Re-framing and Refusing the Enduring Colonial Fascination with Polynesian Origins

Today’s guest post is by Maile Arvin, Assistant Professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. In her book Possessing Polynesians she analyzes the history of racialization of Polynesians within the context of settler colonialism across Polynesia, especially in Hawai‘i. She argues that a logic of possession through whiteness animates European and Hawaiian settler colonialism.

Where did Polynesians come from? How did they end up living on some of the most isolated island in the world? How should Polynesians be classified racially? These questions may sound innocent, but are, in fact, over two centuries old. They were repeatedly asked and answered by white social scientists in nineteenth-century philology and early twentieth-century anthropology, forming a special field of study dubbed “The Polynesian Problem.” These studies largely claimed that Polynesians had white ancestry, a latent whiteness which could potentially be rehabilitated through white settlement of Polynesia. In this way, such studies have long upheld the logics of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and anti-blackness, as I explain in my book Possessing Polynesians. Unfortunately, in some key ways, these questions about Polynesian origins, and their animating colonial logics, continue to shape social scientific research about Polynesian people. 

A new genomic study just published in Nature is the latest to weigh in on Polynesian origins, claiming to document the genetic presence of ancient Indigenous South American ancestry among eastern Polynesian peoples, including those from the Tuamotus, Marquesas, and Mangareva (all occupied by the settler colony of French Polynesia) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island, occupied by Chile). The study has sparked a round of headlines expressing wonder at the notion that Polynesians and Indigenous South Americans had contact from as early as 1150 A.D. (see, for example, coverage in the New York Times, Guardian and Science).     

Figure I.1 in Possessing Polynesians. “Polynesians “Polynesians a-ok!” Honolulu Star- Bulletin Honolulu Star- cartoon, 1962.

To many Polynesians, this “new” evidence that our ancestors met Indigenous South Americans in the twelfth century is not terribly surprising. Since at least the 1970s, the revitalization of long-distance voyaging across the Pacific Islands, using traditional double-hulled canoes with traditional methods of reading the stars and currents, has proven that Indigenous peoples were and continue to be more than capable of navigating across the Pacific Ocean. So why the surprise from mainstream news outlets? And what’s the problem with genomic scientists using Indigenous DNA to investigate ancient migrations? 

There are many ethical considerations to the actual practice of genetic research, but here I’m going to focus instead on the larger narratives that the recent Nature study help promote. This is not to dismiss the importance of questioning how and why Indigenous DNA is collected, stored and used (see some discussion of these issues with this study, including by archaeologist Guillaume Molle here, and biological anthropologists Lisa Matisoo-Smith and Anna Gosling here), but to note that even if the details of scientific research practices were completely ethically sound, the conclusions of such studies and the ways they get reported can still perpetuate colonial ideas. 

Case in point, this headline from Nature:  “Native South Americans were early inhabitants of Polynesia” (July 8, 2020). This framing of the study’s conclusions makes a big leap. Instead of only positing contact between Polynesians and Indigenous South Americans, this headline suggests that Indigenous South Americans were the first to inhabit Polynesian islands and thus may be the ancestors of Polynesians. As this Nature article highlights, this theory of an eastward settlement of the Pacific Islands was the obsession of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, Heyerdahl, who could not swim, infamously drifted on a balsa wood raft from Peru into the Pacific in an attempt to prove that Polynesia was settled by a mythical, now-extinct white race who had preceded the Incas. Heyerdahl did not believe that Polynesians or Indigenous Peruvians could have purposefully navigated the Pacific Ocean; he and others at the time advocated the theory of “random drift.” This was a racist idea that discounted Indigenous oral traditions and practices documenting deep knowledge and experience with long-distance navigation. He continued publishing on these ideas into the 1960s. 

Even during his life, Heyerdahl’s theory about an eastward settlement of Polynesia was largely discredited. “Random drift” was not widely dismissed until the revitalization of Indigenous voyaging beginning with the Hōkūleʻa’s first voyage from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti in 1976. But, as I note in Possessing Polynesians, Heyerdahl’s underlying belief in an ancient white race settling Polynesia was not the spontaneous invention of an individual racist. Migration routes and grandstanding methods aside, Heyerdahl’s belief in an ancient, advanced white race who settled the Polynesian islands and subsequently “degenerated,” was actually very much in keeping with a century of prior white settler scholarship. From the work of Australian John Dunmore Lang, who claimed in 1834 that Polynesians were likely the descendants of ancient Grecians or Romans, to American anthropologist Louis Sullivan’s belief in a “pure” Polynesian type that was almost “Caucasian” in the 1920s, white settlers were fascinated with the possibility that ancient white people were the real Indigenous people of Polynesia. In this logic, which I term the logic of possession through whiteness, by making Polynesians proximate to whiteness, white settlers staked their own claims to indigeneity in Polynesia, since through this circuitous reasoning, white people preceded Polynesians and could, through settler colonialism, “help” contemporary Polynesians regain a measure of civilization they had long lost. Polynesian people today must necessarily continue to challenge the consequences of this logic in a variety of paths towards decolonization. 

Most of the recent mainstream coverage of the Nature study references Heyerdahl, while only some reference Polynesian voyaging traditions. But none of those references frame Heyerdahl and the theory of eastward settlement of Polynesia within this much longer history of white supremacist and settler colonial social scientific study of Polynesian origins. This is a problem because claims about Indigenous origins can be and are used to undercut their claims to indigeneity and to bolster settler colonial claims to a place. To invoke Heyerdahl without any recognition of the history of the politics of his theories and their impact on Indigenous peoples allows colonial knowledge production about Polynesian origins to continue to circulate without naming it as such. (Others have made similarly critical points about Heyerdahl, including Kanaka Maoli scholar Sara Kahanamoku here, and Smithsonian geographer Doug Herman here.)

Polynesians have a multiplicity of origin stories. These stories also have deep histories and politics. There should be more widespread discussion and engagement with Polynesian peoples if and how their origins should be investigated through genomic science. But whether or not such research continues, there must be a deeper reckoning with and refusal of the ways Western science stakes possessive claims to Indigenous lands and bodies. 

Read the introduction to Possessing Polynesians free online and save 30% on the book with coupon code E19ARVIN.

One comment

  1. They have did the same to Native Americans. The recent study in Mexico about stone points that are 30,000 years old. They are insistent on the fact that the Native American presence in the Americas are no older than 15,000 years old, and that anything older is de facto not Native Americans. They have tried using ‘White’ proxies like the Ainu and Polynesians to write Native Americans out of their very own homelands , and history. When those get debunked, there is always a ‘New’ controversy to put doubt in the minds of mainstream European Americans. They have been trying to take ownership of the supposed white heritage of America for hundreds of years through myth making like the ‘White mound builders’, the Solutrean hypothesis, Kennewick Man, Spirit Cave Man, ect, ect. It’s getting real old, and these are mostly from supposedly legit academia . They have one goal in mind, and that is to disassociate Native Americans from the ancient ancestors, history, civilizations, achevements and claims to their homelands!


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