I recall reading once, that when Captain James Cook approached Tahiti with a full head of sail and a strong following wind, he was surprised indeed to find himself watching curious Tahitian sailors in their superb ocean-going outriggers sailing round his ponderous vessel to take a look at this intruder. This should not surprise us, now that we know that the Polynesians, so named ‘The Vikings of the Sunrise’ by Te Rangi Hīroa, were beyond any doubt the greatest maritime explorers of all time. Originating in the remote past on the island of Taiwan, these Austronesian-speaking people were ultimately to settle from Malagasy to Rapa Nui, Easter Island. But did they go even further, and reach the Americas before Columbus made landfall on the 12 October 1492? And how about Leif Erikson, who we recall founded his Icelandic settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in about 1000 AD? Who ‘discovered’ America, of course, is really not arguable, given the recent excavations at Chiquihuite Cave in Mexico, which have dated human settlement to about 24,000 years ago, but even now there is a widespread reference to anything in the Americas prior to 1492 as ‘Pre-Columbian’. Might it be more accurate to refer to it as ‘Pre-Austronesian’?
I usually work in my study at home, but all this crossed my mind last month when I paid a rare visit to my Department and fell into conversation with my colleague, Ian Barber. Ian is a specialist on the archaeology of New Zealand, now increasingly being referred to in these islands by its Māori name: Aotearoa, ‘the Land of the Long White Cloud’. He told me that he and my son Tom had just published a paper in the journal PLOS One that dated starch granules recovered from a pit at a prehistoric settlement called Pūrākaunui within the decadal range AD 1430-1460. Now Pūrākaunui is an inlet and marine embayment not more than half an hour’s drive north of Dunedin, a delightful spot for a day’s visit to the sandy beach, excellent for fishing and collecting shellfish. We have sailed our dingy there and sat out on the deck of a friend’s weekend retreat to watch the sun go down over a glass of Pinot noir. What made me grow more attentive to Ian’s words was when he said that the starch granules came from the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, also known as kūmara. For a start, it has long been understood that cultivating this plant never reached so far south, where it is too cold for a subtropical species. Even more to the point, this sweet potato is native to South America. So how ever did it find its way to Aotearoa in the first place?
There are two ways. Did South Americans sail across to Hawaii, or Easter Island, along with some kūmara cuttings and settle there before the Polynesians arrived? Alternatively, the Polynesian navigators could have continued sailing into the sunrise and, finally, reached the New World. They never permanently settled there, but could they have rubbed shoulders and enjoyed more intimate contact with the inhabitants, before returning home with their offspring and precious sweet potatoes, just as the potato found its way to Spain in the 16th century? In 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to County Cork, and see what an impact it had on Irish agriculture.
The best way of resolving this question, as is often the case nowadays, is to turn to the genetic evidence by comparing the DNA of both groups. What we find is very intriguing. Yes, there is evidence for introgression from South America in the DNA from the people of the remote southern Marquesas island of Fatu Hiva, and the divergence suggests that this contact dates back to c.AD 1150. There was later admixture, perhaps through different voyaging, on Mangareva and Rapa Nui. The genes tell us that the closest match is with the Zenú people of northern Colombia.
It is just conceivable that these ancestral Zenú sailed across to the remote Pacific islands with their precious kūmara. One thinks immediately of Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki, but one aspect of that epic voyage is often overlooked: the balsa wood raft was towed for 80km out into the Pacific and across the Humboldt Current by the Peruvian Navy tugboat Guardian Rios before it set sail. The South Americans were never renowned as blue-water sailors, while the Polynesians were the supreme masters of Pacific exploration. Barely a single speck of land across the vast reaches of the ocean was not visited. Even the mutineers of the Bounty, who sought out the remotest crumb of island of all, Pitcairn, found abundant evidence for human settlement, including the foundations of stone temples and images, when they finally reached their hideaway. Guided by the stars, cloud formations, ocean currents, patches of luminous plankton, and migratory seabirds, Polynesian navigation skills were stunning, to say the least. One of the volunteers on my excavations in Thailand, Meph Wyeth, still roams the Pacific from her home in Hawaii when she feels the urge.
Some years ago, my son Tom undertook a most interesting research project. He and his colleague Janet Wilmshurst excavated natural swamps across Aotearoa to extract the stratified remains of nuts. Some of these had been nibbled by rats, and, if so, they must post-date the arrival of humans, since rats hitchhiked rides wherever the Polynesians sailed. These precious nuts were taken to Oxford and radiocarbon dated. Oral traditions name the founding waka hourua, the ocean-going craft. There was the Tainui, Te Arawa, and Tākitimu, and they reached Aotearoa from their mythical homeland named Hawaiki. We cannot pinpoint this place, but the close relationship between blocks of scoria found in Southland and their parent source on Tahiti suggests that the early waka hourua brought rats, scoria, and kūmara to Aotearoa in the late 13th century.
What an amazing place it must have been. Inquisitive birds far larger than an ostrich would have been there to greet the first humans. The rivers and estuaries teemed with fish and marine mammals. With their heavyweight stone adzes, the early Māori would have quickly dealt with the thick forest, and, as along the coast of the Wairarapa in the North Island, created fields for cultivating taro, yams, and kūmara, and associated storage pits. As the population grew, so social distinctions saw the rise of tribal groups led by chiefly lineages. Land was a vital asset, and powerful leaders were not averse to conflict to expand or preserve their domains. Just reflect on what Abel Tasman and James Cook encountered when they reached New Zealand: very powerful tribal leaders, the ferocious haka, and heavily defended hillforts known as pā. Traditionally, however, any Māori settlement south of Christchurch was quite different, since it was too cold for cultivated crops and there was, in European parlance, something akin to a ‘Mesolithic Revolution’, in which this land – famed as a source of pounamu, the wonderful nephrite jade used for prestigious ornaments and weapons such as the chiefly mere – had a thinly scattered occupation of, essentially, hunter-gatherers.
Now the contents of a pit at Pūrākaunui have changed our focus. The first generations of human settlement dramatically altered the pristine environment. There are sites where so many moa bones accumulated that they were ground up as a source of fertiliser by the early European farmers. As occurred worldwide, megafauna took a major hit when humans came over the horizon. Until about AD 1490, however, the climate was going through a relatively warm phase. According to oral histories of the southern ‘Ngāi Tahu tribe, cultivation of the kūmara was possible. Chiefdoms did arise. Food could be and was stored for winter consumption. When the first Europeans came to hunt seals and whales, however, they did not find any kūmara cultivation in the far south. Indeed, the local Māori enthusiastically grew the introduced European potato and traded them with the newcomers. Why was the kūmara lost? As is increasingly the case, we look to climate change. From about AD 1500, there was the ‘Little Ice Age’. It simply grew too cold.
Through the microscopic recovery of starch residues, the radiocarbon dating of pit contents, examination of oral traditions, and reference to evidence for climate change, Ian Barber has illuminated a new chapter in the occupation of one of the most southerly lands occupied in prehistory. His research has been carried out with the consent and ongoing interest of local Māori landowners and hapū (sub-tribal groups), for whom the Pūrākaunui pit discovery validates oral tradition. He has homed in on one of the most remarkable stories of human endeavour, the settlement of the Pacific, and posed the fascinating question of who first came face to face with the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. Ask this of most people in the downtown of any major United States city and I suspect the unanimous answer would be Christopher Columbus, perhaps one or two might mention the Viking Leif Erikson. None, I wager, would nominate the Vikings of the Sunrise.