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Smithsonian American Art Museum

Polynesian Rat

NMNH - Education & Outreach
This object is part of the Education and Outreach collection, some of which are in the Q?rius science education center and available to see.

Polynesian Culture Exhibit

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
See Neg. SIA2009-2193 (sepia) and Neg. SIA2009-1805 for a view of the exhibit hall with this exhibit case in the foreground in 1911.

Diorama is of a Samoan Indian group with native artifacts, part of the Polynesian ethnology exhibit in the United States National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History.

Sweet Potato Genes Say Polynesians, Not Europeans, Spread the Tubers Across the Pacific

Smithsonian Magazine

Peruvians first domesticated the sweet potato around 8,000 years ago. And though the crop spread from there, the means by which it traveled have always remained contentious. One possibility was that Polynesian sailors first brought it home from across the ocean: The oldest carbonized sweet potato evidence in the Pacific hails back to about 1,000 A.D.—500 years before Columbus sailed to the Americas. The Polynesian word for sweet potato resembles the central Andes’ Quechua people’s word for the vegetable, too.

But the Polynesian sailor scenario was always just a hunch. Studying the plant’s genetic lineage remained tricky because Europeans often interbred Mexican, Caribbean and Polynesian varieties, sweeping away the molecular trail of crumbs. But French researchers stumbled upon a fix: sweet potato samples preserved in centuries-old herbariums assembled by some of the first European visitors to Polynesia. By analyzing the genetics of these sweet potatoes, ScienceNOW reports, researchers found evidence that Polynesian sailors, rather than Spanish or Portuguese explorers, introduced the now-ubiquitous yam across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The researchers compared the herbarium samples to modern sweet potatoes and older specimens and found strong evidence for prehistoric contact between Polynesia and South America. ScienceNOW:

This finding supports the so-called tripartite hypothesis, which argues that the sweet potato was introduced to the region three times: first through premodern contact between Polynesia and South America, then by Spanish traders sailing west from Mexico, and Portuguese traders coming east from the Caribbean. The Spanish and Portuguese varieties ended up in the western Pacific, while the older South American variety dominated in the east, which would explain the genetic differences the French team saw.

As widely used as it is now, the sweet potato could play an even bigger role in feeding people across the world: climate change may help the roots grow even bigger.

More from

Sweet Potatoes in Space 
What to Eat – or Not – in Peru

Sketch of Polynesian Warfare Case

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Watercolor sketch of "Polynesian Warfare" case, which was Case 6 in Hall 8 (Peoples of the Pacific) in the National Museum of Natural History. Paint swatches are included as well.

Traditional Polynesian Vessel to Complete Round-the-World Journey

Smithsonian Magazine

Many centuries ago, Polynesian voyagers sailed thousands of miles across the sea, traveling from the shores of New Guinea to far-flung locations like Hawaii and New Zealand. These ancient sailors relied on an intimate knowledge of the position of the stars, the flight patterns of birds, and the subtle resonance of ocean swells to guide them to safety. Sophisticated seafaring culture has diminished among modern Polynesians, but a recent initiative has resurrected the practice in a big way.

As Richard Schiffman reports for Scientific American, a traditional Polynesian vessel is about to complete a round-the-world journey. It is the first time such an ambitious voyage has been undertaken in a waʻa kaulua, the double-hulled canoe used by Polynesians of yesteryear.

The Hōkūleʻa, as the vessel is called, first left Hawaii in 2014. Over the course of three years, it has traveled 40,000 nautical miles. (A Smithsonian curator spent nine days onboard when it made its way to Washington, D.C., in 2016.) The journey will now conclude on June 17 with a welcome ceremony on Hawaii’s Magic Island, according to the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

The organization, which seeks to “perpetuate the art and science of traditional Polynesian voyaging,” spent six years preparing for the Hōkūleʻa’s worldwide trip. Experts seafarers who had been trained in traditional Polynesian sailing turned their attention to a new generation of travelers, teaching them the nuanced methods that allowed their ancestors to traverse long distances over fickle waters.

The Hōkūleʻa’s crew—which consisted of some 245 members, with 12 to 13 crew in the boat at a time—did not rely on any modern navigational devices, like compasses or GPS. Instead, they observed the position of the celestial bodies, the movement of waves, the behavior of seabirds, the colors of the sunset. To successfully navigate at night, Schiffman writes, the crew had to memorize the courses of more than 200 stars.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Marcel Honoré of the Honolulu Star Adviser reports that in 2015, the Hōkūleʻa was caught up in a violent storm off the coast of Mozambique. Gale-force winds and vacillating currents drove the Hōkūleʻa into its escort boat, leaving a gaping hole in the vessel’s starboard.

Fortunately, the crew was able to improvise repairs and continue on its journey, “pushing the canoe past its Pacific boundaries and into distant communities that had never seen such a curious sea vessel,” Honoré writes. The crew also met world leaders, participated in welcome ceremonies, and toured national parks.

Visibility was important. The purpose of the Hōkūleʻa’s round-the-world journey was not only to revive an ancient cultural practice, but also to raise awareness about sustainable ways to engage with threatened bodies of water. “Living on an island chain teaches us that our natural world is a gift with limits and that we must carefully steward this gift if we are to survive together,” the Polynesian Voyaging Society writes on its website. “As we work to protect cultural and environmental resources for our children’s future, our Pacific voyaging traditions teach us to venture beyond the horizon to connect and learn with others.”

With that mission in mind, the Hōkūleʻa’s worldwide voyage was given a fitting name: Mālama Honua, which means “to care for our Island Earth.”

One Very Old Canoe Could Help Explain How Polynesian Sailors Colonized New Zealand

Smithsonian Magazine

The incredible colonization of Pacific islands by the Polynesians presents a fascinating conundrum for scholars. How, exactly, did anyone manage to cross thousands of miles of open ocean to land on tiny islands? Researchers have tried to answer the question for decades,  by analyzing the lore passed down through generations and, occasionally, attempting the journey themselves.   

Now, two new studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provide additional insight into how this ancient people managed to navigate such long distances. 

The first study focused on the 2012 discovery of a nearly 20-foot-long section of a sailing canoe, carved from a single timber. To find such a large section of a canoe preserved is rare in and of itself. But what made the find more extraordinary was that it shared features with Polynesian artifacts not normally found in New Zealand, including the carved sea turtle (pictured above). The study authors dated the canoe to around the year 1400. The Los Angeles Times reports: 

A few features, including four transverse ribs carved into the hull, haven’t been known historically in New Zealand, but have been featured in canoes in the Southern Cook Islands, described in 1913. The New Zealand canoe also shares some design elements with a canoe found about 30 years ago on Huahine in the Society Islands. It's thought to be from around the same time period as the New Zealand canoe, even though it was discovered roughly 2,500 miles away. The canoes “could have come from the same design tradition,” the authors wrote. Clearly, the Polynesians knew how to get around. 

Finding similar cultural artifacts indicates that there was a connection between the early Polynesians and New Zealand. But how would they have made it there? The South Pacific's current wind patterns would have made sailing between Polynesia and New Zealand difficult with the canoe technology in use at the time New Zealand was colonized. In the second paper,  a different group of researchers found that the Polynesian colonists actually had the weather on their side. Science:

Because of shifting climate conditions, there were several decades-long windows of opportunity in which Polynesian seafarers could have sailed with the wind at their backs to travel east and other times when winds favored travel between the Central Pacific islands and New Zealand. "Our reconstructed sailing conditions during the period of East Polynesian colonization would have enabled all of the known colonizing routes, and others,” to have been successfully navigated by canoes that couldn’t sail into the wind 

So, the Polynesians came to New Zealand in canoes during periods of good climate conditions, and everything gets tied up with a neat little bow, right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. While the canoe found in the first paper was dated to 1400, the friendly weather anomaly shut down nearly 100 years earlier, around 1300. The researchers interviewed in Science suggested one possible explanation: people who settled in New Zealand just kept on building the same kinds of canoes for a while. Another possibility: the dates found by researchers in the first paper might be off by a bit. 

Polynesian plant studies #6-18 / F. Raymond Fosberg and Marie-Helene Sachet

Smithsonian Libraries
"The paper is a continuation of Polynesian Plant Studies #1-5, Smithsonian Contributions to Botany, number 21, July 1975, and is precursory to floristic studies in Polynesia"--T.p. verso.

The thirteen short taxonomic studies on Polynesian plants presented here deal with the genera Tricholaena Schrader, Oxalis L., Claoxylon A. Jussieu, Abutilon Miller, Zehneria Endlicher, Terminalia L., Myrsine L., Geniostoma Forster, Rauvolfia L., Leucas R. Brown, Cyrtandra Forster, Dicrocephala L'Héritier, and with a number of miscellaneous distributional and nomenclatural records in other genera. The paper is a continuation of Polynesian Plant Studies 1-5, Smithsonian Contributions to Botany, number 21, issued 21 July 1975, and is precursory to floristic studies in Polynesia.

Brents Carlton doing finishing work on his sculpture Polynesian boy

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 13 x 10 cm. Photograph was taken at the Henry Gregoire Ornamental Plaster & Cement Works. It shows Carlton putting the finishing touches on a larger-than-life size sculpture of a young man.
This sculpture was made for the "Court of Pacifica" at the Golden Gate International Exposition.

Polynesian plant studies 1-5 / F. Raymond Fosberg and Marie-Hélène Sachet

Smithsonian Libraries
Includes index.

Systematic, nomenclatural, and distributional observations on various genera of Polynesian vascular plants, both indigenous and exotic, with new species, varieties, and nomenclatural combinations in Myrsine, Geniostoma, and Ipomoea. The island groups on which the plants occur are the Hawaiian, Marquesan, Society, Tuamotu, Austral, Cook, Fiji, and Tonga islands.

Two new Marquesan species of the southeastern Polynesian genus Oparanthus (Asteraceae, Coreopsidinae)

Smithsonian Libraries
Two new species of the recently revised genus Oparanthus (Asteraceae, Subtribe Coreopsidinae) were discovered during the National Tropical Botanical Garden/Smithsonian Institution 1997 expedition to the Marquesas Islands. Oparanthus woodii W. L. Wagner & Lorence, sp. nov. is known from a single population on the island of Nuku Hiva, and O. tiva W. L. Wagner & Lorence, sp. nov. is known only from Tahuata. Small domatia with a tuft of hairs occur in O. tiva (and the previously known O. hivoanus), and similar but naked domatia are found occasionally in O. woodii. Domatia are of exceedingly rare occurrence in Asteraceae. Both new species are extremely rare and are considered critically endangered (CR) as are the other four species of the genus.

Polynesian researches during a residence of nearly eight years in the Society and Sandwich Islands. By William Ellis

Smithsonian Libraries
Added t.-p. engraved.

Also available online.


Polynesian researches during a residence of nearly eight years in the Society and Sandwich Islands / by William Ellis

Smithsonian Libraries
Added engraved title pages, dated 1831.

Hill Coll. gives imprint dates of 1831-1833.

The first edition, published in 1829 under title: Polynesian researches, during a residence of nearly six years in the South Sea Islands.

"The last three chapters of the third volume relate Ellis's voyage to Hawaii and his visit to the Tubuai Islands. The entire fourth volume is concerned with the Hawaiian Islands and the vignette on the title page depicts Hawaiians surfing. These materials are not present in the original edition."--Hill Coll., p. 193.

UC San Diego. Hill Coll., no. 551

Also available online.

SCNHRB copy (39088015707607, 39088015707649, 39088015707680, 39088015707722) stamped on t.p.s: Bureau of Ethnology 1890 Library [no.] 1387-1390 [and] Smithsonian Libraries Aug 23 1968.

SCNHRB copy bound in old red library buckram, title in gilt on spine.


Sketch of Polynesian Figure for "The Marriage of the Atlantic and Pacific," Mural in the Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison, WI

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Paper squared off. Young woman sitting cross-legged, wearing a crown and a necklace of flowers, which falls down her back, at left. Head and hand of another woman below, facing away.

For Four Years, This Polynesian Canoe Will Sail Around the World Raising Awareness of Global Climate Change

Smithsonian Magazine

She’s 62-feet-long, 20-feet-wide, and when fully loaded, 12 elegant tons of pure aloha. And she has just departed on a four-year journey to circumnavigate the globe. Built in 1975 for a one-time voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti, the Hōkūleʻa is a replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe. She was originally endowed with two transformative purposes—to prove once and for all that Polynesians settled the Pacific islands through intentional voyaging; and to restore for modern Native Hawaiians the foundational object of their traditional culture—the voyaging canoe. To her people, she is the physical embodiment of a legend that has reappeared on Earth for the first time in 600 years.

So when she completed her journey to Tahiti on June 4, 1976, after 34 days at sea, the outpouring of joy was overwhelming. For Pacific Islanders as a whole, the response was tremendous. The Polynesians were colonized by various European (and later, Japanese and American) powers, and sometimes relegated to marginal status in their own ancestral lands. Now, they could now look with pride to this craft and its accomplishments and say, “We are truly the descendants of great navigators.”

Polynesian migration resides among the greatest single human adventures of all time, comparable to Columbus’ 1492 voyage across the Atlantic and the Apollo 11 crew’s landing on the moon. Here were small-island peoples using stone tools, crafting rope from coconut husks and stitching pandanus leaves into sails to build an ocean-going craft that could journey 2,500 miles and back again. But they also ingeniously developed a complex science of star and sea knowledge that enabled them to track their journeys, find islands beyond the horizon, mark them on mental maps and voyage back and forth across great distances. When we compare this to the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, the contrast is impressive. Five hundred years after the Polynesians began fanning out across the Pacific, they managed to locate tiny dots of land in a vast ocean that covers a third of the planet, Columbus sailed across a relatively narrow Atlantic Ocean. His target was, by comparison, easy; he could have hardly missed the Americas, with 10,000 miles of coastline stretching nearly from pole to pole.

Both Hōkūleʻa's story and the revival of traditional Oceanic navigation have been well-documented. Those whose vision and determination gave birth to this canoe and to the Polynesian Voyaging Society include Hawaiian artist Herb Kawainui Kane, anthropologist Ben Finney and canoe enthusiast Tommy Holmes. And then there is Pius Mau Piailug, the soft-spoken navigator from the tiny island of Satawal in Micronesia, who agreed to steer the canoe and, later, to teach the art of navigation to a cadre of new Polynesian voyagers. There are countless others–those who helped build and maintain the canoe; provisioned and sailed it; and the family members who supported them.

I first learned of the Hōkūleʻa around 1986 when, as a geography graduate student at the University of Hawaii, I attended a Ben Finney lecture on the canoe’s inaugural voyage. Captivated, I went on to teach a summer-session there on the geography of Hawaii, lecturing on Polynesian migrations and navigation. Much of what I taught came from the powerful documentary “Navigators: Pathfinders of the Pacific,” produced by the Harvard-trained anthropologist Sam Low. But I also recounted stories and testimonies from my mentor, the late Abraham Pi‘ianai‘a. He had given decades of study and thought to this topic, and two of his sons sailed on the Hōkūleʻa. It was Low who pointed out that the channel between two Hawaiian Islands is called Kealaikahiki—“The Path to Tahiti.”

I went on to teach at Towson University in Baltimore, where I developed a web-based cultural-geography education project for Hawaii and Micronesia called Pacific Worlds. I interviewed navigators, canoe builders and seafarers on some remote islands not too far from Mau Piailug’s tiny coral atoll, Satawal, in the Western Pacific. Later, while working on a proposed exhibition for the National Museum of the American Indian, I was privileged to interview many former and current crewmembers of the Hōkūleʻa and other Hawaiian voyaging canoes. I also spoke with canoe builders, artisans and culture keepers, creating a record of oral histories. Now a member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society myself, I trained this past March for the “World Wide Voyage.” I hope that I may be among those selected to crew the canoe for some small part of that journey.

Since her birth, Hōkūleʻa has spawned a growing fleet of voyaging canoes all across the Pacific, as well as new generations of seafarers learning the ancient arts of traditional navigation. Now 40 years later and after more than 150,000 miles of journey, the Hōkūleʻa has set out once again on her greatest quest. Her circumnavigation of the globe intends to emphasize a shared journey that we all crew together and which concerns the fate of our planet.  

For as navigator Nainoa Thompson has said, “The sail plan we are on is not sustainable.” Climate change and a host of human-induced environmental crises are imposing themselves more acutely into our lives and the lives of all living beings on Earth. It is up to us to change our ways. As a symbol of sophisticated traditional knowledge and values, the Hōkūleʻa will serve as an ambassador to the world, bearing the message that the time has come to invoke the wisdom of our ancestors—all our ancestors—about how to live more harmoniously on land and sea.  

There is a Hawaiian proverb, “He wa‘a he moku; He moku he wa‘a." It translates into, “The canoe is an island, the island is a canoe.” It means that the lessons of surviving on a voyaging canoe across the deep ocean are the same lessons for surviving on small, isolated islands. Now with globalization and global environmental crises, the Earth is the island, and the Earth is the canoe. We are literally all in the same boat.

In the course of my research, I distilled five values that the voyaging canoe teaches us, which I will expand on further in future articles: 

‘Ike (knowledge):  knowledge is essential, and it comes from many sources: observation, study, experience, intuition and experimentation and scientific method. The World Wide Voyage brings together millennia-old knowledge of voyaging, navigation and land-finding with modern scientific knowledge about the environment.  

Po‘okela (pursuit of excellence): In traditional times, voyaging canoes were made with neolithic implements and technology. To build a large craft that could travel 2,500 miles and back, “good enough” was not good enough. It required excellence. So, too, in modern society do we seek ever better technologies and methods. But how do we apply them, and toward what ends?

Kuleana (rights and responsibilities): Kuleana means something similar to one’s “turf.” It is the area over which you have responsibility, but you also have the rights that go with it. Rights and responsibility go together. Today, nearly all the emphasis is on rights—“freedom”—but very little on responsibility. On the canoe, all must attend to their areas of responsibility. There is no one to take up the slack if you fail to do your duty. When all of us do our parts, it all gets done and we all survive.

Pono (balance, harmony, proper action): Pono means to act in a way that is appropriate and proper for the situation, thereby maintaining order, balance and harmony. It means to “do the right thing”—not just situationally, but in harmony with all of creation. It is as much a spiritual sense of rightness as a social one.

Mālama (to nurture, take care of): On the canoe, the navigator is the father and the canoe is the mother. Obey the father and look after the mother—both of them take care of you to make sure you survive and the journey is successful. This also applies to the supplies aboard the canoe: look after them, make them last, add to them when you can. Because what you have is all you have.

Aloha (compassion, loving-kindness): often translated as “love” or “hello” and “goodbye,” aloha bears more similarity to namaste in the Hindu tradition—representing the acknowledgement that there is a divine spark within each of us. It is an open-hearted, compassion and deep love that acknowledges the fellow humanity of other persons. Aloha is the base that connects all the other five values above.  

These values, or ones like them, can be found in any culture if we look closely. All of our ancestors understood that we depend on the Earth, and we depend on one another, to survive and flourish.

To participate in the telling this new story of Hōkūleʻa, I intend to share some of the stories and lessons of its past, which will compliment the offerings— blogs and videos fresh off the canoe, and other information about the voyage from the participants themselves— that are presented in detail on the voyage’s wonderful website. I look forward to enriching this conversation with stories and facts about voyaging, navigation and canoe building; about the peoples and cultures visited along the way; environmental issues relating to land and sea; and about the histories and cultural values these peoples offer to teach us about living sustainably on the planet.

The Hōkūleʻa arrives in the Washington, D.C. area on Sunday, May 15, to the Old Town Waterfront Park Pier, 1A on Prince Street, in Alexandria, Virginia, from noon to 5:00 p.m. The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian celebrates the arrival with a number of programs and film screenings.

Polynesian dances of Bellona (Mungiki), Solomon Islands [sound recording] / recordings by Jane Mink Rossen and Hugo Zemp

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes, including bibliography, (8 p. : ill.) inserted in container.

Recorded in Honiara, capitol of the Solomon Islands, in 1974.
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