Our Boys: Judgement

 

One of the most interesting parts of the television series Our Boys, created by a Palestinian and Israeli team,   was the judgement of the court. It was read by an elderly Justice with stern cadences of belief in its truth. Yet, “the truth” was not endorsed by either side.

The judge noted that the days in Jerusalem after the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli boys had been tense. People gathered in frenzied crowds yelling “Death to Arabs.” 3 Jewish boys took this literally.  They were good boys from fine families. They were deeply religious.  The judge did not say it, but I will, they were “Our boys.” Though so was the young Palestinian victim and the 3 Jewish boys that had been kidnapped.

As the judge did say, “This was the shaft through which the 3 plunged into the dark tunnel of hatred and racism from which they emerged that night, yet the troubling thought persists from what well did the 3 drink such quantities of hatred and racism that blinded them so terribly that bashing and suffocating the head, and burning a human being created in God’s image, seemed to make sense? What did the defendants learn and internalize  at the various stages of their education and upbringing that enabled the unbearable lightness with which they took the life of a young Arab boy?” These are profound thoughts. But there is little evidence anyone paid attention. They were too consumed by hatred. Not long afterwards the country was plunged  into war—again.

At the end of the film we do not see justice. We do not see revenge? We don’t see the majesty of the law. Guilt is not important. The sentence is not significant. The mathematics of crime and punishment is false. All we see is a mother’s pain. Her son is dead and he was killed horribly. Nothing else matters. The mother’s pain is real and it endures. Nothing else endures. Nothing at all.

Our Boys: the Quest

 

 

I saw an amazing television series this year. It is powerful, disturbing, difficult to watch, and profoundly important. It is called Our Boys and is the fruit of an astonishing collaboration between Israeli writers, and Israeli and Palestinian co-directors. That brings a unique perspective that enriches this film. It is a perspective that is very difficult to find in the Middle East, where typically vicious certainties destroy  each other. That perspective is different from any other I have ever seen. I urge you to watch.

First I will give a caveat. Most of the film contains English Subtitles.  I don’t usually enjoy watching films with subtitles as I find them very distracting, but in this 10 series of shows the effort is well worth it. The series is based on a  true series of events in Israel and Palestine  in 2014 that led to a war in Gaza.

The series is based on 2 horrible real events. The first was the kidnapping of 3 Jewish boys whose plight ignited Israel, first in hopes and prayers for their survival, then when those hopes were dashed,  and the bodies of the boys were found, and then came the thirst for the nectar of the Middle East—revenge . after that revenge followed as inevitably as pee rolls down porcelain.

That of course called for more revenge. That’s how things work in the Middle East. Soon a 16-year old Palestinian boy was beat up and then gasoline was poured down his throat and he was burned alive.  It was a horrifying murder that mercifully was not depicted  in the series. Could good Jews have retaliated so gruesomely? The Israelis did not want to believe it. As one Jew tells the Simon the Jewish detective, “That’s part of the problem; that you think a Jew is incapable of cruelty to an enemy.”

The series included an actual recording of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a speech at the funeral for the 3 boys.  He  boldly declared at the funeral, “A deep moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death, while we sanctify compassion.” Is that true? Or a comfortable illusion? As Emily Nussbaum in her New Yorker review of the series aptly put it: “At its heart, this is a show about the brutal economics of empathy in a time of war: who gets it, who deserves it, who is denied it.”

A Rabbi was convinced that to fight the Palestinians they must retaliate in kin. After all they will do anything: blow up children, babies, and buses filled with innocent people, .The Rabbi said,  if one side is crazy the other side  must be irrational too. “It’s like mathematics. If one side is irrational and the other side not, strength does not matter. If the Jew operates irrationally and the Arab doe not, the Jew has power. If it’s the other way around the Jew loses. That is why 1 burned Arab boy is mathematically very good for the Jews.”  The Middle East is transfused with exactly such mathematical fanaticism.

An Israelis detective, Simon, was charged with responsibility to solve these crimes as soon as possible. The detective was relentless and brilliant, but his tenacity was not always appreciated by his fellow Israelis. Some of them did not want him to carry his torch to the back of the cave, particularly where religious and political zealots reside. The light is not always flattering.

The film focused on various groups from both sides in Palestinian and Israeli territory where citizens turn to fury soaked in religion that led to ugly and violent protest. In both cities, religious and political hatreds were fuelled by dehumanizing rhetoric that has horrible effects on young minds sadly open to toxic influence.  As Simon said, “You start arresting people for spewing hate and pretty soon half the country is in jail.”

The killers prayed to their god to send them a victim and praised God when he did. The young boy was a “gift from God.” After all if the young boy is not killed he will turn into a terrorist. Better to kill him first. In the mathematical logic of tit for tat it does not matter that the victim is innocent.

Unlike most American films which employ the simplicity of good versus evil, this series embraces complexity and eschews simple answers. Everyone should see this series available now on HBO. It is worth the effort.

Wayfarers of the South Pacific

European explorers invariably believed they were superior to every group they encountered. This is well known. Some of the examples of the ignorance of feelings of superiority include European encounters with the Wayfarers of the South Pacific.

The first European to see the Pacific Ocean was the 16th century Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa who had crossed the isthmus of Panama in 1513.

When the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan made his epic journey round the horn at the southern tip of South America he missed some important things.  The voyage was indeed impressive, but it was also impressive in the things that ideological blinkers prevented the explorers from noticing or seriously considering.

When Magellan turned around the corner of the Horn and began to head north he feared he was entering a void. That was how ignorant Europeans were about what could be found in the South Pacific. By that time half his men were already dead from the hazards of the voyage. He sailed for another 4 months in the southern Pacific and astonishingly he managed to miss every populated island group in the Pacific. Finally, on April 7, 1521 he landed on the island of Cebu.  Now we call the island group the Philippines.

Magellan was a brave explorer. It took guts to venture forth into the Pacific, because it was an ocean of the unknown in 1521. Yet he plunged on bravely. He named it “Pacific” because when he saw it the ocean was very calm. Nonetheless, although we acknowledge the bravery we also notice the blindness. As Wade Davis said, in his magnificent book, The Wayfarers,  “In his desperation and blindness he had by circumstance bypassed an entire civilization that might have taught him a great deal about the open water.”

There was an entire civilization that could have taught him how to survive and thrive in the Pacific. Yet, as so often happened with the European explorers, he failed to take advantage of what could be learned from indigenous people. That is exactly what Davis’ book is about. That is what has inspired me to consider what could be learned from indigenous people. Like my friends who suggested we could go to  an Indian Reserve in Canada and build a house for people there and solve their problems for them. If only they would listen to us. Over and over again, Europeans, thinking they were the finest and best at everything neglected to learn from indigenous people and that failure has made all the difference. Europeans were not stupid. The achievements of European explorers were remarkable, but sometimes they also possessed remarkable arrogance that did not help their cause.

The South Pacific was an astounding place. Davis said that it was “the largest sphere ever brought into being by the human imagination. Polynesia: 25 million square kilometres, nearly a fifth of the surface of the planet, tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels upon the southern sea.” Davis described the “discovery” of Polynesia by the Europeans as encountering “a new planet.” It really was that strange.

We have to remember how vast the Pacific was. It is the largest thing on the planet. It dwarfed everything—absolutely everything—the Europeans had ever seen.

The first sustained contact between Polynesia and the Spanish occurred later in 1595, some 74 years later. This was when Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira reached the islands he called the Marquesas after his patron. This was the most isolated island group in the world. There were probably as many as 300,000 people living there at the time. Davis was right: “It was an extraordinary meeting of civilizations.” It was one of the most extraordinary such encounters of all times. It was every bit as amazing as the meeting between Europeans and North Americans.

The Marquesans considered their islands to be the end of the earth, much like the Europeans had believed about their own continent before Columbus sailed to the “New World.”  That is what it was to the Europeans when Columbus sailed. This was another New World. It was nothing less than that. The Marquesans considered it the last stop on a mythical journey made by their ancestors from the west.  They believed that every human being was a descendant from Tiki, the first human. Sounds a lot like Adam doesn’t it?

The Marquesans were not in awe of the Spaniards. Far from it.  They felt they were vastly superior to these ruffians from the east.  Davis described their attitudes to this historic encounter this way,

“Thus, to the Marquesans, the Spaniards were as demons, embodiments of depravity born beyond the reaches of the eastern sky. Carnal and deceitful, cruel beyond reason, the Spaniards offered nothing. They had no skills, no food or women, no knowledge of even the most elemental elements of the natural world. Their wealth lay only in what they possessed, curious metal objects that were not without interest. But they had no understanding that true wealth was found in prestige, and that status could only be conferred upon one capable of acquiring social debts and distributing surplus food to those in need, thus guaranteeing freedom from want. The white Atua—these strangers who came from beyond all shores—had no place in the order of life.  Such was their barbaric state that sorcery did not affect them, or even the power of the priests. So complete was their ignorance that they did not distinguish commoners from chiefs, even as they treated both with murderous disdain.”

The people of the South Seas of Polynesia believed that the people with real prestige were those who helped others. Those were people who should be honoured. Yet the Europeans were puzzled by the ignorance and barbarity of the Marquesans. They wondered how such ignorant people could have accomplished so much. These were two solitudes staring each other down. A little less superiority on both sides would have been a boon to both. Arrogance is seldom a helpful attitude.

There were serious things for the Spaniards to puzzle over. They wondered how had these people come to these islands that were more than 3 months sailing distant from the most western Spanish outpost.  They noticed that women were not allowed in canoes. That was taboo.  So the women swam towards the Spanish vessels. The Spanish also noticed that the Marquesans had no magnetic compass like the Spaniards did. As a result it seemed impossible that these people could have peopled these distant islands. It was a serious puzzle.

Remember at the time European sailors had not yet solved the problem of how to measure longitude. That meant that they had to hug shores when they explored. This was a serious deficiency. That was why the English government offered a reward of 20,000 pounds to the person who solved this puzzle. At a time when a mansion in London could be furnished for about 100 pounds, this reward was magnificent. Until the invention of the chronometer European navigators had to rely on dead reckoning. As a result sailing too far from land was extremely dangerous. Yet here in the Pacific Ocean, much more vast than the Atlantic Ocean the Europeans were more accustomed with dealing, the Spaniards found these strange people. How had they got here? How had they colonized these islands? How did they get their women there so they could bear children for their men?  These were deep mysteries to the Europeans.

Captain James Cook was to some the greatest navigator in the history of England’s Royal Navy the greatest Navy in the world. At least so the English thought. Cook was the first person to pay serious attention to this puzzle. When he arrived in Hawaii his ship was met by a flotilla of 3,000 natives. Cook had noticed at Tonga that local catamarans could travel 3 leagues in the time that his ship could only cover 2 leagues. He was also surprised that people from the Marquesas could understand the language of the Tahitians even though nearly 1,600 km of the Pacific Ocean separated the two.  How was this possible?

On Cook’s very first voyage in 1769 he met in Tahiti a navigator and priest who went by the name Tupaia who drew from memory a fairly accurate map of every major island group in Polynesia except for Hawaii and Aotearoa. He placed more than 120 stones in the sand each representing an island. The map spanned 4,000 km.  That is about the distance across North America . Who in Europe could draw such a map? Could these people not teach some things of value to Cook? The answer was obvious. But not to Cook.

Later Tupaia astonished Cook even more than that. As Davis described a future trip the two took together,

“Tupaia later sailed with Cook from Tahiti to New Zealand, a circuitous journey of nearly 13,000 kilometres that ranged between 48 degrees south latitude and 4 degrees north.  To his astonishment, Cook reported, the Polynesian navigator was able to indicate, at every moment of the voyage the precise direction back to Tahiti, though he had neither benefit of sextant nor knowledge of charts.”

Imagine what would have happened if both sides had more respect for the other. How much could they have learned?

Montreal Massacre: Not a Mad man

I watched the film Polytechnique as part of a local event reminding us of the Montreal Massacre of 30years ago. The film is a powerful re-enactment of the horrific event at the  Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989.

There was an interesting disjunction that evening.  Our Member of Parliament, Ted Falk, failed to attend, but did send a written, well written in fact, comment. But in it he referred to the killer, who killed  himself when he was done, as a “madman.”  During the film the killer called himself “a rational person.”  This may surprise, but I think the killer was right. Our MP was wrong. He was not a madman. And that is the real chilling aspect of this case. He was not mad. He was not errant. He was the natural product of more than a century of male dominance. He was the logical conclusion of that dominance.

People who have power rarely give it up gently. In fact, people who have power see any opposition to that power as deeply irrational. It does not make sense, because their power makes perfect sense. They deserve the power. So invariably they believe. That is true of tyrants and it is equally true of ordinary male supremacists. They can’t even see the incongruity.   White male power is natural. Many even claim it is endorsed by God. Just goes to show you how irrational men can be.

All too often men who see their power slipping away react badly. Sometimes, as in the case of Marc Lepine, the Montreal mass killer, their resentment explodes into irrational rage.  No I don’t think Lepine was a madman. I wish he was. It would be easier to deal with than the truth.

 

I am a feminist

 

OK my cousin, who actually knows what she is talking about, unlike me, says a sex change operation won’t work. I have to face the hard facts.  I plan to do that. So I have cancelled my sex change operation, but I have a plan B.

I herby announce that I am a feminist! Just saying we believe in equality is not enough either. Men who have been the beneficiaries for centuries of a system that rewards males  and are so embedded in that system that we don’t even see our own privilege, have to take a hard look at that system, our place in it, and what we can do about it.  We must renounce that system clearly and unequivocally. It is a noose around our necks, not just our wives, daughters and grand daughters. It is grossly unfair and the first step is to acknowledge that. We men must all do that.

We must also admit that we can never fully experience or appreciate what it is like to be on the pulverizing side of that system of dominance. We can never appreciate how women are often in fear when we think there is nothing to be afraid of.

Last night I watched a powerful film, Polytechnique, that gave me a glimpse into that world of fear, when I saw the faces of the women who had to stay behind in the class room with Marc Lepine holding an automatic rifle at them, as the men slunk off sheepishly, to relative safety. Lepine came after them too later, but none of the men died. 14 women died. The fear is real and it is justified. Women live in a society in which they are vulnerable to attack and weak men will attack them. It happens. Just like weak men take advantage of a system that erodes the opportunities for women in favor of men. That has happened for a long time and it must end.

We men have to speak up. It is not up to women to speak up. We must do it. Each in our own way. If we don’t speak up we acquiesce in a system that is fundamentally unjust and we are stained by our own silence. We are weinees.

Marc Lepine said he hate feminists. He blamed them. So I say, “I am a feminist.”

I am undergoing a Sex Change Operation

 

I have an important announcement to make I am undergoing a sex change operation. I have changed my name to Johanna Erica Neufeld. I’m done. Please call me that the next time you bump into me. I renounce my gender.

Today I went to the Steinbach version of a day to commemorate the death of 14 young women in the Montreal Massacre of December 6, 1989. The killer, Marc Lepine, was a young man, who was in despair over the fact that women had the nerve to apply for positions as Engineering students at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique. These women, he believed, had ruined his life.  They got the positions he deserved because he was a man. So he went to the class with a rifle, divided the class into 2, women on one side, men on the other. Men were told to leave and then he shot the 9 women, killing 6. Then he went on a rampage through the school killing 8 more women and injuring 10 more along with 4 men, but women were clearly the target. He could not bear giving up his privilege which he had enjoyed for most of his life, though it did not do much for him. On that day, his resentment spilled over into blind irrational rage and he went on a rampage. It was the largest mass murder in Canadian history, I have been told.

I was disappointed at how many men attended this event in Steinbach. I think I counted 5 of us.  We got to see a great film too–Polytechnique. I admit there have been many commemorations of this grisly event in our town over the years, and until today never attended. I guess I did not think it was important. I was profoundly ignorant in other words.  Male dominance over women is a sick and pitiful enterprise that has not died. 11 women in Manitoba have died as a result of violence against them by men in the year since December 6, 2018.

Many men are wieners who can’t stand the thought of women being equal to them. They are like the whites in the US who could not stand the thought of seeing a black family in the White House.

As comedian Jim Jefferies says, “We can do better.” I don’t apologize for my introductory comment. After all this is not a joking matter. I wanted to draw in as many people as possible. More than 5 men need to think about this.

I am a feminist; and that’s no joke.

Voyage to the Americas

Ancient Human travellers were not satisfied when they ventured as far into the Pacific Ocean that they discovered Easter Island. From Easter Island there is no land between it and South America. As Niobe Thompson said in his television series the Human Odyssey, “the island is so remote its settlement was almost a boast, an extravagant statement of ocean mastery.” Easter Island is about the most isolated speck of land on the planet, yet these ancient mariners found it and settled it. How amazing is that?

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is famous for its 887 extant monumental statues called moai. It is now a World Heritage Site. Polynesian people settled it between 700 and 1100 CE and created a thriving society. However humans brought with them passengers—rats. Together with their ever-growing population and destruction of forests for the creation of the statues led to gradual deforestation and extinction of much of their natural resources.  In time this severely weakened their society. At one time 15,000 people lived there, but when Europeans found them there their numbers had declined to 2 or 3 thousand people. After contact, European diseases and Peruvian slave trading further reduced their numbers. In 1877 their numbers had been reduced to 111 residents.

The nearest land is Pitcairn Island some 2,075 km. away. South America (Chile) is 3,512 km. away. Jared Diamond mentioned how when he arrived by jet it took 5 hours to cross the Pacific to get there and he saw no land at all in the wide ocean beneath the aircraft.

After settling the most remote island in the world, these ancient explorers transformed the landscape into an astonishing one, filled with the most surprising images of their ancestors. They built  enormously impressive statues each of which depicted the person that was buried beneath it. These tombstones became expressions of the power, prestige, and individuality of the deceased and his family. They became even taller in death than they were in life.

Of course, as is by now well known, these huge statues consumed huge resources on an island with severely limited resources.  Once the people consumed the resources they needed to survive on these remote islands things started to get nasty. As statues covered the landscape of the island the trees began to disappear, until they were all gone. What was the person who cut down the last tree thinking? People thought their religion demanded they build these statues for their leaders. This was certainly a case of an unfortunate interpretation of religious obligations leading people astray. Not for the first time or the last time.

After trees disappeared the capacity of the inhabitants of Easter Island lost their  capacity to embark on great voyages also disappeared with them.    After making these remarkable voyages, “on Easter Island, ocean voyaging died away.” At least this is what scientists believed until recently.

Recently an archaeologist in Chile, Jose Miguel Ramirez Aliaga from the University of Valparaiso, was not convinced by the traditional story. He did not believe ocean voyaging ended in Easter Island. He believed that they went 4,000 km farther east to Chile.  In Chile, Aliaga found something that only a Polynesian could have left behind—a chicken.  Based on convincing DNA evidence he proved that chickens came to South America long before Columbus did. When Columbus “discovered” the western hemisphere, chickens preceded him. Aliaga is convinced they came from the west. In other words from Asia!

In addition Aliaga found sweet potatoes of South American origin farther west in the South Pacific that are 1,000 years old.  These potatoes came to the South Pacific from South America long before European explorers like Cook came to the South Pacific.  As Aliaga has asked, if this not enough evidence to convince us that Polynesian explorers came all the way to South America what evidence would convince us? Yet there is more evidence.

Recently scientists have analyzed skulls from Easter Island and have found genetic members of native South Americans in their DNA. According to Thompson, “This is proof beyond doubt. Far earlier than Columbus there was an ocean voyaging culture that stretched all the way to the Americas.”

Master Navigators

The thought of those stupendous ocean voyages from the east coast of the Pacific Ocean, bring up the critical question which Niobe Thompson asked, “Are those skills of the master navigators still alive today?” When settlers reached Hawaii they were 4,000 miles from the nearest land. What could be more remote than that? According to Niobe Thompson, “it may have been the most dangerous voyage of discovery Polynesians ever took. Find land or die at sea. When Europeans arrived that incredible story was almost forgotten.” It may have been the most dangerous voyage anyone ever took anywhere anytime! That is a story that should never be forgotten.  It was truly an epic voyage—perhaps like none other the world has ever seen.

By the 20th century traditional sailing was dying in the Pacific. Of course, why sail when you have found paradise? I know I would have been tempted to stay put. Things don’t get much better anywhere than they do in the South Pacific.

In 1975 Hawaiians discovered a man living on one of the most remote islands of Micronesia. He was the last of the master navigators who could sail across the Pacific without modern instruments or maps. He was “living proof that Polynesia was discovered by master navigators.” It was no accident. How did he do it? He relied on watching the location of the moon, planets, and stars at different times. They paid particular attention to the rising of the sun and moon and used this valuable information to navigate across thousands of miles of oceans without charts, books, records, or instruments. He relied on what he had memorized.

Oceanic people know that they did not discover the islands of the Pacific by accident. As anthropologist Sam Low said, “for oceanic people to set out on the Pacific like that required almost ‘super heroic’ people. It was one of the greatest migrations of humans in the history of humankind.” We have a lot to learn from people like that. That is what is important in this story.

For many people it is very natural to go to the sea.  It took a 1,000 years for humans at the end of Asia to decipher star maps and learn to sail the open ocean.  Thompson said, “Once they did, the South Pacific was theirs.” Yet, the human odyssey was far from over.  What about the second half of the planet?  What about the Americas?

The Big Pacific

 

Countless islands can be found around Papua New Guinea. From these islands our ancestors perfected the art of sailing. They honed skills that were of vital importance for the human journey.

The Pacific Ocean is vast. It is the largest feature on the planet.  It is 19,800 km wide from east to west at 5º N.  This is halfway around the world or 5 times the diameter of the moon. It is also 15,500 km long from north to south and covers 1/3 of the earth.

The Pacific Ocean contains the lowest point on the planet—the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest part of the ocean and the deepest location on Earth. It is 11,034 meters (36,201 feet) deep, which is almost 7 miles. If you placed Mount Everest at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the peak would still be 2,133 meters (7,000 feet) below sea level. The average depth of the Pacific ocean is 4,280 metres  putting the total water volume at 710,000,000 cubic kilometres.

Of course the Pacific Ocean was bigger when the Polynesians first crossed it. That is because of plate tectonics, which are causing the Pacific Ocean is to shrink at roughly 2.5 cm (0.98 in) per year on 3 sides roughly averaging 0.52 square km a year. The Atlantic Ocean is increasing in size.

The Pacific Ocean covers more than 30% of the earth’s surface. It is clearly the largest water mass on the planet with a surface area of 60 million sq. miles (155 million sq. km). The Pacific Ocean basin is larger than the landmass of all the continents combined. It has almost twice as much water as the Atlantic Ocean. It holds more than half the Earth’s open water supply. The conclusion is clear: the Pacific Ocean is BIG! It was a very big obstacle for ancient humans to cross, but somehow they did it.

As Niobe Thompson said in his television series, “its islands are like grains of sand scattered across a vast blue void.  They are impossibly remote. Yet eventually, humans reached every one. Yet how we came to settle the islands of our greatest ocean is a mystery that puzzled European sailors for centuries.” After all, they considered themselves the master sailors. How could these people have done it?

Around Papua New Guinea there are countless islands from which our ancestors—our wise ancestors—perfected the art of sailing. Those skills would prove invaluable on some amazing journeys. Journeys that astound us to this day. It is possible that we discovered those islands by accident. For a long time this is what Europeans believed. They could not comprehend the possibility that perhaps some people—well before them—had greater navigational skills than they did. This was another example of the familiar hubris.

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl and his crew set themselves adrift on the Pacific Ocean on their raft Kon-tiki to establish the theory of accidental drift.  Ocean currents pushed them 7,000 miles from South America to Polynesia. He believed that natives gradually peopled the islands across the ocean island by island. On the other hand, Wulf Schiefenhövel said this is nothing but Eurocentric vision.   New research indicates a much different vision.

Geoff Irwin of New Zealand spent a lifetime trying to prove that the first explorers of the Pacific Islands were not drifting aimlessly, but were instead master sailors.

In the South Pacific, the trade winds blow from the east to the west.  Most people, like Thor Heyerdahl, thought that this was also the direction of human migration. It made sense didn’t it?  Well not completely.

Irwin believed people did not come with the prevailing winds. He believed that people set out in a direction that would most likely make it easy for them to return.  After all, who wants to set out with no chance of ever coming home? Sort of like these people who have signed up for space journeys with no hope of returning. Some people are this adventurous, but not many. Most people are too sensible to be that brave.

As a result of this analysis it actually makes more sense for people to migrate to the South Pacific Islands from the west so they can set off against the prevailing winds and come home with those winds. It is not easy to set off into prevailing winds, but sailors know how to do that. They were incredibly smart sailors.

Yet we need some hard evidence for this interesting theory. Where is that evidence?  At a wind tunnel at the University of Auckland they changed sailing in 1995 when New Zealand took the Americas Cup for the first time with a boat designed there. Even at 40º into the wind a canoe can still drive forward. Their experiments showed that upwind exploration was possible. This is still not proof, but it is evidence that it is possible for Irwin’s explanation to be right.

The next question was if people from Papua New Guinea used their boats to sail across the ocean how they did they navigate? Lisa Mattisoo-Smith used genetics to reconstruct the settlement of the South Pacific. She is Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Otago focusing on identifying the origins of Pacific peoples and their plants and animals in order to better understand the settlement, history, and prehistory of the Pacific and New Zealand.

As a result of her investigations she concluded, “the navigational skills and knowledge of course are not preservedarchaeologically, but it is indicated archeologically.” The fact that their exploration was almost instant is good evidence that they possessed the skills and had an exploration strategy. There was almost instantaneous dispersal from Papua New Guinea. Not only that, but they were continually successful at their settlements and that tells us “these people knew what they were doing. These people were prepared. They knew where they were going, and they knew what they needed to survive when they got there.” In other words, their explorations were far from accidental. They knew exactly what they were up to.

These ancient travellers crossed the islands near Oceania to remote Oceania about 3,000 years ago.  That was about 2,500 years before Columbus “discovered” North America or about 1,500 years before Vikings came here. We have to remember how far the Polynesians  traveled over the vast Pacific Ocean. These were astonishing voyages all made without western navigational instruments and with just tiny islands in the vast Pacific to be discovered.  As a result the Eurocentric view has been exploded. Within 300 years they did it.

Lisa Mattisoo-Smith makes it clear: “the whole settlement of the Pacific is under-celebrated and under-valued in terms of representing the capabilities of people thousands of years ago. They did amazing things.” These ancient people demonstrated clearly that ancient people were wise. We have to respect that wisdom.

As Schiefenhövel said, “Homo sapiens is a crazy animal. They do things which you don’t believe are possible and the migration into the Pacific is one of those things.” They traveled against strong prevailing winds, yet that is exactly what they did. It seemed impossible, yet they did it.

Incredible Sea Voyages: The Outrigger

We know about some fantastic voyages—Columbus “discovering” North America, though of course, it was already filled with people when he got there. Then there was Captain Cook and his amazing “discoveries” of island in the Pacific Ocean. Again, he found people that got there before him. How did they do it?

There is evidence of more than one incredible prehistoric sea voyage that suggest our ancient ancestors did not travel and discover new continents by accident. Even though humans evolved with feet on the ground they made truly amazing sea voyages that are difficult for us to comprehend.  They did not stay in Africa forever. How did this happen?  When did some humans become water people? How did we learn to live on oceans? Episode 3 of the series The Great Human Odyssey tried to answer these questions.

When early humans crossed Asia from Africa, South East Asia should have been the end of the line. The vast Pacific Ocean really should have stopped our ancestors. But our ancestors were not easily stopped. To any rational human being the enormous Pacific Ocean would have seemed an impassable barrier to any further colonization of our planet.  Really the Pacific Ocean was the largest barrier on the planet.

However as Niobe Thompson said, “instead it was nota  barrier, it was an opportunity, a life giving gift…our ancestors found ways to live with the sea and soon they found ways of crossing it.”

Wulf Schiefenhövel from the Max Planck Institute also made an interesting comment: “Our sea water had been frozen to such an extent that the sea was about 120 metres lower than it is now. That means people could walk from Sumatra to East Java and then there were channels of water around 30-40 km. wide.”

The first sea voyages happened so long ago that we don’t have much evidence of how they did it. We can only speculate. It is very difficult to understand how early humans could have made it. It seems so difficult that it seem impossible. But our human ancestors had determination.

There is no archaeological evidence of the first human boats. Yet, there is some interesting evidence in Papua New Guinea, the world’s biggest tropical island. Humans reached it at least 50,000 years ago. As Thompson said, “It is a rich culture today that opens a window on its past.”

In the wilderness of Papua New Guinea there is a ceremony that is very old and rare.  Few outsiders have ever seen it. There is an initiation ceremony where boys are transformed into men.  There is a ritual that mimics the snaky movement of the crocodile the most dangerous creature in the area. There is a secret space of the warrior society—i.e. the “spirit house.” Here families say good-bye to their children some 15 years old. To survive a boy must become a man by learning the secrets of the river. The boy must become part human and part crocodile.   Boys are cut in an extremely painful ritual. The object of the ritual is become “water people.” The crocodile people give a hint of what life was like on the water. The earliest kind of god is still used—i.e. a dugout canoe!

Over time, the people of Papua New Guinea tool dugout canoes to amazing extremes. Their war canoes are very long and fast. As Schiefenhövel said, “as every sailor knows, the longer your boat the faster your travel.” I didn’t know that. The people of Papua New Guinea, as far as we know, never had sailing boats because they never ventured into the sea.

The ingenious invention that allowed them to cross the waves of the ocean was the outrigger. This made the boat very stable on the ocean. These vessels  are very simple often made of hollowed out mangrove.  “The outrigger triggered a revolutionary new phase in our human journey—harvesting the winds of the sea.” This was the start of some astounding voyages.