Children of the Long Canoe
Herb Kawainui Kāne (Waka Moana Symposium, National Maritime Museum, Auckland, 18-24 March 1996)
No artifact in human history may have had a more powerful shaping influence upon the physical evolution of its makers than the ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe.
Its design favored the survival of voyagers with the stamina and musculature to handle it, as well as ample fat to insulate the body from the deadly chill of wind evaporation upon spray-drenched skin. Rigorous selective pressures, oft repeated, may explain the large body size and tendency to accumulate fat that distinguish the natives of Remote Oceania from other tropical peoples.
Before moving back to Hawai’i in 1970, I sailed a racing catamaran on cold Lake Michigan, near Chicago, with a crew whose dimensions were far more slender than mine. We discovered that he would become afflicted with an uncontrollable shivering long before I felt the same chill. When I remarked on this, he ungraciously attributed the difference to my insulating layer of fat.
Sailing in Hawaiian waters on visits to my homeland, I had learned that squally nights in the rough channel seas could be an experience as cold as Lake Michigan.
At that time, canoes were on my mind. I was completing a series of pictorial reconstructions of Polynesian canoes—gathering information, assembling it in architectural drawings, and interpreting these as paintings.1 Noting that Polynesians are generally larger and heavier than other tropical peoples, I was struck by the idea that their voyaging canoes, offering scant protection from wind and spray, could have exerted selective pressures on those who sailed them over long distances—pressures resulting in large body size and what appears to be a natural tendency to run to fat.
I suggested the idea in letters to anthropologists Kenneth Emory and Ben Finney (three years later, Ben and I would be incorporators of the Polynesian Voyaging Society). Both responded, Finney finding in the literature of anthropology only a paper suggesting that the spear thrower may have influenced “linear development” in the physical evolution of aboriginal Australians. They agreed that the canoe could be viewed as an instrument which shaped the evolution of Polynesians and Micronesians.
Emory published my statement of the idea in 1974.2 In 1991, Philip Houghton of the University of Otago, New Zealand, published a massive compilation of data which demonstrates conclusively that the indigenous peoples of Remote Oceania (Polynesia, Micronesia, and the more eastern part of Island Melanesia)3have physiques better suited to cold regions than to the tropics—larger, more muscular, with more fat than any other tropical people. Observing that for closely related mammals and birds, those living in cold regions tend to have greater body mass than those of warm regions (Bergmann’s rule), Houghton found the reason for the evolution of the Remote Oceania physique in the chill of the open-ocean environment, which he amply demonstrates with meteorological data. Houghton’ s conclusion:
“For Homo Sapiens, the wider Pacific, with its fluctuation between hot and very cold conditions, is a unique environment. Neolithic technology provided no useful protection against the wet—cold conditions, and among the adaptive responses was selection for a large muscular body. This change began in Island Melanesia.
“As this new environment significantly altered human morphology, many of the taxonomic labels and methods applied to the external and skeletal form of Homo Sapiens of the region are of dubious value. DNA analyses will increasingly be useful, particularly if archaeological bone proves a satisfactory source, but need to be carefully interpreted against the phenotypic and environmental situation.”4
I wrote to Houghton, suggesting the canoe as the instrument of evolution. Being an avid sailor, he caught the point immediately and concurred.
Weight loss programs popular in northern climes would find few clients among the peoples native to Earth’s tropical zone. Regardless of race, they ate generally slender, and of smaller build than peoples native to cooler climates. As Houghton has demonstrated, the peoples of the more remote Pacific islands are an exception to the rule; but sports fans who have witnessed the Polynesian larger-than-life threat to Japanese sumo wrestling, or the entry of burly Polynesians into European and American body-contact sports, need no further convincing.
When Proto-Polynesians departed from their Southeast Asian homeland many thousands of years ago, their physiques may have been no different that those of other tropical peoples. Their eastward drift through the myriad islands of Indonesia and Melanesia may have been the result of many explorations, each originating from a previously established island settlement. Through findings of distinctive artifacts archaeologists have traced the movement of Proto-Polynesians along the Bismarck island chain off the northern coast of New Guinea and through islands of Eastern Melanesia. Moving ever eastward into the vast ocean, they honed their maritime skills as distances between islands increased, sailing when the prevailing easterlies were replaced by more favorable winds shifting from the north, south or west. Except for picking up Melanesian genes along the fringe of Melanesia, their island world kept them isolated. At some time more than 3,500 years ago, explorers discovered uninhabited islands in what are now Samoa, Tonga, and the small eastern islands of Fiji. Perhaps no more than a few canoe loads arrived at what has been called “The Cradle of Polynesia.”
Later explorers found new islands lying at great distances to the east—the Marquesas and Tahiti. From this center of Eastern Polynesia, explorations reached Hawai’i to the north, New Zealand to the southwest, and Easter Island to the southeast. Within this great triangle of Earth’s surface, equal in size to the combined continents of North and South America, almost every island was discovered before European open ocean exploration began. Their voyaging canoes were the space ships of the Stone Age, the best that could be contrived without knowledge of metals for tools and fastenings. European explorers in the Pacific marveled at the craftsmanship of these vessels, the simple tools by which they were wrought, and their speed. These were powered by sails of fine matting, and could be paddled in calms or on short trips against the wind. On islands with large trees, hulls were carved out of logs, with the sides raised higher by the addition of planks. On coral atolls with few trees, entire canoes might be plank-built. Although the method of fastening the parts with lashings of braided cordage was the best that could be achieved with the resources at hand, it imposed limitations of size. Canoes for short voyages in predictable weather could be larger, but the author’s experience with the replica Hokule ‘a suggests a length of sixty to seventy feet as the maximum for a double-hulled canoe assembled by lashings that could weather a long voyage. Nor could lashed canoes be built with the broad beam which gives stability to modern catamarans. Without such stability, large deck shelters could not be erected on the deck that joined the two hulls—structures that could cause a narrow vessel to capsize in a strong wind. Consequently, the canoes offered scant protection from the elements.
Imagine the following situation on any of the islands that Proto-Polynesians settled on the long movement out from Asia: A chief has reason to leave and search farther eastward for new land. Perhaps he has lost a battle, or is a younger brother with no lands or expectations, or a drought has brought the specter of famine. Let’s say he is able to build or commandeer no more than four voyaging canoes. He would favor companions who would give him the best chances of survival—men able to wield a war club if a landing hal to be forced on a hostile shore, men and women large and strong enough to handle a canoe in any weather. The canoe’s limitations would make it a silent but powerful partner in deciding who would be selected. Call this “social selection,” a preference for large size which seems to have echoed long after voyaging was discontinued as a desirable trait, most notably in chiefs.
During an arduous voyage, natural selection would likely cancel out mistakes made on shore. Again the canoe would bring selective pressures on those who would sail in it, favoring for survival those with ample natural fat to insulate the body from the deadly chill of wind evaporation upon spray-drenched skin.
And when an uninhabited island was discovered, those who settled it would, as a small group in isolation, form the sole genetic pool for future explorations. Such conditions, repeated over many voyages of exploration and settlement, would have a cumulative impact on the physical evolution of the people.
Pacific Islanders regard the voyaging canoe as the spaceship of their ancestors—the finest technological achievement of any culture that knew no metals. It also serves as a symbol of mutuality. The Ancients regarded their great canoes as living members of their clans. To the extent that the voyaging canoe shaped the physical traits of its people, it may indeed be ranked as an ancestor of them all.
1. Canoes of Polynesia, collection purchased by the Hawaii State Foundation on culture & the Arts,1971; a seiection published as a portfolio and book (Island Heritage, Ltd. 1974). Out of Print.
2. Kenneth P. Emory “The Coming of the Polynesians,’ National Geographic December 1974.
3. “Remote Oceania” the definition proposed by Pawley, A.K. and R.C. Green, 1973. “Dating the dispersal of the Oceanic Languages’ Oceanic Linguistics, 12:1-67.
4. Houghton, Philip, “The Early Human Biology of the Pacific: Some Considerations” pp. 167-195 Journal of the Polynesian Society, June 1991.