Melanesia Micronesia and Polynesia

Dotted on islands, large and small, throughout the Pacific live groups of farmer-fishermen of the cultures identified as Micronesian, Melanesian, and Polynesian. The Micronesian languages are very diverse. The Melanesian and Polynesian language families are grouped together within the great Austronesian linguistic stock, but there is much more homogeneity within the Polynesian subgroup. The archaeological history of Micronesia apparently starts earlier and is both more complex and less related to archaeoastronomy than that of Polynesia, according to present evidence; however, the abundant ethnographic evidence on Micronesian navigation and calendrics suggests that this situation may change.

The ancestors of the Polynesians, from the time of their first spreading into the farther reaches of the Pacific,2 have been farmers with a wide range of root crops, including the Asian yam and, later, the American sweet potato, as well as many planted trees. The coconut palm alone supplied food and drink as well as construction materials for homes and watercraft. They had domesticated pigs and chickens as well as dogs, and they were usually accompanied by rats (which could be regarded almost as semidomesticated). Hunting was relatively unimportant in most areas and became less so as local birds were exterminated, but fishing was always a major subsistence base and fish pools were eventually constructed in many areas to make the supply even more reliable. Sturdy houses and impressive religious structures were common, and there was some development of building with dressed stones. Major fortifications seem first to have appeared from about 1000 to 1200 a.d. Tools were of stone, bone, shell, or wood, but there was no use of metals, which were not to be found on the atolls where many of the islanders lived. Although pottery was known archeologically in Melanesia and western Polynesia and even reached the Marquesas, it was unknown anywhere in Polynesia when Europeans arrived. Cloth was not woven, but barkcloth, or tapa, a felted fibre from the inner bark of certain trees, particularly the mulberry, served for clothing and wrappings of all sorts.

Throughout Micronesia and Polynesia, hereditary chieftains (many claiming a common origin from Samoa to Tahiti and Hawaii) were regarded as sacred and accorded exceptional status and privileges, even on small islands where there was little other differentiation among the people. The most complex society was that of the Hawaiian Islands, with dense populations and many kinds of specialists. Warfare was endemic throughout the area, and the values of warlike society were widely accepted. Exploration in giant, often double-hulled canoes was the only reasonable alternative to in-group warfare when conditions became too crowded. Good descriptions of the oceanic cultures are to be found in Bellwood (1978) and in Kirch (1985). A good general ethnology is in Oliver (1989). Goodenough (1953) gives the most detailed current exposition of Micronesian astronomy and calendrics that may usefully be supplemented by Gladwin (1970) and Stephen Thomas (1987). Makemson (1941) has summarized Polynesian astronomy, and much additional material may be found in Johnson and Mahelona

2 Approximate settlement dates: Solomon Islands, 1600 B.c.;Fiji, 1250 B.c.;Tonga, 1000 B.c.;Marquesas, 200 B.c.;Hawaii, 300 A.D.;New Zealand, 800 a.d.

(1975). Our knowledge of oceanic navigation has been greatly increased by the work of David Lewis (1972/1975, 1974, 1978).

In Oceania, astronomy served the principal purposes of navigation and calendrics, including the setting of the times of religious rituals and festivals. Such elements of the legal system as the execution of criminals were associated with religious rites and their times were determined astronomically. The identification of stars and asterisms by the names of deities and mythical places shows the important religious element in astronomy.

There is clear evidence that Polynesian astronomers used the stars as temporal markers for planting and harvesting and for seasonal appearances of fish and birds. Stimson (1928) believed that fishing auguries were basic to the invention of the system of lunar nights, although he later became convinced that the names suggested an ancient phallic cult. Polynesian astronomers also judged probabilities of abundance and scarcity from the characteristics of certain stars and made predictions with regard to voyages (which have an important seasonal component, properly marked by stars) and warfare. For details, consult Makemson (1941), especially Chapter 4.

In both Micronesia and Polynesia, the nights of the Moon are named. A single system prevails throughout most of Micronesia and a structurally related list is known from the western Polynesian island of Futuna. Most of the western Polynesian islands have only a loose system of named lunar phases. A formal series of named nights of the Moon, of common origin, is found throughout eastern Polynesia.3 Reconstructed prototypes of the two lists appear in Table

11.1. The Mamari Tablet from Easter Island (Figure 11.1) shows a sequence believed to relate to the Lunar Nights.

Although the names are now assigned to the phases of the Moon, the fact that many of the Polynesian names recur as star names is a strong indication that they may once have been applied to the days of a sidereal lunar month. Many of the names are also found to be deity names, as seen in Table

11.2. The identifications of lunar nights as star names and deity names have not been greatly exploited in interpretation thus far. The Maori lunar night named Matohi (which appears in Samoa as Matohi, third quarter of the Moon, one of the few suggestions of the extension of the lunar nights into western Polynesia) seems reasonable as a descriptive term for a phase of the Moon. However, a Maori myth relates [Makemson 1941, pp. 233-234]:

Matohi, one of the stars, occasionally disputes with Tangaroa-whakapau as to which of them should enter the calendar. Sometimes one, sometimes the other enters. If Tangaroa-whakapau enters, then fish both of the sea and inland waters are plentiful. .. . Matohi, the star, is never seen by man except during the Tangaroa days.

Only this one passage identifies Matohi either as a god or a star, but this one makes clear that Matohi is both and cal-

3 Eastern Polynesia is defined by ethnographers and linguists from shared cultural traits; geographically, this is somewhat anomalous, because the region includes New Zealand, well to the west of Samoa, Tonga, and the other islands of western Polynesia.

Table 11.1. Named nights of the Moon in eastern Polynesia.

Tahitian Nights of the Moon Maori Nights of the Moon

Table 11.1. Named nights of the Moon in eastern Polynesia.

Tahitian Nights of the Moon Maori Nights of the Moon

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