Science helps resolve Pacific voyage stories

19:21, Oct 28 2012

The Irish call it Immrama to describe mediaeval Christian voyage literature. The word literally means "voyages" or "rowing about". Versions of these voyages by mediaeval monks are extant in texts dating back at least 1000 years and copied from earlier documents that no longer exist. These in turn record ancient oral traditions concerning earlier voyages and migrations.

A number of these manuscripts were glossed at a later date and given a religious context. Christianity after all is a great coloniser both of peoples and so-called pagan literature.

One of the earliest examples of Irish voyage literature is The Voyage of Bran. This tale purportedly dates back to the 6th or early 7th century of the Common Era. Other examples of Immrama are The Voyage of Mael Duin, The Voyage of the Ui Chorra, The Voyage of Snegus and The Voyage of Mac Riagla.

The Voyage of St Brendan treats of similar themes - but is more oriented to Christian tradition and so therefore came later. The quest invariably involves a group of monks who set out in a coracle to seek "The Land of Promise" or the "Otherworld." This supposedly is located in the Western Hebrides but is as much imagined and mythical as real.

Like Homer's Odyssey, many fantastic sights and adventures are encountered on the voyage. Islands are magical places. In The Voyage of Mael Duin we encounter The Island of the Murderers, The Island of the Enormous Ants, The Island of the Large Birds, The Island of the Horselike Monster, The Island of the Wondrous Fruits, The Island of the Revolving Beast, The Island of the Fiery Swine, The Island of the Glass Bridge, The Island of The Wondrous Fountain, and many more incredible sights, including strange seas like The Sea of Glass, The Sea of Cloud, The Silver Column and the Silver Net.

These encounters are all fantastical and often dangerous. Encoded within these adventures are geographical clues. For instance, on The Island of the Savage Smiths, "Giant smiths try to kill the travellers by throwing masses of glowing iron toward them, so that the sea burns and boils. They narrowly escape." This has been interpreted as a close encounter with a volcanic eruption, and given that we are in the North Atlantic Ocean, this points to Iceland with its active volcanoes.


Of course, we have our own voyage literature - the Kupe tale of discovery in the chasing of a giant octopus (Wheke) across the Pacific to Aotearoa around 1000 years ago. As yet no one island has been identified in the Pacific Triangle as the point of origin for the mass migrations and the discovery of the last great land mass on the planet.

We know that the first Polynesian peoples came from Taiwan and that the original language spoken there was not a Sino language but one peculiar to its indigenous inhabitants. Migrations from Taiwan into Melanesia started around 2000 BC and gradually colonised what we now know as the Pacific Triangle from which the last great migration or series of migrations originated that finally discovered Aotearoa/New Zealand.

When myth veers off into a geographical cul-de-sac we rely on scientific discipline to pick up the scent again. The archaeologists and palaeontologists take over. The laboratory becomes the new frontier, and the language of science in a sense replicates voyage literature. Where once the great migratory travellers were guided by the stars, science is guided by a galaxy of microscopic analysis.

There is, doubtless, magic in molecules after all. The latest research revolves around mitochondrial DNA taken from the teeth of 700-year-old burials from the first Polynesians to arrive in NZ. The "unique mutations" found in the mtDNA suggest that a large population of men and woman made these first voyages. This is exciting stuff and proof that the original settlers came from East Polynesia.

Samples were taken from skeletal remains at the Wairau Bar site of ancient Polynesian ancestors of the Marlborough iwi, Rangitane, prior to reburial in 2009 after the repatriation of remains from the Canterbury Museum.

The work was carried out by researchers at the University of Otago. What this means is that it will be possible to finally resolve "competing theories" about the pathways attributed to the great migration across the Pacific to NZ. Study director, Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith said, "We found that three of the four individuals had no recent maternal ancestor in common . . . but included families that were not directly maternally related."

Simply put this means many families participated in the voyage and that means a large number of people. A mass migration in effect. But from what island or group of islands? Therein perhaps lies the beginning of a new voyage literature. Could they have come from The Island of The Giant Staring Statues - over 700 hundred years ago?

Stephen Oliver has published several volumes of poetry including Harmonic and more recently Apocrypha. He resides in the North King Country.

Waikato Times