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Keith Rankin: Our Oceans Past - an Austronesian Enigma

Our Oceans Past: an Austronesian Enigma

by Keith Rankin, 29 March 2012

A book to be published this week, "T o the End of the Earth", claims that ancient Europeans visited and even lived in New Zealand 2,000 or more years ago. (Refer Egyptians, Greeks came to New Zealand first - book , stuff.co.nz, 23/03/2012).

While I think that this claim is very unlikely, I believe we should be open to the notion that Kupe was not the first person to encounter New Zealand, and that any such venturers, should they have existed, had direct or indirect contact with places such as ancient Egypt.

One of the key items of evidence cited is a Ptolemaic map that the books' authors claim shows the Pacific Ocean, and includes New Zealand. Historian Paul Moon suggests that the map "shows a complete lack of geographical knowledge about the South Pacific", and that "there is no evidence at all that people came to New Zealand at this time".

While there may be no irrefutable evidence that people visited New Zealand 2000 years ago, or earlier, there is also little evidence that they did not do so.

What interests me is, what would we conclude if a map, scientifically determined to be older than 1,500 years, clearly showed the existence of New Zealand? Such a map would clearly show that someone before Kupe had at least sited New Zealand. But that's all it would show.

If someone had visited New Zealand before Kupe, from where would such a voyager most likely have come?

We know that it has generally been assumed that people who live on islands had relatively recent continental origins. Thus Polynesians are assumed to have had their origins in China around 5000-10,000 years ago, with Taiwan serving for a while as the nursery of Austronesian language and culture. The Austronesian peoples include Polynesians, Malays, Filipinos, Indonesians and people from Madagascar.

100 years ago it was widely believed that Maori had "Aryan" origins in India, similar to the Aryan origins attributed to Europeans. A well-known public servant in New Zealand of the 1890s and 1900s - Edward Tregear - wrote "The Aryan Maori" in 1885.

In the 1960s, Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl was renowned for his views that Polynesians had South American origins, stemming from Inca or pre-Inca civilisations. He also believed that Egyptians travelled to South America before South Americans settled Polynesia. The common thread is that discovering and settling islands was an activity done by continental civilisations, be they Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese or South American.

A more plausible view is that exploring is generally done by people who are highly mobile. Thus oceanic venturing is most likely to be conducted by people living on islands or peninsulas, who have gained a maritime culture as a consequence of their geographical circumstances. (And intra-continental voyaging is much more likely to be conducted by nomadic peoples, such as those of Mongolia, with a culture based around some animal, such as the horse or the camel.)

Thus it turns out that there was contact between the Pacific Islands and South America. But of course it was the Polynesians, not the South Americans, who made that contact. And it was the maritime peoples of Indonesia who successfully discovered and settled in Madagascar, not the land-oriented continental Africans. This Austronesian settlement of Madagascar has been estimated to have begun about 2,300 years ago.

Once a people have an oceanic maritime culture, then distance is a relatively unimportant determinant of who goes where. Thus it was always more likely that New Zealand would be first settled from the Cook Islands than from Australia, despite Australia being closer and having been settled for a much longer period.

How plausible was it that the second independent known discovery of New Zealand came, literally, from peoples from the other side of the planet, from New Zealand's European antipodes, from as far as anyone could possibly have come?

Of course it's highly plausible because in the middle of the last millennium a group of western European nations whose geography is dominated by the sea - Portugal, Spain, Netherlands and Britain - learned the secrets of how to sail the world's oceans. The European discovery of New Zealand came well before Britain became an economic super-power.

In the 15th century, the Portuguese, historically a maritime people, learned the secret because of the fortuitous placement of the Azore Islands, in the eastern North Atlantic Ocean. The trade winds blew ships naturally from Portugal and Spain to the Canary Islands. It was the return journey from the Canaries to Europe that was difficult, with predominantly south-easterly winds blowing ships from the Canary Islands out to sea. Once ships, initially blown off-course had reached the Azores, a third trade wind blew them back to Portugal.

The maritime trick was to follow the trade winds, and not to hug the coast or travel in a direct line. An alternative trade wind almost always could be relied upon to take you home. Columbus relied on that knowledge to follow a completely different return route from his outward route. And Brazil was discovered by accident in 1500 by a Portuguese mariner - Cabral - following the trade winds to southern Africa.

Within a century of the discovery of the Azores, European mariners had circumnavigated the world. It was specific knowledge and maritime culture that made this possible, not geographical proximity or economic dominance. (Economic dominance in these European countries was the result of their venturing, not the cause.)

(Interestingly the first person known to have actually circumnavigated the world was an Austronesian, a "Malay slave boy" known in Europe as Enrique, a Tupaia-like presence who travelled from the Spice Islands with Magellan to Portugal, and returned home on Magellan's later circumnavigation voyage.)

So if the Europeans could make such maritime advances in such a short time, why not also others before them, in particular the Austronesians with a seafaring history second-to-none prior to the Portuguese?

Clues come from Palau and the Marianas Islands, especially Guam. Both Palau and Guam appear to have been first settled by Austronesian people from what is now the Philippines, between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago. Palau is about 500 km from the Philippines, and Guam is close to 2,000 km from the closest place it could have been peopled from; both substantial oceanic voyages.

My argument is that, if Austronesian people from island Southeast Asia had the knowledge and skills to get to - let alone settle - Guam, then they had the potential to travel any of the world's oceans, as the Portuguese and Spanish subsequently proved. Indeed the Chamorro people of Guam - a people comparable with Maori and other Polynesians - appear to have retained substantial maritime skills at the time of first European contact (Magellan, 1521).

The sophistication of Austronesian oceanic skills and venturing culture is attested to by their discovery and settlement of Madagascar well over 2,000 years ago. And having reached Madagascar, Austronesians will have had contact with Africa, and very likely rounded the Cape, and reached the Atlantic Ocean.

Thus it would be no surprise at all if an Austronesian seafarer visited New Zealand more than 2,000 years ago, and some knowledge of South Pacific geography was thereby widely transmitted, at least within the confines of the Indian Ocean, which includes Egypt.

It's worth noting why the early Austronesians were well placed to have been among the most sophisticated people in the world 5,000 to 15,000 years ago, and how the combination of ancient sophistication and geographical circumstance very likely led them to becoming the world's most sophisticated mariners prior to the Portuguese.

We hear a lot today about the possibility of sea-level rising (over 20m by some estimates) over the next century. But we hear little about historical rises in sea level between 5,000 and 15,000 years ago, and their impact on the human geography of the planet. The orthodox theory of Polynesians originating in China 6,000 to 10,000 years ago almost completely ignores the dramatic changes in sea-level that took place and must have had hugely dramatic impacts on Southeast Asia in particular.

The last great ice age came to an end in this period, with three brief periods of massive ice melt - around 14,000, 11,000 and 8,000 years ago - raising sea levels by about 100 metres all up. Thus the Greater Sunda Islands of modern Indonesia - Borneo, Sumatra, Java - were part of a generally low-lying sub-continent of Asia, known today as Sundaland. (Sundaland is analogous to the historical continents of Zealandia, of which New Zealand was a part, and Sahul, of which Australia was the larger part.)

In the climatic conditions of the ice age, Sundaland would have met all the requirements to be a major population centre; indeed an early agricultural centre. Taiwan was then a part of mainland China, without a direct connection with Sundaland. Philippines, however, had a geographical relationship with Sundaland much like the modern relationship between the British Isles and Western Europe.

Then, as the great ice shields of Canada and Siberia melted, sea levels rose and much of the best food-yielding land was lost. People will have both migrated north, and changed their economic base They will have embraced the sea and its resources, and probably solved problems by drawing on maritime skills already existing in Philippines and other places to the south-east that had always been islands.

This is likely to be the context which gave cultured people from these islands, including the former Sundaland, the technical skills and confidence to discover and settle oceanic islands such as Palau and Guam, and after that to venture much further, including to Madagascar and Fiji. For people already in China, New Guinea, probably Australia, and most likely the East African mainland (possibly including Egypt) these Austronesians will have appeared in much the same unexpected context as the first Europeans will have appeared in New Zealand. Indeed Fujian in China (near to Taiwan) might actually be the same name as Fiji, representing the periphery of an Austronesian trading empire of 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.

When we look at academic knowledge in the 19th century, we realise that scientists and geographers then thought they knew much more about the world than they actually did. Thus it is almost certainly true of our times as well. Today, most likely we know much less about what really happened in our past than we think we do.

Academics need to address pieces of evidence that might potentially falsify their theories; that's the Popperian principle of falsification. While often they are able to accommodate new information within existing theories, it always looks bad when academics use snobbish arguments to justify ignoring potentially inconvenient information.

I suspect that the out-of-China by way of Taiwan view of Polynesian settlement will fall by the same wayside this century as the Aryan Maori hypothesis did in the last century. Likewise the hypothesis that Phoenicians (who some claim made discoveries in the Indian Ocean) or Egyptians or Greeks came to New Zealand is much less plausible than the idea that the Austronesian ancestors of the Maori visited both New Zealand and ancient Egypt, or at least had contact with people who had contact with Egypt in or before the time of the Ptolemies.

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