Volume 108 1999 > Volume 108, No. 3 > Maori/Polynesian origins and the 'new learning', by K. R. Howe, p 305-326
MAORI/POLYNESIAN ORIGINS AND THE “NEW LEARNING”
The current academic orthodoxy about Maori/Polynesian origins is that their Austronesian ancestors began moving out of the broad region of the South China Sea some 4000-6000 years ago. Some went westwards and eventually reached Madagascar. Others went eastwards into western Micronesia. Others went southeast down the Melanesian island chain. From there some moved into eastern Micronesia, while others reached Fiji/Samoa/Tonga some 3000 years ago. From there the eastern regions of Polynesia, such as the Society Islands and Marquesas, were settled, then the extremities—Easter Island, Hawai'i, New Zealand. Their voyaging was deliberate, and marked the first human settlement of the last habitable regions of the world.
These findings have been extensively refined in the academic literature over the past 30 or more years. There is now a massive literature in specialist scholarly papers and journals. But it is not esoteric knowledge. Indeed it is widely accessible through excellent general books specifically on New Zealand/Pacific prehistory (e.g., Lewis 1972, Bellwood 1979, Jennings 1979, Davidson 1984, Trotter and McCulloch 1989, Irwin 1992, Sutton 1994, Evans 1998). This learning has also long been thoroughly incorporated into New Zealand and Pacific studies more generally. Every History of New Zealand/the Pacific written for a generation or more begins with the above outline of human settlement of the region. There have been televison documentaries and associated glossy publications (e.g., Cumberland 1981a and 1981b, Thorne 1988 and 1989, Crawford 1993 and 1994). There have been booklets specifically produced for schools (e.g., Mills 1982).
Yet in the public arena these conclusions seem not widely known, or are ignored in favour of a range of alternative opinions associated with claimed “new learning”. Questions of Maori/Polynesian origins and the manner of their coming are, at a public level in New Zealand, increasingly argued in an atmosphere charged with media hyperbole and the rhetoric of controversy. Headlines scream about startling new revelations, path-breaking new discoveries, the final unlocking of mysteries, the promised overthrow of accepted wisdom. Newspapers publish opinions that Pacific peoples originated from sunken continents, ancient superior civilisations, even from UFOs. Their history is explained by geological catastrophism and witnessed - 306 by ancient ruins. They are deemed to have come from the Americas, or Egypt, or Phoenicia, or Mesopotamia, or Africa, or Western Asia, or to be one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Apart from such ongoing and uncritical media comment, 1 there is also a huge supportive “new age” literature.
This article considers some of this “new learning”, which can loosely be placed into three interrelated categories—“new diffusionism”, “new age” and “new geology”. 2 My intention is not to denigrate certain ideas, but to place them in their respective contexts of “knowledge” and expectations. However, while I accept that these ideas exist in particular intellectual or psychological contexts, I also think they can be revealed to be culturally problematic, and indeed can be detrimental to scholarly enterprise. It is easy to throw certain ideas into the “crazy file”, but there comes a time when they should be confronted. This is because they often represent an unconscious reflection of deeper cultural memory, a residue from an earlier imperial era. Embedded in much of today's alternative “new learning” is often some pretty old learning. It is commonly associated within the 19th century idea of prehistory itself, based on the evolving disciplines of geology, archaeology, ethnography, linguistics, comparative religion and mythology, and applied particularly to interpret Europe's own distant past. As a consequence, a number of today's “new” theories continue longstanding colonialist assumptions about race, gender and culture that are no longer appropriate. They continue a 200 year tradition whereby the history of the indigenous Pacific “other” is created and imposed. And they result in a dangerous anti-intellectualism whereby intuition and desire override established research findings.
Among the more pervasive alternative ideas at a popular level about Maori origins are that Maori themselves derived from the ancient Polynesian community that lived with the Greeks, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Libyans, Minoans, Mesopotamians and other Old World cultures of the Mediterranean region some 5000 years or more ago. Two writers well known for promulgating these ideas in New Zealand are Barry Fell and R.A. Lochore. Both initially had major articles in the New Zealand Listener in the 1970s. At the time, the Listener was New Zealand's most influential outlet for critical public comment. Fell claimed that the legendary Maori figure of Maui was born in Libya in 260 B.C. He was Polynesian, a people who lived in Libya whom the Greeks called the Mauri. A great astronomer and navigator, he set out to sail around the world. He reached New Guinea in 232 B.C. and then sailed across the Pacific. He found his way home blocked by the Americas. He travelled from present day Canada to Chile trying to - 307 find a way through. Eventually he turned back and reached at far as central Polynesia. There his fleet of six vessels stopped “presumably because their ships were unable to complete the voyage, perhaps also because they found life in the newly discovered islands too pleasant to give up. So the Mauri settlers became the first Maoris”. Fell's evidence was his deciphering of various inscriptions that he found all around the world, including the Pacific islands. Maori in New Zealand could once write. “New Zealand”, he argued, “is the south eastern extension of the old Mediterranean world, and the Maori language of the land is our classical heritage, the gift of Maui … and the courageous souls who sailed their six ships” (Fell 1975). R.A. Lochore had already published his Hocken Lecture arguing that Maori originally lived in Uru in northern Mesopotamia (Lochore 1974). He then produced a series of Listener articles supporting Fell and further advancing his own great scheme for a Polynesian chronology. It began 5000 years ago with the Polynesians being shepherds in the mountainous east of northern Mesopotamia. They became variously associated with Indo-Aryans. They turned into a warlike, mobile, sea-going people, eventually moving to Libya and serving the Egyptian military. Some crossed the Atlantic and settled among American Indians. Others, led by Maui and in later expeditions, travelled eastwards and settled the Pacific islands (Lochore 1977).
These and similar ideas continue to receive considerable publicity, particularly in the prolific publications from David Hatcher Childress (e.g., Childress 1988, 1996, 1998). His argument is that advanced civilisations of Greeks, Egyptians, Phoenicians and Hindus were operating vast global trading systems, which included gold mining in Indonesia, New Guinea and Australia. The Egyptians were most prominent, leaving their megaliths, inscriptions and other cultural remains all around the world, including Indonesia, Australia and the Pacific islands. Polynesians are their distant descendants. Melanesians are descended from the Negro slaves used in the gold mines. Tonga, it is claimed, was for a time centre of a Sun Empire of the Pacific, capital of ancient Polynesia. It was
…an extremely sophisticated nation which sailed the vast Pacific in huge ships, built gigantic pyramids, roads and monuments, and had great universities where navigation, astronomy, climatology and theological history were taught. This maritime empire existed for thousands of years and traded with powerful countries all around the Pacific rim, including North and South America. The people lived an idyllic existence for many hundreds of years until Polynesia fell into decline and a dark age swept across the Pacific (Childress 1996:15).- 308
Some of Childress's other ideas will be considered later. There are also numerous other writers promoting diffusionist notions, such as Bill Ballinger who advances the (not original) claim that Nan Madol was built by Greeks who sailed some of Alexander's ships from the Indus River in the 3rd century B.C. (Ballinger 1978) and Rex Gilroy who for years has claimed that Australia had a vigorous Egyptian mining history (Colley 1992). He makes visits to New Zealand where he finds evidence not only of Egyptian presence but also of that of Vikings (Evening Standard [Palmerston North] 20 April 1996).
This Egyptian or Mediterranean centred view of early human history ultimately stems from Europe's 19th century discovery and conceptualising of its own distant past—a series of models about sequences of civilisations and developmental processes, that privileged the “classical world” of Egyptian, early Mesopotamian, Assyrian and Greek civilisations. It amounted to a complex and highly varied set of intellectual constructions and strategies that went far beyond any empirical archaeology, but included a range of imperial and racial values, as well as reflecting broader related endeavours such as classical treasure and trophy hunting, and Romantic literary quests (e.g., Greene 1995). Throughout the late 18th and 19th century, the major theories about Polynesian origins were deeply influenced by such processes—hence the perceived similarities noted by some European explorers between Maori/Polynesian and Classical Greek culture, or the Biblical notions that Maori/Polynesians were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or the conclusion of comparative science that Maori/Polynesians had Aryan or Caucasian origins. Also European archaeological models were imposed on Maori and Pacific Islanders, such as dividing their prehistories into Palaeolithic and Neolithic. (For a historical survey of theories of Islander origins see Sorrenson 1979 and Howe 1993.)
But the emphasis given to a Mediterranean-centred view of the world became extreme in the first decades of this century with the conscious development of the idea of diffusionism. In one sense, most 19th century theories of Maori/Polynesian origins were diffusionist in that the Polynesians were deemed to have a discrete homeland somewhere outside the Pacific and that their culture was introduced ready made into the islands, where its fate was commonly assumed to be one of degeneration. But in the early 20th century, in part a reaction to the extreme cultural evolutionist views of the later 19th century, a more specific concept of diffusionism came into vogue. In archaeological and anthropological discourse, cultural change and development was now less likely to be attributed to a process of cultural evolution (Trigger 1995:Ch. 5). On the contrary, from about the 1880s many Western European intellectuals began to question assumptions of civic - 309 progress, given Europe's growing social and economic problems. There was more scepticism about human creativity, more concern about what might be biologically determined human behaviour, especially amongst the lower and increasingly more socially and politically troublesome classes (Pick 1993). In this context, diffusionism, the idea that civilisation was more the preserve of certain elite cultural groups who might transmit their attributes to others through communication and/or migration, took root. While in some senses diffusionism was a reaction to cultural evolutionism, particularly for those societies where it seemed “progress” was not being made, it also built on aspects of it, namely the idea that there was the potential for the less “improved” parts of the world to be influenced for good by more “advanced” peoples.
There were degrees of diffusionist theory. But particularly influential from the 1920s were the so-called hyper-diffusionist views of G. Elliot Smith. His thesis was that civilisation arose once only on earth: “Egypt was not only the inventor of civilisation”, he wrote, “but for several millennia afterwards it continued to be the inspiration of the progressive development of her original heritage to the world.” Egyptian civilisation spread everywhere, including the Pacific region:
To Eastern Asia and the Melanesian Islands it was next diffused; and at the commencement of the Christian era Polynesian sailors distributed some of the elements of this ancient civilization, which in its long journey had suffered much from decay and degeneration, to the far flung isles of the Pacific Ocean and to Central America and Peru, where it took on for a time a new and luxuriant growth and assumed strangely exotic forms. But eventually, like every other culture which was not being continually reinforced by the influences of the home civilisation, it rapidly deteriorated… (G.E Smith 1923:200).
Diffusionist thought had a fairly firm grip on much early 20th century Pacific anthropology and archaeology, which is why Pacific settlement was commonly depicted at this time in terms of a series of different racial waves coming into the islands (Howard 1967:57-75). Change within and by isolated communities was considered unacceptable; the only change had to come from without. Each apparently new phase thus had to be caused by some arrival from outside. Macmillan Brown, commenting on the apparent complexity of Maori history, noted: “…we have to explain the extensive stratification that is manifest in the culture. We can see that it is not development: there are so many irreconcilable elements and stages in the strata” (Brown 1907:263).- 310
Current Mediterranean-centred interpretations of Maori/Polynesian origins are not in fact specific or unique to the Pacific. Rather, they are localised examples of global diffusionist schemes, both past and present. Barry Fell's major work is not on New Zealand, but is titled America BC, in which he argues that Celts, Basques, Libyans and Egyptians effectively colonised much of North America as part of European/Mediterranean global trading systems. Throughout North America, Fell claims to have found their inscriptions, buildings and remnants of languages: “…we have preserved in North America the oldest phases of religious thought and action of European man, of which only the merest traces have survived in Europe itself” (Fell 1977:9). This is the identical claim of the 19th century Pacific scholars who, employing the comparative method of Max Müller and Edward Tylor, went looking for remnants or “survivals” and discovered that in Polynesian languages, religions and mythologies there were traces of their original Aryan ancestry in eastern Europe. As Edward Tregear commented, “…these uncivilised brothers of ours [the Polynesians] have kept embalmed in their simple speech a knowledge of the habits and history of our ancestors, that, in the Sanscrit, Greek, Latin, and Teutonic tongues, have been hidden under the dense aftergrowth of literary opulence” (Tregear 1885:38, see also Howe 1993:254-55).
The “new” diffusionism is really “old” diffusionism. It links with 19th century Aryan Polynesian theory, and also with ideas of both Biblical and evolutionary degeneration. Contemporary indigenous peoples are portrayed as decayed remnants of former advanced cultures. And they are incapable of change themselves. Diffusionism, whether new or old, is fundamentally based on the colonialist assumption that indigenous peoples are less able. When any new item or situation is found in their past, it must be attributed to superior outside influences. The only font of any civic progressiveness was the classical Mediterranean and later the Western world. Moreover, diffusionist thought of the early 20th century was a product of the discourse of empire. It basically implied the necessity for British/Western colonial rule by highlighting the dreadful consequences of any imperial decay for the colonised as well as the colonisers. Only Britain/Western Europe now held the former Egyptian torch of civilisation. The “new diffusionism” consciously or unconsciously reflects these values.
This analysis of diffusionist arguments about the original settlement of New Zealand/Polynesia is also applicable to ongoing claims for later, but pre-Tasman contact with New Zealand by Portuguese, Spanish and other navigators (e.g., Langdon 1975:Ch.19, 1991; Tasker 1997; Wiseman 1998). The insistence that pre-1760s Maori have a heavy dose of modern European explorers' genes and culture buys into diffusionist ideology that implicitly - 311 at least denies indigenous communities some of their own cultural past and identity.
It is also instructive to consider Thor Heyerdahl's views about the settlement of Eastern Polynesia from the Americas in this context. Not only was this view largely unoriginal—that case had been argued periodically since the 1820s—but his claimed South (and North) American connections are merely a part of his diffusionist views of global settlement. He sees western Mediterranean peoples sailing first to the Americas, and then some of them sailing from Peru to Easter Island and beyond. In his view, cultural importation rather than local development determines the alleged sequences of Polynesian culture history. The other part of his global scheme is to argue that eastern Mediterranean peoples also diffused culture, but in an easterly direction across the Indian Ocean and beyond, with some influences eventually crossing Bering Strait and reaching Hawai'i and Easter Island via Canada (Heyerdahl 1968, 1971, 1978,1980).
“New Age” Prehistory
“New age” prehistory is alive and well in New Zealand, the Pacific and elsewhere. In New Zealand it is perhaps most notably associated with Barry Brailsford's study of the “Waitaha Nation”, which in turn has spawned related works. Brailsford initially published two well-received books on South Island prehistory (Brailsford 1981, 1984). He has subsequently experienced some sort of “conversion” to a “new age” dimension, a process he explains in some detail in his autobiographical Song of the Stone (Brailsford 1995). His basic argument is that, in the very distant past, there was an advanced global civilisation of peaceful, cooperative peoples who themselves had their origins in the Middle East. One branch of these peoples came to the Pacific region and were based at Easter Island. Brailsford believes Heyerdahl's work on Easter Island and the South American connection will one day “be truly understood and honoured by the world” (Brailsford 1995:75). It was a time when “the Mother was the over-arching deity and matriarchal societies were common. There was balance and harmony in them. Later the Mother was put aside, men came to dominate life and thought, and war became an instrument of society” (Brailsford 1995:74). Some 67 generations ago, a great waka with a crew of 175 people set out to find a place a refuge where the ancient wisdom of harmony and peace might be protected. There were three races on the waka—white-skinned people with red or blond hair, others who were tall and dark, and others who were olive-skinned with double-folded eyelids.
They came to New Zealand, called themselves Waitaha, and lived in tranquillity. But warlike Maori eventually reached these distant shores to - 312 “destroy the Nation of Waitaha” (Brailsford 1995:18). Most of the culture was destroyed, except initially on the Chathams where the Moriori were the last of the Nation, until the raids from Taranaki in the 1830s. But certain South Island Waitaha elders have kept the secret knowledge which they have now “sung” to Brailsford. He was often unsure what was happening to him, experienced all kinds of visions, and wrote up their singing in a kind of nightly trance. Eventually he published the Song of Waitaha (Brailsford 1994). This knowledge is now to be shared with everyone, and the Waitaha people can now “stand and walk tall again”, and the world will enter “a time of nurturing and caring” (Brailsford 1995:18). Brailsford claims to have reached “into the world of ancestors of Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, the world of Waitaha in the Pacific and the world of the spirit. I was in the world and between worlds. All I had to guide me was a compass that said, ‘Follow your heart. Do everything with love.’” Brailsford and associates now travel through the native American tribes and Celtic England and Ireland, and Africa and Australia, taking back sacred stones to rejoin peoples whose ancestors were once as one. “I could sit with Hawaiian, Hopi, Cherokee…. and it was the same as sitting with Waitaha” (Brailsford 1995:60). He sees a particular link between the Hopi people and Waitaha—“Waitaha are of Hopi and Hopi are of Waitaha.” Brailsford's world is one of “the spirit… of old prophecies fulfilled, of people of peace walking tall again. It touches the realms of the mystical where the words ‘coincidence’ and ‘accident’ are put aside. It says little happens by chance” (Brailsford 1995:10). In addition, he has written a series of novels—The Chronicles of Stone—which exemplify his Stoneprint Press's aim to “honour the theme of journeys into ancient wisdom” (e.g., Brailsford 1996).
Van Dorp is a medical doctor who also has moved into “new age” interests. His Song of the Hawk is an account of his and Brailsford's 13,000 kilometre trip around American Indian reservations delivering sacred Waitaha greenstone (van Dorp 1998). Van Dorp is tuned into the “power sites” and “vortices” of Arizona, and the earth's harmonics generally, the ancient links with Egypt and the significance of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Before the Waitaha Nation was established in New Zealand, he postulates sunken continents in the Pacific, people flying back to Tibet and Egypt, and a black woman and a white man who start a new race on Easter Island. He talks about the power of love and the properties of space-time, the possibility of dematerialisation and space travel.
Where some might attribute Brailsford (and van Dorp) with a New Zealand/indigenous/Waitaha reading of oral tradition, there is rather more obviously a “new age” model being imposed. Among the main “new age” concepts are the notions that everything is divine, including human - 313 consciousness; truth is constituted from within; the attainment of bliss involves concern for the good of all; health means wholeness and unity of body, mind, and spirit; the unity of all requires closeness to and respect for nature; we need to trust intuition, imagination, and feeling; we need to trust paranormal phenomena; ancient wisdom can be contacted and cosmic forces such as gravity can be controlled.
These are guiding principles of much “new age” Pacific prehistory in particular and world prehistory in general, best exemplified in the works of David Hatcher Childress. He is a self-styled Indiana Jones figure who travels the world looking at remnants of ancient civilisations. Apart from his books on lost Pacific civilisations, he has also written similar works on the Americas and Asia. He also writes travel books, as well as books about anti-gravity, crystal harmonic propulsion and world grids. His Adventures Unlimited Press in Illinois publishes similar works by others. It has a shop in Auckland (Adventures Unlimited).
The Childress view of the Pacific is that an ancient and advanced civilisation with links back to Egypt created an empire of peace and harmony on the ancient Pacific continent of Mu. Mu was in contact with most other parts of the world and vice versa. Attention has already been drawn to the Egyptian and other Mediterranean trading and other contacts with the Pacific region, and how Pacific Islanders have descended from them. As well, Indians travelled the Pacific, for the Easter Island rongorongo “scripts” are the same as those of the Indus Valley, and there is the Tamil Bell in New Zealand. Hopi Indians also sailed around the Pacific. Everywhere the megaliths still in existence on Pacific islands were probably built through the levitation of stones by harmonic sound. There was one government, one language, and the whole of the advanced society operated on karmic principles. There was eventually a great catastrophe and Mu sank beneath the waves.
Both Brailsford and Childress made recent claims that the so-called Kaimanawa Wall was hard proof of their theories of an ancient, advanced civilisation in New Zealand. It seems no accident that frenzied newspaper publicity was occasioned by their visits to the site (e.g., New Zealand Herald [Auckland] 3 May 1996, The Press [Christchurch] 9 May 1996, New Zealand Listener 4 May 1996). There is also a fairly consistent stream of press reports about other remnants of ancient peoples in New Zealand (e.g., New Zealand Herald [Auckland] 22 April 1996, 2 June 1998; Northern Advocate [Whangarei] 8 March 1997). These ideas exist in the context of a wider and very extensive “alternative” literature (Hiscock 1996), including Erich von Däniken's claim that Pacific megaliths have something to do with space travellers, Maziére's belief that some Easter Islanders still have secret knowledge of extra-terrestrial contacts, and Hancock's recent, much- - 314 promoted Heaven's Mirror which links the Pacific islands to ancient advanced world civilisations (von Däniken 1968, 1981, Maziére 1969, Hancock and Faiia 1998). Most of these ideas, in the context of Maori/ Polynesian “new age” studies, can readily be traced to their more distant, Western imperial psycho-intellectual roots.
One of the most powerful immediate precursors was James Churchward in the 1920s and 1930s (Churchward 1931a, 1931b), Churchward, who spent a good deal of time studying mysticism in India with “high priests”, claimed he learned to read sacred inscriptions which told the story of the creation of Man and the beginning of human civilisation in the Motherland of Mu, a vast continent which filled most of the central Pacific Ocean. This was the Biblical Garden of Eden. Man was a “special” creation there, some 200,000 years ago. Some 10 main tribes developed, united under one government. They all lived in harmony. There was no “savagery”. All the races of men were represented but the dominant was the “white race”. By 50,000 years ago there were 64,000,000 inhabitants. There were seven great cities, centres of scientific learning and high culture. Civilisation reached an extremely high state, higher than the present. The people built great stone structures. Gravity was overcome by magnetic forces, so enabling the construction of great megaliths. The people could also communicate over place and time by vibrations, potentially enabling the “inner man” today to journey back to master the “Ancient Sciences”.
Eventually great navigators and colonists from Mu set out to people the rest of the world. About 100,000 years ago, the first children of Mu travelled eastwards and developed the Mayan civilisation and then all the civilisations of the Americas. In the context of current “new age” fascination with the Hopi Indians, Churchward believed that they had a special connection with the “Motherland” of Mu, their traditions telling us directly of their distant origins. But the great travellers from Mu went much further. They founded the civilisations of Atlantis, the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Other voyagers went westwards from Mu and established the civilisations of Asia. Mu thus became the centre of Earth's civilisations: “all other countries throughout the world were her colonies or colonial empires” (Churchward 1931b:49).
About 12,000 years ago “cataclysmic earthquakes rent Mu asunder…. she became a fiery vortex, and the waters of the Pacific rushed in making a watery grave for a vast civilisation and sixty million people” (Churchward 1931b: 15). The immersion of Mu was recorded in Scripture as the Great Flood. The Pacific islands are now “pathetic fringes of that great land, standing today as sentinels to a silent grave” (Churchward 193lb: 15). The great civilisations that Mu had fathered in the Americas, the Orient, India, - 315 Egypt, Babylonia and so on became but the “dying embers of Mu's great civilisation. They were her children, who withered and died without her care” (Churchward 1931b:16). The Egyptian Book of the Dead is “a sacred memorial to the 64,000,000 people who lost their lives at the destruction of Mu” (Churchward 1931b:108). New Zealand was never actually physically joined to Mu but lying 1800 kilometres to the south was one of Mu's “small distant colonies”, today's Maori being descendants of the “white race of the motherland”. But with the destruction of Mu, the first New Zealanders were plunged into a dreadful isolation and returned to “primitive” ways. But civilisation was not entirely eliminated from Maori:
Their brains and the better parts of their nature have remained for, with the new civilization taught them by the English and the opportunity given them, the Maoris have made unprecedented strides in learning and in regaining their place among the most enlightened and civilized people on earth…. The springing forth of the Maori into the bright light of the New Civilization has not been a step in evolution or even a development. His development took place in the Motherland eons of time ago. His great leaps and bounds in enlightenment and learning are simply due to the freeing of his brains from thousands upon thousands of years of imprisonment. It has been an awakening from a long, long sleep (Churchward 1931b:246).
For all Churchward's creative imagination, he was in turn playing with themes commonly to be found in 1920s and 1930s. Sunken continent ideas, especially a resurgence of stories about Atlantis, were popular (e.g., Spence 1926, 1932). Macmillan Brown was also writing about a sunken Pacific continent. His ideas will be discussed shortly. Churchward also seems to have reflected Freemason and Rosicrucian notions of cultural and religious origins, and their use of ancient symbolism. Rosicrucians also published a number of books on the sunken Pacific continent (Cervē 1931), and produced a film in 1935 called “Lemuria. The Lost Continent”.
Certain of Churchward's themes and theories can be found earlier. For example, there are Rudolph Steiner's notions of “cosmic memory” whereby history is based on an inner consciousness rather than observation. Steiner claimed to see spiritually. All events in the past amounted to what he called the Akashic record. Human consciousness evolved through the gradual sinking of Atlantis, after a peaceful period of a million years, and then experienced through the Christ Being a series of seven post-Atlantean Epochs. Steiner wrote a small book entitled Atlantis and Lemuria (Steiner 1981, McDermott 1984).
And there are strong roots too for Churchward and others in Theosophy of the later 19th century. Its founding mother, Helena Blavatsky, spent time - 316 in India in the 1880s where she developed its initial three principles: to form a Universal Brotherhood, to encourage the study of comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science, and to investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the “powers latent in man”. Blavatsky herself wrote a large tract— The Secret Doctrine—which proposed that there were a series of what she called “Root-Races” one of which was an ancient advanced Lemurian-Atlantean one (Blavatsky 1962:16, 242). One of her successors, W. Scott-Elliot, regurgitated this material in his 1904 publication called The Lost Lemuria (Scott-Elliot 1904).
Theosophy was particular attractive to several Pacific scholars of the time. Its links with Indian mysticism and claimed ancient knowledge grew out of the imperial processes of Orientalism and were particularly linked to the comparative religion, mythology and linguistics that led to the concept of the Indo-European language family. Orthodox Pacific Aryan theory owed much to this process, and scholars like Edward Tregear, who was a major proponent of Aryan Polynesian theory, was for a time in contact with Annie Besant, a leading British Theosophist (Howe 1991:62).
Thus the so-called “new age” prehistory is old age. In particular it has its immediate roots in a spiritualist/psychological/intellectual complex that is grounded in 19th century imperialism. It thus displays the racial and cultural values and priorities of that age, particularly in its ascription of “whiteness” to certain select indigenous societies, including Polynesians, in its divisions of cultures into nasty masculine and soft feminine societies, in its assumption of cultural diffusion from “progressive”, elite centres, and in its interest in the paranormal.
Much of the “new diffusionism” and “new age” in Pacific prehistory is underpinned by assumptions about major geological change. The earlier, advanced societies in the Pacific and elsewhere are deemed to have gone into cultural decline after some sort of catastrophic event. Much is also made of predictions of certain indigenous peoples, like the Hopi, that more climactic events are likely, especially the purging of earth by fire, and the idea of polar tilt. A strong millennialist streak is common. But there is also a range of current views which claim to be more grounded in geological science than in spiritualist thought, such as those of Gordon Williams, who suggests that major continental movements associated with polar tilt were responsible for bringing Polynesians into the Pacific. Was this moving land, he asks, the “‘magical canoe’ that is referred to in Polynesian mythology?” (Williams 1993:39). Catastrophism is everywhere. A recent book by Oppenheimer proposes that human life and civilisation began on a now - 317 drowned continent in Southeast Asia (Oppenheimer 1998).
Since about the 1950s, there has been a popular international literature that pushes at the extreme edge of global catastrophism (e.g., Velikovsky 1950, 1955; Hapgood 1958). There are theories about fast polar tilt and a rapid tumbling of the earth which caused the oceans to surge and inundate vast areas of the planet. Explanations range from the growing lopsidedness of the polar ice caps to outer crustal shift. Other common explanations range from a close passing of Venus, which upset the earth's balance, to massive comet strike. It is all highly compatible with many “new age” ideas about the destruction of ancient cultures and continents, and of course is grist to the millennialist mill.
The Pacific islands have been a prime subject of diluvialism (that is the gentle or sudden flooding of lands) and geological catastrophism from the earliest moments of Western contact. In the Pacific context, the notion of a great southern continent—Terra Australis—was absolutely central to Western perceptions of the region long before any Westerners ever saw the ocean. European explorers specifically came to the Pacific in search of it. The eventual demolition of the idea of Terra Australis by Cook meant that any subsequent speculations on Pacific continents had to be about sunken ones. It is no coincidence that its seekers commonly focussed on the Pacific ocean. Not only was it a geologically active region, but it had the space in which hypothetical continents might be located.
A sequence of French commentators from the 1830s onwards, Dumont D'Urville, J.A. Moerenhout, Jules Garnier, argued that the Polynesians once formed a vast civilisation on a huge landmass that filled the Pacific. As a result of a great “cataclysm”, the continent sank and the sea level rose almost to the summits of the highest mountains. These the Polynesians now clung to. Their existing monuments, traditions, customs and ceremonies were pale remnants of the advanced life they once lived (e.g., Moerenhout 1837, Gamier 1870).
Biologist Ernst Haeckel gave sunken continent theories a boost in the 1870s with his initial theory that human life originated on Lemuria, the original Paradise, a landmass which he initially located in the Indian Ocean. From there 12 races migrated out to the rest of the world (Haeckel 1883). The possibilities of a sunken Pacific continent were commonly entertained by many reputable scholars, such as Alfred Wallace and Percy Smith (Wallace 1876(I):328-29, S.P Smith 1910:11).
Early in the 20th century, John Macmillan Brown advocated a remarkable thesis based on an amazingly convoluted mix of geological, archaeological and anthropological thought (Brown 1907). He claimed that the original homeland for human civilisation was Mauritania in the north of Africa. - 318 Hundreds of thousands of years ago, a palaeolithic, Caucasian people moved across Asia to the region near present-day Japan, then travelled over a series of land bridges and contiguous continents that virtually connected much of Micronesia and large areas of Polynesia to the Asian landmass. The lands reached as far as Easter Island, but not to New Zealand or the Americas. The land bridges eventually sank and the island peoples were isolated.
Within about the last 10,000 years, another Caucasan race, now neolithic and great builders of megaliths, moved across Asia to the Pacific rim. What was now an unbroken expanse of Pacific Ocean did not stand in their way for, unlike their palaeolithic ancestors, these men were great seafarers. And indeed they were men. This was a “masculine expedition” since “a few hundred miles of sea were sure to daunt primitive women from venturing her children and her household gods upon so dangerous an element; the thousands of miles between resting places in Polynesia made such ventures impossible for them” (Brown 1907:261). These neolithic, megalith building conquerors came across “scanty and feeble (island) populations, and with their palaeolithic weapons the men would be no match for these neolithic sailors. The newcomers would be masters and aristocrats, enslaving the men and taking the women over with their households. The masculine arts would be reformed according to the ideas of the newcomers; but the women would be left to follow their old ways in the household”. This process of “masculine infiltration” lasted for thousands of years till all the islands “being full, the new Viking strain would venture away to the south and the east, some into New Zealand” (Brown 1907:263).
These new masculine settlers eventually created vast regional empires in the Pacific. One was centred on Ponape, another on Easter Island. Brown conceived of a culturally and politically unified Polynesian nation. These traits were also transported to the Americas where they provided the basis for subsequent civilisations there.
But the great Pacific empires slowly collapsed as the continents sank beneath the seas. Fleeing migrants clung to increasingly diminishing islands, their former cultures and civilisations degenerating as they were driven to new “habits” such as “abortion and female infanticide and cannibalism”. One of Brown's major themes was of Polynesian cultural and racial decay once their days of energetic voyaging, struggling and empire building were over. They were doomed to extinction long before Europeans arrived (Brown 1927). Eventually all that remained, by the time of European contact, were survivors on tiny islands who had only very fragmentary and corrupted recollections and habits of a former way of life. Remaining too were the silent megaliths ranging across the Pacific from the “city” of Nan Madol on Ponape to the constructions of Easter Island. Easter Island held a special - 319 place in Brown's scheme. Its huge platforms and statues marked the burial place of chiefs from the former Polynesian empire. Brown likened Easter Island at the time of European contact to a sunken Britain, with only a ruined Westminster still standing above water (Brown 1924). 3
Brown was followed by James Churchward, whose thesis about the sinking of Mu and the drowning of 64 million people has already been mentioned. His initial explanation was that Mu was built on a series of gas chambers that flooded and collapsed (Churchward 1931a, 1931b). He later argued that it was a sudden polar lurch that sent huge waves around the globe, drowning Mu (Churchward 1934). Even those who thought Churchward's embellishment of life on Mu and its catastrophic demise farfetched could still support the idea of a Pacific continent, on the basis of indigenous myth and a very slow sinking of land. It was sometimes argued that large land masses on the verge of sinking, such as “Davis land” near Easter Island, were actually sighted by early European explorers (Spence 1932).
Pacific based diluvialism and related geological catastrophism in turn reflect a very long Western history of ideas about how the earth was shaped, particularly by floods (Huggett 1989). Diluvialism can range from the gentle and uniform through to the terrifying and cataclysmic. Flood myths seem universal. At least 500 myths belonging to some 250 peoples or tribes have been recorded (Hugget 1989:12). Most feature a survivor and progenitor, like Noah. Diluvialism had a special place in Western thought, and its more modern origins loom large in Renaissance times. This is because the earth, according to Christian chronology, was only a few thousand years old and so had to have been fairly rapidly shaped. There was also the power of the Noachian Flood story. Furthermore, the proposition of mass destruction was central to Christian millennialist thought. All the present day theories about the causes of catastrophism were present in these earlier times. In the 15th and again in the 17th century there were ideas about polar tilt and earth tumble, including those of Newton in his Principia Mathematica. Explanations again foreshadowed current opinions: surface crustal shifts, earthquakes, seas pressing down and squirting water out elsewhere, comet strikes, ice-cap melts. The early 19th century was perhaps the high point of catastrophism, and mainstream geology has subsequently become more uniformitarian or gradualist after the work of Hutton and Lyell. Modern geology also accepts the remote possibility of episodes of catastrophism, such as comet strike. It also is more amenable to the idea of polar tilt, but at such a gradual rate, perhaps one degree in a million years, that the history of human civilisation cannot be determined by it. But, as mentioned, since about the 1950s, the older idea of catastrophism as a more regular - 320 phenomenon has re-emerged as an alternative, if minority, theory. Thus is some of the “new geology” among the oldest geology of all.
Does it Matter?
In private circumstances, it probably does not matter if people claim that Polynesians came from UFOs or sunken continents, or that there were ancient civilisations in New Zealand before Maori arrived. But in public circumstances it does matter. When people make certain public claims on the basis that their belief is “the truth”, contrary to the received scholarship of the time, and then expect certain political/economic/intellectual consequences to flow from that, then it has to be tested. One could speculate endlessly, for example, on the implications of Brailsford's interpretations of Waitaha history for the politics of Ngai Tahu and its Treaty settlement. And there are numerous letters to the editor in enthusiastic response to reports of earlier civilisations in New Zealand arguing that Waitangi Tribunal processes are fatally flawed because Maori are not the real tangata whenua, or original owners.
The “new learning” does need periodic confronting, and for at least three reasons. First, often deeply embedded in it, as some sort of cultural memory, are a range of now inappropriate imperial and colonialist values and assumptions about race, gender and culture. The so-called new learning is often very old learning, and hence reflects values of a past age.
Second, the “new learning” amounts to a dangerous anti-intellectualism. It reduces history/prehistory to wishful thinking. It is fashionable in post-modern circles to reduce any knowledge to the proposition of a culturally prescribed act, and to claim that knowledge in its infinitive variation is simply relative, and that no one version should be privileged over the other. But then history becomes simply what anyone wants it to be. We ultimately render ourselves helpless as a society if we cannot take decisions based on verifiable research findings, particularly when so much of modern New Zealand life centres around questions about who was where when, and consequent redemption for past colonial wrongs. It may well be that some Maori communities were descended from early pre-Maori peoples. History is of course all about contesting the past. There can be endless arguments about the influences of such early arrivals on our shores. But before such debate begins we need some hard evidence. Either there were people here before Maori, or there were not. Either Maori are descended from Egyptians, or they are not. In the absence of such evidence we are reduced to trading claims which have more to do with hopes and fears of neo-colonial oppressors at one extreme through to indigenous liberators on the other.
The third and related reason why the alternative ideas need confronting - 321 is because they offer a very false and dangerous idea that their claimed intuitive knowledge recovers ancient indigenous wisdom and expresses it as some sort of post- or anti-colonial proposition. Given the long history of the way in which, for example, Maori oral tradition has been manipulated by European scholars, one can sympathise with those who may wish to redress the balance. It is, of course, right and proper that older Western imperial certainties should be challenged and that Maori knowledge should not be suppressed. But to assume that “new age” ideas pose such a challenge while at the same time liberating indigenous views is nonsense. Van Dorp poses the question himself: is the “new age” cultural genocide for Maori and others? No, he answers: “The New Age is in fact the fifth world of the Hopi… where people of all different colours can live together in harmony.” The “White culture” has lost the Truth, but will recover it from Maori and Hopi who have never “lost touch with the Earth, with the animal and plant kingdoms, and the mineral and crystal kingdoms” (van Dorp 1998:125).
The apparent reluctance of New Zealand academics, and particularly the New Zealand archaeological community to speak out against such ideas perhaps stems from an assumption that somehow to do so might be interpreted as an attack on Maori sensibilities and indigenous wisdom. 4 Perhaps as a consequence, newspaper editors in New Zealand readily publish sensationalised “findings” in a quite uncritical way, apparently unaware of any scholarly discourse on the topic. There is no such reticence in Australia, for example, to attack “new age” archaeology and expose its underlying premises (e.g., Colley 1992, Hiscock 1996).
Alternative ideas should never be suppressed, but they should be challenged, if only to make the media a bit more careful about some of its reporting, and the public a bit more sceptical. Even so, alternative ideas will never go away. Prehistory, or the idea of prehistory, is a wonderfully fertile ground for the human imagination. Glyn Daniel some years ago claimed that archaeology has immense popular attraction because of its intrinsic human fascination, its often tangible sources, its interesting methods and technologies, and its general Romance (Daniel 1962). I would add, particularly in a New Zealand/Pacific context, that its attraction had and still has a very much harder edge, since it is also bound up, unconsciously or otherwise, with both colonialist and anti-colonialist ideology. All such views suggest patterns of intellectual and emotional cultural memory that offer a very diverse range of creative, fanciful and desired possibilities about “the people before”.- 322
This article is a revised version of a paper delivered as the Public Lecture at the New Zealand Archaeological Association Conference, University of Auckland, March 1999. I am grateful to Geoff Clark at the Australian National University for helpful comments.
- 326 Page is blank
1 I have collected such news-clippings for over 20 years. The folder is now bulging. Here, I simply reference them in the text.
2 I do not specifically examine certain religious beliefs per se since many of them are central to the 19th century theories of Polynesian origins anyway, such as Lost Tribe notions, or the Mormon belief that Polynesians came from the Americans. Nor do I consider modern creationist beliefs.
3 Brown's The Riddle of the Pacific (1924) has recently been reprinted by Childress's Adventures Unlimited Press. Added at the back is an extensive list of the Press's “new age” publications.
4 I am aware of one excellent, but as yet unpublished, critique of Brailsford's “new age” prehistory (see Clark MS)