Devoted to making discoveries
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser staff writer
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Deep in the bowels of the Bishop Museum, through the Great Hall where a royal canoe and lifesize whale hang overhead, past a courtyard and down a musty corridor lined with lockers filled with artifacts and meticulously labeled boxes filled with his life's work, you can find Yosihiko Sinoto, the man considered the archaeological equivalent of a demigod by many of our Pacific neighbors.
"If he ran for president in French Polynesia, he'd probably get elected," says Bill Brown, head of the Bishop Museum.
So why, when you meet the unassuming Sinoto, do you get the sense that he's more conscientious sidekick than Indiana Jones?
Perhaps it's the diminutive frame the top of his head just skims 5 feet or perhaps it's the thick, spotted epidermal layer tanned to cowhide after years at excavation sites under the unrelenting sun. More likely it's the mirthful smile and love of a good punch line that give him away as anything but a politician.
His name may not make the ballot, but you will find Sinoto in the history books: Known not just for his scientific breakthroughs, Sinoto's efforts are as far-reaching as the Pacific Ocean, helping to keep the ancient treasures of French Polynesia preserved and maintained in French Polynesia.
Ask him what he considers his most important discovery, and he talks about the concept of early Polynesian migration. He disputes the common assumption that Tahiti was the dispersal center depicted in Polynesian legend as an octopus' head, with legs going out where voyagers landed and went about their way. Sinoto's hypothesis is that the Marquesas might be the dispersal center. And further evidence, he says, supports this claim.
Sinoto can entertain for hours with his adventures in the Marquesas or in the Society Islands, including Huahine. And at 81, the adventures just keep coming.
"There's more work to be done!" says Sinoto, who cut back to half-time hours in 1994. "I have plenty of things to do, though my wife keeps saying I should retire. My head can do it, but my body ..."
He shakes his head as if to bemoan the sad state of his aged muscles, but don't believe it. Both his parents lived to be 94. And he still walks with a ramrod straight posture a beauty queen would envy.
When he takes visitors to Huahine, one of the Society Islands near Bora Bora and Raiatea, people have likened him to a mountain goat.
That's because, Sinoto jokes, he spends more time in the bushes than the tourists, who can be found in the bars.
Sinoto's fans are widespread, and not just the top brass at the Bishop Museum.
"The Tahitians love him," said Tom Dye of the archaeology firm T.S. Dye and Colleagues.
Dye explained that an early breakthrough for eminent ethnologist Kenneth Emory and his then-protege, Sinoto, was the use of fishhooks to help date archaeological finds in eastern Polynesia. In most places, archaeologists do that with pottery, which is scarce in most parts of Polynesia.
In archaeological terms, using artifacts to track change over time is like the holy grail, Dye said.
"The question for Kenneth and Yosi was, could these fishhooks tell us something about where Hawaiians come from?" Dye says.
Looking at the respective languages was also key for Emory and Sinoto, and that opened doors to similar insights. "That work has been shown to be correct by the next generation of linguists," Dye said.
On Huahine, later excavations by Sinoto revealed fishhooks similar to those the Hawaiians used, which established a connection between Hawai'i and Huahine. There, Sinoto also uncovered a now-famous site it was waterlogged, revealing preserved wooden artifacts that normally perish, such as original handles for adzes and a remarkable wooden canoe, Dye says.
"It really opened people's eyes to just how rich the ancient culture had been," Dye says.
On Huahine, Sinoto has been trying to convince the next generation to take up preservation and restoration.
Among the residents there, Dorothy Levy is among Sinoto's admirers: "He's Japanese, but in his heart, he's Tahitian," she says.
Levy worked closely with Sinoto on native cultural projects: "He was one of the first who came here to restore maraes" (ceremonial structures similar to heiau), she says, adding that Sinoto convinced the natives not to raid the marae for trinkets to sell to the tourists and to avoid pulling apart the stone structures to make roads.
"For a lot of people, in Huahine especially, he's very respected, not just as a scientist but as a friend, because he knows everybody and speaks the language," Levy said. "We don't even call him Dr. Sinoto, we call him Yosi. He's part of the family."
Sinoto recently returned from one of his trips he's been going almost annually since 1960 where he's working with government officials to protect the native treasures of the past.
For example, in 1972 he was asked to rebuild a fare pote'ea, or chief's meeting house.
"Archaeologists are always destroying sites," he says. "I'd like to (rebuild one). I did it, on the condition that we must have the money to maintain it in the current budget. It took two years to get it."
Sinoto pushed aside boxes in his packed office to share the tales of more than a half-century exploring Polynesia. Atop one of the boxes is a framed tribute and award with the name Kenneth Emory attached.
Sinoto gives a look of mock horror when it's suggested that Emory might be his mentor. He calls him his "kidnapper."
The son of a geneticist, Sinoto left Japan in 1954, a young archaeologist planning to study American Indian paleolithic culture at the University of California-Berkeley. In his pocket was a $150 check from his father.
Sinoto learned Emory was digging at South Point on the Big Island. His sponsor telegrammed him to get off the boat in Honolulu and head to the excavation site, but Sinoto was afraid he'd get into trouble with his visa if he did. The purser convinced him it was OK, and that led to a long though not necessarily lucrative association with Emory. He never made it to Berkeley to study.
Sinoto laughs when he thinks of his first paychecks.
"Emory gave me 25 cents an hour," he recalls. "I later learned minimum wage at that time was 65 cents."
Pinching pennies helped. Sinoto learned where to get a 10-cent sandwich made from heels of bread. But the association paid off in other ways: Bishop Museum director Alexander Spoehr and Emory later ponied up a $6,000 fellowship, enough to bring Sinoto's wife, Kazuko, and son, Aki, from Japan in 1957. They lived in a teacher's dormitory on the museum grounds.
When Emory and Sinoto traveled to Tahiti in 1960 for six months, Kazuko and Aki went back to Japan. Sinoto returned to his homeland to finish his thesis, but his long association with the Bishop Museum was set in stone.
Excavations were turning up remarkable things.
"The greatest archaeological finds are all accidental," Sinoto confides sagely.
In 1962, he'd crossed paths with Bruno, a male nurse on Maupiti, whom he'd met the previous year.
"I have something I want to show you," Bruno told Sinoto, and brought him to a friend's house, where Bruno had been staying.
As Sinoto tells this story, his voice is animated; his eyes are glinting with pleasure. He leans in, to tell the visitor exactly what Bruno brought out.
"Some whale-tooth pendants!" Sinoto says with a flourish.
Unfortunately, the visitor only blinks in response.
He repeats himself, as if perhaps you didn't understand his accented English: "Whale ... tooth ... pendants."
When Sinoto sees this is being met only with a blank stare, he continues:
"Now, this is not too exciting to you, but that type is only known to the early Maori culture," he explains patiently.
It would be the first of many links he would find between New Zealand and French Polynesia, partly answering a question that anthropologists the world over have wrestled with namely, how did the early voyagers traverse the Polynesian Triangle?
When he learned the pendants' origins from Bruno, Sinoto became determined to go to Maupiti. Trips to Maupiti led to more island excavations, and finally to the place where Sinoto would make his greatest mark: Huahine.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO HUAHINE
In 1972, while Sinoto was rebuilding the fare pote'ea (the round-ended chief's house), he learned from workers creating an artificial lagoon at the Hotel Bali Hai that they'd found some interesting things while dredging sand for fill.
"We found some big bones," they told him.
"How big?" he asked.
"Big!" they said.
He immediately went to investigate what turned out to be whale bones. The hotel's architect showed Sinoto a piece of bone. Sinoto recognized it as a patu, a hand weapon until then only known in New Zealand. Research would uncover evidence of the oldest known settlement in the Society Islands, including large canoe planks and a steering paddle even a mast.
Suddenly, the legends of Polynesian voyaging had tangible evidence.
MORE TO DO
It is impossible to catalog all of Sinoto's discoveries in a single story, but he's put more of them into a semi-biographical book. Unfortunately, it's only available in Japanese. Brown, the Bishop Museum president, is trying to get it translated.
Ask Sinoto what his saddest discovery was, and he grows contemplative before he tells this tale:
He's remembering a time during restoration of large temple sites for preservation, after the day's fieldwork had been done. It was a Friday, payday. The workers invited him to drink a few beers with them.
They were usually quiet, but after a few beers they opened up.
"Sinoto," they told him, "what you're doing, it's a waste of time and money. Our culture is gone, and we never learned about Polynesian culture in school. This would only benefit the French people and other tourists."
The anthropologist felt saddened by their words.
"Well," he pointed out in Tahitian, "Are you speaking Tahitian right now?"
They thought for a moment.
He was reminding them that language was an important part of culture, and therefore all was certainly not lost.
In that moment, the reason he keeps going so hard at 81 comes to you in a flash. You see what drives Sinoto, even before he adds his own epilogue:
"Even one person can do something about preserving culture."