"Vikings of the Sunrise" Sail the Americas Before Columbus, Part I
by Sione Ake Mokofisi
Sione Mokofisi is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Tonga, Hawaii, and in various American publications. He has edited several periodicals, and is currently the editor-in-chief of "Polynesia" magazine. Part II and III continue to explore the pre-Columbus contacts between Native Americans and Polynesians.
The October 12th commemoration of Christopher Columbus has gone to the dogs lately.
American Indian activists blame the famous Columbus for the demise of their people and culture. They despise him in the same manner modern Californians detest illegal aliens from across the border: they're a burden and a threat to their established way of life.
But I'm willing to wager that Native American nationalists wish the gutsy Italian Navigator and his followers had all drowned in the Atlantic. For shortly after his historic 1492 landfall at the West Indies, the American Indian's way of life was never the same. Diseases, indiscriminate destructions and massacres of people by fortune seekers such as the Spanish Conquistadors disintegrated the Indian nations.
Likewise, many Polynesians can identify with their grief.
However, before immigration border patrols were first appointed, the name of the game in man's migration habits was "survival-of-the-fittest." Yes, Columbus was an "uninvited" alien but he is still worthy of praise as a great Explorer. He dared what many thought was an impossibility. It is much like the continued denial of the Polynesian navigators' abilities to reach the Americas from the Pacific Ocean side. Unknown to Europeans, Polynesian navigators had already sailed the Americas - recorded in oral history, chants, songs, and traditional lores - centuries before Columbus.
It's time the real Navigators who first sailed the Americas are given their rightful place in history. The fact that the Polynesians had already settled every inhabitable island in the vast Polynesian Triangle (from Hawaii, to New Zealand, to Easter Island) centuries before Europeans arrived should, no doubt, be evident enough. Instead, historians and scholars have not done history justice in claiming that modern known scientific "facts" are superior to Polynesian oral history. In so doing they're re-writing Polynesian antiquities keeping such achievements as Polynesian navigational skills in the Stone Age while Columbus and other European navigators are hailed as the true great navigators.
"Vikings of the Sunrise"
With navigational skills that required prolific knowledge of Polynesian astronomy, meteorology and oceanography, our "Stone-Age" ancestors perfected sailing to a profession of royal orders. Anything less would have meant death at sea. Their inter-island sailing vessels (double-hulled canoes) were built with construction precision. For those who were ordered to migrate or face death, the vessels had to survive the open seas for there was no coming back.
Having to traverse the larger Pacific Ocean did not seem to matter, either. They connected Asia to the Pacific islands, to the Americas, and vice versa. Those who were sent on land-finding missions had to master the navigational skills to find their way home. But most historians and scholars could not credit Polynesian maritime experience anything better than mere accidental "drift" sailings. One such critic is New Zealand scholar Andrew Sharp. His cynical views are widely popular and shared by his colleagues: "the tales of Viking visits to America are broken reeds ."
But to us they were true "Vikings of the Sunrise," an appropriate name coined by the renowned Maori ethnologist Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck, 1880-1951). Polynesians, he taught, anticipated the direction of the sunrise with hope of survival. In their view, the Pacific was home to thousands of fenua (lands) or motu (islands). Between these islands they developed "highways" charted in the heavens above. And lacking the fear of falling off the edge of a "flat" earth further encouraged their desire to sail far off into the horizon. After wars, and during rough times of over population and famine, their high chiefs encouraged adventures for more fenua in the direction of the sunrise. Though far and dangerously inviting, their hopes of finding freedom on an endless and rich fenua were waiting in what the Marquesans called Tefiti, the great land in the east.
The Maori medical doctor-turn-anthropologist, believed Polynesians entered the Pacific via the "northern route" from Asia through Micronesia, to Tahiti and the Marquesas to start Polynesia. From there the rest of Polynesia was settled; Tonga and Samoa, were not the popular home claimed by "Lapita Culture" theorists, nor were they first populated by Polynesians. He studied traditional Polynesian oral history, legends and lores, chants, and songs - no other scientist has ever done so to my knowledge - in addition to his scientific studies.
Te Rangi Hiroa's famous scientific classic, "Vikings of the Sunrise," is widely circulated in academia. His temerity to legitimize these traditional forms of historical recordkeeping is unmatched in its accuracy. He also believed Polynesians had sailed the Americas, acquired a taste for the sweet potato and brought it to the Pacific in much earlier times before Europeans had the courage to venture far off their comfortable shores.
Navigation or Accidental Drift?
Polynesians transported families, plants, animals, and provisions over thousands of miles in open seas. To reach the Americas, the shortest route from Hawaii is 2,500 miles to Los Angeles, California, or 3,000 miles directly east to the Baja Peninsula and the western coast of Mexico; from the Marquesas the open seas stretch for 4,000 miles to the Gallapagos Islands and Equador on the South American continent, or further down the coast to Lima, Peru; and the third takeoff point, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), is 2,300 miles from Santiago, Chile.
Most scholars doubt very much that the Polynesians and the American Indians had the ability to dare these waters on planned two-way voyages; suggesting that Europeans only had the technology to accomplish such admirable feats with more superior navigational instruments and larger sailing vessels. Hence, Polynesian navigation is dubbed by scholars as "drift" sailing as in aimless voyaging. Needless to say, modern Polynesian navigators such as Hawaii's Hokule`a and the Kiribatian Taratai expeditions, were re-enacted as proof. Why? I hope Polynesians are recreating these voyages in support of our own oral history instead of kissing-up to modern scientific theorists.
It was not enough that early European explorers recorded witnessing Polynesian sailors ploughing the Pacific far from their home islands. Particularly the most impressive were Samoan sailors who thus earned them the nickname: "Navigators Islands." In a most recent display of Polynesian maritime skills and bravery the 1963 rescue of a Tongan shipwrecked crew off of Minerva Reef (between Tonga and New Zealand) cannot be denied. Tonga's last Polynesian navigator, the late Tevita Fifita, proved that his all-Polynesian navigational skills were no fluke.
He sailed a makeshift outrigger, named Malo e Lelei, 450 miles to Fiji's Lau Group without a single modern navigational instrument. He targeted the Lomaloma island at which he made landfall "Polynesian-style," on the first try. But most importantly, Tevita Fifita charted the return course for the rescue of 12 survivors of his shipwrecked crew. They have fended off starvation in the hull of an old Japanese trawler wreckage on the reef for 14 weeks. Unfortunately, most evidence of Polynesian seafaring achievements are buried in the ocean. Polynesians remember them only in the legends, lores, chants, songs, etc., - our oral history that is discounted by scholars as myths. Hence, it is advisable for scholarly wannabes on Polynesian studies (Andrew Sharp, et. al) to dig in the ocean for the illusive artifacts, or study Polynesian literature, as did Te Rangi Hiroa, for the facts and some inspirations to boot.
Kumara and Ahu Mystries
The irrefutable evidence, however, of a Polynesian-American Indian contact is the sweet potato, (Ipomoea batatas). This staple food crop, common to all of the Polynesian islands, has been determined by botanists to be native to South America. Either Polynesians made roundtrip sailings and procured the kumara, or American Indians brought it to the Pacific. The fact remains: "...the sweet potato was transferred from South America to Polynesia sometime between A.D. 400 and 700."
Moreover, birds could not have transported the kumara. Linguistic evidence has secured the South American (Peru and Ecuador) kumar to be the root word for the kumara, kumala, `uala, varieties in Polynesia. Obviously, birds could not have revealed to Polynesians its American Indian name. (Any fool can see that.) It has to be communicated by people. Furthermore, birds could not teach East Islanders the "masonry so exactly similar to (South American) Inca masonry" found on the ahu (statue-platforms) of Rapa Nui, either.
What more do scientists and historians need to admit there were indeed navigational contacts between the Polynesian nations and Native Americans before Columbus?
References used by the writer: Te Rangi Hiroa by J.B. Condliffe (Christchurch, New Zealand), 1971; Columbus Was Last by Patrick Huyghe (New York, U.S.A.), 1992; Lost Paradise by Ian Cameron (London, England), 1987; Strange Patterns in the South Seas by James Tressol (New York, U.S.A), 1961; They Peopled The Pacific by A. Grove Day (New York, U.S.A.), 1964; Isles of the South Pacific by Maurice Shadbolt and Olaf Ruhen (New York, U.S.A.), 1968.
Article Courtesy of the Literature and Arts Heritage Guild of Polynesia.
The Polynesian Gift to Utah is made possible by a generous grant from the R. Harold Burton Foundation.