Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The giant hunters' lineage

Last week Radio New Zealand exposed a group digging illegally & dangerously for the bones of a mythical race of ancient white giants in the Limestone Country west of Huntly. Since then, many commentators have decided that the diggers must be insane victims of the conspiracy culture that thrives in our internet era. The view of the giant hunters as modern & anomalous is understandable, but it is badly mistaken.
As strange as it might sound, the group digging for ancient bones near Huntly are part of a mainstream tradition in Western thought & scholarship. A century ago nearly every scholar of New Zealand history held some of the assumptions of today's giant hunters. They believed in higher & lower races, thought human progress came through cultural diffusion, as the higher races spread across the globe and conquered lower races, & researched by ransacking Maori wahi tapu & traditions.
If we look, for example, at Percy Smith & Elsdon Best's massively influential theory of the Moriori as the original people of New Zealand, & if we look at the way they gathered for evidence for that theory, then we can find obvious precedents for the work of today's pseudo-historians.
Smith & Best believed that a primitive & cannibalistic Melanesian race called the Moriori arrived in New Zealand, before being displaced by the more advanced Maori, who were in turn, of course, colonised by Pakeha. Their theory implied racial hierarchies & development by diffusion & conquest.
Like today's pseudo-historians, Smith & Best appropriated fragments of Maori oral history, & used these to justify their ideas about history. Their claim that the stories about an ancient North island iwi called Maruiwi concerned Moriori was as incoherent as the giant hunters' claim that the patupaiarehe featured in Maori tales were ancient Pakeha.
Smith & Best were far more sophisticated than today's pseudo-historians, & they did not, so far as I'm aware, desecrate ancient sites. But many cruder scholars of their era did. Andreas Reischek, for example, looted burial caves across Te Ika a Maui.
New Zealand was no exception in the early 20th century. Across the west, race-based scholarship ruled. In Nazi Germany this scholarship was perfected. Reischek & Smith would have loved to be members of the Ahnennerbe, the army of archaeologists, folklorists, & linguists that Himmler despatched to places like Tibet & Sweden in search of evidence of the glorious history of the Aryan race.
There are parallels between the expeditions Himmler organised & some of the grand scholarly research projects in New Zealand & the Pacific. The Bayard Dominick expeditions to the Pacific in the '20s, for example, were sponsored by a US broker who suspected that an 'advanced', non-Polynesian people had been responsible for the stone monuments found on islands like Tonga & Rapa Nui.
Over the last five decades or so New Zealand archaeologists have done a superb job of professionalising & decolonising their discipline. There is no prospect, today, that they would be duped by white supremacist giant hunters. But the same can't be said for other disciplines.
Last year the New York Times ran a long, well-researched, & very disturbing article about the way one of the world's top academic laboratories has been using DNA obtained from bones acquired at ancient Pacific archaeological sites.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus' essay focused on a high-profile 'discovery' that scientists made while examining bones from Teouma, the oldest burial site on Vanuatu. According to the lab run by the acclaimed US geneticist David Reich, these bones belonged only to the Lapita ancestors of today's Polynesians.
On the basis of their DNA 'result' from Teouma, Reich decided that a more advanced Lapita people must have settled Vanuatu, then spread their culture to less advanced Melanesians.
But Lewis-Kraus revealed that the Teouma interpretation was based on equivocal results taken from tests on only a few of the bones in the cemetery. Lewis-Kraus slammed David Reich for the racialist, 19th century argument he and his lab built on such a thin foundation of fact.
David Reich & the team at his lab are not racist crackpots, but for various reasons, which Smith describes, they've deployed the same methods & drawn the same sort of conclusion as people like Percy Smith & today's giant-hunters in New Zealand.
The racialist scholarship of the 19th & early 20th century was disastrous for Maori. It led to the desecration of wahi tapu & to negative stereotypes. It was also subtly assimilated by some Maori scholars. Ngata, Buck & Haare Hongi all absorbed some racialist ideas from Pakeha.
More recently the scholarship of Reich & his lab has had deleterious effects in Vanuatu. It has perpetuated the notion that the nation's Melanesian majority is somehow culturally backward, & it has obscured the way Lapita-Polynesian & Melanesian peoples interacted & blended.
When we treat the contemporary white supremacist pseudo-archaeologists as crazy outliers, we stop ourselves from thinking about our own intellectual history, & miss the ways that racialist ideas are still seeping into some research on the Pacific. 

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