Canoe research revives 'Maori from Hawaii' theory

Researchers studying the evolution of culture say analysis of Polynesian canoe design suggests New Zealand was at least partially settled from Hawaii.

The concept of Hawaii as the ancestral home of Maori fell out of fashion among archaeological circles more than 60 years ago.

However, the new research in the November Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests a course of Polynesian settlement that started in the far western islands and jumped to the far eastern islands before then working backwards towards the original point of origin.

Archaeologists have said the Lapita peoples - probably from China and Southeast Asia - who colonised Pacific islands between about 1400BC and 900BC became the Polynesians who settled several island groups outwards out of Tonga and Samoa beginning about 500BC, arriving in the Marquesas about 300AD, the Hawaiian islands by 800AD to 900AD, and finally in New Zealand about 1200.

Stanford University researchers Marcus Feldman and Paul Ehrlich and biologist Deborah Rogers analysed a 1930s study of traditional canoe design by A.C Haddon and James Hornell.

They tracked functional characteristics such as outrigger attachments, construction technique, keel shape as well as painting, designs and figureheads of pre-European canoes from different island groups.

Canoe construction techniques persisted. The Polynesians brought traditional techniques, but changed decorative features as they colonised new island groups. The study showed scientists could measure the effects of "cultural evolution", they said.

"Evolution is a logical way of looking at change over time," said Ms Rogers.

The study involved computing 10 million possible configurations of canoe taxonomy, and Ms Rogers said the same methods could be applied to anything from pottery design and fishhook construction to social and legal structures.

Mr Ehrlich said that if science could shed insight into the mechanisms underlying cultural change, it might help modern cultures turn climate change insight into action, or avoid ill-advised wars.

"This is not a paper about canoes," he said: "It's a paper about whether or not there are discernable, explicable patterns in history."

- NZPA

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