What is the greatest human culture ever created? Most westerners would likely say European civilization. What would you say?
Wade Davis, Canada’s preeminent anthropologist believes that the greatest contribution to culture was produced in Polynesia. I was shocked when I heard that. Davis has studied many societies. I had never thought of Polynesia with that much respect. I was wrong. I am not saying Davis was right. It really doesn’t matter; they all have great achievements. What does matter is that we respect them all.
To my surprise Davis, in a talk on CBC Radio, called Polynesia “the greatest culture sphere ever to be brought into being by the human imagination.” When he talked about the ethnospherehe described it this way in his glorious book, The Wayfarers:
“Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spiritual web of life that envelopes the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere. You might think of this social web of life as an ethnosphere.”
I learned a lot from Davis’s radio talks as well as from his book The Wayfarers. Polynesia, he said, consists of “tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels upon the southern sea.” Davis learned a lot from the Polynesian voyaging society that set out on a voyage on the vast Pacific Ocean in a sacred canoe known as a hokule’a. This vessel has been used to circumnavigate the world. This was a catamaran modeled on the drawings of Joseph Banks who had drawn sketches of these canoes based on his voyages with Cook in the 18th century. Even today these Polynesians sailors can name 350 stars in the southern sky.
As Davis said, “They can sense the presence of distant atoll islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of the canoe knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own unique refractive pattern that can be read with the same perspicacity with which a forensic scientist would read a finger print. These are sailors who in the hull in the darkness can sense 5 different sea swells moving through the canoe at any one point in time, distinguishing those caused by local weather disturbances and from the deep currents that pulsate across the ocean and can be followed with the same ease with which a terrestrial explorer would follow a river to the sea. Indeed if you took all of the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to an understanding of the ocean what you would get is Polynesia.”
What right to we have to feel superior to such a culture? As Davis said,
“The most astonishing thing about this tradition is that it is based on dead reckoning. And dead reckoning means that you only know where you are by remembering precisely how you got there. And what this implied was that in a tradition that lacked the written word every shift of the wind, every change of course, every sign of the star, the sun, the moon, and the ocean itself embraced over the course of a multi-week voyage had to be remembered and calibrated in the mind of the wayfinder.”
The practitioners of this art based their advice on where they had come from, not from where they were going. Societies that did not have this skill resorted to hugging the shores of continents, until the British solved the problem of longitude with the invention of the chronometer in the 18th century.
Yet 10 centuries before Christ an ancient civilization called Lapita on the shores of Caledonia and New Guinea, the ancestors of the Polynesians set sail into the rising son. In a thousand years they reached Tonga and Samoa and Fiji but then mysteriously stopped for 10 centuries before resuming their quest. They travelled a further 4,000 km. across the Pacific Ocean until they reached the Marquesas. Eventually they discovered many of the islands in the South Pacific.
During this time they lost their written word, but the Wayfinder who could be a man or a woman, and who sat Monk-like at the stern of the vessel for a journey of several weeks had to remember every shift of the wind, every sign of the moon, every sign of the stars, every sign of the sun, plus a plethora of other indicators of location and weather. If the knowledge of the chronology was broken the journey could easily end in disaster.
According to the Polynesian myths the vessel does not move. Rather the imagination of the Wayfinder pulls the island out of the sea towards the vessel. To reach Rap Nui the vessel had to travel 9,000 km. (6,000 mi.) across the doldrums, tacking in the wind for about 3500 km. to reach an island less than 25 km. across. This was less than 1º on the compass but of course they had no compass. But they sure had traditional skills and knowledge, knowledge that westerners did not appreciate.
These techniques were used to colonize the greatest thing on the planet—the Pacific Ocean. As Davis pointed out, “Five centuries before Columbus, the Polynesians had over the course of only 80 generations settled virtually every island group in the Pacific , establishing a single sphere of cultural life encompassing some 25 million square kilometers of the earth’s surface.” That is surely one of the greatest achievements of Homo sapiens, 500 years before Columbus “discovered” the western hemisphere! And they did this all without a compass or any physical instruments of navigation. Of course this amazing achievement was never recognized by the Europeans who assumed no one was better than them at navigation.
Davis asked a profound question:
“How can you not be bedazzled by the achievements of humanity when you discover what actually lies beneath the veneer of culture throughout the world. You know, Polynesian navigators who can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of a vessel. Whenever I go somewhere I try to think of a phrase that kind of distils everything and when I did work with the hokule’a and the Polynesian voyaging society the phrase that came to mind was that if you took all of the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to the understanding of the ocean what you would get is Polynesia.”
The real point of all this is not to brag about one society. The real point to avoid unnecessary feelings of superiority. There is nothing more ignorant than feelings of superiority. There is nothing more wise than humility.