All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and a set of customs, a particular body of myths, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a "portmanteau biota" of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went. They had no knowledge of writing or metal tools -- no maps or compasses -- and yet they succeeded in colonizing the largest ocean on the planet, occupying every habitable rock between New Guinea and the Galapagos, and establishing what was, until the modern era, the largest single culture area in the world.
I imagined I would be recounting the tale of the voyagers themselves, those daring men and women who crossed such stupendous tracts of sea and whose exploits constitute one of the greatest adventures in human history. But, almost immediately, it dawned on me that one could tell such a story only by pretending to know more than can actually be known. This realization quickly led me to another: that the story of the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific is not so much a story about what happened as a story about how we know.
Scientists in the early 1920s were working with an essentialist model of race as something immutable, definitive, and grounded in biological reality. . . . [I]nstead [of Polynesian history], what we see is a jumble of results reflecting not some truth about the data but a set of underlying assumptions about the people themselves.
To the extent that this history has been disentangled, however, it has been thanks to input of radically different kinds. At one end of the spectrum are the mathematical models: the computer simulations, chemical analyses, statistical inferences -- science with all its promise of objectivity and its periodic lapses into error. At the other, the stories and songs passed from memory to memory: the layered, subtle, difficult oral traditions, endlessly open to interpretation but unique in their capacity to speak to us, more or less directly, out of a pre-contact Polynesian past.
These two angles of inquiry are in many ways opposed, and for much of the past two centuries the debate has oscillated between them, as first one and then the other was held up as the avenue to truth. In fact, both have been crucial to the unfolding of a credible history of the Polynesian migrations.
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When I look at history, what I see is not so much the steady march of knowledge toward some final point of truth, but the complicated process of trying to figure things out -- a twisting, braided rope of intersecting narratives, a set of conversations between different people with different bodies of knowledge, different ways of thinking, and different reasons for wanting to know.