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No. 10 (April 1955)
– 48 –


It was in 1927 that Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangihiroa) relinquished his position as Director of Maori Hygiene to take part as an ethnologist in a regional survey of Polynesia with a team of experts from the Bernice Bishop Museum, Honolulu. From then on he devoted himself wholly to this study, apportioning his time between field work and museum study, and visiting and re-visiting almost every sector of Polynesia. For this reason alone, Sir Peter was well qualified to write the story of Polynesia. But his qualifications did not end there. He himself had a Maori mother and was fostered throughout his youth in a Maori atmosphere. It was this background which enabled him to give a warmth of feeling to the legends, the chants and the genealogies of his seafaring ancestors with which the book abounds.

In his book ‘Vikings of the Sunrise’, first published in America in 1938 and now published in New Zealand for the first time, Buck attempted to reconstruct the story not only of the migration of the Polynesians from Indonesia to the Eastern Pacific, but also of their spread throughout Polynesia.

Before we discuss the question of their migration, we must spend a moment or two on the origins of the Polynesian peoples. The racial composition of the Polynesians has been, and still is, the subject of much conjecture. Men like Huxley think they are essentially Mongoloid; others like Wallace, Negroid. Tregear, Percy Smith, and Fornander, amongst others, class them as belonging to the Caucasian or white race. Colenso thinks they may have been a kind of isolated race, with their origins right there in the Eastern Pacific. Thomson classes them as a mixed race having their origin in South India.

Buck's theory was that the Polynesians are a mixed race, with both Negroid and Mongoloid confacts, but essentially Caucasian in character. They may have lived in some part of India and worked east, but the myths and legends did not go as far back as that. Buck firmly believed, however, that the really determinable history of the Polynesians begins in Indonesia, where they must have settled for quite some period before being forced to move on to the Pacific by the hordes of Mongoloids pouring in upon them from the mainland.

The Polynesians could have entered the Pacific by either of two routes; first, the southern, Negroid, route through Melanesia; and secondly, the northern, Mongoloid route through Micronesia (though the Mongoloid element, according to Buck, crept in after the Polynesians had passed through).

Buck maintained that the northern, Micronesia route was used by the Polynesians, and he used extensive and convincing argument to prove this. He pointed, for instance, to the lack of physical similarities between Melanesians and Polynesians. He also dealt with the matter of projectile weapons. In Melanesia one of the main weapons of war was the bow and arrow; in Micronesia it was the sling. The how and arrow was known to the Polynesians, but was used only in sport. Their weapon of war was the sling of Micronesia. Incidentally, neither weapon was known to the Maoris of N.Z. In fact they didn't go in for projectile weapons at all, but tended rather to develop the more difficult and dangerous techniques of close hand-to-hand fighting, with the ‘patu’ or club as the main weapon. Their natural environment more or less demanded this type of fighting.

It is interesting to note that although Buck believed his Polynesian forbears entered the Pacific by the northern, or Micronesian, route, he also believed that the major food plants of Polynesia (the breadfruit, the yam and the fine taro) were brought from Indonesia by the southern or Melanesian route. So too with the domesticated animals of Polynesia—the pig, the dog and the fowl. He based his argument in brief on the fact that whereas the islands of Melanesia are for the most part volcanic, having rich soil able to support almost all plants, the low-lying coral atolls of Micronesia are almost devoid of soil and could support only the most hardy of plants like the coarse taro, the pandanus, and perhaps the coconut.

Fundamentally, therefore, Buck like most others believed in the west to east migration theory: and in ‘Vikings of the Sunrise’ he attempted to reconstruct this story not on any written record (of which there is none) but on language, legends, genealogies and all the other culture products of the areas concerned. The only worthwhile challenge to this theory was issued by Heyerdahl of Kon Tiki fame in 1952 when he published his monumental work in support of the opposing view; namely, that the movement was from east to west—from the western shores of America into Polynesia. A final answer to these questions has not yet been given.