This website is a free e-resource, from the book entitled 'Music, Lapita, and the Problem of Polynesian Origins' by Mervyn McLean. The complete text may be read either online or in paginated form as a downloadable pdf here.


Chapter 2

Early ideas of origin


When the co-founder of the Polynesian Society, S. Percy Smith (1840 - 1922), was young, bibles familiar to him would have been the old-fashioned kind. In the centre of each page was a column containing dates, beginning in the Book of Genesis with the creation of the world. Smith may not have believed the date worked out for this event by Archbishop Ussher of Ireland who was responsible for the chronology, but the method Smith himself used to calculate the dates for Maori migration canoes was similar. Ussher, who was a considerable scholar of his time would have been constrained by belief in the literal truth of the bible. Smith placed too much reliance on the accuracy of oral tradition. Ussher set the creation of the world at precisely 4004 BC, calculating back from a date for the Temple of Solomon. Smith, who worked from Maori and Rarotongan, genealogies, had the legendary navigator Kupe arrive in New Zealand in AD 925, Toi in 1150, and the Great Fleet of seven settlement canoes: Tainui, Te Arawa, Matatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, Aotea, and Takitimu in 1350. It was a list generations of New Zealand schoolchildren committed to memory, like the books of the bible at Sunday School, and it remained standard for a surprisingly long time. It was still given credence as late as 1950 by Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) in the second edition of his influential book The Coming of the Maori (Buck 1950), and finally lost ground only with the publication of Simmons The Great New Zealand Myth in 1976.

After 1950, infant sciences of archaeology and anthropological linguistics in Oceania began to emerge, and their predecessors held sway until about this time, with considerable overlap between the two.

The present chapter will sketch in some of the more critical early events, with no attempt at a complete history, drawing principally on Howard (1967) and Sorrenson (1977, 1979). For further details of these and other developments, the reader is referred to Howard, who provides a comprehensive survey with copious excerpts from key publications, and Sorrenson, who focuses on Pakeha misconceptions of Maori origins which, as Sorrenson demonstrates, were by no means limited to the ideas of Percy Smith. But first it is necessary to give some account of voyages of discovery which first raised the problems of Polynesian origin the theorists later sought to solve.

Some readers may recall the following:

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two

Columbus sailed the ocean blue

So ran a schooldays rhyme we were taught as a reminder about the European discovery of America. It seems incongruous that at this time nothing was known of the Pacific until Balboa saw it from Darien in 1513, though Marco Polo had gone overland as far as China and returned with tales of his adventures as early as 1295. In 1565, the Spanish opened up Micronesia by establishing the galleon route from Mexico to the Philippines through Guam, but Polynesia did not become known to Europeans until the exploring expeditions by Cook, Bougainville and others late in the eighteenth century. World view by then had expanded sufficiently for much to be known about Hindus, Malays, and others, but the peoples of Polynesia were new on the horizon. Cook's voyages had been commissioned as scientific expeditions, with botanists and others on board who would gather information about the places visited. Invaluable first impressions were meticulously recorded, including observations about Polynesians, comparing them with already known peoples, and plants and objects were collected for study. The plants were deposited in herbaria, and the objects became prized exhibits in museums of ethnology when these were established throughout Europe from about half way through the following century. Cook's officer, Johann Forster, who spoke from personal experience, allied New Zealanders with Malays (Sorrenson 1977:451). Later theorists, driven in the first instance by religious conviction, less credibly, thought differently.

Designated as the "Semitic Maori" and the "Aryan Maori" respectively, two early ideas of Maori origin discussed by Sorrenson are relevant also for Polynesians at large.


The Semitic Maori

A fundamental thrust of Sorrenson's book, together with the journal article and a series of Macmillan Brown lectures which gave it birth, is the manner in which early theorists on the subject of Maori origins were blinded by their own deeply rooted preconceptions and cultural beliefs. As Sorrenson expresses it:

More often than not the European theorists read into Maori origins and culture what they wanted and expected to find, on the basis of theories derived from their own cultural and philosophical traditions (Sorrenson 1979:7).

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than with the concept Sorrenson calls the Semitic Maori, promulgated by missionaries whose belief system was rooted in Old Testament scripture. For them the bible was more than the collected oral tradition of a tribal desert people. As an article of faith they were committed to what they believed to be the inspired word of God, revealed for the instruction of all mankind. So if the bible said Adam was the first man, then everyone was descended from him, including Polynesians. Thus, the missionary Samuel Marsden (1765 - 1838) classified Maori as descended from the biblical sons of Shem and therefore of Semitic origin (Sorrenson 1977:454), and the later missionary Richard Taylor (1805 - 1873) saw Maori as a lost tribe of Israel, living in a degenerated state after casting aside the word of the true God, and migrating from the biblical homeland ultimately to New Zealand (Sorrenson 1977:457).


The Aryan Maori

The term Aryan is now irrevocably associated with Nazi atrocities and delusions of a pure race, but in the nineteenth century was the name of a group of cattle-herders thought by philologists to have lived about 3-4000 years ago between the Hindu-Kush mountains and the Caspian Sea, who gave their name to a branch of the Indo-European language family.

Richard Taylor's book Te Ika a Maui, in which he published his views of a Semitic origin for Maori, was published in 1855. Thirty years were to elapse before the appearance of another book by a New Zealander that addressed the problem. Considerable developments had meantime taken place in scholarship, not least, the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's revolutionary book, Origin of Species, which for educated people finally put paid to the biblical account of creation and the rationale for a Semitic origin of the Maori. Essential also for the next stage of theorising were advances in comparative philology, built upon work on Indo-European languages by the famed British orientalist Sir William Jones, and continued by scholars such as the brothers Grimm in Germany (Sorrenson 1979:18).

Edward Tregear (1846 - 1931) was an ardent proponent of the method who viewed comparative philology and comparative mythology as "the two youngest and fairest daughters of Knowledge" (cited by Sorrenson 1979:19). There was nothing wrong with the concept, or even Tregear's enthusiasm for it, but in Tregear's hands it lacked the rigour which was to revolutionise linguistics in the twentieth century. Tregear relied on mere superficial resemblances of words, coupled with fanciful connections from mythology, and these led him astray. His Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (1891) remains useful even today, but it is his less fortunate earlier book The Aryan Maori (1885) for which he is principally remembered.

In this Tregear claimed to have proved that the Maori was descended from the warlike, pastoral Aryans; that the Maori language preserved 'in an almost inconceivable purity' the speech of his Aryan forefathers and had even 'embalmed' the memory of animals and implements, the sight of which had been lost for centuries. Tregear assumed that parallel words, or paronyms, had a common ancestor, usually a Sanscrit root. His book lists some eighty samples. But he also claimed to find a resemblance between Maori and Sanscrit grammars; he ignored the fact that the missionaries had applied rules of grammar from the English language to Maori. Strangest of all, was Tregear's claim to have found in Maori an embalmed memory of Aryan animals and customs. Take, for instance, the embalmed knowledge of the cow, for the Aryans but not the Maoris were cattle-keepers. The Sanscrit word for cow was gau; Tregear found it surviving in the Maori kahui, herds, flocks; kahurangi, unsettled (in the sense of 'sky-cow or moving clouds'); kauruki, smoke (the Aryans burnt dung); and so on. Nor was Tregear content to rely on Sanscrit; Greek and Latin were equally suitable for providing paronyms. Thus he takes from the Latin taurus, bull, the Maori taro, courage. He then concluded that the Maori had once known the cow and the bull (Sorrenson 1979:19-20).

According to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB vol.2) Tregear's book was in general favourably received overseas. Tregear was admitted to fellowships of the Royal Geographical Society and Royal Historical Society, corresponded with luminaries of the scholarly world, and continued to write about the Aryan origin of the Maori in numerous publications over the next twenty years. At home, however, the reception of Tregear's idea was not as favourable and, if notice had been taken of a review by Atkinson in the following year it would have been rejected at once. Atkinson's review (Atkinson 1886) took the form of a parody of Tregear's method, cleverly piling up seeming coincidences of animal and other terms until concluding that they amounted to a 'cock and bull' story. But Tregear's notion of the Aryan Maori did not go away. Other prominent advocates included J. Macmillan-Brown (1845 - 1935), a professor at Canterbury University College whose contribution ranged far beyond linguistic argument. In his book, Maori and Polynesian (1907) and subsequent publications he not only espoused an Aryan origin for Maori but allowed his enthusiasms to run away with him to the point of rejection even by other advocates such as Tregear and Smith (Sorrenson 1979:26), whose own ideas were far from acceptable for other reasons. Of the three, however, it was Smith who was eventually to prevail as a result of his book Hawaiki (1910) in which he traced the origin of Polynesians to an alleged homeland in India, and began the long reign of his Fleet chronology. Meanwhile, in the scholarly world at large, views of Polynesian origins continued to be coloured at any given time by the prevailing orthodoxies of the day. Foremost among these for a long time were ideas emerging from attempts to classify the various peoples of the earth, and an entire field of anthropology which grew out of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and especially his second book on the subject, Descent of Man (1871).


Classification of race

The very idea of race is now so unpopular as to be commonly avoided in scholarly writing, with the term 'phenotype', referring to outward appearance, generally substituted, and another term, 'genotype', coined to include less visible inherited traits such as blood groups. The older and more direct approach was to distinguish peoples of different cultural and linguistic affiliation according to their shared characteristics, usually once again on the basis of physical appearance. Just as botanists have devised ways of classifying plants, so too, ways were sought of classifying people. The starting point was the observations of travellers and mariners as unfamiliar parts of the world were opened up by exploration and discovery. 

Linnaeus, in 1740, recognized four variants of man: European, American Indian, Asiatic and African. The first detailed scientific study of human races, however, was made by J. F. Blumenbach in 1775 (Cole 1963:10).

In the 1775 first edition of his Natural Varieties of Mankind, Blumenbach divided humans into four races: Caucasian, Asiatic, American, and Ethiopian, adding Malays and Polynesians to successive editions at the behest of Joseph Banks after Cook's circumnavigations of the world (Sorrenson 1979:13). 

Anthropologists were later to simplify these into three primary divisions of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid (Cole 1963:9), with numerous not always coherent secondary divisions, creating problems when anthropologists tried to explain these in terms of various mixtures of the primary groups. Some consequences of this will become apparent in chapters to follow. 



One outcome of Darwin's second book, Descent of Man (1872), was the impetus it gave to archaeology, and attempts to find fossil remains that would demonstrate the various stages of human evolution. Another was a

movement that bore Darwin's name, but for which he himself was not, in fact, responsible. Known as "social Darwinism", it was a development of ideas first promoted by Darwin's contemporary, Herbert Spenser (1820 - 1903), who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" and whose own ideas were in turn pushed to extremes by others. It was a movement that eventually fell into deep disrepute, along with a sister development known as "diffusionism", whose ramifications were at least as far-reaching.

Fundamental to social Darwinism or evolutionism was a belief in cultural strata, progressing from simple to complex from savagery to civilisation through barbarism, with tribal cultures of today representative of higher cultures as they once were. To this already highly flawed set of concepts, diffusionism or kulturkreis (cultural circles) as it was also known, added an implication that humans were essentially uninventive, and clusters of traits, or even single traits, moved from a few only centres to areas of less complexity, with migration assumed as the sole means of doing so (Suggs 1960:54). As will be seen in later chapters, no such assumption is justified, and other processes, especially borrowing from culture to culture, must also be taken into account.


Wave theories

In this category are numerous rival theories involving various combinations of racial or cultural strata which emanated from a variety of disciplines, especially in the first decades of the twentieth century. Dependent, as most of these were, on now discredited evolutionary or diffusionist ideas, there is no need to provide details here. A good account of them can be found in chapter 11 of Bellwood's book, Man's Conquest of the Pacific (Bellwood 1978a).

Remaining events relevant to origins, including all those after about 1950, will be discussed in chapters to follow, and are listed in date order in Appendix 1.