Polynesian controversies Author: Yuri Kuchinsky Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Date: 1998/12/15 Forums: sci.archaeology, sci.anthropology, sci.skeptic, soc.history _________________________________________________________________ JE Terrell, TL Hunt, and C Gosden, THE DIMENSIONS OF SOCIAL LIFE IN THE 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 isolationism"! 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 seams. 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 cartoons. 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 buried.) 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 obvious. 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 here! "Contrary to what Howells and others once thought, it is now evident that Polynesians cannot be derived, biologically speaking, directly from Asia." (172) 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 research. 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. http://www.trends.net/~yuku/tran/tlap.htm [[ 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. PROBLEMS WITH BIOLOGY? 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  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 originated. PROBLEMS WITH LINGUISTICS? 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. SOME CONCLUSIONS 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 futile? 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. Yuri Kuchinsky -=O=- 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 _________________________________________________________________Click here to go one level up in the directory.