The Coming of Man to the Pacific
With powerful arms the Tahitian grasped the shaft of his adze and swung the stone axe high over his head. Pausing only for a fraction of time to determine precisely where the blow would land, he thought it down, cutting an arc through the sun. When the blade landed splinters flew across the humid air, tinging it with the sweet smell of sap. The canoe would be months in the making. For the great voyages it would undertake, only the finest tamanu or ati wood, the strongest coconut-fibre twine and true love for the perfection of its smooth hull, polished with the skin of sharks, would ensure success - and perhaps the discovery of new lands. The lightweight wood of hibiscus trees would furnish the paddles, and ironwood that grew along the coast had already made the stem posts. When finished the canoe would have twin hulls 21 metres long, and a platform in the centre with a thatched shelter. It would support some sixty men, women and children, plus pigs, dogs, chickens and many other provisions. it was not always easy to predict how long the voyages would last, but with fish and turtles caught from the sea and a fair breeze, a great distance could be covered in a week. Chiefs would come from far and wide to commission their craft for the long voyages between islands. Huahine was the home of the master canoe-builders, only those of the nearby island Raiatea could rival them. The skill of centuries rested here.
The canoe-building site was near to the shore. Teams of warriors would drag the huge double-hulled canoe on log rollers over the sand at the to of the beach, to the pass through the reef and out into the sea at high tide. Only war canoes were larger; they could exceed 35 metres and hold as many as 300 warriors ready for battle. At their launching it was customary to sacrifice slaves and throw their blood over the timbers, or place the live bodies of enemies between the rollers as the canoe was dragged to the sea. The construction clearing was filled with the sound of falling adzes. There was a smell of molten breadfruit sap to be used for caulking the wood. Women were cutting the huge leaves of the fara palm into strips to weave them into sails and teasing fibres from coconut husks for twine. From time t tome the chief would come by to inspect the work, carrying his carved staff and wearing a large whale's tooth around his neck to indicate his high rank. His hut was not far away, its roof newly thatched with grasses gathered from the hillsides inland. Each year they burned the hills; that way the grasses grew better, and it kept the forest back. most had been cleared from the lowlands and valleys now. Further up the coast was the chiefly village of Maeva, a whole string of stately residences positioned around a pleasant inland lagoon. On the hillsides there were other houses and many marae in which to worship the gods. Before work had begun on this canoe, the carver's tools and those of all the other pahi canoe-builders had been dedicated to Taaroa, the father of all gods, at the marae. A great feast of whole roasted pigs had followed, and the high priest had made offerings to the god of beauty and good weather, Tane.
On the day of fa'ainuraa i te vaa the craftsman of the new canoe would sing a simple prayer song:
Small blue lorikeets screeched their high pitched 'schee-schee' between the tall palms which shaded the site. Above, white-tailed tropic birds wheeled in the sun. The first inkling that something was wrong was a strange roaring sound coming from the reef, almost like the rumbling of thunder. The men stopped their work and looked about; there were no clouds, no signs of a storm. Then suddenly there was a great cry of 'Are miti rahi' from the beach, the sound of children screaming in fear, and men and women came running through the low bushes on the shore. A vast wall of water rushed up the beaches, smashing the fringing ring of palms like matchwood, and as the canoe-builders turned to run they could see it clutching over them. The chief's hut and all the others in the village nearby were swept before the advancing sea, carried inland in a mass of broken tree limb, soil, sand, and floating debris. When the waves receded and drained back into the sea, the canoe-builders' site had vanished beneath a wasteland and mud as if it had never been.
Out in the deep ocean, tidal waves move at incredible speeds, 400 kilometres an hour or more is not unusual, but because of the great volume of water there they result only in a series of quite shallow swells. They are caused by the ocean floor collapsing after a volcanic eruption or by the Pacific plate moving into one of the deep trenches which surround this great ocean and causing an earthquake. Once a tidal wave approaches shallow seas, the pressure wave slows as it drags across the bottom and is deflected up towards the surface sometimes building to an enormous height. Then it will race across reef flats and engulf whole coastlines with millions of tons of water. Following Krakatoa's eruption in 1883, 32,000 people lost their lives in tsunamis.
In 1972 a hotel construction crew began dredging a large pit near the coast on Huahine, one of the Leeward islands in the Society group, 180 kilometres from Tahiti, capital of French Polynesia. The site was half a kilometre from the picturesque village of Fare, the capital of Huahine, situated on the west coast beside the Ava Mo'a pass which provides access from the harbour through the reef to the sea. with the first few scoops a number of curious wooden and bone objects were found which appeared to have been made by man. Fortunately, Yosihiko Sinoto, one of the most accomplished archaeologists in the Pacific, happened to be reconstructing an ancient Tahitian meeting house at the now ruined village of Maeva further up the coast. The hotel architect, Richard Soupene, invited him to take a look at the finds. When Yoshi, as he is known, first saw one bone artefact, he was stunned. It was a patu hand club, shaped like a short paddle and fashioned from whale bone. Nothing like it had ever been found before outside New Zealand.
Here at last was evidence which corroborated ancient oral legends of the Tahitians; evidence that New Zealand was colonized by Polynesians who had sailed from the Leeward Islands many years before. The site uncovered at the hotel was clearly of enormous significance. Extensive excavations followed in 1974 and 1975, during which numerous artefacts were unearthed dating back a thousand years. It also became clear that much later the site had been engulfed with mud and sand, perhaps from a large tidal wave, and an arc of deposited stones revealed the direction from which it had come. There were basalt adzes, stone scrapers and choppers, chiesels made from Terebra shells and turtle bone, and a large collection of shell scrapers and graters, as well as intricately carved fishhooks of mother-of-pearl. A wooden bow indicated that the aristocratic sport of archery was practised. There were whale-tooth pendants as worn by those of high rank, and even a chief's staff.
In 1977 there was another amazing discovery. Further dredging turned up more wooden artefacts including the boom of an outriggers. Sinoto begged for dredging of the site to be halted until further funds could be raised from the National Geographic Society. The hotel agreed. New archaeological work began and discovered a large steering paddle, smaller canoe paddles, an unfinished canoe-bailer, and two large wooden planks seven metres long. The first remains of a Polynesian long-distance voyaging canoe had been unearthed. From the positions of the finds it appeared that they had been deposited in the backwash of the tidal wave. Mud had protected the wooden artefacts from decay. They can be seen today in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, and bear witness to an important canoe-building site. In cook's day the people of Huahine and Raiatea were well known as master builders of long-distance voyaging canoes. The discovery of storage houses, probably for yams, at the site indicated a prosperous people, producing more than their daily needs so that some could specialize in skills other than farming. Adze-making workshops and shell-scraping sites were also found. A community of perhaps 200 people had lived here, and the large number of beautifully carved pearl-shell products suggests that they were probably involved in trading these goods to other areas. The site revealed a people with complex social organization, a society well equipped for life on the islands and with the necessary tools to voyage great distances between them. Polynesian navigators were crossing the Pacific long before Europeans even thought of exploration. While the Greeks were felling the walls of Troy, Polynesians had already reached Fiji in their double-hulled canoes. Their voyages were far greater even than those of the Vikings.
Who were these men? Were they North American Indians or from the ancient mountain civilizations of the Andes as Thor Heyerdahl would have us think? Did they come from south-east Asia, island-hopping their way east as most other archaeologists and anthropologists now believe? Today we are closer to a final answer than ever before, due to great advances in three areas: linguistics, blood protein analysis, and archaeology. By examining the use of similar words and sounds in different island groups it is possible to see common ground between peoples widely separated by the sea, which provides clues as to the historical links between them. James King, Second Lieutenant aboard the Resolution during Cook's final voyage wrote of the Polynesians:
It cannot but strike the imagination, the immense space through which this nation has spread, the extent of its limits exceed all Europe, and is nearly equal to Africa, stretching in breadth from A'toui (Kauai) to New Zealand ... and in length from Easter Island to the Friendly Isles (Tonga) ... All the isles in the intermediate space are by their affinity or sameness in speech to be reckoned as forming one people.
The word 'eye' in Tahitian is mata, in Hawaiian maka, in Maori mata. Likewise 'person' is, in the same order, ta'ata, kanaka, and tagata. In addition many words are borrowed from one language group by another, dependent upon the contact that exists between them. In the same way as le weekend is now part of French, the Fijian word for pig, puaka, was borrowed from the Tongans, who regularly used it to describe their feasts when they had conquered parts of eastern Fiji. Tongan loan words can even be found in kava and yam festivals as far away as Pohnpei in Micronesia. It is important for the linguist to distinguish between those words that are indigenous and those which are merely loaned in establishing the true language of any island group. Language, of course, evolves with time. Its changes are a valuable tool for the detective. by careful reconstruction of ancient forms of speech it is possible to trace the proto-languages which gave rise to those spoken today and this has been enlightening in tracing the origins of Pacific peoples.
It seems that a proto-Polynesian language, with root words common to most areas, links all the islands of the Polynesian triangle ranging from Hawaii to Easter Island to New Zealand. But there are many other small island communities outside the triangle which also share this language: the so-called Polynesian Outliers. These have been discovered in Melanesia and Micronesia in the Loyalty Islands to the Carolines. Because this language shows remarkable similarity across its range, it seems that the original community which spoke it dispersed in relatively recent times. Polynesian can itself be traced back further to a much more widespread language base known as Austronesian. With over 500 daughter languages, this is the largest well-established language family in the world, linking places as far apart as Madagascar, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, parts of Indo-China and the Malay Peninsula, right across the Pacific to Eastern Polynesia. Only in some of Eastern Indonesia, mainland New Guinea, and parts of the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomons and the Santa Cruz Islands are non-Austronesian languages spoken. Though they are not all related these are collectively known as Papuan.
All this evidence together suggests a gradual movement of Austronesian-speaking peoples from Indonesia through the Melanesian islands and out into the Eastern Pacific. A proto-Oceanic language seems to have develop0d in New Guinea and parts of the Bismarck Archipelago, with proto-Eastern Oceanic on Vanuatu, parts of Micronesia and Rotuma. Proto-Central Pacific evolved in the Fijian Islands, giving rise to proto-Polynesian. Shared proteins in blood, and in particular blood antigens, substances which stimulate the production of antibodies, also point to relationships between peoples. The incidence of genetic diseases passed from one island group to another, such as the inherited blood disorder beta-thallasaemia, allows biochemists and geneticists to trace the origins of peoples. All of these, along with most of the animal and plant species inhabiting the islands, point to a Western origin for Pacific Islanders. it is, however, to the historian and archaeologist that we must turn for the most compelling evidence of the origins of man in the Pacific, and here there has been much controversy.
Sixteenth-century explorers were not impressed by the Polynesian sailing canoes, believing them quite incapable of bringing the islanders to their islands. The belief in a great Southern Continent as the source of Pacific peoples continued through generations of European explorers.
Over forty thousand years ago the first hunter-gatherers were walking the hills of New Guinea, then joined to Australia by land due to a lowering of the sea. In New Guinea's highlands some of the world's earliest agriculture later developed, but these primitive peoples seem to have lacked wither the skill or the desire to meet the challenge of the Pacific. Some could manage short distances between islands floating on logs, and they may have owned simple rafts or canoes, but the coloniziation of the Pacific had to wait for three innovations, these were brought by a different people who had developed them in the islands of Indonesia, the early Austronesians. First they had perfected the domestication of certain food plants they had discovered in their rainforests; secondly they had improved ways of capturing food from their reefs and lagoons and thirdly they knew how to design ocean-going crafts capable of long-distance voyages. These people were the first humans to set foot on the Pacific's enchanted islands. In their passing they left many scattered signs; footprints that only archaeologists can discern of shell, bone, charcoal and pottery, the last of these has been crucial in uncovering the coming of man to the Pacific.
A remarkably uniform red earthenware known as Lapita with characteristic stamped designs, has been most important. Its simple appearance belies its great age; the earliest found example dates from about 1600 BC. The exact origins of the Lapita culture remain a mystery but its pots are scattered across the Pacific from New Britain and the northern coast of New Guinea to the great island of New Caledonia, across the island chains of the Solomons and Vanuatu. Its people must have sailed the 850 kilometres of ocean to Fiji, and lastly to Tonga and Samoa where their pots are also found. here, at the gateway to Polynesia, the Lapita people apparently lost their pots, for they are found no further east. It may that the clay needed to make them was in short supply, or that a preferred form of cooking, such as the underground oven in common use today or the use of hot stones, made them obsolete. By the time Christ was born only simple pots were being made and by AD 300 their manufacture had ceased completely. distance made regular two-communication with this people's homeland to the west virtually impossible; isolated in the great islands of Fiji and Samoa and the atolls of Tonga a new culture with a new language began to develop. new tools such as basalt adzes, worked from the new volcanic rocks they found, enabled them to fashion finer canoes, and with that came a new mastery of the sea. In Fiji and Samoa over 2,000 years ago the first Polynesians were being born, and the final colonization of Oceania could begin.
It has long been believed that the Polynesians sailed directly into the Pacific from some region outside it. This now seems unlikely. The ancestors of the Polynesians were the people of the Lapita culture whose lost homeland was perhaps in the Bismarck Archipelago to the north of New Guinea, but the evolution of their culture into that of the Polynesians can now clearly be seen in the archaeology of Tonga and Samoa over the last 3,000 years. Crucial to further migration was the development of sailing craft capable of sailing upwind and so more effectively heading into the trades which predominantly blew against them from the east.
Did the Polynesians embark on their migratory journeys on purpose or were the islands merely reached by accident? Computer simulations of random drift voyages show that chance alone cannot account for the numerous colonizations that occurred. Archaeological discoveries also point to carefully planned expeditions, taking a wide range of plants and animals intended to be of use on arrival. The Polynesians had every intention of making land; it was almost as if they somehow knew that new territories lay ahead. what could have given them such remarkable confidence? Perhaps one answer is their attitude to the sea. To most Westerners, the sea is traditionally an adversary to be feared. To Polynesians it is home, more so than the land. The sea is to them a natural highway, supplied with ample food if you know how to catch it, which they did.
Another reason for the Polynesians' confidence was that they had become masters of navigation. They could read the stars and memorized star maps prior to voyages, they understood the patterns of waves caused by islands beyond horizons; they knew how to interpret drifting vegetation, flight patterns of seabirds and the warmth of currents, perhaps even gaining clues from the kinds of fish they caught. Few people have such knowledge now. Only on Satawal in Micronesia is the wayfinding art still practised by one or two ageing men.
There are time of the year when the trade winds do not blow adversely. The wind pattern reverses for a week or ten days and at these times the early voyagers could set out in their canoes knowing that the prevailing winds would soon return and bring them safely home again of no land had been found. Westerly winds tend to blow for about a third of the year in Samoa and a little less than a quarter of the year in Tahiti but occasionally they will blow for much longer, such as during the El Nino phenomenon. These intermittent westerly winds could have been responsible for carrying the first canoes to the Marquesas, from which Hawaii and Easter Island may have been reached. The Polynesians were provided with another clue to assist them on their journeys, the importance of which has underestimated: the routes of migrating birds.
All regular seafarers not the passage of birds. They are company on a lonely ocean as well as effortlessly beautiful to watch. It may be that, like the Vikings, migrating Pacific peoples carried birds to release at sea in the knowledge that if they did not return, land must be nearby. Two birds in particular could have played a vital part in the discovery of Hawaii, New Zealand and perhaps other Pacific islands: the Pacific golden plover Pluvialis dominica and the long-tailed cuckoo. The former species migrates 9,000 kilometres each year from the tundra shores of the Russian and North American Arctic to Hawaii and then south to the Marquesas and the Society Islands. Each spring as the birds flew north to their Arctic nesting grounds, resplendent in their breeding plumage of black spangled with gold, yellow and white, the Polynesians would have wondered where they were going. The long-tailed cuckoo migrates north from New Zealand to avoid the southern winter and reaches many of the South Pacific islands including Tahiti and the cook Islands, from which New Zealand is believed to have been colonized. Their annual migration routes, observed by fisherman far out to sea, may have been a vital factor in the Polynesians' choosing a direction in which to sail.
The movement of people across the pacific came in a series of fits and starts. The origins of the Polynesians seem to lie in the genes, languages and material culture of the peoples of southern China and Taiwan, who began to migrate southwards and eastwards in about 4000 BC. Perhaps as many as 45,000 years earlier the Australoid peoples had already occupied New Guinea, but they failed to move out to the islands in any numbers. The Lapita culture developed in island Melanesia in around 1500BC. The next 600 years saw these people migrate eastwards as far as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. In about 200 BC, they set out from Samoa and found, after a journey of 1,600 kilometres, the sharp volcanic peaks and green forested valleys of the Marquesas.
They had to adapt to new conditions. Being further north, there were fewer coral reefs here, and a shortage of fish, they experimented with new techniques to catch them. A range of bone and shell fishing gear, not seen in Western Polynesia, remains as evidence of their struggle for survival in the Marquesas. New speech, new technologies, a new culture evolved. here the Eastern Polynesians flourished for a further 500 years before three of the greatest feats of human navigation were undertaken, the ocean voyages to Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. Hawaii was reached over 1,700 years ago and over 100 years later some canoes beached on the tall forbidding shores of Easter Island. The society Islands had in the mean time already been settled, and from there, in about AD 800 the prodigious journeys to New Zealand were made. A thousand years ago the great colonizing voyages to Melanesia, Micronesia and most of the other Pacific Islands were complete, and the Polynesians were the most widespread people on earth.
If human occupied New Guinea at least 40,000 years ago, already having crossed quite substantial water gaps to have done so, why does there appear to be no evidence of them in New Britain and the Solomons - a relatively short distance east - more than 4,000 years old? It seemed until very recently that man must have been landlocked in New Guinea for 36,000 years. Then in 1987 Chris Gosden from La Trobe University was excavating a cave in the centre of New Ireland overlooking the sea when he discovered evidence of man that was 32,000 years old. That so few early traces have been found in the West Pacific may be a reflection more of the lack of funds for archaeology than of man's true migration pattern in the Pacific. In the next decade it may sell be discovered that man arrived in the Solomons, Vanuatu and even Fiji far earlier than is now thought. The reason no evidence has been found may be that it lies beneath the sea, as a result of the rise in the world's sea level since the last ice age.
Much has been made of the heroic Polynesian tradition of finding islands. The discoverers were elevated to almost godlike status. what was it that made them undertake their journeys at all? overcrowding, war and banishment may have been reasons. Often it was impossible to return on pain of death, or the physical distances prevented it. Easter Island never appeared on any early Polynesian maps even through their canoes reached it, the colonizers were never able to return home to break the news. It may be that the distant ancestors of the Polynesians migrated because of a great flood. The earth began to emerge from the last ice age 18,000 years ago, and as the ice melted, the sea level rose and began to flood the lowlands which joined Australia and New Guinea, and those of the Sunda shelf which once joined the great islands of Indonesia. To move inland to avoid the encroaching se would have resulted in contact with other fierce tribes already occupying the land. Lowland people were forced into a maritime culture capable of travelling and maintaining contact between islands and living off the products of the sea. A mystery remains. The sea level rose fastest between 12,000 and 5,000 years ago, but there is no evidence of man east of the Solomons more than 3,500 years old. The reason may be that the earliest landing points now lie hidden beneath the sea.
If the ancestors of the Polynesians had embarked on their journeys prior to the rise in the sea level, the prospect of the Pacific Islands would have been far less hospitable than it is today. The lowered se level made them virtual fortresses. They were surrounded by sheer cliffs, the edges of coral reefs which had once descended beneath the ocean. Now dry and covered in scrubby vegetation, they offered few points at which to land save where the cliffs were cut by steep gorges carved by rivers draining from the mountain island. perhaps the first settlers could have inhabited caves in the coral cliffs, then walked up the steep valleys and explored the dry reef flats, covered at the time with trees. These early sites would not be found today because they are submerged and no one had cared to look for them.
It is odd that a zoologist should point out such an inadequacy to our studies of prehistory, but John gibbons was a man who moved freely between apparently unrelated subjects, forged links where none existed before, and dusted down those which had long been forgotten. Seeing how animals needed to island-hop across the Pacific, he saw no reason why the hugely increased number of islands when the sea level was lower could not have helped humans too. Before he drowned, he had been poised to investigate this extraordinary theory, first put forward by himself and Fergus Clunie, Director of the Fiji Museum. Leaders in Pacific archaeology such as Professor John Green at the University of Auckland dismiss the idea, pointing out that the reduction in sea level did little significantly to reduce the water gaps between island groups, particularly to the west of Santa Catalina on the eastern tip of the Solomons. Still, the arguments for early settlement sites on coastlines now sunk beneath the ocean remain compelling. In Micronesia there have been reports of divers finding a cave bearing the marks of fire on its walls, and containing stones in circle like a hearth, many metres beneath the sea. Off the north coast of Australia, underwater archaeologists have found the remains of primitive houses beneath what was once the dry land of the Sunda shelf. The oldest known sites of Vanua Levu in Fiji are opposite a wide shelf over which the first settlers may have moved inland as the sea encroached.
There is growing evidence that someone had reached parts of Melanesia before the Lapita people over 3,500 years ago. Waisted axes, similar to those discovered on the Huon peninsula in New Guinea, known to be more than 40,000 years old, have been found in Bougainville, Guadalcanal, and Santa Catalina. At Poha cave on Guadalcanal in the Solomons human artefacts have very recently been discovered beneath those of the Lapita people. Santa Catalina is as far east in the south Pacific as a people with simple watercraft and moderate navigational skill could reach. Beyond, the sea formed a great divide for both man and nature On Santa Catalina today there is a strange dance still performed called mako mako. Their faces decorated with frightening patterns and wearing high conical masks, their bodies smeared with reddish clay, the men of the island silently mime an ancient legend in which 'the men of the trees', perhaps a primitive jungle folk, turn in panic as 'the canoe people' arrive from the sea. Primitive humans had almost certainly reached these islands before the ancestors of the Polynesians arrived the question is, who were they?
When the ancestral Polynesians entered the Pacific, they did not come empty-handed. The jungle fowl, ancestor of the chicken, originally wild in south-east Asia, is now wild throughout most inhabited islands of the Pacific. From their Asian homelands they also brought pigs, some still travel long distances strapped to the outriggers of canoes. dogs would also be wandering the decks of Polynesian double canoes, not intended as companions, but as food. These small brown or black dogs were an important part of Polynesian society. Their teeth would be made into decorative anklets, their hair into fringes for cloaks. The adult dogs were slothful, not hunters, but vegetarians. Often they were penned with pigs and fed on poi, a pudding made from taro roots. Once fattened they would be cooked in hot rocks and fed to chiefs, or strangled as offerings to the gods. Most valued of all were the delicious young puppies, though those that had been suckled by women, a common pracitce, were usually spared the table. The original native dog has now vanished from the Pacific, absorbed into breeds brought in by Europeans. The Pacific islands offered little for them to hunt, so they never escaped domestication to survive in the wild.
The influence of early human migrations in distributing animals around the Pacific was not inconsiderable. Possums and even tree kangaroos may have been deliberately introduced to the Bismarck Archipelago for food, as well as fruit bats to Tonga and the cook islands. Skinks and geckos travelled all over the Pacific on the thatching of shelters aboard canoes. small snakes, snails, insects and other creatures reached the islands as stowaways concealed in bundles of stored taro roots and yams. The arriving Polynesians quickly cleared coastal woodlands to grow taro, yams, coconuts, breadfruit, arrowroot, and sugar cane for eating. The screw pine was planted around their huts for posts, and its leaves were used for mats and sails. Bamboo served a host of purposes including the making of nose flutes and stamping pipes. Lagenaria vines would grow into gourds for water, ginger was brought in and now enlivens the forest with its beautiful read flowers. There were the seeds of candle-nut trees, whose nuts would provide oil for lamps when mature, as well as Cordia seeds whose trees would offer shade, and hibiscus for flowers and paddles. The wild ancestors of all these plants grow in tropical south-east Asia, providing further evidence that the Polynesians came from here.
There is one staple of the Polynesian diet whose arrival remains an enigma: the sweet potato. Its origins lie in the high Andes and it was present - principally in Easter Island, Hawaii and New Zealand - well before Europeans could have intruded it. It may be that the seeds of the sweet potato dispersed naturally to the islands, rafting on coconuts or even assisted by birds, but the distances are immense. Another enthralling explanation is that the Polynesians may have made contact with South America. It could be that south American people, as Thor Heyerdhal believes, carried the sweet potato on their rafts to the islands, but the seafaring tradition of the Polynesians was such that their migrations eastwards need not have stopped at Easter Island. We may never know if the Polynesians reached the shores of Peru or Ecuador but if they did they would instantly have recognized the potato tuber as a root crop they could adapt to their needs and would almost certainly have returned with it, particularly to Easter Island where the cooler conditions were less favourable for the tropical crops they had originally brought with them. The geographer Robert Langdon has recently discovered early translations which reveal that manioc was also in use on the islands at the time of the first European arrivals. similar explanations may account for its presence, but the controversy lingers.
For years it has been believed that the greatest era of change to the Pacific Island environment and its wildlife began with the arrival of the Europeans. The pest animals, virulent diseases and alien attitudes they brought certainly cut a swathe across the Pacific, but in the last few years it has become apparent that the process began much earlier. Then the first Polynesians arrived they quickly imposed their cultural heritage on a yielding landscape. Forests in coastal areas were felled so that crops could be planted, soon the destruction crept into the valleys and, as population expanded, even on to the steepest mountain slopes. The eye may be pleased by green mountains and valleys covered in low creeping Dicranopteris ferns and pink orchid blossoms mixed with patches of original forest, but these are the remnants of a ruined landscape cauterized each year by fire to provide fertile ash. Imported weeds quickly escaped and fared well on the scorched ground, defeating less vigorous endemic plants. Devoid of trees, the regularly burnt, thin volcanic soils lost goodness and slipped down slopes, spreading over river valleys and on to the reefs to create coastal plains. Many ring forts lie beneath the mud of the Rewa valley in Fiji, lost beneath this tide of ecological change in the mountains. The increasing land on the coast could not compensate for lost land in the mountains, growing populations found themselves pressed for fertile farmland. No longer were the island evolving alone. The Polynesians had unintentionally embarked upon a gigantic ecological experiment, and its consequences were to be disastrous for the natural life-support systems of the islands, endangering the precious resources upon which the immigrants themselves depended.
Much can be leant about Polynesian eating habits by looking in their kitchens. 'rubbish pits which are centuries old can be informative. As the decades passed, the number, size and variety of shellfish on the menu declined, and there was a dramatic reduction in turtles. Certain birds became 'off', and the number of fish fell. clearly the table was becoming barer. Most dramatic of all was the disappearance of bird life. In New Zealand so much forest was lost that it was originally thought to have been the result of climatic change after the ice Age. Now it is known that the first Maoris caused the trees to vanish, burning the landscape to plant crops and to hunt the extraordinary flightless moa. At one time there were thirteen or more species of this fascinating bird, some twice the size of an ostrich, others comparable to a turkey. within half a century of their arrival the Maori had dispatched them all, along with some twenty other species of flying bird including ducks, geese, and eagle and a crow. They also destroyed the North island fur seal rookeries.
Evidence of extinctions caused by the Polynesians in the islands of the pacific was first found at Barbers Point on Oahu in Hawaii in 1976. Yoshi Sinoto was excavating a sink hole for early human artefacts when he discovered some bird bones and sent them to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC for identification . The results were stunning; the bones belonged to numerous birds that no one knew existed before, including a large flightless goose and an ibis. Snails associated with human occupation, as well as the bones of skinks and geckos introduced by man, proved that the birds existed at the time of the arrival of the Polynesians extinguished perhaps forty species of bird prior to the European explorers' ever setting foot on the land. These discoveries have not gone down well with native Hawaiians anxious to maintain the myth of the Polynesians as guardians of paradise. it may be that the Polynesians were no better conservationists than modern Westerners - although their tools of destruction were much less effective than Europeans.
Since then more evidence has been uncovered at archaeological sites on other islands. The megapodes, once wide-spread in parts of the Central Pacific, were almost certainly clubbed to death by the Polynesians or vanished through the loss of their habitat. Now only those on Niuafo'ou in the Tongan Islands survive. In Samoa the catching of flying birds became a Chiefly sport. In the forest on Tutuila in American Samoa, a star-shaped mound on a hilltop was the ruin of a fort. Many are in fact ancient pigeon-catching grounds, scenes of great competition and skill. Chiefs would appoint catchers renowned for their art. Young pigeons taken from the nest were blinded with birds' claws and then trained to fly to the left or right from a perch while attached to a line of coconut sennit. Adult pigeons were attracted to these expertly flown decoys and, as they fluttered to the centre of the star mound, catchers leapt from their hiding places, armed with huge sweep nets on poles, and scooped them out of the air.
The Pacific Islanders did not always wish to capture animals for food. As their cultures became more complex there was a need to trade goods and to evolve a currency. In Papua New Guinea huge kina shells still decorate the chests of Big Men to signify their wealth. Sperm-whale teeth in Fiji assumed huge value as tambua, the currency of favours between chief, of political alliances, and of lives. Today in the Solomons shell money is still manufactured on Malaita and is traded extensively throughout the islands, principally to purchase wives. Round chips broken from shells similar to those of oysters are drilled and strung on to lengths of twine, or today of nylon fishing gut. Then they are sanded to necklaces of smooth disc-like beads of white, red and b lack. Those made entirely from the red rim of the shell have the greatest value, being the most laborious to obtain. As in the case of the stone money of yap, value is attributable according to the time spent in preparation. In the Solomons enormous bundles of white shell money-strings are used to buy a bride: five bundles if she is mediocre, ten if she is a catch.
To Melanesians and Polynesians, red feathers were also of great value for decoration and trade. The magnificent red musk parrots seen in Fiji are also found in Tonga, but they did not get there naturally, they were kidnapped by the Tongans. At the time there was a vibrant trade in the parrots' red feathers, which were used by Fijians to decorate the edges of fine mats for Chiefly occasions. The Tongans also valued them, and used to sail in their double-hulled canoes to Fiji in order to obtain them. some of the parrots were spirited away and released in Tongatapu, the trade in which Fiji had a commanding role in the Pacific was thus undermined. Once they were more widespread in the islands, they survive today only on the ancient island of Eua. The use of red feathers for decoration spread all the way from the Solomons north to Hawaii, and as far east as Tahiti. Small parakeets with red plumage such as Fiji's kula parrot were also popular and traded through the islands. Today these parrots and parakeets have become scarcer and dyed chicken feathers now decorate fine mats.
Further to the west of Fiji, in the Santa Cruz Islands, red feathers carried an even greater value, and were bound into a fascinating story of wealth, spirits, the exchange of wives, and prostitution. The cardinal honey-eater Myzomela cardinalis is widespread in the South pacific, ranging from Samoa to the eastern Solomons, related species also occur in Micronesia. it is smaller than a sparrow but styled like an emperor, the male has black wings and tail, while the rest of its feathers are splashed with scarlet. An elegant curving black beak allows it to probe the smallest flower, draining it of nectar with a forked tongue as efficient as a drinking straw. Red-feather money is only made on Santa Cruz island by a few specialists whose perceived knowledge of the correct taboos and easily offended spirits that guard the forest traditionally gives them the exclusive right to manufacture currency. First a bird-snearer must fashion small perches covered in sticky latex which he positions in a suitable tree, attaching a nectar-rich flower which is hard to resist or a live bird as decoy. concealing himself behind a blind of palm leaves, he chirps on a special whistle made from a tree bud, so attracting the males to the sticky perch and capturing them.
Most birds die once the red feathers have been plucked from them, but in Hawaii, where magnificent cloaked and helmets were also traditionally made from the red feathers of the abundant honey creepers as well as the highly-prized yellow feathers of much rarer honey-eaters, it as considered a great skill to remove them delicately and release the birds to grow a new set. Menfolk of the Reef and Duff Islands in the eastern Solomons would traditionally sail south, trading their women to Santa Cruz for feather money, which they were themselves unable to make. The feathers of the cardinal honey-eater were bound into belts up to ten metres long using the plumage of over 300 birds. In the past those women sold as concubines would fetch ten times as much as brides. The women themselves of course, derived no benefit from the trade. concubines lived in the men's meeting house, and the purchaser could purvey them as prostitutes, deriving high income from their services.
Feather money is still used occasionally for trading pigs, or even canoes. Inflation is negligible, because its value declines with age' the colour of the feathers fades even if they are wrapped in leaves and placed near smoky fires, and moths and mould also take their toll. The infiltration of the Australian dollar has, however, undermined the value of feather money. Although there are still few fathers who will marry off their daughters for dollars, the cardinal honey-eater's song is now heard more often in the forest on Santa Cruz.
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