Given the lack of written records, all sorts of ideas have emerged. One (now discredited) hypothesis (3) argues that the Polynesians came from South America (4). Others argue that the Polynesians are descendants of the original inhabitants of Taiwan. Still others argue that the Polynesians originated in Southeast Asia. Support for the various theories has traditionally come from the study of archaeological remains (including cook sites, tools, garbage heaps, and other things left over from human settlements) and comparisons of the various languages. However, over the past couple of decades a new form of data has made a contribution as well: DNA. DNA is (very basically) the molecular instruction manual used to build people. It contains a complex code made up of 4 different chemicals that fit together in different ways (genes). Scientists who study how genes work are geneticists. One of the interesting thing about genes is that they are passed from parents to children, and so by studying how many genes people share (or don’t share) we can tell how closely related those people are.
Formerly the dominant hypothesis seemed to be that people moving out of Taiwan around 6,000 years ago eventually came to populate the islands of Polynesia. The idea is that rapid population growth contributed to this out-migration, and that the spread through the Solomon islands and the western Pacific islands (Tonga, Fiji, Samoa) was relatively rapid. However, in recent years this hypothesis has been called into question, with genetic information being used to cast new light on Polynesian origins. Most recently a study released this year indicates that Polynesians began migrating far earlier than previously thought, originating from Southeast Asia rather than Taiwan. This new information also suggests that Polynesians are at least partially the descendants of earlier inhabitants of the region, rather than their displacers. According to this new study the Polynesians left the mainland for Indonesia about 10,000 years ago, later moving on to the Bismarck Archipelago in Papua New Guinea.
This new information would be consistent with and would support the notion of the "voyaging corridor". This voyaging corridor refers to an area between what is now the Solomon Islands and New Guinea and the eastern islands of Indonesia where tropical storms (hurricanes or typhoons) are relatively infrequent and where the prevailing winds are pretty predictable. Moreover, one could feasibly sail across the whole region by hoping from island to island without ever losing sight of land. Terrel, Hunt, and Gosden (see reference below) relate a hypothesis by Geoff Irwin that this area served as a voyaging "nursery" in ancient times. What they mean by this is that this would be an ideal place for people to try out new techniques and technologies for traveling by sea without exposing themselves to excessive risk. Even in the best of circumstances, though, you might expect the discoveries that enabled people to travel vast expanses across the ocean to take thousands of years (and they probably did). So, if people left mainland Southeast Asia 10,000 years ago, and began moving into the Pacific 4,000 years ago, that leaves several millenia for the evolution of the advanced technology needed to make the long journeys. And in those thousands of years, there was certainly a significant amount of exchange amongst the various peoples of the region, which would also be consistent with other DNA evidence that suggests the links between the various peoples of the Malay Archipelago, Melanesia, and Polynesia are a lot closer than was previously believed.
So it is increasingly apparent that there is a clear connection between the islands that form Indonesia and Hawaii. So why the confusion?
My good friend and colleague in the Department of Geography at UH David Strauch reminded me of the socio-political aspects of this debate as well. Along with hypotheses about the histories of peoples come assumptions that are sometimes rooted in hidden biases and prejudices. Archaeologists, linguists, geographers, geneticists, anthropologists, and historians are all humans, after all, and humans make mistakes. David (as well as many highly-respected experts) contend that the “express train” hypothesis is based upon thin evidence and instead is a relic of a mindset which assumes that prehistoric Southeast Asians (including Indonesians) and Melanesians were too “primitive” to give rise to advanced Polynesian civilizations, and hence there had to be an alternative explanation.
The peopling of the Pacific is one of the most fascinating stories in human history. The fact that the Polynesians were able to journey thousands of miles across a vast ocean long before Christopher Columbus journeyed to North America is staggering. But there's still much to learn about this story. The many mysteries are just one more reason to learn about geography, and the Hawai'i-Indonesia connection is another reason to make a trip here!
(1) Though this notion of discrete "waves" of migration might be misleading; many scholars suggest that there was a great deal more mixing and mingling amongst the various peoples of the Eastern Pacific.
(2) I'm referring here to Thor Heyerdahl and the voyage of the Kon Tiki, which is actually a pretty cool story. Thor Heyerdahl was an anthropologist who thought that the Pacific islands must've been settled from South America. No one believed him, though, so he set out to prove his hypothesis by reenacting the voyage. Heyerdahl built a simple raft and sailed from South America to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Though his hypothesis was eventually abandoned, Heyerdahl made an important contribution to scholarship on Pacific Island voyaging and paved the way for groups like the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which built the Hoku'lea. The Kon Tiki adventure is a great example of how we learn about things....through trial and error. Being wrong is part of the great march of knowledge. So don't be afraid to make mistakes!
(3) The difference between a theory and a hypothesis is sometimes confusing and the words are sometimes used interchangeably. However in geography the words are distinct and refer to different things. Understanding the difference between them is extremely important. Hypothesis refers to a general idea about how things work. A hypothesis is used to guide further research into a topic. We formulate a hypothesis as an initial explanation for something, with the understanding that we will endeavor to learn more about it. On the other hand, a theory develops as we gather more information and proof. A theory is the best explanation based on all the information available. It is consistent with facts and research and is usually a pretty solid explanation, though theories are often revised. Can you think of some examples of hypotheses and theories? How might you go from the hypothesis stage to the theory stage?
(4) Look for a future post on the geography of languages in Southeast Asia and Polynesia.
References and For Further Reading:
Bhanoo, Sinya. 2011. DNA Sheds New Light on Polynesian Migration. New York Times 2/7/2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/science/08obpolynesia.html?_r=1
Hurles, Matthew, Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith, Russell D. Gray, and David Penny. 2003. Untangling Oceanic Settlement: The Edge of the Knowable. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18:10pp531-540
Oppenheimer, Stephen, and Martin Richards. 2001. Fast trains, Slow Boats, and the Ancestry of the Polynesian Islanders. Science Progress 84:3 157-181.
Soares, Pedro (and 15 co-authors). 2011. Ancient Voyaging and Polynesian Origins. The American Journal of Human Genetics 88 pp239-247.
Terrell, John Edward, Terry Hunt, and Chris Gosden. 1997. The Dimensions of Social Life in the Pacific: Human Diversity and the Myth of the Primitive Isolate. Current Anthropology 38:2 pp155-195