Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why is Papakura's movie theatre promoting racist myths?

I'm old enough to remember seeing films like Ghostbusters and Karate Kid at the cinema on Papakura's main street. I sat in the dark, chewing slightly stale K Bars, and pumped my arm in triumph when the Karate Kid knocked out his brutish enemy, or when Bill Murray and his comrades defeated the Giant Marshmallow man.

Like its counterparts in so many suburbs, the Papakura cinema closed in the late 1980s, but the opening of the council-subsidised Hawkins Theatre a few years later enabled a new generation of kids to enjoy candy and silly movies. The Hawkins Theatre has provided treats for adults as well as kids, by showing quality flicks that have often been shunned by the dollar-driven movie megaplexes of the twenty-first century.

Recently I visited Papakura and picked up a copy of the booklet which advertises upcoming events at the Hawkins Theatre. The booklet gave prominence to Kon Tiki, a big budget, feature-length movie about Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian adventurer who travelled from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands in 1947 on a small raft.

Heyerdahl believed that the ancestors of the Polynesians had emigrated into the Pacific from South America, and his 1947 adventure was intended to publicise his version of history. The Western media was impressed by Heyerdahl's long and dangerous journey on the Kon Tiki, and the book he wrote about it became a bestseller in Europe and in America.

But Heyerdahl's heroics did not persuade archaeologists and historians to change their views about the origins of the Polynesians. In reviews of Heyerdahl's writings, experts pointed out that the words, pottery, tools, religion, and art of Polynesia supported the traditional view that the Pacific was settled from the west, rather than from South America. Polynesian languages have much in common with the tongues of Melanesia and parts of southeast Asia, and nothing in common with the languages of South America. The beautiful pottery that has been excavated on many Polynesian islands features motifs that also turn up thousands of miles to the west, in New Caledonia and on the islands off Papua New Guinea. The canoes that float off islands like the Tuamotus have nothing in common with the clumsy raft Heyerdahl rode from Peru, but owe a great deal to the magnificent wangga ndrua of Fiji.

In recent decades DNA testing has provided definitive proof of Heyerdahl's wrongheadedness. Numerous tests of Polynesians and indigenous Americans have failed to find any significant genetic connection between the two peoples. Like linguists and archaeologists before them, geneticists have looked west for the origins of the Polynesians.
Despite all the evidence arrayed against him, Thor Heyerdahl never abandoned his claims about the South American origins of the Polynesians.

Heyerdahl was unable to accept reality because of his prejudices against Polynesians. He repeatedly claimed that the Polynesians lacked the cultural sophistication to travel over great stretches of water, or to create some of the monuments that are found on their islands. He believed that the ancestors of the Polynesians were brought from South America to the Pacific by a lighter-skinned, more sophisticated people who had earlier created the stone monuments that stand at Macchu Piccu in the Peruvian Andes. Heyerdahl wrote at length about Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, because he believed that the island's famous stone heads were made by this mysterious ancient people. The dark-skinned Polynesians of Rapa Nui were, he thought, incapable of creating such large and impressive works.

Heyerdahl's vision of an ancient civilisation of white supermen might seem peculiar to us today, but it had many advocates in the early decades of the twentieth century. In Heyerdahl's native Norway and in other northern Europe countries, especially Germany, many people believed that they were descendants of an ancient 'Aryan race' that had ruled large parts of the globe before retreating to the west. In Germany, leading Nazis like Heinrich Himmler loudly promoted the notion of an ancient white super-civilisation; in Norway, local fascist groups and the Nobel-winning novelist Knut Hamsun espoused the same idea.
Heyerdahl died in 2002, but his views still have a few advocates. The Mormon church, which has always claimed that Polynesians are descended from indigenous Americans, and that indigenous Americans are themselves the descendants of one of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel, is understandably keen on Heyerdahl's books. And the government of Chile, which seized Rapa Nui in 1888 and continues to rule the island, despite increasingly militant protests, has tried to use Heyerdahl to attract tourists and foreign investors to their Polynesian colony.

I don't object to a movie about Thor Heyerdahl being shown at the Hawkins Theatre. A movie is not a research paper or a scholarly monograph. I could enjoy watching a recreation of Heyerdahl's raft journey across the Pacific without accepting his weird ideas, just as I can enjoy watching a film like District 9 without believing in UFOs.
What I want to query is not the decision by Hawkins Theatre to show Kon Tiki, but the radically misleading claims that the theatre has included in its publicity for the film. In the theatre's Events Guide for Autumn and Winter 2013 Heyerdahl is falsely described as an anthropologist, and his version of Pacific history is preferred to the truth. The Events Guide claims that Heyerdahl was able to 'prove' that 'people from South America settled in Polynesia'. When the Guide asserts that 'it was believed at the time' of Heyerdahl's 1947 voyage that 'people from Asia' settled Polynesia, the clear implication is that Heyerdahl's adventures on the Kon Tiki converted the scholarly community to his ideas.

Papakura is a multicultural community with a large Polynesian population. The Hawkins Theatre does Polynesians and palangi alike a disservice when it ignores the most basic facts of Pacific history, and promotes in their place a racist fantasy concocted a century ago in northern Europe.

Footnote: there are links to some of my previous scraps with pseudo-historians here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous McKnight said...

The first people in Africa were originally covered with hair with white skin underneath. Their hair cover protected them from the Sun. As the people in Africa evolved and started to lose their hair cover, their skin naturally darkened for protection from the sun.
Due the colder climate and less Sun exposure, that did not happen to the people who had migrated out of Africa into Europe.

7:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

10:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes. That is the problem. If they claim that Heyerdahl proved anything it is close to racism or a continuation of it.

I as a boy sat through endless US propaganda movies. We loved all of it but in essence that's what a lot of it was - in the 50s the Korean war was shown as a wonderful, heroic (mainly air) war. Pictures of European (except Germans) were invariably pictures of cynical characters.

Heyerdahl comes from that racial tradition. I read his books with fascination but I knew that his motivations (long before I attended lectures by Irwin on the migration of the Pacific Isalanders) that it was the work of a racist.

It was clear to me even as teenager that he had proved nothing.

But his descriptions of Easter Island and some of the Islanders and him and his mates lifting up a statue showed in fact that they could indeed have placed the statues.

If you treat Heyerdahl as kind of seagoing [forget who Harrison Ford played just now in all those crazy (but good fun) movies!] it is o.k. as long as you are clear he was not a scientist. His "experiment" was, in objective terms quite futile.

The Mormons (Morons? We used to call them that as kids) I think are about the only religious group I hate with an exponential vengeance.

Religion has its place but we cant let religious crack pots decide on issues of history or science.

The Aryan theory has no basis. There were no Aryans. The Nazis were completely wrong.

Eliot Weinberger does a brilliant demolition job showing how the whole theory of a superior Aryan race was based on verb used by people in Northern Iran etc and some nonsense garnered from that great hogwash manual The Holy Bible. That is big black book with lots of holes in it!

The whole theory, like most religions is based on thin air.

12:15 am  
Anonymous white arc said...


Do you hate your own breed?

Doesn't your white skin mean anything to you.

8:20 pm  
Anonymous Alice said...

Having worked in pretty similar places to Hawkins, I suspect that the write up in the Guide is not the product of some fevered Heyerdahl follower, but simply someone who is overworked thoughtlessly regurgitating the press release sent to them by the movie's distributors. That doesn't make it OK, of course, but perhaps is an explanation.

6:26 pm  
Anonymous sergio paulo said...

I purposed to the current Council to make the Dossier # 50 of this magazine. The title will be “SOCIAL HISTORY: E.P. THOMPSON (1924-2014)”, in "História & perspectivas" (BRAZIL)
The idea is to propitiate a debate about the work of this important historian, starting by his experiments or dissertations. The # 50 will be published in the first semester of 2014, but the deadline to send the texts is Setember 09, 2013.
Would you like to send a text to be published in this dossier? We’d be honored with that.
Please contact me: Sérgio Paulo Morais -

8:29 am  
Anonymous Sérgio Paulo said...

I present to you the journal “História e Perspectivas” : “História e Perspectivas” is a publication of the Courses and Postgraduate Program of History at the Federal University of Uberlândia (UFU, Brazil), integrated with the Centre for Research and Studies in History, Work and City. The journal is a biannual publication and is today in its 47th number, with extensive expansion in academic.

8:31 am  
Anonymous Salise said...

Hey Scott it's me Salise sorry we haven't been in touch lately I've caught up with a lot of stuff but my email is and hope you'll be back soon for more adventures:-) Heard the good news from 'Opeti last week that you're doing great now:-)

7:10 am  

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