Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Prehistoric Contact Between Polynesia and California?

I want to thank Steve for extending the invitation to guest-blog here. I have been a great fan of his since reading Querencia in 1994. I make my living as a professional archaeologist and I was delighted to find we have common interests in that field upon discovering this blog last month. Our resulting fun and stimulating exchanges of information led to my guest-blogging on archaeology and related subjects. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on that I'd like to share with you.

One of the most controversial new theories in North American archaeolgy in recent years was proposed this spring by archaeologist Terry Jones (Cal Poly - SLO) and linguist Kathryn Klar (UC - Berkeley). They believe that a method of canoe hull construction unique in North America to two prehistoric California Indian groups (Chumash and Gabrieleno) was not invented by them. This "sewn-plank" technology was also common in prehistoric Polynesia. Jones and Klar marshal evidence to support the proposition that Polynesians voyaged to California in the AD 500 - 700 time period and taught the concept to California Indians. This theory was first presented professionally in a symposium I attended at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology last spring. A reasonable summary of their theory is presented
here .

This is an intriguing though controversial theory with many arguments on both sides. A summary of some (by no means all!) of these arguments that have occurred to me and other professionals follows.


Linguistics - I am not a linguist and cannot evaluate Klar's analysis, but it is a fact that the words in Chumash and Gabrieleno for planked canoe do not have their origins in those languages and are borrowed words from somewhere.

Polynesian Capability - It is an established fact that prehistoric Polynesians sailed to the New World and back based on the distribution of the sweet potato. They were fully capable of reaching North America.

Chronology - The earliest firm evidence of a North American planked canoe is a wood fragment from San Miguel Is. in the Santa Barbara Channel, radiocarbon dated to AD 625 - 700 (see Lynn Gamble's excellent 2002 American Antiquity article). This date correlates well with the Polynesian occupation of Hawaii, the only reasonable origin point of such a voyage.

Linguistics - The Polynesian source words that Klar posits as the origins of the Native American words translate as "useful tree" or "thing made of wood", not exact descriptions of a canoe. A "common sense" question occurring to me and others is why wasn't the source word the nearly universal Polynesian word for planked canoe - waka?

Technology Transfer - A Chumash seeing a Polynesian sailing canoe for the first time would be confronted with three pieces of new technology: sail, outrigger, and sewn plank hull. A "common sense" question would be why would he adopt the least obvious and most difficult to perform of the three, hull construction, and ignore the two most advantageous and easiest to implement, the sail and outrigger. It makes me scratch my head. I asked Jones this question and his answer was that during the Protohistoric period (AD 1542 - 1769) the Chumash saw numerous examples of Spanish ships with sails and never tried sails then either. I dunno.

Chronology - ANY direct evidence of planked canoe construction in California earlier than the current AD 600 - 700 dates would disprove the theory. This would predate the Polynesian settlement of Hawaii, a precondition for a North American voyage. The earliest planked canoe date cited above is subject to revision by new evidence. Gamble's 2002 article also cites a date from a "possible" plank fragment as early as ca. 300 BC. A 2000 MA thesis written by Suzan Rose (a former work colleague) at UNLV details indirect evidence of planked canoe construction at site CA-SBA-52, located about a mile from where I sit in Goleta, CA. Rose documents work areas in the site containing scatters of boring tools with distinctive wear patterns, asphaltum applicators, and other tools that Gamble's later article interpretes as typical of canoe construction workshops. Only at CA-SBA-52 these areas are securely radiocarbon dated to ca. 2000 BC. So the door is still open for this line of inquiry.

Klar and Jones deserve credit for originating this provocative theory challenging many assumptions about California prehistory. Science doesn't progress without people pushing at established paradigms.

Their peer-reviewed article on the theory will appear in the next issue of the flagship journal American Antiquity. I'm sure that the "fur will fly" in American Antiquity's Comments section in the coming months and I will report to you on what results!


Anonymous said...

Kiaora, this is awesome information... things we have known and been told by our ancestors are being proven more and more these days, the polynesian chickens in south america, the marquesan adzes in Hawaii, the Kumara, the mere pounamu from Aotearoa in a tahitian swamp, the evidence is mounting... :) thanks

NKent805 said...

That funny MY Chumash ancestors never mentioned a Polynesian instructor and Source for our unique watercraft, neither did the Tongva or any other California coastal groups. You know.... Because surely they would of mentioned something of that magnitude. Come to think of it, why didn't these teachers bring anything else like animals, diseases, weaponry, chickens anything !!? Why didn't they bring a thing back from California ?! No I dont think so.