Ancient Migrations: the evidence of Oceania

Moai at Rano Raraku by Aurbina at Wikipedia Commons
Moai at Rano Raraku by Aurbina at Wikipedia Commons

In earlier post I talked about the fact that some places that appear remote -such as the Arctic- have long experienced globalization. Norse traders left their signs in the Canadian High Arctic centuries before Columbus, while an Inuit artist carved a small wooden statue  of a European visitor with a cross on its chest, and European style clothing. But a Chinese coin in the Yukon, and a Viking outpost in Newfoundland, Canada, are not the only relic of these ancient cross-oceanic movements of people and goods.

Perhaps no location on earth is as remote as Easter Island, an island located over 2000 miles to the west of South America in the Pacific. But there has long been evidence that before European discovery in 1722, the islanders had already made contact with the Americas, given that they cultivated sweet potatoes, a crop from the Americas. But now we have more direct evidence, in the genetics of the Rapa Nui, the indigenous peoples of Easter Island. A recent study has found that genes from the native peoples of the Americas entered the Rapa Nui population between 19 and 23 generations ago. In a sense this is unsurprising, because the Polynesians were such incredible travelers that they had settled remote islands throughout vast areas of the Pacific. If they could reach New Zealand -and the sub-Antarctic islands to its south, including the Antipodes- why not South America? If you are curious about learning more about these people -and their amazing navigation skills- please see Tom Koppel’s work, Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific. While people know about the strange statues of Easter Island, they may not be familiar with Nan Madol and other wonders.

Koppel’s work was prescient, because it talked not only about the presence of sweet potatoes on Easter Island (p. 181), but also Chilean archaeologists’ discovery of chickens (a bird from South East Asia) at an indigenous site on the Chilean coast (p. 308), as evidence of trans-oceanic voyages. Indeed, when the Spanish arrived they reported that the Incas used chickens in their ceremonies (p. 309). So these new genetic tests provide information that is useful but not surprising. After all, as many people know Thor Heyerdahl had long ago hypothesized that oceanic voyages had taken place between the Americas and the Polynesian world. Of course, with the voyage of the Kon Tiki Heyerdahl had sought to prove that the travel had taken place in the opposite direction (Koppel, 130-133). But his fundamental insight -that the presence of sweet potatoes in Oceania provided evidence of ancient contact, and that master mariners could navigate thousands of miles long before the Europeans- was sound. As Koppel described, later computer simulations proved the extreme improbability of accidental voyages from South America reaching the Pacific islands, including Hawaii (134-135). But directed travel, of course, was another matter.

There is a footnote to this discovery. Sweet potato was found not only in Easter Island but also throughout the Polynesian world. And its discovery was ancient enough that it had become an element in myth. In New Zealand, for example, the Maori called sweet potato kumara. In their legends, Pou-rangahua had visited a Homeland so distant that he had only been able to return on the back of a giant bird, in order to bring kumara to his people. My favorite detail in the story is that he had slung two bags of kumara across the back of the bird (see A.W. Reeds, Maori Myth: the Supernatural World of the Maori, pp. 54-55. The beautiful artwork of Roger Hart make this book a must for anyone interested in Polynesian myth). There were many other myths of the emergence of kumara, which the goddess Pani gave birth to in one story. The fact that all these myths illustrated is that there must have been contact not only between Easter Island and the Americas, but also between Easter Island and some homeland, from which the sweet potato had traveled on to New Zealand.

If so, these trade routes in ancient Oceania must have been much more active than most scholars have recently thought, and have endured for longer than suspected. Ironically, early scholars took the oral traditions preserved very seriously, (especially those preserved in New Zealand’s Maori academies, the whare wānanga. See Reed, Maori Myth, p.9). The Maori retained memories of the first trip to New Zealand- and what their ancestors said upon their return (Donald Mackenzie, South Seas, 37). They even recounted descriptions of travel by a great explorer (Ui-te-Rangiora) to a region that some people have argued sounds like Antarctica; at least, this tradition describes a polar region where the seas froze, and there was hardly ever light. Of course, some of these early scholars were insufficiently critical. Donald McKenzie argued that there were cultural links between Ancient Egypt and Polynesia, for example (p. 116). Still, authors such as S. Percy Smith and McKenzie took Polynesian oral traditions seriously, with a faith that now seems well placed; it may be that we will find more evidence of great Polynesian voyages with time.

n  Bradshaw rock paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, taken at a site off Kalumburu Road near the King Edward River. Bradshaw Art, uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by TimJN1
Bradshaw rock paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, taken at a site off Kalumburu Road near the King Edward River. Bradshaw Art, uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by TimJN1

Easter Island is not unique in its unexpected connections in Oceania. Rock art in northern Australia also shows images of ships from the Islamic world that perhaps date as far back as 1500. Some scholars argue that words and other cultural legacies from the Islamic world are still alive in the region, the heritage of an earlier period of contact. The Macassans (var. spelling Makassans) of Sulawesi seem to have had trade routes to northern Australia, and their goods -metal and glass- have been found in an archaeology site in northern Australia. Even more curious, African coins dating to around 1100AD have also been found in Northern Australia. The coins were originally minted by an Islamic sultanate in what is now Tanzania. How had they traveled to Australia? Do these suggest an even older trading relationship between Australia and the Islamic world?

Of course, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia had arrived there more than 40,000 years ago. Their rock art includes images of extinct animals such as the thylacine and a marsupial lion. A Dutch explorer first viewed Australia only in 1606. Aboriginal rock art at Kakadu national park also includes an image of a European schooner. The aboriginal people had documented the human and natural history of the region for tens of millennia. Human migration has been taking place for a staggering period of time. And what is remarkable is that one of the surest signs of human contact is the presence of food -such as chickens and sweet potatoes- as well as the records of art. All these now testify to the skill of ancient mariners, long before Prince Henry and the Portuguese began the process of European maritime expansion. Then again, there was Herodotus’ account of the circumnavigation of Africa. And the evidence of those long ago Norse voyages.

Want to know more about ancient migrations? The Genographic Project of National Geographic has a news page.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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