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Chapter 10



Some reference has already been made to the science of ethnology or comparative ethnography, which began with museum collections and dominated the study of Pacific cultures until the advent of modern archaeology and linguistics after the end of World War II, blurring also into cultural anthropology in the United States and social anthropology in Great Britain.

Most of the work on Pacific ethnography was carried out under the auspices of the B.P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawai'i, where Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) served as director during the latter part of his career. The museum sponsored or took part in numerous field excursions, especially in Polynesia, and a number of book length ethnographies were published by the museum in a series of bulletins, with data set out systematically under headings such as subsistence, material culture, social organisation, and arts and crafts. 

This wealth of material was made use of in a comparative study by the American anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Edwin G. Burrows (1891 - 1958), who was himself the author of two of the museum ethnographies, and also published books on Tuamotuan music and on the music of Uvea and Futuna in the same series (Burrows1933, 1936, 1937, 1945).

Having joined the staff of the museum, Burrows was fortunate to have all the work of his predecessors at his disposal and was also on the forefront of advances in anthropology at the time. His contribution to the comparison of available resources was his book Western Polynesia: A Study in Cultural Differentiation (1938), which gained him a PhD in anthropology from Yale University in the previous year.

A deficiency of earlier ethnographers was to interpret their data in terms of now discredited wave theories emanating from evolutionism and diffusionism. Burrows made no such mistakes. His approach was to eschew racially defined "waves" and "strata" in favour of centres of innovation from which diffusion to adjacent areas could proceed, and he also adopted a much more sophisticated set of criteria to examine resemblances or absences when these were found. Thus resemblances, for example, could be a result of independent invention, and absences of rejection or abandonment.  

True to the title of his monograph, Burrows was able to distinguish contrasting clusters of traits which differentiate Western and Eastern Polynesia from each other, and this achievement is well known and acknowledged by modern anthropologists. Bellwood, for example, who comes close to rejecting ethnology as a useful discipline makes honourable exception for Burrows, rating his work on Western and Eastern Polynesia as of "fundamental significance in Polynesian prehistory." (Bellwood 1978a:309).

Burrows isolated 40 traits in a broad range including physical ones such as types of fish-hook, adzes, and house construction; kinship terms; social customs such as presence or absence of brother-sister avoidance; and mythology and religion, in all cases demonstrating differentiation between Eastern and Western Polynesia. The following are some representative examples: 






Rubbed barkcloth

Stamped barkcloth

Lateen sail

Sprit sail

Slit-gong and panpipes

Drum[2] and mouth bow

God house

Sacred court with stonework

Pulotu home of the gods and abode of the dead

Hawaiki abode of the dead and ancestral home

Tangaloa the only primal god

Tangaroa, Tu, Tane and Rongo all primal gods


In other cases, items commonly present in Eastern Polynesia, such as tanged adzes, stone food pounders, and human figures carved in wood or stone, were found to be absent or nearly so in Western Polynesia.

Of equal significance are trait associations, identified by Burrows in the same publication which ally Eastern Polynesia with Micronesia on the one hand, and Western Polynesia with Melanesia on the other. These are important because they corroborate similar associations which have turned up in other contexts such as music.

Traits shared in Micronesia and Western Polynesia

Right-angle plaiting. Centre of diffusion Micronesia. Rare in Melanesia.

Traits shared in Melanesia and Western Polynesia

1. Coiled basketry. Centre of diffusion Melanesia, reaching Western Polynesia through Fiji, and also the Carolines from Melanesia. 

2. Slit gongs. Centre of diffusion Melanesia.

3. Panpipes. Centre of diffusion Melanesia.

Traits shared in Micronesia and Eastern Polynesia

In Burrows's own words:

Certain traits shared by central Polynesia, Micronesia, and some intermediate islands are absent or rare in western Polynesia. They are: simple fish-hooks, Ruvettus fish-hooks, stone or wooden food pounders, tanged adzes, drums, carved human images, nights of the moon, lack of kinship terms for some of the relationships emphasized in western Polynesia. This situation suggests one immigration into central Polynesia by way of Micronesia, another into western Polynesia by a different route (on other grounds, through Fiji). But there are difficulties in the way of this interpretation. Any of the traits mentioned may be old Polynesian, retained in central-marginal Polynesia but abandoned in the west (Burrows 1938 :155).

Here Burrows points to the obvious conclusion that the specified traits in this passage, originated in Micronesia and spread from there to Eastern Polynesia, unlike others that may have reached Polynesia from Melanesia via Fiji. His caveat, however, raises the question of how each of these traits came to be absent in Western Polynesia, and for some there is a question mark also about either presence in Micronesia or absence in Melanesia. Taking each in turn:  



The simple fish-hooks referred to by Burrows are one-piece hooks without barbs. Far from being absent in Melanesia, it would seem this applies only to southern Island Melanesia, with presence attested in the Solomon Islands northwards. In Micronesia they are reported for Nauru and for Ponape as well as the Marshall Islands, Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro. Absence in Western Polynesia is accounted for by presence of more advanced bonito trolling hooks which would have replaced them for surface fishing (Burrows 1938:130-1).

Ruvettus Hook is the term adopted by Burrows for larger fish-hooks used to catch bottom-dwelling fish species such as Ruvettus. It is general in Eastern Polynesia and in Polynesian Outliers such as Tikopia, Sikaiana and Ontong Java. It is also general in Eastern Micronesia where it has been reported for the Gilberts, Nauru, the Carolines, and, though less frequently, for the Marshalls, but is absent in Melanesia (Burrows 1938:132). Burrows concludes:

This distribution indicates that the Ruvettus hook was invented either in Micronesia or central-marginal Polynesia. Its absence in three of the four typical western Polynesian regions — Samoa, Uvea, Futuna — can be accounted for in either of two ways. One is that knowledge of this type of hook never reached these regions. This is unlikely, in view of the evidence of contact between them and regions where the Ruvettus hook is found. . . The more likely explanation is that the Ruvettus hook was rejected in these regions. The rejection was presumably conditioned by specialization in other fishing methods which proved adequate to local needs (Burrows 1938:132-3).

Pollex has a cognate set of the term paa for the bonito trolling lure, showing this name and form of hook to be present throughout both eastern and western Polynesia as follows: ANU, ECE, EFU, EUV, HAW, KAP, MAO, MQA, NIU, NKR, OJA, PUK, REN, SAM, SIK, TAK, TIK, TOK, TON, YAS. The last entry is probably a borrowing.

Burrows (1938:103-4) has a section in which he discusses occurrence of three varieties of composite bonito hooks outside of Polynesia, finding them in the Carolines, Marshall Islands, and Ocean Island in Micronesia, and in the Solomons in Melanesia. Presence of one variety in Fiji is attributed to borrowing from Tonga and the others to various degrees of local development. It will be noted, however, that, except for presence in Western Polynesia, this distribution is the same as for simple and Ruvettus hooks.

Two important later publications supplement and provide support for Burrows's findings:

Skinner (1942) compares a corpus of fish-hooks from southern New Zealand with similar hooks found elsewhere in Polynesia. His Type 1 corresponds with simple fish-hooks in Burrows's classification, and his Type 4 with the paa bonito hook of tropical Polynesia set out in the Pollex table above.

Type 1 is subdivided into three varieties, each with a statement of incidence outside of New Zealand. Variety A is semi-circular; in Variety B the point "is so bent as to suggest a barb"; and Variety C is U-shaped, with the shank leg and point leg approximately parallel.   

  • Variety A is found outside New Zealand in the Chathams, the Ellice Islands, Pukapuka, Manihiki, Tahiti, Easter Island, Uvea, the Carolines, and Santa Barbara (California).
  • Variety B occurs in the Chathams, Ellice Islands, Pukapuka, Tokelaus, Tahiti, Pitcairn, Easter, Hawai'i, northern Melanesia, and Carolines.
  • Variety C occurs at the Chathams, Pukapuka, Niue, Tahiti, Marquesas, Hawaii, Easter Island, northern Melanesia, Marshalls, and Carolines.

Common to all three lists are the Carolines, Chathams, Easter Island, Pukapuka, and Tahiti. There are two appearances each for the Ellice Islands, Hawaii, and northern Melanesia. And there is one only appearance each for  Manihiki, the Marquesas Islands, the Marshalls, Niue, Pitcairn, Santa Barbara, Tokelaus, and Uvea. Except possibly for Santa Barbara, all must be regarded as significant, with obvious correspondences to the findings which emerged from Burrows's study, as also from Skinner himself, who concluded on the basis of mutual presence of Type 1 fish-hooks in Polynesia and northern Melanesia, with middle ground only in Micronesia, that the home area for the entire insular Pacific was probably the Carolines (Skinner 1942:219).

But this is not Skinner's final word. In the course of his next 40 pages he moves from probability to certainty in his concluding remarks: 

The comparative forms figured from overseas indicate clearly that Murihiku relationships are closest with Marginal Polynesia, in which must be included the northern Cooks. Back of Marginal Polynesia stands the Caroline group, closely related and showing many ancestral forms. All the hooks of Melanesia, from the eastern Solomons northward, are derived from the Carolinas (Skinner 1942:262).

Though not seen by the present writer, a major 1950s study of Polynesian fishing gear by the Swedish writer Bengt Anell evidently came out in support of a Micronesian origin for Polynesians on the basis, as foreshadowed by both Burrows and Skinner, that the one-piece bait hooks and the shell trolling lures of Polynesia were "well paralleled through Micronesia, but hardly paralleled at all In Melanesia." (Anell 1955 cited in Bellwood (1978a:281)

In view of the abundant evidence for a Micronesian origin of fish-hooks in Polynesia, along with comparative absence in Melanesia, a question to be settled is what relationship if any there is between this distribution and the Lapita Diaspora. As indicated in Chapter 4, Lapita subsistence was dependant primarily on marine resources, and Lapita sites typically contain large deposits of fish bones. How, then, were the fish obtained? Kirch and Green (2001:121) note that in-shore species typically dominate these assemblages, but small numbers of deep-sea species are also represented, and associated artefacts include varieties of one-piece angling hooks and one-piece trolling lures. Kirch's earlier book The lapita Peoples (1997) provides further information, and in view of its importance is quoted here in detail:

Fishhooks, made from several kinds of shell (especially Turbo and Trochus), are now well documented from a number of Lapita sites, ranging from Talepakemalai [Mussau, Bismarcks] to Lolokoka [Tonga]. Most of these hooks are fairly large (ca. 5 cm in shank length) and were prob­ably designed for hand-lining from canoes, in order to catch larger benthic species such as groupers. A few hooks are smaller, however, and could have been used for taking smaller species on reefs and along coastlines. We also have evidence for deep-sea trolling, in the form of carefully crafted lures made from Trochus shell. These trolling lures . . .  are streamlined for hydrodynamic lift in the water, and have finely carved grooves for attaching both the line and tackles (probably feathers or pig bristles) near the recurved point.

Fishhooks and trolling lures cannot account for the full diversity of fishes taken by Lapita people. It seems likely that a wide range of fishing strategies must have been practiced, including such methods as spearing, netting, and poisoning (Kirch 1997:200-01).

It would appear that neither the simple fish-hooks nor the Ruvettus hooks of Micronesia and Polynesia were directly represented in Lapita assemblages, but the larger so-called benthic hooks referred to by Kirch would have had similar use to the latter, and the Lapita trolling lure is too close in concept to the familiar bonito lure of Polynesia for these to be unconnected. On the other hand, Kirch's conclusion that the bulk of Lapita fishing activity would have been limited to inshore reef and lagoon fishing, using methods such as netting, spearing, and fish poisoning rings true in light of the self-same methods which remain prevalent today in all of the Melanesian areas where Lapita potters once lived. Other methods in these areas include fish drives with use of scare-lines of rope and coconut leaves, use of fish traps, and of bait lines without hooks, which are simply pulled up when the fish swallows the bait. At the time of European contact a number of Melanesian societies did not use fish-hooks, and in many places today fishing with hook and line is a post-contact phenomenon  (Osmond 1998). Taking all available information into account, both fish-hooks and lures are likely to have been common to ancestral populations of both Lapita potters and Micronesians, with the latter giving rise to those of Polynesia and the former falling out of use in Melanesia where fish stocks would have been plentiful enough for the still prevalent inshore methods to suffice.


Food pounders

Burrows begins his discussion with a statement that food pounders like those of central-marginal Polynesia are not characteristic of Melanesia. Specimens available to him from Fiji, New Ireland, Vanuatu, and the Solomons differed in many ways. In eastern Micronesia, on the other hand, food pounders distinctly similar to those of central-marginal Polynesia were found to abound, and are documented by Burrows from the Gilberts, Kusae, Ponape, Ngatic, Pingelap, Nukuoro, Palau, and Yap (Burrows 1938:133-4).

As in the case of fish-hooks, the presumption is that most of the islands of western Polynesia at some time or other learned of the existence of such pounders in Micronesia or central-marginal Polynesia. Western Polynesians apparently rejected this artifact as not, for their purposes, worth the trouble of manufacture (Burrows 1938:134).


Tanged adzes

While correctly representing tanged adzes as characteristic of Eastern but not Western Polynesia, Burrows was possibly in error to represent them as shared with Micronesia. On his own evidence they are a uniquely Eastern Polynesian adaptation of untanged adzes which are the form found everywhere else except, it would seem, for a few specimens found in Uvea, the Tokelaus, and Tuvalu which could have received them from Central Polynesia (Burrows 1938:106), but in the case of Tuvalu could perhaps also have obtained them from Kiribati if they were ever there. 



If information concerning Oceanic drums had been as extensive at Burrows's time of writing as it is today, there is no doubt he would have reached different conclusions. He knew about the hourglass shape of Micronesian drums, but missed the obvious connection between these and the ubiquitous hourglass drums of New Guinea (Burrows 1938:96). He was correct to regard the Polynesian drum as limited aboriginally to Eastern Polynesia, as its presence in Western Polynesia is now known to have been post-European. In contrast with Micronesian drums, however, the drums of central Eastern Polynesia and most of Marginal Polynesia are of cylindrical form. Throughout Polynesia, as indicated in Table 5, Chapter 6, they are named pahu, from the Proto Polynesian word 'to thump', and are shown on distributional evidence to have originated in Eastern Polynesia. In New Zealand, which was the last area to be colonised by Polynesians, the drum is not present, and the term pahu is applied to a rudimentary form of slit gong, suggesting that the skin drum was not developed in the home area of Central/Marginal Polynesia until after the Maori left, ruling out any connection to Micronesia, if at all, until after this time.    


Carved human figures

This is another ambivalent category. Burrows records carved human figures in Eastern Polynesia, but finds them absent in Fiji and Western Polynesia (except in Samoa and Tonga). They are found almost universally further west in `, and are abundant in Melanesia, with examples in New Caledonia, central Vanuatu and the Banks Islands, the Solomons, New Britain, New Ireland, and New Guinea, with Lewis (1932) cited as the source of information for the latter area. Carved figures are by no means as frequent in Micronesia, with a "scattering" from the Gilberts, Kusae, Nukuoro, and the Carolines (Burrows 1938:135), to which may be added "some few carved figures" as house decorations and cult objects in Palau and the Marshall Islands as well as the Gilberts (Wingert 1946:28). A browse through photographs in a book by Buehler et al. (1962), however, amply confirms substantial presence of carved human figures in New Guinea, all the way from the Bird's Head in West Papua to the Bismarck Archipelago. Specifically, where language and locality details are both available, examples are found in map reference order as follows:


West Papua

035 Asmat. Ancestor figure; figures on ceremonial poles; canoe ornament human figures (Buehler et al.:102, 107, 110).

053 Biak. Korwar figures (ibid.:36).

083 Sentani. Wooden figures (ibid.:42).


114 Maprik. Wooden cult figure (ibid.:87).


154 Awar, Hansa Bay. Wooden ancestral figure (ibid.:66).


243 Umboi Is. Wooden cult figure; Male and female cult figures (ibid.:82, 98).


386 Kiriwina, Trobriand Is. Top of wooden dance staff (ibid.:88).


452 Mussau Island St Matthias group. Top of wooden dance staff (ibid.:111).

Admiralty Is

461 Bipi Is, Admiralty Is. Figures on wooden lime spatulas (ibid.:103).

From Morobe onwards, all entries are from Austronesian speakers, with both Austronesian and non-Austronesian groups represented further west.

Burrows had insufficient information to reach firm conclusions, but some may now be suggested. First there is doubt whether this art form came through Fiji and Western Polynesia, in which case it would not have been at the hands of Lapita potters, though this must remain a possibility. Second, it is plainly a predominately New Guinea and northern Melanesian complex, with a distribution in New Guinea taking the form of a trail along the entire north coast. As will be confirmed in Chapter 15, it cannot be without significance that this is the very route believed to have been taken by forebears of the Proto Oceanic language subgroup who ultimately gave rise to all the inhabitants of the area now called Remote Oceania. Moving progressively from Indonesia to West Papua, the Sepik, Madang, Morobe, Massim, and the Bismarck Archipelago to the Admiralties, these ancestors left their mark wherever they went in the form of images that were also ancestral. Having reached the Bismarcks the tradition probably entered Micronesia from there at the same time as musical and other traits. In this event it could have been either an independent development in Eastern Polynesia or reached this area from Micronesia, flowering in its new environment because of the greater material resources there.


Nights of the moon

Not long before Burrows began work on his dissertation, his mentor Peter Buck, who was a co-supervisor of the dissertation, had published a monograph Ethnology of Tongareva (Buck 1932) in which there is a long discussion of Polynesian planting calendars, comparing names for days of the month in Tahiti, Hawai'i, and elsewhere in Polynesia. Not surprisingly, Burrows included 'nights of the moon' among the categories in his analysis, and it is fortunate that he did so. As Burrows explains:

"A rather close resemblance" is apparent between the systems of Ponape and Central Marginal Polynesia, "though it does not extend to the specific names."

The system is so like that of central-marginal Polynesia that independent invention seems un­likely. It might have been left on Ponape by some immigra­tion into central-marginal Polynesia which did not leave the same device in western Polynesia. But since the series found in Ponape is more like the central-marginal Polynes­ian type than is the counting series of Ellice, Tokelau, Pukapuka, and Nukuoro, the most likely interpretation is that the Ponape system commemorates some early voyage from central-marginal Polynesia to Ponape (Burrows 1938:128-9).

Another such introduction would have been the pahu term for drum which, as indicated in Chapter 6 is shared with Eastern Polynesia by Ponape. And a still further such possibility, as suggested in Chapter 8, is introduction of the double canoe to the same area from Hawai'i, with both items perhaps coming at the same time, along with Nights of the moon, as suggested by existence of a different system for the latter in Tuvalu.

In summary, and contrary to the orthodox theory of Polynesian origins from Lapita potters who came through Melanesia, the latter area has contributed little to Polynesian ethnography, except as a result of what must be borrowing relationships long after the advent of the potters. Micronesia, by contrast, has had by far the greatest degree of contact with Eastern Polynesia, to the exclusion of Western Polynesia, indicative of a possibly two-way relationship on the one hand from Tahiti or Hawai'i to the Carolines, and on the other from the Carolines to Eastern Polynesia through Kiribati and Tuvalu.  

It is a serious blow to the theory of Polynesian origins from Lapita potters that all of the traits shared between Micronesia and Eastern Polynesia are the classic traits usually thought of as quintessentially Polynesian, and have nothing to do with Lapita potters.

>>> Chapter 11. Food plants

[2] Except New Zealand.