Saturday, June 18, 2011

Vindication for Thor Heyerdahl

Here is a link to a recent story in the Telegraph UK entitled "Kon-Tiki explorer was partly right -- Polynesians had South American roots." It reports that new genetic research by a University of Oslo professor has discovered genes in blood samples taken from Easter Islanders in 1971 and 2008 that were previously only found in indigenous American populations.

Norwegian explorer and author Thor Heyerdahl (1914 - 2002) put forward the thesis that the original settlement of the Pacific islands of Polynesia most likely came from the east (North and South America) than from the west (Asia and Malaysia), providing extensive evidence to back up his argument which filled an 821-page book, and famously venturing out himself across the Pacific in the Kon-Tiki raft to prove that the currents from South America supported his theory.

These stories about the genetic research concerning Easter Island first began to surface in some news outlets around June 6 and June 7, only a week after this blog published a post entitled "A Memorial Day Meditation on the mystery of Easter Island" on May 31, in which we argued for Heyerdahl's theory.

We noted then that it continues to be fashionable to ridicule Heyerdahl's theory and cited an article by author Jared Diamond who declared that Heyerdahl "brushed aside overwhelming evidence that the Easter Islanders were typical Polynesians derived from Asia rather than the Americas and that their culture (including their statues) grew out of Polynesian culture."

Here is a link to an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle back in April (just over a month before this new genetic evidence was released) about Easter Island which mentions Thor Heyerdahl and Easter Island, calling him the "author of a few wildly popular (and even more wildly speculative) books about the place." Perhaps this article's author, Spud Hilton of the Chronicle, and Jared Diamond will soon be publishing apologies for their dismissive words about Heyerdahl.

Far from "brushing aside overwhelming evidence" or floating "wildly speculative" theories, Heyerdahl amassed overwhelming evidence in support of his argument, the vast bulk of which is never directly addressed by his critics. Now, modern science appears to have added new genetic evidence to Heyerdahl's pile of data about the origins of the Polynesian cultures of the Pacific ocean.

Heyerdahl noted that the prevailing currents (see map above) support migration from the Americas rather than from the west. In his 1953 work American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition he noted that the Polynesians themselves in their oral history and legends always identified their ancestors came from the east to the west, and that the first land settled by their ancestors was a group of islands known as Hawaiki or Hawai'i. Heyerdahl notes that these traditions are held "quite independently on widely separated Polynesian islands" and also notes that the first islands that would be encountered by mariners sailing from the direction of the Americas would be Hawai'i and Easter Island (41).

While opponents of his theory argue that Hawaiki must refer to Java in Indonesia and that the Polynesians were simply mixed up about the direction of their ancient origins, Heyerdahl points out numerous problems with this theory, beginning with the direction of the prevailing winds and currents. He notes that the Polynesians were outstanding mariners, and could and did complete successful voyages against the wind and the currents over great distances, but argues that the first men to reach the scattered islands of the Pacific were not necessarily as skilled as their descendents later became. Of those first settlers of the vast Pacific, he says:
If they had come from the east, from America, they could have reached Polynesia even against their own will and intention, merely by clinging to any buoyant coastal craft that was driven to sea and carried west by the prevailing winds and currents. But, if they had come from the west, from Asia, they could have reached Polynesia only if they were already, before departure, expert mariners with a keen insight into navigation and highly developed craft with rigging capable of forcing an eastward journey against the prevailing wind. 41.
Those who argue that the ancestors of the Polynesians came from the direction of Asia and Malaysia or Indonesia must also explain where such a group came from, who were simultaneously expert mariners but whose descendents in Polynesia did not use technologies that were present in Indonesia and Melanesia from very ancient times, technologies such as the loom for weaving (Polynesians made bark cloth instead of woven cloth, while the loom was well known in Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia), iron (Captain Cook noted that the islanders he encountered appeared totally unaware of the value of the iron ore he saw deposited in streams when he first reached their islands), alcohol, shell currency, kite fishing techniques, and numerous other developments present in Indonesia and Malaysia from a very early period.

On the other hand, the Polynesian level of seafaring ability was far beyond anything displayed by any of the cultures or locations in Asia, Indonesia, or Malaysia where conventional theorists believe that they originated.

Again, those who hold the conventional theory must argue that these impressive seafaring people were so confused about direction that they got east and west reversed in their own legends, and thought their forefathers came from the east when they actually came from the west, and that when they said Hawaiki was to the east they were mistakenly referring to Java, which was to the west. And they maintain this despite the widespread oral traditions among the islanders that the early generations of Polynesian seafarers made numerous return voyages back to Hawaiki. He notes that:
During the first generations after the dispersal of the Maori-Polynesian people from Hawaiki, courageous mariners, from all the major islands, made return voyages to this first discovered island, to visit their relatives and the earliest Pacific abode of their sacred ancestors. A lively contact existed between the central Polynesian islands and Hawaiki, and even between New Zealand and Hawaiki, until this great maritime activity gradually ceased. The historical traditions of the New Zealand Maori are especially rich in detailed accounts of the arrival of their ancestors from Hawaiki and subsequent return voyages to the same islands. 41.
Heyerdahl also cites an ancient Maori chant, documented by the prolific researcher of Maori culture Dr. Peter H. Buck (born 1880, whose Maori name was Te Rangihiroa, and who achieved the rank of Major and earned the combat valor award of the DSO in World War I, where he served in Gallipoli and in France), in 1938. This traditional Maori chant concerned the voyage back to Hawaiki, and clearly indicates that that homeland was to the east, in the direction of the rising sun:
Now do I direct the bow of my canoe
To the opening whence arises the sun god,
Tami-nui-te-ra, Great-son-of-the-sun.
Let me not deviate from the course
But sail direct to the Homeland. Cited in Heyerdahl 58-59.
Are we to understand that the Maoris sailed to Java to visit Hawaiki but did not realize that it was in the direction of the setting sun instead of the rising sun? And yet this is the position that critics must maintain who argue that Hawaiki was really in Indonesia. It is also very strange that if numerous return voyages were made to Indonesia, no record exists in Indonesia of such contact, and the Polynesians who went there did not pick up the techniques for making alcohol, iron, woven fabric, or the others mentioned above from the people that they found there when they returned to their supposed Asian homeland. He also notes that there is no trace of influence of Buddhism or Hinduism in Polynesian culture, in spite of the very strong cultural influence of both in Indonesia and Asia stretching back to centuries BC (43).

In addition to all this evidence against the idea that the people of Polynesia came originally from the west and Asia to the east, Heyerdahl also presents voluminous evidence which argues for connections with peoples of North and South America, including the accomplished builders of the spectacular pyramids and statues of Peru, and that the stone sculptures of Easter Island and the megalithic "arch" and pyramids of Tonga resemble those of Peru, Bolivia, and elsewhere in the Americas more than anything from Asia.

He also presents startling similarities between Polynesian culture and many aspects of the culture of the Northwest Indians (Native Americans) such as the Kwakiutl, the Nootka and the Haida. He was not the first to note these similarities -- many early European explorers who visited Polynesia and then the Northwest (including Captain Cook) were struck by these amazing similarities, and remarked upon them in their logs and records. They especially noted the similarities to aspects of the Maori culture, many of which Heyerdahl lists and which are too numerous to include in detail here.

One of the most obvious similarities was the similarity between the magnificent oceangoing canoes of the Northwest Indians and those of the Polynesians. Below is a photograph from 1910 of an ocean canoe of the Kwakiutl (which apparently is an Anglicized version of the true name of this people, which is Kwakwaka'wakw).

These canoes were extremely seaworthy, capable of slicing their way over the mammoth ocean swells of the Pacific, and were the defining cultural artifact of those Northwest tribes, as described by an officer of the US Navy, A.P. Niblack (who achieved the rank of Admiral but made contact with the tribes of the Northwest as a young ensign) who in 1888 wrote:
The canoe is to the Northwest coast what the camel is to the desert. It is to the Indian of this region what the horse is to the Arab. It is the apple of his eye and the object of his solicitous attention and affection. It reaches its highest development in the world among the Haida of Queen Charlotte Islands. Cited in Heyerdahl 95.
Admiral Niblack was not the only observer to rate these canoes the finest ocean canoes in the world; American geologist and anthropologist William Henry Holmes (1846 - 1933) said of them, "These dugout canoes are often of great size, beauty, and seaworthiness, and are probably the world's highest achievement in this direction," and New Zealand professor and scholar John Macmillan Brown (1846 - 1935) said of the Northwest tribes, "Their canoes are large and roomy, capable of accommodating scores of men; they are made with great skill and artistic talent; they are of all primitive craft the most fitted for meeting the conditions of oceanic voyaging, and have a great resemblance to the Maori war canoe . . ." (cited in Heyerdahl 95).

The remarkable similarity to the wakas, or war canoes of the Maori, can be seen by comparing the photograph above to the beautiful waka in the photograph below:

Heyerdahl's book provides evidence of many further similarities beyond their shape and appearance (even though the similarities in shape and appearance, and their seaworthiness, are striking enough by themselves). Note also that the prevailing currents indicated on the map at the top of this post are quite favorable for a voyage from the islands of the Northwest tribes to Hawaii and the Pacific islands of Polynesia.

Finally, Heyerdahl offers what may be the most significant and amazing evidence that is rarely mentioned anywhere today, and that is the tradition of a culture hero who came among the Northwest tribes on foot, performing wonderful works and doing supernatural feats, and then went away over the ocean to be seen no more. An early visitor to the Kwakiutl, G. M. Dawson, who in 1888 published "Notes and Observations on the Kwakiool People of the Northern Part of Vancouver Island and Adjacent Coasts" (which contained a dictionary of about seven hundred Kwakiutl words, and which can be read in a sometimes very poor transcript from a microfiche online here) said, "The name of this hero, like other words in the language, is somewhat changed in the various dialects. After hearing it pronounced by a number of individuals in the northern part of Vancouver Island and on the west coast, I adopted 'Kan-e-a-ke-luh' as the most correct rendering" (Heyerdahl 148). Dawson records:
No one knows his origin or whence he came. He never travelled in a canoe, but always walked. He is regarded as a diety and as the creator.
and also:
At last Kan-e-a-ke-luh left Cape Scott finally, going very far away and disappearing altogher from mortal ken, so that the people supposed the sun to represent him. 148-149.
Heyerdahl notes the well-attested fact that a very similar legendary culture hero in Hawaii was named Kane, and in New Zealand among the Maori he was known as Tane (and that the Hawaiian letter "K" is consistently rendered in Maori by the letter "T")(149).

Even more startling is the fact that these legends are almost identical to the now-famous legends of a culture hero who moved among the ancestors of the ancient high civilizations of Central and South America, the Maya, the Inca, and the Aztecs, and that he was known as Viracocha but also as Conn or Kon-Tiki (and sometimes as Kon-Tiki Viracocha). Graham Hancock chronicles this legend in great detail in Fingerprints of the Gods, but Heyerdahl does as well in American Indians in the Pacific.

All of this evidence is perhaps even more conclusive than the recent genetic tests announced by the Telegraph yesterday. Nevertheless, even after this new vindication of Heyerdahl's thesis, the articles on the subject say that he was only partly right -- or even (in the less charitable description of the Norwegian professor who conducted the DNA tests themselves, cited at the end of the Telegraph article) that "Heyerdahl was wrong but not completely." The conventional theory that the Polynesians came from Asia appears to be very difficult to shake, and this new evidence is being seen as supporting a very small and unimportant contribution from the Americas.

However, as noted above, Heyerdahl presented far more evidence than he is given credit for -- evidence that should be sufficient to cause us to reconsider the assumptions of conventional history, and to believe that there may well have been contact across the oceans far earlier than conventional theorists would like to admit.

This new evidence should provide some vindication for the work of Thor Heyerdahl, although if his other evidence does not cause modern researchers to reconsider their opinion of his work and his theory, we should probably not be surprised if the gene tests do not either.