Monday, July 13, 2009

Expanding the map

Fifty years ago it was possible for scholars to disagree about whether prehistoric Polynesians had been capable of long sea voyages. The decline of traditional aquatechnology and colonialist assumptions of racial inferiority had both cast doubt on the veracity of oral histories that described the crossing and colonisation of the Pacific.

Today, the Polynesians are rightly celebrated for their feats of seamanship. The reconstruction of traditional sailing craft and the combined efforts of hundreds of researchers have left no doubt about the broad outlines of the history of the settlement of Polynesia.

In the last couple of years, new research has further expanded our appreciation of the achievements of ancient Polynesian mariners. A team based in the Anthropology Department of the University of Auckland made headlines in the New York Times when they found Polynesian chicken bones in a Chilean cave, and thereby showed that the Polynesians had pushed on beyond Rapa Nui/Easter Island all the way to South America.

The discovery in Chile is already opening up new lines of enquiry for research into human prehistory. For instance, scholars are investigating the possibility of a connection between proto-Polynesian and pre-Columban American cultures by looking at the languages and artefacts of some coastal American peoples.

The subantarctic Auckland Islands have been the scene of some less-publicised discoveries in the last few of years. Digging into the frigid soil of the islands, researchers have discovered middens and fragments of artefacts which were left by Polynesians in or before the fifteenth century. It has been known for some time that the ancestors of the Maori not only quickly explored the whole of New Zealand after arriving here around about the twelfth century, but also journeyed from these shores to the Kermadecs, Norfolk Island, and the Chathams before the end of the fifteenth century. It now appears that the early Maori also made the journey south from Te Wai Pounamu to the inhospitable Auckland Islands. I spent yesterday afternoon in Te Papa, and I was pleased to see that the museum's curators have reacted to the discoveries of the last couple of years by updating the map which they use to explain the exploration and settlement of the Pacific and adjoining areas. New arrows record the Polynesian progress to South America and to the Auckland Islands.

Even if the distance between New Zealand and the Aucklands is relatively short, compared to the gulf between Rapa Nui and South America, the Polynesian foray into subantarctic waters seems as impressive as the journey to the coast of present-day Chile. Although the world's climate was going through a relatively warm period in the fourteen and fifteenth centuries, the seas around the Auckland Islands would still have been enormous, capricious, and icy, and the waka that went south would not have been able to rely on a tailwind for long. The apparent ability of ancient Polynesians to survive for some time on the Auckland Islands is perhaps even more impressive. The islands get an average of one sunny day a year, and their never-ending winds and frosts make even subsistence agriculture a very difficult proposition. The British established a settlement in 1846, but even with the advantages of industrial technology they were unable to make the venture a success, and the colony they had named Hardwicke was evacuated after less than three years. A colony set up by the Ngati Mutunga conquerors of the Chathams and their Moriori slaves lasted a little longer, but only because the colonists had to wait for a boat to take them away from their ill-chosen home. Of the four prehistoric 'colonies' set up by the early Maori, only the settlement in the Chathams survived. Over several centuries, the Maori who settled on those cold but relatively large islands developed their own distinctive culture, and came to call themselves Moriori. Norfolk island and the Kermadecs appear to have been abandoned, and we do not know whether the discoverers of the Auckland Islands perished there or returned to the comparative warmth of Te Wai Pounamu.

If the European whalers and explorers who showed up at the Auckland Islands at the end of the eighteenth century had been greeted by descendants of the island's first settlers, what sort of culture would these people have had? It has generally been considered that the things which make Moriori culture unusual in Polynesia - its pacifism, its egalitarianism, its ingenious but simple technology, and its famous dendroglyphs - were all the product of the unusual environment in which the first settlers of the Chathams found themselves. Pacifism is supposed to have been essential on a small island, egalitarianism is thought to be have been an automatic result of a hunter gatherer economy, low-tech but clever devices like the wash-through raft are supposed to be responses to the absence of big trees, and so on.

I'm all for a bit of functionalism, but I'm uncomfortable with the idea that there is only one way that humans can react to a given environment, even an environment as distinctive as the one on the Chathams. There are many examples of small islands which nourished warlike rather than pacifist cultures - consider, for instance, Rapa, a little-known northen neighbour of New Zealand which is covered with earthworks that recall the pa sites up and down the North Island. The Chathams may have been cold, but they were actually far richer in food resources and trees than many other Pacific islands - far richer, for example, than the Kiribatis. The I-Kiribati, who live on the equator and never get cold, built huge common houses, despite the fact that their 'desert islands' had few suitable trees; the Moriori, who must have been cold all the time, slept in rough, temporary shelters.

It also seems somewhat demeaning to suggest that a people's choices are dictated wholly by their environment, and not by beliefs and values. How noble is a pacifism which is wholly pragmatic in origin?

If the prehistoric settlement on the Auckland Islands had persisted, then we might have something compelling with which to compare the Moriori experience. As it is, the Moriori are perhaps the only surviving example of an indigenous subantarctic people.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

'the Moriori are perhaps the only surviving example of an indigenous subantarctic people'

What about the Fuegese?

9:38 am  
Blogger Edward said...

The functionalism you comment on in this sense is the result of Cultural Evolutionary models which were popular in the 50's and 60's, most notably in the Pacific with Marshal Sahlins' work and the graduates he taught. Island ecology and other environmental variables were seen as restricting what kind of cultural adaptations could take place within a population. This is still true today, though the emphasis of modern so-called "neo-evolutionary" approaches treat culture in a much more dynamic way looking at internal (i.e. agency) as well as external (i.e. environment) variables rather than the quasi-deterministic models of Culture Evolution. Of course, functionalism still remains a large part of archaeological models today - horticulture (let alone agriculture) isn't very feasible on the Chathams, and the main source of sustenance is marine based rather than terrestrial such as the seal colonies which visit its shores. The pity about the Chatams is that it hasn't been researched as thoroughly as it deserves.

The Culture Evolutionary approach, and perhaps in some sense the latter "ecological approach" in the Pacific and especially in NZ were the focus of my Honors dissertation, or at least a critique of it. As you say, it fails to encompass human dynamism or agency and I think the lack of substantial modern research on the Chathams has resulted in this static view of them, at least in the available literature. A re-visit would be interesting as trends back here on the mainland(s) have tended to move towards dynamic social organisation working within functionalist frameworks.
As for the Auckland Islands, I think I would use 'colonies' with a grain of salt. IF memory serves me correctly they were frequented for mutton-birding from time to time.

10:27 am  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Edward,

thanks very much for those comments. The Moriori question has been on my mind, because I have been excavating Michael King's correspondence with Kendrick Smithyman about Matene Totara, the so-called 'last Moriori' that Smithyman glimpsed as a child in the Kaipara.

I'm very much a fan of Michael King's writing about the Moriori, but I can't help noticing what seems to me a contradiction between his talk about how superbly their culture was adapted to the Chathams, and his celebration of their pacifism. It does seem to me that if the pacifism was a pragmatic adaption then it loses a lot of the nobility he wants to claim for it.

King based a lot of his book on Doug Sutton's work on the Moriori -work which was summarised in an essay called 'A Culture History of the Chatham Islands', which was published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society at the beginning of the '80s.

It's fascinating to read Sutton's text now, and to notice that it assumes that the Moriori are extinct. When he went to the Chathams to research his book on the Moriori later in the eighties, King got something of a shock when he found them to be very much alive!

Sutton's belief that the Moriori had become extinct was linked to his view that their culture had been superbly adapted to conditions on the Chathams in prehistoric times. Here's a passage that occurs hear the end of his essay for the JPS:

'the Moriori people and their culture virtually disappeared with the arrival of other people to their islands...It seems that the very nature of the culture itself made certain its death...The adaptation which the Moriori had made to their isolated island environment seems to have made them vulnerable when that environment was entered by others'.

The odd thing is that Sutton spent long periods of time on the Chathams in the '70s, and would have been aware of the existence of many people who identified with their Moriori heritage. He appears to have constructed such a vivid mental picture of a timeless classical Moriori culture that he could not relate that model to the realities of twentieth century Moriori culture.

Admittedly, classical Moriori culture was severely disrupted by the terrible events of the nineteenth century. I wonder, nevertheless, whether Sutton's apparent belief that there was only one possible way of inhabiting the prehistoric Chathams might have affected his ability to understand the evoltuion of Moriori culture after contact with outsiders began.

Michael King was clearly deeply impressed by the Moriori he met in the Chathams in the '80s, and influenced by the pride that these people took in the pacifism their ancestors had shown in the face of outsiders' aggression. He suffused his book on the Moriori with this pride, even as he kept the functionalism of Sutton's study. The result is a weird amalgam of determinist and voluntarist interpretations of history. On the one hand, the pacifism of the Moriori was a pragmatic adaption to their environment; on the other hand, it was a courageous gesture in the face of a violent world. I'm not entirely sure how this contradiction can be resolved.

11:12 am  
Blogger Edward said...

Kia ora Maps,

I'm not so sure that Sutton's intention was to portray what eventuated in Moriori culture as the only way of adapting to the environment there, but I do take your point that the conception of the Moriori as largely extinct may have influenced his thinking about the historical/post-contact adaptations the culture underwent. One thing I was taught was in fact to be skeptical of the passivity aspect altogether, not that I doubt this claim is true in some aspects, but rather that a romanticism revolves around stories of the Chatham Islands Moriori which might exaggerate this particular aspect. At any rate, my take on it would be along the lines of the environment places restrictions of the total possible outcomes a given culture might take, but that said culture might still adapt a number of ways depending upon agency and history and that this process is continuous, and the point (from an archaeological point of view) is understanding this process on a variety of behavioral levels. I think Sutton was commenting on how pacifism was well suited to the environment there, and perhaps more probable rather than determined, though that too is debatable.

At any rate you're quite right about interpretations of indigenous peoples as containing sort of 'classic' examples whereby everything else is measured against. Archaeologists have been guilty of this many times, where static social groupings or settlement patterns have been searched for rather than understanding cultures as palimpsests of accumulated continuity and change.

In the case of the Chathams, as I said I think the interpretations suffer from a failure of further research. Sutton's work was very important, but he stopped short of the kind of detailed social organisation and symbolism analysis he undertook on Pouerua for example.

King's work likewise I find very good but suffering a similar kind of problem. History favors more punctuated, emphatic and emotive descriptions and explanations in my view, whereas archaeology, due to the nature of the material, favors inevitably the more functional and patterned as a general rule. Hence I can see why there are two different interpretations of the pacifism evident in the Chathams, though, like you, i'm not sure how these can be reconciled. Perhaps of the range of possible functional avenues which could have been taken, this one eventuated due more to socio-political reasons over time than merely to the environment from the get go?

1:08 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

I'm in some ways reminded of the interesting problems I face with Mahinepua. As you've seen on your visit, there's a pa, ditches, banks, terraces, possible horticultural features and some midden on one of the beaches. The problem is that pa complexes have traditionally been treated as intermittent social hubs, where kainga and horticulture play a periphery role (in both spatial and social senses), be it seasonally or permanently. This idea of pa and all of the features associated with them as a social center of sorts works in some cases, and in others they are thought of as places of refuge in times of strife. The problem with Mahinepua is it is weird. It doesn't fit any of these conventional settings. Its natural topography means that it can only ever be poorly defended, yet it contains miniature terraces and small, rather impractical ditches. It has terrible highly erosive soils, yet it has evidence of some horticultural features. Add to this its high exposure to high winds and you have a pretty poor place for which to have any sort of long term settlement or even much of a defense, yet a lot of manual labour has gone into modifying the site. This of course is completely what I wasn't expecting, so much of the more traditionally functional ideas are out the window - at least at this stage of my hypothesis. So then why were people on it doing the things they were doing? As it stands i've only a couple of explanations. One is that the site is all about mobility despite the traditional concepts of pa complexes (won't go into it here and bore everyone). And the other falls back on the pa as a social symbol. The tangible evidence thus far points more to the former, but I suspect it could have been a little of both (still working on it). I brought this up to try and highlight that I don't think functionalism and agency need be exclusive, but can almost see them as interfacing influences, one effecting the other in turn in some instances i.e. the environment limits the range of possibilities of human adaptation, but in turn human agency can affect/transform the environment and the cycle starts again through incremental steps. Modern urban environments are one example which illustrates the point well, and I suspect one might argue a similar process in the Chathams perhaps.

Anyway, hope I didn't bore anyone to death. Nice talking with ya Maps, an interesting post.

3:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is all just bourgeois wordplay. What does it have to do with the struggles of the workers?
Your just reinforcing the system. Maybe you clowns should be reading Jared Davidson's new Rivet...

'The university is nothing more than an indoctrination centre for training us to accept authority and the dominant ideology. We are taught to believe what we 'know' is what experts tell us and is more reliable than our own lived experience. The university has to be replaced with knowledge that relies on everyday lived experience'

Burn down the libraruies and universities!

8:58 am  
Blogger Edward said...

Yeah, awesome, who needs medical research! Who needs physics! Who needs engineering! Yay, burn them all down, we can all just 'experience' it all from labour. Lets labour medical theory and labour physics what a joke. More pie in the sky BS which fails to grasp the simple reality of how human knowledge works and accumulates. Every day lived experience is the way in which chimpanzees and other primates (and every other species) have to learn, from scratch with nothing much passed on from earlier generations. You wanna live like a Chimpanzee go right ahead and put your money where your mouth is.

9:52 am  
Blogger Edward said...

..just had a read through the link you provided. The woman who wrote that is, quite simply a dick. She obvioulsy has no f'n clue about much outside of the 'alternative' line of rhetoric of the kind one might find two 19 year olds talking about in an 'alternative' cafe in Wellington and thinking they have made a philosophical breakthrough. At the end of the day, would you trust more the help of a trained surgeon to treat a brain injury or this woman and her 'self experience'? Ok, rant mode disengaged lol. I've too much of a chip on my shoulder about inflated rhetoric from people with no clue.

10:10 am  
Blogger maps said...

It's extraordinary, isn't it Edward?

My everyday experience tells me that the world is flat, and that the sun rises from beneath the earth and circles the sky while the earth remains still.

So much for Copernicus.

And I never see any of those Maori artefacts in my everyday life. I don't reckon anyone was here before the oldest surviving buildings were constructed.

I think that Edward's detailed and very interesting explanation of the way he tries to relate evidence from the field to theoretical models shows us what nonsense this talk of the university as a place of rote learning and indoctrination really is.

NZ and Pacific archaeology offers a very good example of a discipline which has gone through a great deal of theoretical change, as new evidence has emerged to challenge old assumptions. The discipline has accumulated vast amounts of new knowledge in the past fifty years, and had a very positive efect on NZ society. It's hard to imagine the 'Maori reniassance' of the last forty years without the input of archaeology and anthropology. But none of this seems to matter to some people...

10:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does archaeology serve the ruling class? Can any of these anarchists explain that?

11:30 am  
Blogger Edward said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:20 pm  
OpenID objectdart said...

otoh, universities aren't exactly the hotbeds of alternative or radical thought they used to be...

it is true that they tend towards paradigmatic teaching and learning, and that they focus on "throughput" instead of scholarship for most. that said, how else would you rather we teach medicine?

the real problem is that the old radical degrees like politics or sociology have fallen by the wayside as uneconomic. why would a worker try to elevate themselves learning about class, when they can get a medical degree and make some serious traction in becoming bourgeois?

great commentary on the chathams, am enjoying it.

4:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dont see why ypou expect Jared to be interested in what you are interested in. If he is for art without experts and hierachy as an anarchist then he wouldnt be interested in traditional Maori art. Because that is as hierachical as you can get. Mater carvers trained and most people were not allwoed anywhere near them when they worked. Alsoi if Jared is calling for the destruction of existing culture then that means Maori culture as well as Pakeha. So why dont you just agree to disagree and stop attacking him?

6:41 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
"I dont see why pou expect Jared to be interested in what you are interested in. If he is for art without experts and hierarchy as an anarchist then he wouldn't be interested in traditional Maori art. Because that is as hierachical as you can get. Mater carvers trained and most people were not allwoed anywhere near them when they worked. Alsoi if Jared is calling for the destruction of existing culture then that means Maori culture as well as Pakeha. So why dont you just agree to disagree and stop attacking him?"

This is bit confusing.Maps isn't here referring to whether there should or should not be a hierarchical society - the point here is some interesting history. History and sociology etc are studied for use, but also for the interest. In fact the knowledge so gained becomes a part of the general human culture.

The debate about whether art should be (outside the galleries and in the hands of the people etc)is complex and is not part of this discussion. (not that you "shouldn't" raise it but it is not to the question here and might well just be ignored.)

Your point maybe should be, perhaps to Edward and Scott, say, as a question: "To what extent was Maori art and society hierarchical, and how does that affect the way we view Maori society, and in what way?" or something such as that.

My own feeling is that no matter what society we have there will always be hierarchies of various kinds - maybe hierarchies of "experts" in various fields - even in the most Utopian society - this is not to say you are wrong: just that the question you put forward is confusing - Jarred hasn't expressed what he thinks of this and I don't think what he thinks will affect the interest in what happened in history - it might do - but you need to divide your question up.

Sorry if I sound "bossy"...

9:46 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

My guess is that, while hierarchical - Maori society -like many others was a mix of democracy and hierarchy and the occasional semi-dictatorship but mostly it was cooperative.

I don't know how many people of what levels of participation in what cultures or arts in Maori society; but Maps and Edward, and maybe Keri Hulme etc will be able to explain that.

I would say that there were also quite some tribal or iwi differences.

Perhaps the Moriori had a more egalitarian way.

9:53 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

Richard has formed an interesting question out of anon's statements. I don't have all of the answers but I suspect Scott and Keri would have good takes on it, but from my own background I tend to agree with your latter guess. I think social organisation was much more fluid than is typically thought of, or at least there seems to be patterns in the archaeological record which indicate such. The structured 'conical clan' scenario of social hierarchy development put forward by P. Kirch and cited much in the wider pacific is slightly problematic here in NZ. As you say, on regional scales things differ also.
I think similar questions should be asked of the Chathams also.

As for the anon, Maps didn't say anything about Davidson. And as for me, i'm happy to agree to disagree. Plus, this isn't a post about anarchism at all, but about culture and history, so if you or Jared aren't interested than don't bother to reply. Pretty simple. Have a good one.

12:12 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

"Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is all just bourgeois wordplay. What does it have to do with the struggles of the workers?
Your just reinforcing the system. Maybe you clowns should be reading Jared Davidson's new Rivet...

'The university is nothing more than an indoctrination centre for training us to accept authority and the dominant ideology. We are taught to believe what we 'know' is what experts tell us and is more reliable than our own lived experience. The university has to be replaced with knowledge that relies on everyday lived experience'

Burn down the libraruies and universities!"

In the 60s when I came close to joining the Communist Party - I felt very strongly and sometimes quite angry and I sometimes felt much like this. But I never agreed with burning down the universities. That is totally stupid.

I will agree that sometimes University people get out of touch but my experience at university and other institutions (Manukau and Auckland Tech (now a part of the Universities) for instance) is that most people there are good. O.k. there are conflicts etc etc and there are problems.

7:59 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

But I feel that anyone who wants progressive change will find many allies inside the Universities - sure - overall they may be seen to "serve the ruling class" (and indeed many fog there to become accounts and so on and there is a shift to down play or downgrade the "liberal arts" etc' - but that people become engineers or accountants doesn't mean they lose their souls - at Uni and Tech I never felt that I couldn't challenge anything said and many students did and still do - there is no indoctrination - there is on the contrary - much freedom to express and develop ideas. With some exceptions most staff enjoy that students challenge ideas and come up with new ones if these are valid and they can show they are good or can give argument for these ideas. I never felt that I was "being brainwashed" and I wasn't. I learnt a lot.

It is much more complex. If you want change you need to inform any people at many levels. By taking courses in the University or wherever one can become more informed and can perhaps challenge things one sees "wrong" with academia or ideas etc - overall university and tech taught me a lot and helped me to think.

But remember - I am someone who has spent years working in many capacities - as a labourer (in many jobs, factory worker (a number of factories), an Engineering Technician and much else.

I've been sacked more times than most people have had jobs -I had about 60 jobs in my life.

I have also had two businesses and a few enterprises - some that didn't work for sure, but such is life! I have studied accountancy, maths, science, literature, some archeology and anthro, ancient history, art. I can read music (I am not much good at many of the things I do but I have as I say - had "a go" at many and I value knowledge). I am 61 and have had much experience of life. I have been in protests - I've three children - I have been battened in the face protesting the Springbok Tour, protested the Vietnam War, struggled for Mrs Martinac in inner Auckland (Peter Williams QC helped us get her a great deal) when the council ripped house off people, I visited Paremoremo to see really "bad" criminals who had no visitors... ... and much else. I am no back room academic. Mostly I worked in factories or on building sites or in stores or the freezing works or wherever... I was a lineman and a cable jointer for about 12 years on the Post Office (now Telecom). Buthtsi hasntnade me bitter or enviousof people with "better" jobs or more money or who are in offices etc..

I never worked in a university or even in an office except if one can say working in second hand bookshop is like that! But I don't begrudge these people. I want universities etc to keep going. I value knowledge. I keep interested in just about everything - I don't get paid much but I love life. And that means I love books as well as experience. Smithyman talks about being "open to experience", and so on. Look also to such as E P Thompson or even the poets Hone Tuwhare or R A Mason (both radicals - communists in fact) ... or others...Paul Robeson ... a top scholar and great singer and a communist...many others. Look at all these radical movements and you will -sure find workers in them and others - but you will find many "intellectuals" - we need them.

I sympathise with Jarred's dreams - but he is typical of his age - I like him - but his ideas tend to rigidity - for me - aside from my deep reservations about some things - we need these various institutions such as universities and museums.

Sure we need to be prepared to "keep them honest" .. but I found many very good people at these institutions.

I'm a bit wary of the art market - and perhaps in literature the "writing Manufacturers' Association of such as - [certain luminaries] but maybe that is being a bit harsh!

But that is a more complex question.

7:59 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

And it doesn't matter to me that "Anonymous" may in this case be The Devil's Advocate himself!

I answer the general "complaint" about academia couched as it is in the usual cliches and rhetoric as it is pretty common argument and has some (very small) substance! BUT that very argument, however simplistically put, itself raises some larger questions...

8:21 pm  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home