Background: A Brief History of Polynesian Archaeology
News   Mission   Background   Research   People   Map   Links   Courses   Facilities   Publications   Home
Professor Patrick V. Kirch
Archaeological Research Facility
2251 College Ave.
University of California, Berkeley Berkeley, CA 94720

A Brief History of Polynesian Archaeology
by Patrick V. Kirch
(in.pdf format)

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.
back to top

Nineteenth Century Scholarship
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 key evidence.

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.

“The 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.”
back to top

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 of Polynesia.
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 not prehistory.

Migration 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.
back to top

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.

Stratigraphic 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).
back to top

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.

Settlement 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” (Green 1967:102).

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).
back to top

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 and power.

New 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.
back to top

Contemporary 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 evidence.

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 and methods.
back to top

References Cited

Anderson, A. 1989. Prodigious Birds: Moas and Moa-Hunting in Prehistoric New Zealand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bellwood, P. 1972. Settlement Pattern Survey, Hanatekua Valley, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands. Pacific Anthropological Records 17. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Bennett, W. C. 1931. Archaeology of Kauai. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 80. Honolulu.

Burrows, E. G. 1939. Western Polynesia: A Study in Cultural Differentiation. Ethnological Studies No. 7. Gothenburg.

Cachola-Abad, C. K. 1993. Evaluating the orthodox dual settlement model for the Hawaiian Islands: An analysis of artefact distribution and Hawaiian oral traditions. In M. W. Graves and R. C. Green, eds., The Evolution and Organization of Prehistoric Society in Polynesia, pp. 13-32. New Zealand Archaeological Association Monograph 19. Auckland.

Duff, R. 1950. The Moa Hunter Period of Maori Culture. (Second edition). Wellington: Government Printer.

Earle, T. 1978. Economic and Social Organization of a Complex Chiefdom: The Halelea District, Kaua'i, Hawaii. Anthropological Papers No. 63, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

__________. 1997. How Chiefs Come to Power: The Political Economy in Prehistory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Emory, K. P. 1933. Stone Remains in the Society Islands. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 116. Honolulu.

Emory, K. P., W. J. Bonk and Y. H. Sinoto, 1959. Hawaiian Archaeology: Fishhooks. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication 47. Honolulu

Finney, B. R. 1994. Voyage of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey Through Polynesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fornander, A. 1878. An Account of the Polynesian Race. London: Trubner.

Gifford, E. W. 1951. Archaeological Excavations in Fiji. Anthropological Records 13:189-288. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Golson, J. 1959. Culture change in prehistoric New Zealand. In J. D. Freeman and W. R. Geddes, eds., Anthropology in the South Seas, pp. 29-74. New Plymouth: Avery.

Gräbner, F. 1905. Kulturkriese und Kultur schichten in Ozeanien. Zietscrift für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte 37:28-53, 84-90.

Graves, M. W., and C. Erkelens 1991. Who's in control?: Method and theory in Hawaiian archaeology. Asian Perspectives 30: 1-18.

Green, R. C. 1967. Settlement patterns: Four case studies from Polynesia. In W. G. Solheim II, ed., Archaeology at the Eleventh Pacific Science Congress, pp. 101-132. Asian and Pacific Archaeology Series No. 1. Honolulu: Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii.

__________. 1979. Lapita. In J. Jennings, ed., The Prehistory of Polynesia, pp. 27-60. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

__________. 1991a. Near and Remote Oceania: Disestablishing “Melanesia” in culture history. In A. Pawley, ed., Man and a Half: Essays in Pacific Anthropology and Ethnobiology in Honour of Ralph Bulmer, pp. 491-502. Auckland: The Polynesian Society.

Green, R. C. and J. Davidson, eds., 1969. Archaeology in Western Samoa, Vol. I. Bulletin of the Auckland Institute and Museum 6. Auckland.

__________. 1974. Archaeology in Western Samoa, Vol. II. Bulletin of the Auckland Institute and Museum 7.
Auckland. Green, R. C., K. Green, R. Rappaport, A. Rappaport, and J. Davidson, 1967. Archaeology on the Island of
M o`orea, French Polynesia. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 51 (2). New York.
Groube, L. M. 1965. Settlement Patterns in New Zealand Prehistory. Occasional Papers in Archaeology No. 1.
Dunedin:University of Otago.

Handy, E. S. C. 1930. The problem of Polynesian origins. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Occasional Papers 9:1-27.
Heyerdahl, T. 1952. American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory Behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition. London:
Allen and Unwin.

Heyerdahl, T. and E. N. Ferdon, Jr., eds., 1961. Reports of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter
Island and the East Pacific. Vol. 1, Archaeology of Easter Island. Monographs of the School of American Research 24(1). Santa Fe.

__________. 1965. Reports of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific. Vol. 2, Miscellaneous Papers. Monographs of the School of American Research 24(2). Santa Fe.

Hiroa, T. R. (P. H. Buck). 1938. Vikings of the Sunrise. New York: Frederick Stokes Co.

Irwin, G. 1992. The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kellum-Ottino, M. 1971. Archéologie d’une Vallée des Iles Marquises. Publications de la Société des
Océanistes 26. Paris.

Kirch, P. V. 1977. Valley agricultural systems in prehistoric Hawaii: An archaeological consideration. Asian Perspectives 20:246-80.

__________. 1984a. The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

__________. 1994. The Wet and the Dry: Irrigation and Agricultural Intensification in Polynesia. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.

__________. 1997. The Lapita Peoples: Ancestors of the Oceanic World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

__________. 1999. Hawaiian archaeology: Past, present, and future. Hawaiian Archaeology.

__________. 2000. On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European
Contact. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kirch, P. V. and R. C. Green, 2001. Hawaiki, Ancestral Polynesia: An Essay in Historical Anthropology. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Kirch, P. V. and T. L. Hunt, eds., 1997. Historical Ecology in the Pacific Islands. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kirch, P. V., and M. Kelly, eds., 1975. Prehistory and Ecology in a Windward Hawaiian Valley: Halawa Valley,
Molokai. Pacific Anthropological Records 24. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Kirch, P. V. and D. E. Yen, 1982. Tikopia: The Prehistory and Ecology of a Polynesian Outlier. Bernice P. Bishop
Museum Bulletin 238. Honolulu.

Leach, B. F. and H. Leach, eds., 1979. Prehistoric Man in Palliser Bay. National Museum of New Zealand Bulletin 21. Wellington.

Linton, R. 1925. Archaeology of the Marquesas Islands. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 23. Honolulu.
Matisoo-Smith, E., R. M. Roberts, G. J. Irwin, J. S. Allen, D. Penny, and D. M. Lambert, 1998. Patterns of prehistoric
human mobility revealed by mitochondrial DNA from the Pacific rat. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, USA 95:15145-15150.

McCoy, P. C. 1976. Easter Island Settlement Patterns in the Late Prehistoric and Proto-Historic Periods.
International Fund for Monuments, Easter Island Committee, Bulletin 5.

McKern, W. C. 1929. Archaeology of Tonga. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 60. Honolulu: The Bishop Museum.
Routledge, K. S. 1919. The Mystery of Easter Island. London: Sifton, Praed and Co.

Spoehr, A. 1957. Marianas Prehistory: Archaeological Survey and Excavations on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. Fieldiana: Anthropology 48. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History.

Steadman, D. W. 1995. Prehistoric extinctions of Pacific island birds: Biodiversity meets zooarchaeology. Science

Suggs, R. C. 1960. The Island Civilizations of Polynesia. New York: Mentor Books.

_________. 1961. Archaeology of Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia. Anthropological Papers of the
American Museum of Natural History 49, Part 1. New York.

Trigger, B. 1989. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tuggle, H. D., and P. B. Griffin, eds., 1973. Lapakahi, Hawaii: Archaeological Studies. Asian and Pacific
Archaeology Series No. 5. Honolulu: Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii.

Von Haast, J. 1872. Moas and moa hunters. Transactions of the New Zealand Institute 4:66-107.

Weisler, M. I. 1998. Hard evidence for prehistoric interaction in Polynesia. Current Anthropology 39:521-32.

Weisler, M. I. and P. V. Kirch, 1996 Interisland and interarchipelago transport of stone tools in prehistoric Polynesia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 93:1381-1385.

Yen, D. E., P. V. Kirch, P. Rosendahl, and T. Riley, 1972. Prehistoric agriculture in the upper Makaha Valley, Oahu.
In D. E. Yen and E. Ladd, eds., Makaha Valley Historical Project: Interim Report No. 3, pp. 59-94. Pacific
Anthropological Records 18. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum.
back to top

News   Mission   Background   Research   People   Map   Links   Courses   Facilities   Publications   Home
Photos courtesy of Kathy Kawelu and Sidsel Millerstrom.