On the trail of ancient voyaging link with Tahiti

Dr Sinoto excavating the mast of the Huahine canoe.
Maitai Lapita Village Museum

Dr Sinoto excavating the mast of the Huahine canoe.

Call me obsessed, but my ongoing interest in the Anaweka waka last week took me on a 4221 km journey to the island of Huahine in French Polynesia.

Back in 1978, an ancient voyaging canoe was excavated there from a coastal swamp by Dr Yosihiko Sinoto from the Bishop Museum of Hawaii.

His find caused an archaeological sensation, it being regarded as the last remaining East Polynesian voyaging canoe left in existence, dating back at least 800 years to the early occupation of East Polynesia.

An ancient stone petrograph on Huahine shows a turtle motif, almost exactly the same as the one on the Anaweka waka.

An ancient stone petrograph on Huahine shows a turtle motif, almost exactly the same as the one on the Anaweka waka.

The finding of the Anaweka waka in early 2012 along the Kahurangi coast now makes that world tally two. 

Scientific analysis established the Anaweka waka was adzed from New Zealand maitai, with the caulking in the lashing holes turning out to be the pounded bark of totara.

Radiocarbon C12 isotope dating put its age at between 1226-1280 AD, with its design technology matching closely the canoe found on Huahine.

After documenting these ancient disused fish traps, archaeologist Dr Sinoto encouraged the locals to rebuild them, now ...
Gerard Hindmarsh

After documenting these ancient disused fish traps, archaeologist Dr Sinoto encouraged the locals to rebuild them, now fish are again harvested daily from them.

Most interestingly, the Anaweka waka has a raised carved motif of a turtle carved  into it, a design particularly associated with the Society Islands of Polynesia, of which Huahine is centrally located.

Tahitians call Huahine 'the wild island', a reference to its verdant tropical jungle peppered on its lower reaches with coconut and vanilla plantations.

Planes from Tahiti (192km away) arrive three times a day, on en route to Raiatea and Bora Bora, dropping off locals and a few tourists and surfies who come to experience some of the best surf breaks French Polynesia can offer. Coming in over the turquoise lagoon took my breath away. 

The raised sea turtle on the hull of the Anaweka waka, a design found on the Tahitian island of Huahine.
Gerard Hindmarsh

The raised sea turtle on the hull of the Anaweka waka, a design found on the Tahitian island of Huahine.

Huahine (current population 6300) has always stood out on its own. The last island in French Polynesia to resist annexation by France, it's still full of islanders who exhibit a fierce pride and independence. Tahitians had a saying about the people of Huahine; "Obstinacy is their diversion."

Ad Feedback

The vestiges of Huahine's prestigious past and rich culture was first investigated by archaeologist Kenneth Emory of Honolulu's  Bishop Museum in the 1920s.

Habitation sites, feasting and council platforms, temples and funerary sites, stone tool workshops, agricultural terraces, stone fish traps, fortified sites and petrograph (rock art) sites.

It can take weeks just to go around the hundreds of ceremonial marae sites alone. Emory's work was superseded by Dr Yoshiko Shinoto in the 1970s then followed up by New Zealand archaeologist Mark Eddowes who in 2003 conducted an island wide survey to document over 200 of the most important sites.

My accommodation for my stay on Huahine was in the Maitai Lapita Village Hotel at Vaito'otia – Fa'ahia where the Huahine canoe was found back in 1978.

Part owner of the new hotel there is ex-Californian native Peter Owen, now a long time island resident and a renowned potter in his own right.

He bought the three hectare site after the Bali Hai was demolished after being severely damaged in a cyclone. He took me around his hotel museum which he set up in consultation with Mark Eddowes, and explained how the canoe was found;

"During construction work for the buildings of the original Hotel Bali Hai on this site, they were dredging out some swampy ground to make some ornamental ponds.

"Suddenly the workers began digging up exceptional finds, all totally preserved in the watterlooged anerobic conditions. Dr Shinoto, working on the island at the time, was immediately called in and meticulously conducted the subsequent excavation which came up with hundreds of artefacts." 

In addition to a stone war club, near identical to mere later made in Aotearoa, one of the early finds was a half-finished canoe baler and a large steering paddle. Then they uncovered a mast and later sections of an entire canoe. S

ome of the artefacts now reside in the Museum in Tahiti, others were taken to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii and some reburied in accordance with local wishes.

I compare photos on the museum wall of the hull pieces dug up here with the Anaweka waka. It is simply uncanny, they are near identical.

Because of the way all the artefacts were found, as if all picked and splattered down, Dr Shinoto later concluded this important canoe building village was quite possibly hit, if not by an actual tsunami, then a series of big waves.

In effect the excavation eerily provides us with a snapshot of their destruction around 1200AD. One remarkable feature in an open area of the hotel grounds is a small square pavement of stones which is the earliest ceremonial marae site yet identified in East Polynesia. 

There is no doubt that being made of matai, the Anaweka waka was created in Aotearoa. There is a small chance though it could have been a replacement section of an existing voyaging waka from elsewhere.

But one thing is fairly certain, the people that sailed the Anaweka waka were only two or three generations removed from the original inhabitants who sailed out here to live. Could they have narrowly escaped a natural catastrophe? It is humbling we now have an artefact of such importance in this country that matches one so far away in East Polynesia.

Everything collaborates the links. In 1916, ethnographer Elsdon Best took advantage the war years to interview the indigenous folk of the Society Islands who were passing through Wellington en route to training camps of New Caledonia.

Amongst other information he obtained were their place names which co-incided with many well known New Zealand place names. In particular for the Top of the South, the place names of Takaka and Motueka derived from the islets of Ta'a'a and Motu'e'a off the coast of Raeatea just off Huahine.

The dropping of consonants, particularly k and ng sounds, characterised the later development of the Tahitian language.

Best noted in particular that Motue'a was the abode of a dreaded monster, a destroyer of mankind, known as Ai-fa'arua'i (Kai-whakaruaki in Maori). This story was directly brought from East Polynesia and localised almost detail for detail as the taniwha of Parapara Inlet. 

The last traditionally trained master canoe navigator in the Pacific died in 2010, aged 78. As an infant, Pius 'Mau' Piaileg of the tiny Caroline island of Satawal in Micronesia was often placed by his father in the open rock pools so he could "feel the pull of the ocean currents".

At four he instigated his full time training in learning about the 'stars, swells and birds' and at 18 he earned the title of palu, master navigator, with status equal to a chief.

Luckily this great man shared his knowledge with the Polynesian Voyaging Society which was set up in Hawaii in the mid-1970s to revive the ancient art of non-instrument, wayfinding navigation.

The outcome has been the construction of seven modern voyaging canoe replicas, each now owned by a Pacific nation associated with voyaging. New Zealand's one, the 22m-long Hine-Moana, recently returned after five years ocean voyaging. It currently is used working with youth development training around the East Coast of the North Island. It is heartening to know those voyaging skills will not now be lost.

 - Stuff


Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback