The State of Aloha

The Pacific Ocean is enormous. Its size is so big that it’s almost beyond human comprehension. The same waters lapping the shores of Canada, California and Mexico are part of the same ocean surrounding Japan, the Chinese coast and Australia. It covers 30 percent of the Earth’s surface, and is in some places it’s more than 10,000 miles wide.

That’s where we are. Right in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. Hawaii and the rest of Polynesia are among the last places inhabited by humans on the planet. It’s generally agreed that New Zealand in the far south is the last (or newest) permanent settlement of humans. That was only 750 years ago.

The Hawaiian Islands come in as the penultimate settlement. Archaeologists estimate that the first Hawaiians came to these islands approximately 1,600 years ago without a compass or modern-day navigation tools.

The migrations of Pacific Islanders are one of the most stunning and amazing human achievements. Who were they? Where did they come from? That is a tricky question that has beguiled anthropologists, linguists and historians for decades.

The commonly held explanation begins with broken pottery shards. Archaeologists began discovering a distinct type of red pottery shard and design in artifacts all over the western Pacific in places like New Guinea, Melanesian islands like New Caledonia, and farther east in Tonga and Samoa. The shards and artifacts were named after the original site in New Caledonia, Lapita.

From this evidence a theory began to emerge. A people — nicknamed “Lapita people” — migrated slowly and surely out of southeastern Asia around 1500 B.C. They spread farther and farther east to more and more remote island groups until they reached the Polynesian islands roughly around 1000 B.C.

By the time we get to Samoa, Tonga and eventually Hawaii and New Zealand, most of the pottery shards are nowhere to be found. But distinct designs on tattoos and tapa mats resemble the similar designs on pots found near Lapita. Of course, the migration of the Lapita people wasn’t slow and steady. Many anthropologists think it occurred in fits and starts.

Linguists support this theory too. Polynesian languages are part of a family of languages called the Austronesian, a large classification of tongues that include the indigenous languages of Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Indonesia and even Madagascar.

Not everyone, however, agrees with this theory. Perhaps the most famous critic of the Lapita people theory is the celebrity explorer and scholar Thor Heyerdahl. He hypothesized that the Polynesians never traveled eastward from Asia. He believed that they came from Peru and South America.

His evidence? The sweet potato — a uniquely American tuber — is a mainstay in the Polynesian diet. How else did it get to places like Samoa, Tahiti and, of course, Hawaii? Heyerdahl’s answer was simple: The ancestors of Polynesians were sun-worshipping Incas traveling west. They settled on Easter Island and kept moving westward until they reached Tonga.

He set out to prove it too. Seventy-two years ago, Heyerdahl captured the world’s imagination when he set sail on the Kon Tiki, a ship presumably constructed by the technology and materials available to the ancient Incas. With a crew of four others, they moved westward off the coast of South America and made it to the Tuamotos in French Polynesia. They sailed roughly 5,000 miles in 101 days.

As with many theories, there were problems with Heyerdahl’s hypothesis. Moreover, the Kon Tiki started its voyage on the high seas. The crew and the boat were towed off the coast and passed the massive Humboldt Current. Many believe that had the ancient Incas (and Heyerdahl) attempted to reach Polynesia from the actual Peruvian shore, the current would have swept them far south to Antarctic waters.

Dr. Wade Davis, an equally adventurous academic, criticized Heyerdahl. He wrote that the Norwegian “ignored the overwhelming body of linguistic, ethnographic, and ethnobotanical evidence, augmented today by genetic and archaeological data, indicating that he was patently wrong.”

Scientific evidence obtained in this century puts Heyerdahl’s hypothesis to rest. Genetic research among Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians suggests that the first migrations came out of New Guinea 6,000 to 8,000 years ago and that they left the Asian mainland 10,000 years ago.

If Heyerdahl is wrong and if the Polynesians’ ancestors came from places like Southeast Asia and New Guinea, then just how did the potato get to Hawaii and the rest of the Pacific? The answer for many is the Polynesians themselves. Heyerdahl is wrong. The Incas did not introduce potatoes to the islands; the islanders made it to South America and took the potatoes (and chickens for that matter) themselves. Pacific Islanders were more than capable of making landfall in South America before Europeans encountered them.

The Hokule’a has shown the world that pre-contact Hawaiian navigation and technology are capable of guiding a journey across the great Pacific Ocean. There is evidence to support that the potatoes and chickens in Polynesian island culture came from South America.

The debate will surely continue, but what remains undisputed is the significant achievement of the migrations themselves. The vast Pacific Ocean was mastered by sailors thousands of years ago — without any help from Europeans.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”