WORDS Matter

Civilization is a paradox. Too many examples show a dominant group inclined to crush the culture of the defeated.

In ancient times, the world lost a brilliant treasure when the Phoenicians lost their country under the rise of Macedon in the mid 4th century BC. However, one or two wise Greeks did preserve the majority of the Phoenician alphabet and added some vowels to benefit the world with the first established alphabet. The Written Word. In contemporary times, soon to be history, Turkey is suffering a similar fate.

On the other hand, while some men are destroying old worlds, there are others who are looking for new worlds to conquer. Who is less civilized? Some mysteries are never solved.

For example, a debate among scholars still struggles to define the settlement of Polynesia. Most archaeologists subscribe to the theory that around 1500 BC until the time of Christ, a group of people emanating from Southeast Asia swept through the Solomon Islands and the Fiji islands to Tonga and Samoa. Why did they settle for several generations at each of these places, and more intriguing, why did they move on? By 400 AD, Easter Island and Hawaii were settled.

First recorded Polynesian contact with Europeans was not until 1595 when Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana accidently ran into the Marquesas Islands sailing west from South America. Thus began the competition among naval powers. People who had adapted to their environment and were minding their own business were given little respect, at least not until 1769 when Captain Cook learned the basics of the local language. http://www.pbs.org/wayfinders/polynesian3.html.

He was the first to give credit to Polynesians for intentionally exploring and settling thousands of miles. He sailed from Tahiti to New Zealand with a Polynesian navigator who didn’t need a sextant and couldn’t read charts, exposing the hypocrisy of touted superior continental culture. Eventually, Europeans dominated with firepower and disease that killed 75% of the Marquesas population in the early 19th century.

Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl rocked the academic world in 1947 when he set out to prove in the Kon-Tiki raft that Polynesia was settled from South American tribes because the ocean currents moved west from that area.(Great adventure story!) In 2009 Wade Davis pointed out in The Wayfinders that there is a time every year when trade winds reverse. If ancient island navigators got lost, all they had to do was wait for the easterlies to take them home.

Remember James Michener’s great novel Hawaii? The name of the outrigger heading from Bora Bora into the unknown was named “Wait for the West Wind.”

In 1952, a breakthrough of sorts occurred when archaeologists found potsherds in New Caledonia that matched artifacts found in Tonga, New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomons. Added to the similarities of languages among these islands reported by early explorers, here was new evidence for remarkable exploration skills. They were given a name: Lapita people.

We like to think education is a determinant of advanced civilization, but that begs the question, what is education? I am reminded of the Chaldean ideas that Daniel studied as a servant in the home of his Babylonian captors, certainly not the education a Jewish boy would have received in Judah. He absorbed different ideas because he was intelligent, but he adapted without giving up his heritage. I think this is called assimilation and suggests a compromise. Domination is not required to understand a different culture. On the other hand, if you are the guest, assimilation does require an effort to respect the host country. Or expect domination.

Sunset in Paradise

Sunset in Paradise

I think it ironic that Westerners gravitate to the fundamental elements of Polynesia with soothing thoughts of rolling waves, stars, moonlight, birds, fish, and warm breezes. Especially in our vacation plans. We want to visit, but skew the experience when we expect our hosts to cater to the fast-paced lives we brought with us.

Although I tend to think the Lapita people were happy with their homeland, the question is still, why did they keep relocating? The trail of pottery and languages indicates movement but not purpose. Traditionally with older cultures, the first son inherited and the second and third sons had to hit the road (or the waves) to find their own future. Or, perhaps some Lapita people were like those called “goal oriented” today. They have to climb mountains for the sheer challenge and gratification of success.

It is reasonable to suppose that warlike tribes did not want them around. Or tried to subjugate them, and the Lapitas preferred to escape rather than be dominated.

Unfortunately, the debate over the Lapita people may never be solved. They left no written history, and their language and DNA has become part of a melting pot. There are observable markers, such as the absence of malaria resistance in Polynesians. In the Nadroga province of Fiji, where evidence of a Lapita settlement was found near the mouth of the Sigatoka River, the natives are noticeably taller.

There are also clues more easily read by today’s technology from “civilized” countries. For example, many of the Polynesian crop plants are Melanesian, a scientific name give to the darker people of New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomons, New Caledonia, and Fiji. Through precise radiocarbon dating and linguistic evidence, a recent internet article suggests the migration from west Polynesia to the region of Tonga and Samoa was four centuries later than previously thought. Now possibly 1100 AD.

Mr. Davis makes the case that language is the “flash of human spirit. Every language is a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.” How can we diminish the cultures of Borneo, Peru, Haiti, the way of life of Tibetan priests, or the Alaskan tribal entities defined by their language groups? He suggests we need to respect alternate ways of thinking and interacting with nature. A task made difficult when limited to oral history.

In his excellent book The Wayfinders, Mr. Davis reports that of the 7000 languages spoken today, half are not taught to children. Eighty percent of the world communicates with one of 83 languages. The question he poses:  “Who will be the last to speak the syllables of an ancient tongue, losing the wisdom of ancestors?”

That might depend upon who is charge. And some of us are plotting to move to Pluto, a new world to conquer!


Copyright@2016 Georgia Ruth Wilson

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4 Responses to WORDS Matter

  1. 147ldunn says:

    EX-cellent piece, Georgia! I share your interest in Pacific island culture and also your concern that wisdom is being lost along with language. Hope you are staying warm and safe during this wild weather.Linda 

    • georgia ruth says:

      Thank you Linda. Three years ago I researched an island setting for a vision that became a novel in which two cultures clash. During the process, I fell in love with Vatulele, a small Fijian island. One day I will tell the whole story. Best wishes.

  2. Albert Bertini says:

    Interesting reading Georgia as well as mixed emotions in regards to captain cook , as a person that as Italian parents , but was born in Paris until the age of 9 years old , then proceeded to Australia as an immigrant with my parents , I often wonder how the world is divided to many different perception of history and why the world does not say it as it is.

    Eg Captain James Cook a great explorer indeed , but come the 26th of January of every year AUSTRALIA celebrates AUSTRALIA DAY , this was the day that Captain James Cook discovered Australia .

    Well for me I do not see as such , as I see how and what the original land owners and real AUSTRALIAN had to go through and they still are today .

    The 26th of January every year I stop and pray for all that the British have come to and killed as the reality is that all uneducated AUSTRALIAN’S including politicians do not even register that that particular day was the day that Captain James Cook and his merry man began the killing and slaughtering of people yes the Aboriginal people .

    It is a fact that in Tasmania in Australia every Aboriginal was killed and not one left , still today the Commonwealth is treating the Aboriginal people as outcast and as a burden to the so called nation .

    As far as the LaPita people , and the archeological world are concern the LaPita people did explore the world and keaped on moving from nation to nation and so did the British , but the difference is that LaPita people were expending the human race to the world and modern technologies that they had for the better of human kind without committing war crimes like the British did .

    I hope to have results soon of the LaPita people and the path that they took in exploring the world whilst there journey into Vatulele .



    • georgia ruth says:

      Thank you, A.B. I appreciate your giving us your perspective on this window of history as I know you have been deeply involved with the outcome. We depend upon responsible historians to separate fact from fiction. Until the internet, the majority of us did not have the time-consuming opportunity to investigate for ourselves. I was ready to believe Thor Heyerdahl about ocean currents because he told a compelling tale and because he received numerous accolades from the scientific community and from the politicians in Norway. (Because my grandparents’ home is Vik, Norway, I was pulling for him.) Having done more research, I find many contrary opinions that I have to credit. I look forward to hearing more of your story about the LaPita people in Vatulele. My instincts tell me these were peaceable people, and I have yet to come across anything different. I want their descendants recognized for their contribution to the settlement of Polynesia. This is an important story. Best wishes!

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