Polynesian controversies  
   Author:   Yuri Kuchinsky
   Email: yuku@globalserve.net
   Date: 1998/12/15
   Forums: sci.archaeology, sci.anthropology, sci.skeptic, soc.history

PACIFIC (including replies by critics), CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY, April, 1997.

Why is there so much confusion among modern Polynesian historians and
anthropologists? These exchanges in CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY are highly
indicative -- the arguments are often quite convoluted, and their tone is
often extremely confrontational. Especially sharp are the responses of
some of the critics of Terrell et al.

While these disputes seem very bitter, one must say that it is not always
so easy to see who is wrong and who is right in each particular case.
Indeed, the confusion seems so far ranging that very often various
opponents accuse each other of misinterpreting each other's views.
Nevertheless, the basic outline of the conflict emerges soon enough.

This is a very curious conflict that is unfolding in academic Polynesian
scholarship currently -- it is the conflict between Isolationists and
those who favour models assuming wider contacts between ancient cultures
-- sometimes also known as Diffusionists. (But, as I will note later,
something similar is quite common as well in other areas of
anthropological scholarship.) In these particular exchanges in CURRENT
ANTHROPOLOGY, one finds a long and rather bitter confrontation between
these two factions. Terrell et al represent the latter.

Terrell is something of a gadfly among Polynesianists, because of his
strongly expressed opposition to Isolationism. And the insults from his
critics are flying abundantly. "[This is a] paper ... rich in innuendo"
(Peter Bellwood). "[A need to] deconstruct the straw man... bizarre
machinations... contorted arguments..." (Kirch)

In the beginning of their article, the authors outline their version of
the developments in Polynesian anthropology in the last 50 years or so.
According to them Polynesian scholarship has been dominated all this time
by the "myth of the primitive isolate". The idea is that Polynesian
anthropologists have had an inherent bias towards seeing cultures in
isolation from other cultures, because they prefer to see aboriginal
societies as "cultural laboratories" where they can presumably discover
certain basic truths about the human nature and social organisation.

The authors cite Mead as setting the tone for such theorising.

""...Margaret Mead had written in COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA in 1928 [that]
the geographic isolation, cultural simplicity, and autonomous historical
development of Pacific Island societies made them "controlled examples"
where anthropologists could study human nature under conditions
approximating "the ideal method of science, the method of the controlled
experiment" in a laboratory. [Mead 1928:5-8]"" (p. 157)

All this is entirely possible, of course, and is probably true.

On the other hand, the authors outline capably the many indications we
have of very ancient and widespread trade contacts in W Polynesia.

"Recent archaeological discoveries indicate that some forms of
inter-island trade or exchange in stone and other materials go back in
Melanesia at least 20,000 years."

So if those ancient sailors already traded 20,000 years ago between
different and often distant islands, how can Isolationists pretend that
many islands were somehow completely isolated during the last 2,000 years?

Terrell et al keep hammering home the basic reality that contradicts
Isolationist preconceptions. People did travel all around Polynesia for a
long time. Contacts were common and sustained. Continuous Intra-Polynesian
migration and settlement was a fact of life.

And Terrell et al also have strong supporters among some of the
commentators on their article as published in the same issue of CURRENT
ANTHROPOLOGY. Ben Finney, for example, expresses his own take on the flaws
of Isolationism. He even talks about "liberating Pacific archaeology from

According to him, not only the mainstream anthropologists tend to operate
based on such an Isolationist agenda. Also archaeologists are to blame.
Finney of course has been working for some time on various projects aiming
to recreate some ancient Polynesian inter-island voyages known to us from
ancient traditions.

"I was surprised by the vigorous opposition to our efforts expressed by
some archaeologists who had a methodological stake in accidental, random
settlement followed by isolation."

According to the authors, Isolationism has been king in Polynesian
anthropology in the last 50 years or so, and I can well see the validity
of this. But speaking more generally, it also seems pretty clear that a
very similar situation has prevailed in the same period also in other
areas of anthropology, such as in the American historical anthropology.
Isolationism has dominated this discipline, and any hapless
"Diffusionists" who dared to step away from the mainstream party line were
condemned bitterly. Woe to the heretics -- the passions in this area still
run very high...

To be realistic, all such things are a matter of degree, of course.
American case may be very special, because in America it has been possible
to maintain the myth of American Isolation from the rest of the world
until the Time when Columbus Invented the Boat - still the dominant
anthropological myth that nevertheless is beginning to come apart at the

But in Polynesia no such convenient defensive position could have been
possible, of course. Those earliest ancient settlers must have been good
enough sailors to get to those far away islands. Only after they (1) got
there did the anthropologists have a chance to (2) try to "trap them in
place" like the good lab animals that they were supposed to serve as. In
other words, even the most extreme of Isolationists had to accept step 1
before proceeding in a hurry to step 2 whereby they could make their best
efforts to make sure that their research subjects stayed on their islands
(in isolation please!) like good boys and girls to gladden the
Isolationists' hearts. And for this, competent navigators and
ship-builders, who at one time could build ships and navigate so well, had
to give up any such expertise in a very big hurry. Any indications of
subsequent contacts with the rest of the world were looked at with the
highest suspicion.

This is what Isolationism means, basically. It is a very restrictive
theoretical model that makes it inevitable that a blind eye is turned by
its adherents to any and all indications that the reality may be
otherwise. In fact it seems to me that very few cultures in world history
were completely isolated from other cultures for long. In my view, oceans
were more commonly convenient highways for travel than barriers for
cultural exchange.

In whichever way we explain the roots of Isolationism, and the authors
have some pretty complex explanations to offer, my own explanation is
simpler than others. My own explanation is that, generally, academics are
timid and lazy by nature. Just like everyone else they have serious
objections to an increased work load.

The idea that one can study any culture in isolation will be far more
appealing, of course, on this basic and understandable human level because
this means a significantly reduced work load than could be expected
otherwise. Imagine for example that someone comes up with some evidence
that ancient American cultures, like the Mayas, may have had contacts with
China. Will this mean that a tenured professor who spent all his/her life
studying the Mayas, and who feels pretty good about his/her achievements
in this area, will be now told to go and learn the ABCs of Chinese
history, because the ancient contacts of the Mayas and the Chinese
necessitate it? The reaction will be as predictable, I think, as the
reaction of the guard-dog to the approaching mailman in those Far Side

More seriously, we are all aware that excessive narrow specialisation is a
serious and increasing problem in today's academe overall. So this
provides another powerful incentive to be unreceptive to the idea of
cultural contact in ancient times. We live at the time of incredible
information explosion -- the number of professional journals, for example,
is growing constantly. In our time, often specialists have problems
keeping up with the latest even in their own field. Imagine the Mayanists
also having to keep up with the developments in the Chinese history! Too
much work... Scary stuff...

(And elsewhere, I have described some of such illegitimate
oversimplifications of evidence as the Dumbing Down Process (TM). This is
what I see as the fairly wide-spread tendency among scholars to try to
make the historical reality more simple than it really was for their own
convenience. This is what one gets when one takes the Occam's Razor, a
very useful tool, and makes it into a Dog-Gone Shovel, a sort of a
convenient labour-saving device. The result is the historical truth

In any case, Finney's remark about Isolationism being so prevalent also in
archaeology would support my view that it is not only anthropology that is
affected by Isolationism.

Myself, I'm on the side of Terrell et all, of course. I think Isolationism
is an obvious and harmful intellectual fallacy. The real history of the
world seems far more complex than Isolationists would allow. The reality
seems quite different, and it's generally not recommended to loose touch
with reality.

But let's come back to our academic battles for Polynesian history.

I'm pretty sure that great many of these heated arguments the good
Polynesianists are engaging in on the pages of CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY will
be incomprehensible to an outsider. Phylogenetic models in anthropology
vs. polyphyletic ones? What's that? And is this really worth loosing sleep
about? (Imagine going to talk to some Polynesian elder, and asking him,
"Hey, Old Man, what do you think, has the history of your people been
determined by a Phylogenetic or a Polyphyletic model? I can well imagine a
look on his face...) But then one goes behind the professional jargon, and
certain realities emerge -- albeit never with exceeding clarity.

To be sure, the history of Polynesia is admittedly rather complex, and it
still holds great many puzzles for all of us (although for some rather
more than for others, perhaps). And if one considers that, in many ways,
and right from the outset, this whole dispute is in effect cut off from
the real world, the full extent of all this confusion will become rather

Let's make it very clear that the biggest problem with _all the parties_
in this CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY debate is that _not one soul_ in the whole
long exchange mentions the Forbidden Words: South America. Elsewhere I've
analysed American influence on the Polynesian history in great detail.
This whole thing is as good as proven -- for example we have nearly 30
South American agricultural plants attested (with varying degrees of
certainty, to be sure) in pre-European-contact Polynesia. So this is what
gives a strong air of unreality to this debate.

Although I'm sympathetic with Terrell et al, I cannot fail to observe that
their position seems extremely self-contradictory. For example, how can
one talk about the great travelling abilities of Polynesians -- while
completely failing to see that this will directly presuppose some sort of
contact with America? Why great travelling abilities of Polynesians, but
not of Americans? (It is true that the navigational abilities of the
latter are often, and undeservedly so, neglected in mainstream literature,
but, still and all, good and reliable information is available to those
who want to look for it, and increasingly so.)

One cannot pay lip-service to the multiplicity of ancient cultural
contacts -- while pretending that there's some kind of an Invisible Wall
out there that prevented the numerous S American marine-oriented cultures
from interacting with Polynesians. In my view, it is only the clearly
Eurocentrist neglect of the cultural achievements of Native American
cultures, of their very well-attested navigational abilities, that stands
in the way of perceiving and factoring in these basic realities.

And all of the contributors in our publication are strangely blind to all
that... Perhaps they are simply uninformed? Could it be that in effect
they are all Polynesian Isolationists?

So, seeing such seeming unreality of all these disputes, often the sources
of these bitter controversies between these mainstream Polynesian scholars
-- the Isolationists and their self-professed opponents -- is very hard to
locate. Sometimes it may all seem like the proverbial Chinese algebra...
But some major disputed areas of Polynesian history are reasonably clear,
so let's focus on these.

It is agreed by all, including yours truly, that the Polynesian dispersal
started ca 2000 years ago. What is not agreed upon is where from. Almost
everybody in the modern academe says from the West. Heyerdahl and those
few (mostly in Scandinavia) who support him say from the East. The current
dispute in CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY (where Heyerdahl is not mentioned even
once) is about where from exactly in the West. The opinions of both these
mainstream parties are rather vague on the whole.

Modern genetic and linguistic evidence indicates Polynesian connection
with the general area of the insular SE Asia (such as around Taiwan) at a
time-depth of about 5000 years. I accept these findings, and they square
quite well with Heyerdahl's theories. But Terrell et al tend to disagree

"Contrary to what Howells and others once thought, it is now evident that
Polynesians cannot be derived, biologically speaking, directly from Asia."

They think the place of derivation is closer to somewhere in Melanesia
(exactitude is lacking here), and for this they are criticised, perhaps
justly. We're seeing here the first hints of Terrell et al's seeming
problems with accepting the findings of modern biological and genetic

Now, the main problem that comes up here is the Lapita problem.

"Rarely then (or now) did anyone dispute the inference that Lapita was the
key to Polynesian origins." (161)

On this rather suspect unanimity, see the following files on my webpage.


[[ Here's a brief summary.

Lapita had the pottery. In fact they are defined by their pottery.
Polynesians did not have the pottery, generally. It is very difficult to
see how these almost universally aceramic islanders managed to descend
from ceramic islanders.

Lapita were using a system of money exchange. They were using certain
valuable shells for this (Kirch, 1997, p. 236). Polynesians did not have a
money-system. Big problem for the mainstream view.

The knowledge of the loom, and of woven clothing, was quite widely present
in ancient Melanesia/Fiji. But the Polynesians didn't have the loom and
woven clothing other than bark-cloth.

Lapita had the chicken and the pig. In fact, the chicken was very big with
the Lapita (Kirch, 1997, p. 211). But Polynesians did not get the chicken
and the pig until quite late (probably from Melanesia).

Where are the DNA and osteometrical studies that would provide support for
the Lapita origin of Polynesians? I haven't seen anything substantial in
Kirch or anywhere else. If anything, the evidence that we have seems to
point in the opposite direction. Big problem.

It is very clear that the Lapita had the coconut (Kirch, 1997, p. 209). So
why was the coconut not present in early Hawaii? J. Stephen Athens (1997)
indicates clearly that coconut didn't get to Hawaii until after AD 1300. ]]

All this makes it very difficult to see how the Polynesians descended from
the Lapita. So both sides seem to be quite wrong here, or so it seems to
me. Or at least the degree of the mainstream certitude should be far less
than is claimed so commonly.

Nevertheless, it does seem to me like the Lapita culture is generally
still quite mysterious. Nobody apparently understands about where the
ultimate origins of the Lapita may be,

"Roger Green (1979) ... felt that no clear-cut ancestor for Lapita pottery
making had been found anywhere in Melanesia or SE Asia..."

And, also, it is not at all clear why the Lapita culture, after
flourishing in Melanesia for great many centuries, petered out sometime
before the beginning of the first millennium AD. So, while I feel like the
Lapita may have very little to do with the Polynesian origins, as such,
the mysteries in this area are still quite abundant.


As I already mentioned above, and as their critics also note, Terrell et
al tend to have some problems with accepting the findings of biologists.
This, it seems, is the result of their unwillingness to concede the
apparently strong Polynesian connections with SE Asia.

Peter Bellwood:

"The section on genetics [in Terrell et al] reiterates that Polynesians
need not be derived from SE Asia, and genetic data suggesting otherwise
[Redd (1995), Melton (1995)] are either ignored or dismissed." (176)

But here there's a bigger problem involved, How to define the Polynesian
problem, itself. This is a big problem because Polynesians look so
different from the Melanesians, from which area all the mainstream
scholars want to derive them. Polynesians are lighter skinned, and bigger
in stature. This is the problem for all mainstream scholars (but for
Heyerdahl it's not a problem at all!). To deal with this, mainstream
scholars have given us the so called "Express Train" model. According to
this, Polynesians came _through_ Melanesia without stopping there for too
long. But of course this "Express Train" concept has plenty of opponents.
Something known as "differentiator model" is offered in its place, and the
heated debates are still continuing as hot as usual. Agreement is nowhere
in sight...

But why are these debates happening at all, one may ask? Isn't there
something terribly wrong here? Because if everyone is so _totally_ sure
that the Lapita was where the Polynesians originated from, what would be
the meaning of these debates? The Lapita have left us plenty of pottery,
and judging by that there's no doubt whatsoever as to how long they stayed
in their island territory -- they stayed there for a very long time! So
perhaps the Lapita are not the source culture after all?

Such apparent self-contradictions within the mainstream positions abound
-- just as one should expect if one keeps the historical reality in mind,
and realises that all of these scholars have mostly said good bye to
reality right from the outset -- by excluding South and North America from
consideration a priori as a potential source of cultural influence.

To come back to our "Polynesian problem", here's an interesting quote,
which is given by Terrell et al rather sarcastically, it seems.

""... as the archaeologist Jack Golson [1972] once candidly phrased it,
"the so-called Polynesian problem" has long been "how to get the
linguistically and culturally homogeneous Polynesians into the central
Pacific without racial contamination from the more diversified and
presumed longer established Melanesians to the west"" 171

I don't think Terrell et al offer us a solution -- rather they try to deny
that such a problem even exists! Their denials ring hollow, though. But
for Heyerdahl this is a piece of cake, since Polynesians came from the
East. No wonder they are so different from Melanesians...

For my own part, I have no problem with the findings of modern genetics.
In fact, these findings provide very good support for Heyerdahl.

In their reply, Heathcote et al mention the following very interesting
genetic data.

"Hagelberg and Clegg (1993), in a pioneering paper, have presented ancient
bone mtDNA data which, they claim, do not support an island SE Asian
origin of modern Polynesians."

"Studies of HLA Class II distributions indicate an E Asian origin for
Polynesians (with Melanesian gene flow indicated) but suggest a homeland
farther north than insular SE Asia."

A homeland "farther north than insular SE Asia"? Very interesting... It
seems to me like this data may provide some support for the American
Pacific NW Coast Indians having a closer connection with this very early
centre of dispersal from which the Polynesians seem to have ultimately


It does seem to me that Terrell et al have some sort of a problem not only
with biologists, but with the linguists as well. Let's take a look at the
following quotes,

"Furthermore, lexical reconstructions do little to pin down precisely
where the Austronesian "homeland" or "primary dispersal centre" was
located in the SW Pacific..." (173)

"...the tree diagrams of historical linguistics are convenient analytical
fictions." (185)

"...it is easy to equate the methodological eloquence of historical
linguistics with historical reality". (185)

And of course their critics zero in on that. Kirch, for example, talks
about Terrell et al's "disregard for and even distrust of the comparative
methods of historical linguistics", although Kirch probably rhetorically
overstated his case.

The cause of this seeming problem of Terrell et al with the linguistics
may be the same as for their problem with the biologists. Both these
disciplines indicate the Polynesian connections with SE Asia that Terrell
et al feel rather uncomfortable about. Terrell et al also feel that in
constructing their "tree diagrams" of language relationships, the
linguists disregard the multiple voyaging and cultural contacts of
Polynesians throughout the centuries. Although there may be some validity
to this, one wonders if this criticism is fully justified.


I have the following thoughts to offer in conclusion. As should be clear
from all the above, I feel that both parties in this dispute are quite
wrong, although one of them perhaps less so than the other. All of them
seem to disconnect themselves from the historical reality of ancient
Polynesia. This reality involves pretty obvious contacts with S America
starting at a very early time, clearly by the time of the Tiwanaku
civilisation of S America over 2000 years ago. And is it really necessary
to spell out in detail that any anthropological models and/or theorising
not based squarely on the historical facts may appear overall as rather

But Terrell et all are fully justified in trying to expose some the
fallacies of Isolationism -- the ruling dogma in this field. They have
pointed out the inadequacies of many of the models Isolationists offer.
But what seems highly regrettable is that Terrell et al have found no
better models to replace the ones offered by their opponents. (In fact
they make it quite clear that they are unwilling to offer any clear-cut
cultural development models of their own). Instead, Terrell et al prefer
to talk about greater complexities not subject to clear schematization.
But this may appear as rather subjectivist.

Meanwhile, modern genetics, linguistics and other such disciplines are
increasingly offering some clear explanatory models for Polynesian
history. Is this why Terrell et al may tend to shy away from them? Are
they really subjectivists at heart? I sure hope not...

It is as if Terrell et al have concluded that clear models are simply
impossible to arrive at on the basis of all the evidence that they have
considered. But they are not really considering all the evidence -- this,
I think, is the crux! If they only considered TRULY ALL THE EVIDENCE,
including also for the North American connections, then perhaps their
scepticism re the power of explanatory models, and their seeming
relativism may be seen as quite unnecessary?

(copyright 1998 by Yuri Kuchinsky)

Best regards,


Yuri Kuchinsky -=O=- [18]http://www.globalserve.net/~yuku

It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than
to put out on the troubled seas of thought -=O=- John K. Galbraith

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