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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 10, 2006

Researchers: east Polynesia settled later

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

New archaeological discoveries are radically changing our understanding of how the eastern Polynesian islands were settled, pointing to dates that are much more recent than anyone suspected.

The research suggests Hawai'i was part of a kind of regional eastern Polynesian homeland connected by well-traveled voyaging canoe routes and trade patterns. Its members included Hawai'i, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, the Society Islands, the Cook Islands, Aotearoa or New Zealand and other groups.

Two researchers say Hawai'i's initial settlement was probably between 800 A.D. and 1000 A.D.

The earlier settlement theory is "a much better explanation," said Rubellite Kawena Johnson, retired professor of Asian and Pacific Languages at University of Hawai'i and translator of the Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo.

She said Hawaiian traditions of voyages between Hawai'i and the Cook Islands, the Tuamotu atolls and other areas fit well with such a concept.

University of Hawai'i archaeology professor Terry Hunt in yesterday's issue of the journal Science tossed out earlier settlement dates for Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, and announced that the best evidence suggests the remote island was inhabited around 1200 A.D. Previous settlement estimates had been as early as 400 A.D., but Hunt said most of the early radiocarbon dates for the island were flawed for any of several technical reasons.

He conducted an extensive dig at the sand dunes of Anakena, the best canoe-landing spot on the island and traditionally the place the first voyager, Hotu Matua, landed. His team dated charcoal samples and rat-eaten palm nuts at about 1250 A.D. Polynesians are believed to have carried fast-breeding Polynesian rats to virtually every island they inhabited.


Renowned Pacific archaeologist Patrick Kirch, of the University of California at Berkeley, said he believes further work will find dates 100 or 200 years earlier on Rapa Nui, but not much earlier than that.

"I think we're close to tying this part of Polynesia down within a couple of hundred years," Kirch said. He has recently been working at Mangareva, "a logical stepping stone" for voyaging to Rapa Nui, and is getting dates in the 1000 A.D. range.

Recent dates for New Zealand are 1200 A.D. or later and about 1000 A.D. for the Marquesas Islands.

Kirch and University of Hawai'i archaeology professor Barry Rolett agree that Hawai'i was probably first settled between 800 and 1000 A.D. perhaps before the Marquesas.

Veteran Bishop Museum archaeologist Yosi Sinoto, long a proponent of earlier settlement, is uneasy with all the new work.

"Radiocarbon dates are a problem. Recent data are showing younger dates than before, but whether that is right or not, we need to see. I think that more supporting evidence is coming up" that the Marquesas were a cultural center and a source of migrations, he said.

"We have material culture (such as adzes and fishhooks) examples that go from A to B, and B to C. Whether it takes 100 or 500 years to go from A to B can change with dating results, but you can't change the sequence," Sinoto said. "I don't think the migration sequence changes much."


There is little disagreement on the first steps of the Polynesian migration in the Pacific, which brought the Polynesian culture into western Polynesia Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. There, the islanders paused before new voyaging began, probably from somewhere in Samoa.

Orthodox migration theory holds that voyages from Samoa into eastern Polynesia started 2,000 to 2,500 years ago, but recent archaeology suggests it was more like 1,400 or 1,500 years ago, said David Burley, chairman of archaeology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Archaeologists believe that the island voyagers began an aggressive, unprecedented, nonstop period of discovery, locating islands across a vast expanse of the Pacific, all from about 800 A.D. to 1200 A.D.

"Most of the large archipelagos were settled about the same time," Rolett said.

And the voyaging didn't stop there.

Rolett argues that eastern Polynesia functioned as a confederation with strong trade connections. Canoes carried basalt adzes from Marquesan quarries to Tuamotuan atolls. Samoan adz materials appear in archaeological sites in the Cook Islands.

Mangareva provided basalt cooking stones and pearl shell for fishhooks to Henderson Island. The southern Cooks got pearl shell from northern atolls or the Society Islands. New varieties of breadfruit were carried between Tahiti and the Marquesas.

Then, mysteriously, the voyaging suddenly ended between 1300 A.D. and 1400 A.D. throughout the "regional homeland."

Herb Kane, a sailor, artist and co-founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society who helped revive Polynesian canoe voyaging and navigation, feels there are still answers to be found.

"Archaeology, it can be safely said, is only scratching the surface literally. It is a very exciting time we're living in," he said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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