By Peter Marsh
Hokulea - discovers Tahiti ('the distant land') from Hawai'i ('the homeland').
Painting by Herb Kane
This website explores the genetic, cultural and geographical origins of the Polynesian people.
For a personal experience and immersion into the Polynesian Culture,
visit the Polynesian cultural Center
The mysterious origins of the Polynesians, is a subject that has generated a great deal of controversy over the years. The Polynesians live in some of the most isolated communities in the world, yet the people of Polynesia possess a richness of culture, that indicates a great deal of interaction has occurred with other cultures in their formative years. They are a wise, proud, competitive and spiritually aware culture, possessing a complex society with Kings and Queens. Hardly the sort of culture one would expect to be generated amongst a small group of isolated individuals living on coral atolls and small volcanic islands.
Despite this, many scientists still believe Polynesian society has emerged from a small group of individuals out of the 'big man' Melanesian society, a society which is structured in a completely different manner to Polynesian society. Melanesians take the richest, most charismatic man as their leader, whereas Polynesians have a complex class society that is based on a hereditary system that goes back 16,000 years to a lady called Lailai, royalty is termed 'Ali'i' and the name for female 'hine', is from the ancient Sumerian moon goddess hina, suggesting some very deep roots in the old world. Many scientists still believe Polynesians 'mysteriously' lost their dark skin, frizzy hair, their Melanesian genes and their knowledge of pottery when they arrived in Polynesia - an assumption that has no credible scientific backing. Eastern Polynesians worshipped different gods to the Melanesians, they used different sailing craft (catamarans, not outrigger canoes), different tools and artifacts, including; tikis, grinding pestles, the use of jade, harpoons, lures and two piece fishhooks which are more similar in design to Kwakuitl and Haida artefacts of Canada.
Maori Tiki Canoe builder, by Herb Kane Tiki from NW Coast Canada
Confusion over their Origins
Lapita Pottery - Asian or Middle Eastern?
For many years it seemed that the truth about Polynesian origins was going to slip from our grasp forever, but recently, genetics has started to provide us with the answers we have all been looking for. As a result, the understanding of world prehistory and in particular, Pacific prehistory is undergoing some radical new changes.
Lapita pottery has long been held as the key to Polynesian colonization of the Pacific, despite there being no hard evidence to prove it. In fact the deeper one delves into the archaeology (tool comparisons), chronology (time of habitation), oral history (legends of origin), skeletal morphology and gene trees (ancestral trails) of the Pacific one finds that the connection between Polynesian society and the Lapita culture is very tenuous indeed.
Many scientists still firmly believe that the Polynesians made Lapita pottery, despite the fact that this pottery is not found in Polynesia. It is only found on Western Pacific Islands amongst Melanesian artifacts. On many Melanesian islands archaeological deposits show there have been very few changes in culture right up to the pottery making society that still exists on these islands today. Contrasting this, in Tonga and Samoa, there is a large chronological gap of ~500 years between the end of Lapita and beginning of Polynesian habitation. Furthermore, no Polynesian style artefacts have ever been found amongst Lapita pottery in Tonga or amongst post-Lapita plainware pottery in Samoa. As I read more and more papers on the subject, I realised there was no connection between Polynesians and the Lapita people whatsoever. Not one piece of hard evidence - anywhere. Despite this, I found many students and scientists started their research by assuming without question, that Lapita was Polynesian. As this is clearly an incorrect assumption, any paper based on this misconception has little to no scientific merit.
It seemed that many scientists due to the specialized nature of their research, were unable to see the forest for the trees with regard to cultural connections between Polynesians and other societies around the world. Stepping back and examining the bigger picture of human prehistory has led to some surprising revelations.
As a result, I have come to realise that there are many fundamental misconceptions regarding the prehistory of man that need to be addressed before the colonization of the Pacific can be fully understood.
These can be summarised as follows:
1. Genetic trails indicate there has been a great deal more trans oceanic voyaging in ancient times than previously thought, yet migration routes continue to be drawn via land only. The Bering land bridge/ice free corridor theory with regard to the colonization of America has now found to be incorrect. Instead, genetics appears to indicate the Kuroshio current of the North Pacific was the main pathway from Asia to America.
2. Genetic studies of present island populations only describe the ancestral tree of the present inhabitants. Unless there was significant interbreeding during an extended changeover period there may be no genetic evidence of previous inhabitants. Archaeological digs on Pacific islands commonly show large chronological gaps between sites, suggesting there was no connection between present and past populations, possibly due to natural catastrophes.
3.Natural catastrophes, especially tsunamis, have repeatedly seriously altered the development of human populations around the world, yet have been ignored by most researchers. Gradualism does have its place in the genesis of a society, but catastrophes do occur.
4. Rising sea levels since the last ice age have obscured most of the evidence that ancient maritime civilizations have left, yet very little serious research has been done looking for evidence of past civilizations underwater.
5. There have been many peaks in the development of organized human society in the last 100,000 years. The categorization of early man as a 'primitive' hunter/gatherer society has dumbed down our perception of these people who had the same intelligence as you and me.
6. Past periods of globalization - mainly through sea trade, have been many, and a comparative analysis of languages, genetics, archaeology and cultures around the world, clearly shows that many trans-oceanic connections have occurred between seemingly unrelated cultures in the past. Unfortunately diffusionist theories are out of fashion at present.
7. The Americas have played a much bigger part in world prehistory than previously accepted, yet the official story is that Christopher Columbus was the first person to cross the Atlantic, despite a plethora of evidence to the contrary. For example; the Clovis hunters have now been shown through tool similarities and petroglyphs, to have come to America from France/Spain (Solutreans) by boat up approx 15,000 years ago.
DNA Shedding light on the subject
Genetics is showing that there has been far more cross-cultural interaction between the “Old World” and the “New World” than ever imagined. For example: 15,000 year old Caucasian genes have been found in North America and South America (Araucano); 10,000 year old African DNA has been found amongst Amazon people. 6-8,000 year old Taiwanese genes have been found amongst the west coastal people of America. 3-4,000 year old Mayan genes have even been found in Greece and Greek genes have been found in Peru (James L. Guthrie). It has now been determined that 6-8,000 year old South East Asian and East Asian genes, rather than Siberian genes form the basis of populations in Canada, California, Central America, South America and Polynesia. In fact the Bering land bridge hypothesis appears to have no scientific backing whatsoever. Scientists are beginning to admit there was no ice free corridor during the height of the last Ice Age. The only people to use this route were the Pan Polar cultures, people that were already adapted to living in a cold climate, and chose to stay there. Instead, the entry of Asians into America appears to have been by sea, utilizing the Kuroshio current and westerly winds of the North Pacific.
Contrary to popular belief, genetic evidence indicates that Polynesia was not populated via Melanesia, but was populated by people who have ancient connections to the Tibetans and Thais (Katsushi Tokunaga). Specific genetic markers and bottlenecks indicate they left East Asia 6000 years ago (Mark Stoneking & Bing Su), but did not spend any time in Micronesia nor Melanesia (Susan Searjantson, Johnathon Friedlaender), but instead spent ~4,000 years in Alaska and Canada and arrived in Hawaii 2,200 years ago (Bing Su). Many genetic, cultural and artifact similarities with the Haida and Kwakuitl of Canada confirm this connection. Other groups from Central and South America appear to have influenced cultures of the Pacific after this initial period of colonisation. The absence of DNA evidence from the people of South America could be threefold. Firstly the sea traders of Peru - the Paracas people ar ethe most likely group to have entered the Pacific. They were red heads which as most people know, red heads carry recessive DNA. Furthermore these red heads of South America may have been a remnant cro magnon population with rhesus negative blood. Interbreeding with the Polynesians would have been catastrophic. The third reason for their disappearance was recorded in Easter Island history and the survival of the red haired long ear - Ororiana. Due to the domineering (slavery) and brutal ways (practice of human sacrifice) of the red heads, the Polynesians resolved to eliminate them in the Pacific.
Genetic and cultural evidence is now showing that ocean currents have indeed played a much bigger part in assisting with man's colonisation of the World than ever expected. Many modern scholars have, grossly underestimated the ability of early man to successfully navigate the oceans. They have assumed the ocean to be a barrier to cultural interaction, but now, genetics is highlighting similar gene pools on opposite sides of the oceans, indicating that ocean currents have acted like rivers distributing man around the planet. Proof that the oceans were seen as highways in ancient times, are 20,000 year old paintings in Borneo and the Kimberley region of Australia (Gwion Gwion or Bradshaw paintings) showing high prowed ocean going boats with over 30 people in them. The Borneo paintings depict dozens of boats, suggesting it is describing a story of a specific migration.
The following chart is from a paper by Hansong Wang etal, named Self-reported ethnicity, genetic structure and the impact of population stratification in a multiethnic study
They examined genetic structure in a large racially and ethnically diverse sample consisting of five ethnic groups of the Multiethnic Cohort study (African Americans, Japanese Americans, Latinos, European Americans and Native Hawaiians) using 2,509 SNPs distributed across the genome.
This chart in effect shows the path of homo sapiens out of Africa (red) showing a considerable genetic distance to the Middle East (brown) and Central south Asia (pale blue). There is a considerable genetic distance to East Asia (orange) but then America (purple) displays a very close but distinct genetic relationship to East Asia. Native Hawaiians (blue) clearly appear to be an offshoot of the American genome, showing America as the stepping stone for Eastern Polynesians into the Pacific.
Here is a summary of blood/genetic information that confirms the link between Japan/Taiwan, America and Polynesia;
Natural catastrophic events have also heavily influenced the history of man. Geologists have found numerous examples of major catastrophic events, (meteor strikes) that have ended the reign of specific plants and animals in the distant past. Similarly, the history of man has also been punctuated by many lesser catastrophes involving meteor strikes which have caused volcanic eruptions (Ice core samples often show Iridium in volcanic ash layers), earthquakes, tsunamis, earth dimming events, drought and ice ages. These events have been identified in Antarctic and Greenland ice cores as well as in tree ring analysis and appear to coincide with major upheavals in human prehistory seen as genetic bottlenecks and the 'End of Ages' in native folklore. These catastrophic natural events have ended periods of globalisation, leaving isolated pockets of people to reinvent society as they see fit. Hence the old saying; "The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth." It seems that history does repeat itself, therefore, by looking into our past we have an insight into predicting the future.
Linguists have now shown that the Austronesian language spoken in the Solomon islands is the most ancient form of this language, estimated to be over 15,000 years old. The Polynesian version of Austronesian is from Taiwan only 6,000 years ago, showing a direction of dispersal opposite to what has previously been believed.
Furthermore, Austronesian words are common in both Central America (Maya, Lenca) and amongst Quechua tribes along the West Coast of South America, helping to confirm cultural influence from East Asia 6-8,000 years ago.
The Polynesians - clearly a seafaring culture, are undoubtedly a product of this untold history. Their genesis is not of a singular nature, there have been many contributions from both the east and the west. The society that Captain Cook and other European explorers saw was a snapshot of a society that had seen many changes in its long history spanning over 16,000 years. This society which spent the last 2,200 years in the Pacific has a very deep history from a number of very different areas - least of which is Melanesia.
1.Village in the rainforested hills of Fiji. Photo: L Marsh. 2. Atoll lagoon.
The classic images of tropical island living.
lush tropical environment is something most Polynesians and Melanesians do have
in common. Adaption to this common environment has caused these dissimilar cultures to merge and appear more similar that they really are.
Towards a new Understanding of Pacific Colonisation
The possibility that America has played a big part in the populating of the Pacific has been a taboo subject for many years, despite the fact that wind and ocean currents prevail from that direction. Fortunately a new generation of free thinking scientists are examining the genetic evidence and are reexamining all the American connections that have for so long been swept under the carpet. As a result, ancient legends that have been ignored and misunderstood, can now be given back their 'mana' and the 'American Isolationists' will soon be seen as branch members of the 'Flat Earth Society'.
Exodus from Taiwan
The route taken by the Polynesians to Hawai'i is recorded in the The Ancient History of Hookumu Ka Lani & Hookumu Ka Honua by Solomon L.K. Peleioholani. This legend is confirmed by genetic evidence outlined in later chapters.
Haida Gwai'i is strictly the homeland of the Haida, but four related tribes - the Tlingit, Kwakuitl, Nuutka and Salish all have much in common (genetically and culturally) with the Polynesians. The Pima and Maya are also closely genetically related to Polynesians.
Tiki Petroglyphs from the Taino people in the Virgin Islands are almost identical to Bella Coola and East Asian petroglyphs and show the extent of the migrations of the "Tai/Hai" people after the destruction of their Megalithic civilization 6-8,000 years ago by rising sea levels as seen in numerous underwater ruins between Taiwan and Japan.
Archaeological evidence now shows that the first Americans were Caucasians (Cro Magnon man) from Spain and France (Solutreans) who began sailing into the Gulf of Mexico (Clovis) and colonising the East coast of America between 18,000 and 13,000 years ago. Most of this population was killed when a meteor struck the Canadian ice shield spraying the whole of North East America with ice and water (Carolina Bays).
It is interesting that the last major rise in sea level, 6-8,000 years ago coincides with both; an exodus from Asia via the Kuroshio Current to America, as well as an exodus out of America via the Gulf Stream back to Europe, these Caucasians returned from America as accomplished seafarers, ending their genetic isolation away from Europe as seen in the genetic record of the Berber, Basque, Armorican and Irish people to become the Celtic Sea Kings and Serpent Warriors (viz spiral/serpent decorations, Dingle Peninsula). Anasazi legends describe the sinking of the large land now the Bahama Banks (the gateway to Europe via the Gulf Stream). Interestingly Anasazi Petroglyphs, legends and language has much in common with the Irish and Basque people. Irish legend also speaks of Hi Brazil - whether there is a memory of the blond haired cloud people (Chachapoya) of the Andes (high Brazil) remains to be seen.
Exodus from Harappa
The exodus of Blonde/Red haired Caucasians (Urukehu) out of Harappa in 1500BC is described in a Maori legend which describes Central America as "The Long Skinny Land" and Peru as "The Very Large Land." The exodus of the Charapa people from Puna Island into the Pacific is described in the Rongo Rongo tablets of Rapa nui (see Appendix). Other Peruvian and Marquesan legends describe the voyage of Kon Tiki Viracocha into the Pacific from Peru.
Verifying the arrival of Caucasians into the Pacific are the Moai of Rapa nui who sport classic Caucasian features - thin lips and aquiline noses. The red haired families of Rapa nui are direct descendants of these people.
The Melanesian expansion Eastwards to Fiji and beyond is directly related to Lapita pottery in the archaeological record.
Fijian legend has it that their ancestors came from Lutunasobasoba who arrived from Tanganyika. Degei (Serpent warrior) is another ancestral figure.
The Lapita people were most likely red haired individuals living amongst the Melanesians, their descendants can be seen in the red haired people of Missima Is and the blond haired Tolai - The Bismarke archipelago is the center of the Lapita culture.
There are three theories as to the origins of the red heads in Melanesia.
1. Their time of arrival in the Bismark Archipelago ~1500BC suggests a connection to an exodus of these people from NW India by the Dravidians (Lapita people).
2. They are a remnant population of an early Cro Magnon expansion into the Pacific ~13,000 years ago
3. They may be connected to an extinct population in Micronesia (Taga Man) where massive megalithic ruins cover many Islands.
The voyage of Egyptian navigator Maui in 232BC is covered in a later chapter. As Maui is in Polynesian history, his influence on Polynesian culture should not be underestimated.
The earliest expansion of Homo sapiens into Melanesia were the Pygmies 100,000 years ago bringing Malaria (Plasmodium Falciparum).
Another expansion of Africans occured 10,000 years ago bringing a different Malarial strain (Plasmodium Vivax) to Panama and the Western Pacific and may have been responsible for the spread of South American Coconut, Afro/American cotton, African gourd, African Jackbean across the Pacific.
New Guinea people have been found to be extremely genetically diverse which is also reflected in the variation of language groups in the area, indicating that many migrations into the area have occurred since the dawn of man (Johnathon Friedlaender).
Around 1500BC, the Olmec civilization flourished which it has been argued has both African (Mande) and Chinese (Shang) influences in its culture. Clearly 1500 BC was a time of blossoming of many cultures - all conducting sea trade with each other sharing ideas, but all developing their own individual character by enhancing or rejecting ideas from other cultures.
The Big Picture
The hypothesis put forward in this website is not a new one, many scholars in the 19th Century, with their intuition and innocence, expressed similar beliefs to what is in this article. Even Captain Cook believed there to be a connection between the Maori and the Kwakuitl (of Vancouver Is). Little did they know that genetics over one hundred years later would prove them to have been much closer to the truth than most modern scientists. Firstly, before the advent of DNA, blood Groups of the people of the NW coast of America, Canada and Alaska were found to be remarkeably similar to Polynesians, Then a rare antigen; HLA Bw48 linked these people directly to Polynesians (Susan Serjeantson) and the Polynesian specific 9bp deletion (not found in Melanesia) was also found to be shared with groups such as the Tlingit, Kwakuitl, Haida, Salish, Chumash, Pima andMaya.
Genetics describes a very different story to what we have been taught in school about the prehistory of man. There have been repeated genetic inputs into populations around the world far more regularly than previously thought and the face of man has been continually changing through time. It is all too easy and sometimes convenient for one to believe that everything stays the same, but we know that not to be the case. We need to listen to this new story and stop trying to make it fit into all the old hypotheses by ignoring these new crucial pieces of genetic evidence that connects cultures on opposite sides of ocean. Many cultural similarities have been put down to 'parallel evolution', but with common ancestry visible in the genes, this whole field needs to be reexamined.
More recent scholars/writers such as Thor Heyerdahl (American Indians in the Pacific), Charles Hapgood (Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings), Graham Hancock (Kingdoms of the Ice Age), Andrew Collins (Gateway to Atlantis) and Barry Fell (America BC) did not go far enough in their assertions regarding our much deeper human history and the seafaring abilities of previous civilizations. Graham Hancock gathered evidence from Sanscrit writings of a fifteen thousand year old Tamil civilization encompassing Southern India and the Maldives which had academies of learning. This is just one example showing that we should not dumb down our perception of people 15,000 years ago. Mere hunters and gatherers - I think not.
It seems that many scientists and authors of articles that disagree with mainstream ideas on prehistory have been repeatedly ridiculed and condemned for their work. Archaeological sites and genetic studies that have had the potential to upend mainstream views have been refused funding repeatedly. Conversely, graduates are given copious amounts of funding for doing research on subjects that stroke the ego of the professor in control of the program, creating an end result that is far from the truth. The longer these professors sit in their ivory towers ignoring the truth the more foolish they will become. Bizarre and obscure theories such as the 'fast train', 'slow train' and 'entangled bank' have confused the issue even more, driving people away from subject in a cloud technical jargon and misinformation. Unfortunately, as time moves on, legends, culture and language is lost and it becomes progressively harder to find the truth and easier for so called authorities on the subject to distort the facts, hide the truth and ignore areas of study which might debunk their own fragile hypothesis.
Although this website's main objective is to explore the genetic and geographical origins of the Polynesian people, in so doing, it has led me far back in history, leading me to realise that it is not merely Pacific prehistory that has been misinterpreted. Unexplained parallels between civilized societies around the world have perplexed researchers ever since the study of world cultures began. Supernatural or cosmic intervention has often been the only way such parallels could be explained, but it seems the answer is much simpler - sea trade.
Cultural and technological traits common to cultures on opposite sides of the planet are clearly shadows of past maritime civilizations that have been and gone in our distant past. Natural catastrophes have all but wiped out whole civilizations (eg; Atlantis) and the survivors have regrouped and reinvented culture according to what was remembered and what was appropriate under the new and devastated environmental conditions. Rising sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age have all but obliterated any solid evidence of these civilizations prior to 6,000 years ago. The re-emergence of culture after this catastrophic period of an ice age meltdown is logically around lakes and rivers away from the ocean, such as the; Tigris/Euphrates, Indus, Hwang Ho, Nile, Lake Chad, Lake Titicaca, Lake Baikal etc. This regrouping of societies away from the ocean has unfortunately been percieved as "The beginning of society" and it is this misunderstanding that has stood in the way of intelligent discussion regarding this earlier period societal evolution.
Slowly, with modern science at our fingertips, and an unbiassed mind, this picture of a much more complex past is beginning to take shape. Genetics is showing quite clearly that the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans were crossed many times in the past, especially from 12,000 years ago through to the Bronze Age, contributing significantly to the commonality of culture between America and 'the old world' which will be discussed in later chapters. Sea trade connections between America and 'the old world' was lost with the advent of the Roman Empire which destroyed both the Phoenicians and the Celtic Sea Kings. With this tragedy, almost all seafaring knowledge was lost to the western world until people began sifting through the libraries of Spain and Turkey in the 13-15th centuries, relearning some of this lost knowledge.
This may be diverging from Polynesian history a little, but until this bigger picture of the changing face of man - especially in America, can be fully understood, one cannot make sense of anamolous research findings with regard to the dispersal of man out of America of which the Polynesian story is very much a part of. Of particular interest are the origins of a rapidly disappearing breed of man represented by the; red haired Easter Islanders (the Long Ear Ororoina and his descendants); the Auriaria of Samoa; the Ururkehu and the Waitaha people of New Zealand - all of which are very much a part of the Polynesian story.
I trust with the broad coverage of this article, you will see the importance of bringing together such a diverse range of very specialized disciplines which has enabled us to see the big picture of human prehistory. The Polynesians are a product of this ancient and complicated past. May you find the following pages both stimulating and educational.
If you wish to contact the author and discuss any of the issues covered in this article
feel free to contact me at; email@example.com
An archaeology of West Polynesian prehistory by Anita Smith
Pandanus Books, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies
Australian National University Canberra 2002
Ancient Polynesian Society by Irving Goldman, University of Chicago Press 1970
An early chronology of the Hawaiian Island s by Terry L. Hunt and Robert M. Holsen
Asian Perspectives 29(3):147-161. 1991
Melanesian origin of Polynesian Y chromosomes . by Manfred Kayser, Silke Brauer, Gunter Weiss, Peter A. Underhill, Lutz Roewer, Wulf Schiefenhövel and Mark Stoneking Current Biology Oct 2000
Out of Asia - Peopling the Americas and the Pacific Edited by Robert Kirk and Emoke Szathmary Pacific and Asian History 1985
Polynesian Voyagers by Elsdon Best, Auckland Museum ~1920
The Ancient Hawaiian History of Hookumu Ka Lani & Hookumu Ka Honua' by Solomon L.K. Peleioholani Bishop Museum Honolulu ~1890
The Colonization of the Pacific – A Genetic Trail Edited by Adrian Hill and S.W. Serjeantson 1989 pp 135,162-163,166-7 Oxford University Press 1989
The Lapita cultural complex - origins, distribution, contemporaries and successors by Matthew Spriggs in Out of Asia: Peopling of the
Americas and the Pacific edited by R. Kirk and E. Szathmary pp.185-206. Journal of Pacific History, Canberra 1985
The Lost Caravel Revisited by Robert Langdon ANU Press 1988
The Proud Chilkat ' by Brendan and Lauri Larson, 1977
Created: October 2002,
Catastrophes and Ancient America pages revised May 2004,
Genetics pages revised May 2005
Lapita page revised April 2008