Rethinking Polynesians Origins: A West-Polynesia Triple-I Model

Article excerpt


The last twenty years has seen an apparent consensus that the immediate origins of Polynesian language, culture and biology lie solely with the Lapita peoples and cultures that settled Samoa and Tonga by 2700 years ago. We suggest that there is increasing evidence that does not sit well with this generally accepted view of Polynesian origins and thus we put forward an alternative model for consideration. Building on Green's suggestion of over 20 years ago, we propose that some of the ideas in his Triple-I model (Green 1991a) might also be usefully applied to conceptualizing the processes involved in Polynesian origins. Specifically, we suggest that in addition to Lapita origins, there were significant later elements introduced to Polynesia that were fundamental to the development of Polynesian culture and biology prior to the settlement of East Polynesia. Current data suggest that some of these elements are shared with Micronesia and may be ultimately derived from post-Lapita population movements, perhaps from Island Southeast Asia through the low islands of the Carolines, Kiribati and Tuvalu to West Polynesia.

Keywords: Lapita, biology, archaeology, migrations, commensal, Polynesians


Any discussion of Polynesian origins is complicated--even the very framing of the question is fraught with problems. Polynesia is roughly defined geographically as the islands encompassed within the triangle formed by Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island, linguistically by the islands where Polynesian languages are spoken (or were spoken at European contact), and culturally and biologically by an ever-changing list of characteristics. Despite these difficulties, Green (1987; 1991b) suggested that Polynesia was the one region in the Pacific that did constitute a valid biological, linguistic and cultural group.

The linkage of linguistic, biological and archaeological evidence in understanding the Pacific past has been questioned on theoretical grounds (Donohue and Denham 2010; Smith 2002; Terrell 1989; Terrell, et al. 1997), a fundamental challenge to the "phylogenetic model" (Kirch and Green 1987, 2001). It is not our intention to enter that debate. Our thoughts are predicated on the idea that biology, archaeology, language, and other aspects of culture are not necessarily transported and maintained through time as bundled units. As a corollary to this, we accept the notion that the relationships between these various domains do not change in predictable or uniform ways. An expectation of these ideas is that the human past on each island is likely to be complex (and necessarily difficult to interpret). Within this context we review some aspects of the archaeology and human/commensal biology of the region and suggest the possibility that models incorporating more than one population movement into Polynesia may offer a better fit for some of these data. We postulate post-Lapita population movements out of the western Pacific, possibly originating in Island Southeast Asia, adding complex influences into the development of Polynesian culture and biology.

Early ideas on Polynesian origins

When European explorers first came to Oceania they quickly noted similarities and differences in the human languages, cultures and phenotypes they observed in the region. In 1832, the French explorer and scientist Dumontd'Urville dealt with this diversity by using the existing terms Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia, in an explicitly socio-evolutionary framework in which "races" were seen as forming a unilineal and progressive sequence with northern Europeans as the most "evolved" (see discussions in Clark 2003; Tcherkezoff 2009). This biological and social-evolutionary perspective, while modified regularly, was the framework within which anthropology developed as a science.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, substantial scholarly research was devoted to understanding the origins and relationships of Oceanic populations, particularly the question of "Polynesian origins" (Howard 1967). …


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