decades after Hiroa’s migrationist theory had
been to the fore, the new outpouring of archaeological results inspired
a radical re-thinking of Polynesian culture history. Suggs (1960) wrote
the classic synthesis of this period, The Island Civilizations of Polynesia,
not only debunking the older ethnographic theories of Handy, Hiroa, and
their peers, but also attacking the rival Heyerdahl theory of American
origins. Suggs’ synthesis privileged the material evidence of “dirt”
archaeology, but also drew widely upon newly emerging linguistic and human
biological research. Polynesian origins were now traced back to a Southeast
Asian homeland, with a dispersal route through the Melanesian archipelagoes
(not Micronesia, as Hiroa had advocated), this latter evidenced by a ceramic
style which would shortly come to be named Lapita. The Western Polynesian
archipelagoes of Tonga and Samoa were now argued to be the immediate Polynesian
homeland, with subsequent voyages of colonization to the Marquesas and
Society Islands, and thence to the farthest islands of Eastern Polynesia.
Archaeology in Polynesia
The rejuvenation of stratigraphic archaeology in Polynesia, and its expansion
beyond Polynesia into the western Pacific, was initially driven by a strong
culture-historical orientation, encouraged by rapid success in defining
considerable time depth and sequences of material culture change (whether
in ceramic styles, or in fishhooks and stone adzes). Under this culture-history
paradigm, the emphasis in fieldwork was on a few selected sites chosen
for extensive excavation because they contained well-stratified deposits
and were rich in diagnostic artifact types. Classic sites of this type
in Polynesia, excavated during the 1950s and 60s include the Pu’u
Ali’i and Waiahukini sites in Hawai’i, the Wairau Bar site
in New Zealand, and the Ha’atuatua and Hane dune sites in the Marquesas.
A significant shift in archaeological research priorities, accompanied
by a reorientation of field methods, began to occur in the early 1960s.
This was in essence a broadening of the Polynesian research agenda beyond
narrow concerns with culture-historical sequences and the long-standing
question of “Polynesian origins,” to encompass questions of
cultural change and evolution, of the nature of prehistoric societies
and political systems, and of their ecological and economic contexts.
This shift in research orientation naturally did not occur in a vacuum,
and was part of the broader reorientation in Anglo-American archaeology
from a culture-historical to a “processual” approach (Trigger
1989). To a large degree, in Polynesia this involved not a complete rejection
of the older culture-historical orientation, but rather a broadening of
the research agenda to encompass extensive efforts at the reconstruction
of prehistoric culture.
In Polynesia, this shift can first be detected in Suggs’ Marquesan
research, where despite a continued emphasis on key stratified sites,
the research questions encompassed such issues as demographic, economic,
and sociopolitical change in Marquesan society. More influential, however,
was the introduction of the “settlement pattern” approach
to Polynesian archaeology by Roger Green, who had been trained in this
approach by its main American proponent, Gordon Willey of Harvard University.
Green first applied a comprehensive, settlement pattern survey methodology
in his study of the ‘Opunohu Valley on Mo’orea Island (Society
Islands), in which all sites in a valley landscape were recorded and treated
as a record of non-portable artifact variability (Green et al. 1961).
As Green summarized the perspective of settlement pattern archaeology,
with “...increasing concern with delineating the social aspect of
the data recovered from sites..., the day has passed when such monuments
or their structural features can afford to be treated only as contexts
for portable artifacts and not as artifacts in their own right”
A settlement pattern orientation soon came to dominate archaeological
research throughout Polynesia, particularly as investigations were expanded
to such islands and archipelagoes as Samoa (Green and Davidson 1969, 1974),
New Zealand (Groube 1965), the Marquesas (Bellwood 1972; Kellum-Ottino
1971), Easter Island (McCoy 1976), and Hawai’i (Kirch and Kelly
1975). Although initially designed to elucidate aspects of pre-contact
Polynesian sociopolitical organization, such settlement pattern studies
soon came to include a strong research orientation toward economic and
ecological questions. Thus in Hawai’i, for example, much work in
the 1970s and early 80s was focused on the field evidence for variability
in prehistoric agricultural systems, both dryland field systems and irrigated
pondfield terraces (Kirch and Kelly 1975; Yen et al. 1972). This research
was by no means limited to surface survey and mapping, and included new
methods of excavation and analysis, such as the interpretation of agricultural
soils (Kirch 1977). Similar research concerns underlie major research
projects elsewhere in Polynesia, such as the Palliser Bay research of
Leach and Leach (1979), and the study of the Polynesian Outlier of Tikopia
by Kirch and Yen (1982).
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This extension of settlement pattern archaeology to encompass economic
and ecological aspects of pre-contact Polynesia societies also began to
open up issues of the dynamic relationships between Polynesian populations
and their island ecosystems. Under the older culture historical paradigm,
the island environment had been viewed largely as a static context for
human settlement. The settlement pattern approach, however, put humans
on the land as active agents of change. The accumulation of much zooarchaeological
evidence for changes in island faunas, combined with interdisciplinary
work between archaeologists, geomorphologists, palynologists, and other
natural scientists, led to a considerable rethinking concerning the dynamism
of island ecosystems. Although the human role in the extinction of New
Zealand’s giant moa birds had long been documented (Anderson 1989),
it became increasingly clear that there had been major episodes of human-induced
avian extinctions throughout tropical island Polynesia (Steadman 1995).
Combined with evidence for deforestation, erosion and valley-alluviation,
and the widespread conversion of natural communities to highly anthropogenic
landscapes, our view of island ecosystems and the role of indigenous peoples
in shaping their landscape histories has been entirely transformed (Kirch
and Hunt, eds., 1997).
A further outgrowth of the settlement pattern reorientation in Polynesia
throughout the 1960s-80s was a concern with wider theoretical issues in
processual archaeology. The Polynesian societies had been taken as a virtual
“type” instance for the concept of the chiefdom, which was
regarded by many processual archaeologists as a key intermediary stage
in the evolution of human societies from simpler band and tribal levels
of sociopolitical organization, to that of fully state level polities.
This made the study of variation and cultural change within Polynesian
chiefdoms a topic of some theoretical import. Earle (1978, 1991), for
example, drew upon his research on Kaua’i, Hawai’i, both to
test Wittfogel “hydraulic hypothesis” regarding the role of
irrigation in the rise of complex societies, and more generally to test
notions of “how chiefs come to power.” Kirch (1984) integrated
ethnohistoric and archaeological approaches to construct a broad model
of the evolution of Polynesia chiefdoms, arguing that the trend towards
increased hierarchy and social control in certain Polynesian societies
was heavily constrained by a constellation of demographic, ecological,
and economic parameters. In a later study, Kirch (1994) argued that a
fundamental dichotomy between “wet” and “dry”
agricultural landscapes strongly constrained the evolution of hierarchy
Views on Polynesian Origins and Dispersals
Perhaps because the question of how a “neolithic” people managed
to discover and colonize the most isolated islands on earth remains such
an intrinsically compelling issue, the matter of Polynesian origins and
dispersals did not disappear with the paradigm shift from culture-historical
to a processual archaeology. Rather, this question has received renewed
scrutiny and invigorated debate since the 1970s, as a result of several
developments. One impetus was the expansion of modern archaeological work
into Melanesia, a region which had been almost entirely neglected prior
to World War II. In particular, the realization that a widespread early
ceramic horizon--the Lapita cultural complex--linked the initial stages
of human settlement in both Polynesia and eastern Melanesia, provoked
fundamental rethinking of Polynesia origins (Green 1979). The earliest
Polynesian cultures are now seen to be a direct development out of an
Early Eastern Lapita culture, itself the eastwards extension of a process
of Lapita expansion that had commenced in the Bismarck Archipelago ca.
1500 B.C. (Kirch 1997).
Equally important has been a rethinking of the process of dispersal and
colonization of islands within the Polynesian triangle itself, where the
longest voyages of discovery involved distances of as much as 3,000 kilometers
against generally prevailing winds and currents. Computer simulations
of the probabilities of accidental drift voyaging first led to a new realization
of the high degree of intentionality in early Polynesian voyaging (Irwin
1992), but it was the dramatic experimental voyages of the replicated
voyaging canoe Hokule’a that have particularly forced a new model
of Polynesian colonization (Finney 1994). Conceived as a kind of “experimental
archaeology,” the double-hulled 19-meter Hokule’a
has now made numerous experimental, non-instrument navigated voyages between
many Polynesian archipelagoes, the most dramatic being a voyage from Mangareva
to remote Easter Island in 1999.
Also spurring the investigation of voyaging and interaction between Polynesian
islands and archipelagoes has been the application of new archaeometric
techniques, especially X-ray fluorescence sourcing of basalt artifacts
such as adzes. Weisler and Kirch (1996) demonstrated the transport of
stone adzes between Samoa and the Cook Islands, a distance of some 1,600
kilometers, and more recently Weisler (1993) has tracked the movement
of adzes from the Marquesas to the Society Islands. Equally innovative
has been the work of Matisoo-Smith (et al. 1998) using studies of mitochondrial
DNA variation in Pacific rats (Rattus exulans) to show patterns
of interisland contact.
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Archaeology in Polynesia
Polynesian archaeology continues to change and evolve. For one thing,
the very practice of archaeology has been significantly affected by changing
institutional and sociopolitical contexts. Throughout the first six decades
of the 20th century, archaeology fell almost exclusively within the institutional
purview of a few museums and universities. This began to change dramatically
in the 1970s, with the rise of “public archaeology,” or as
it has come to be labeled in Americanist contexts, “cultural resource
management” (CRM) archaeology. In Hawai’i, for example, most
contemporary archaeological work is not carried out by research institutions,
but by private (for profit) archaeological contractors. Thus the very
definition of field projects has shifted from areas selected strictly
on the basis of their research potential, to specific locations subject
to impact from highway construction, resort development, and the like
(Graves and Erkelens 1991; Kirch 1999). Similarly, in French Polynesia
much archaeological work is now undertaken to mitigate the adverse effects
of “development”, such as in the large scale Papeno’o
Valley project where the construction of hydroelectric dams was the main
consideration. Although it has generated significant new funding sources
for fieldwork, this shift to CRM archaeology also led to the production
of a very large “gray literature” of archaeological reports
not published in the usual academic journals and monographs, a serious
problem for the long-term archiving and preservation of archaeological
The sociopolitical context of Polynesian archaeology is also rapidly evolving.
Formerly almost exclusively the purview of White expatriate scholars (Te
Rangi Hiroa was a major exception), archaeology in the islands has begun
to incorporate significant numbers of indigenous practitioners. As Polynesians
themselves are trained in the theory and methods of archaeology, and begin
to take up professional posts in museums, universities, historic preservation
agencies, and CRM firms, the questions they bring to the field are also
changing. There is, for example, a renewed interest in the potential integration
of indigenous oral traditions and narratives with archaeological evidence
(Cachola-Abad 1993). Heightened cultural sensitivity toward the archaeological
record has also changed the nature of archaeological practice. This is
evidenced, for example, in the complete reburial of several thousand human
skeletal remains which had been excavated from Hawaiian archaeological
sites, a direct outcome of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation
Act in the United States.
These and other influences will continue to modify the ways in which archaeology
is practiced in Polynesia and elsewhere in the Pacific Islands. Certainly,
however, there is no sign that interest in Polynesian archaeology is abating.
The long-term history of these islands and their indigenous peoples has
engaged scholars for more than two centuries, yet new questions continually
emerge, even as older issues received renewed scrutiny from new approaches
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