Tales of the South Pacific

Around 1200

1) The Patriarchal Age in Polynesia

This is out of chronological order, but it’s a story about Polynesian origins that came out very recently that I couldn’t resist.

Around 3600 years ago there was an encounter between peoples who had tens of thousands of years of separate evolution behind them. Melanesia was settled around 40,000-30,000 years ago, and Melanesians developed their own agricultural tradition. Then around 1600 BCE, seafarers arrived whose origins lay ultimately in Taiwan. They brought the distinctive Lapita pottery tradition with them. The newcomers occupied smaller islands and interstices in Melanesia. Ultimately their descendants would go on to colonize Polynesia.

Curiously, Polynesians today get more than half of their patrilineally transmitted Y-chromosome DNA from Melanesia, while most of their matrilineally transmitted mitochondrial DNA, and even their bilaterally transmitted autosomal DNA, is from Taiwan/Southeast Asia.

There is good reason to think that ancestral Austronesians had a matrilineal social organization, with kin groups emphasizing descent through the female line. This might reflect a history in which men spent lots of time away from home, sailing, raiding, and trading, and chose to leave their households in charge of their sisters. In Micronesia, settled in a separate phase of the Austronesian expansion, matrilineal descent is the rule right up the present – a chief’s heir is his sister’s son, not his wife’s son. Matrilineal societies are often not very intense about policing female sexual behavior (compare the Middle East) and it seemed plausible that when the Lapita folk were passing through Melanesia, the women might have picked up some Melanesian Y chromosomes while their menfolk were off sailing.

But it now looks like the story is different. Ancient DNA from the very earliest Polynesian settlers in Tonga and Vanuatu shows no trace of Melanesian ancestry. Melanesian ancestry apparently came to Polynesia sometime after this initial settlement, perhaps as a result of conquest. And this fits with another aspect of Polynesian kinship: our best reconstructions suggest that Polynesians switched from matrilineal to patrilineal descent early in their history. The recent evidence raises the possibility that a group of Melanesians, arriving later, perhaps as conquerors, may have been responsible for the shift, by setting themselves up as chiefs (in an already rank conscious society) and passing their privileged position on to their sons and their son’s sons – a story already familiar from other parts of the Old World.

(I learned a lot of what I know about kinship in Pacific island societies from my colleague at the University of Utah, the late Per Hage. Unfortunately most of what he wrote on the subject seems to be behind paywalls.)

2) Polynesians in America

Before the great Western voyages of exploration, the Austronesian expansion settled new lands all the way from Madagascar to Polynesia. And Polynesian sailors probably got even further east than Polynesia. Scholars have long been aware of archaeological evidence for contact between Polynesia and America. For example, the Chumash Indians who lived around the Channel Islands in Southern California built distinctive sewn-plank canoes unlike anything in the rest of Pacific North America, but very much like Polynesian vessels. And it’s hard to explain how sweet potatoes could have gotten from the New World to the Pacific islands without human contact – floating in salt water isn’t very likely. A recent scholarly review of a wide range of evidence for contact – linguistic, technological, biological – is here.

Ultimately DNA may provide definitive answers. A report from several years ago that some New World chickens are genetically close to Polynesian chickens now seems questionable. On the other hand, there’s also a recent report indicating American Indian ancestry among Easter Islanders predating Columbus.

3) The Statues That Walked.

Easter Island was settled around 1200, based on the most recent carbon-14 dates. There are two very different accounts of the subsequent history of the island. Jared Diamond offers a cautionary tale of ecological overshoot and collapse. After the initial settlement, the island’s population boomed. Without Dr. Seuss’s Lorax to advise them, the islanders cut down all their palm trees.


With no more wood for sledges or rollers, the famous moai statues could no longer be moved from their quarries. And with no more wood for boats, fishing and inter-island trade became impossible. The loss of forests also led to soil erosion. A famine-stricken population rebelled against the hierarchical social order, and wound up resorting to cannibalism in the midst of a population crash. “Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”

But Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, anthropologists who have worked on the island, differ on almost every part of this account.


They suggest that the deforestation of the island resulted from the introduction of rats, accompanying the first colonists. Rats, with no natural enemies to limit them, ate tree seeds. This wouldn’t have had noticeable effects at first, but eventually led to the forests not replacing themselves. Hunt and Lipo also dispute the claim that pre-contact Easter Island experienced a population crash; they argue that the crash came later, with European contact and the introduction of diseases to which the population had no resistance. They also see little evidence of over-exploitation of the environment. Locals were doing the best they could to make a living under marginal conditions. And as to how the moais got from one place to another, well … the islanders said they walked.

This video shows they could be right.

And some back-and-forth between Diamon and Lipo and Hunt is here.


2 thoughts on “Tales of the South Pacific

  1. MDE

    It’s hard to find the debate in all that muck.

    Overview of the dispute:

    Diamond responds:

    Lipo counter:

    Diamond seems like a liar but I already had that impression of him so maybe it’s confirmation bias.

    That video was great.


  2. Pingback: 1492 | Logarithmic History

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