UH Hilo professor’s research traces ancestors of Hawaiians to remote atolls

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Date: Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Contact: Alyson Kakugawa-Leong, (808) 974-7642

For Immediate Release

A University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo professor has discovered evidence that the ancestors of East Polynesians, including Hawaiians, once lived on remote Polynesian Outlier atolls.

Dr. William H. Wilson, a professor with Ka Haka `Ula O Ke`elikolani College of Hawaiian Language, has published a study of 73 unique linguistic changes distinctive of East Polynesian languages and the languages of these Outliers. The article, entitled, "Whence The East Polynesians?" is in the December 2012 issue of Oceanic Linguistics (http://uhpjournals.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/oceanic-linguistics-vol-51-no-2-2012/).

“Anthropologists, archeologists and linguists have long assumed that the first settlers entered East Polynesia from Samoa,” Wilson noted. “The latest archeological research indicates the initial settlement took place as recently as a thousand years ago, which left many wondering why the East Polynesian and Samoan languages were so different. The associated cultures are also quite different, with ancient East Polynesian archeological sites exhibiting innovations in fishing technology that have long puzzled researchers.”

Wilson's research found that the East Polynesian ancestors were separated far to the northwest of Samoa on Polynesian atolls for a considerable period before they entered East Polynesia, the huge geographic area containing Hawaiʻi, Rapanui, and New Zealand. It was in these Polynesian atolls that many of the unique features differentiating East Polynesian languages and cultures from the Samoan language and culture developed.

Wilson said that early Polynesians first moved 2,000 miles west and north from Samoa to the tiny Central Northern Polynesian Outlier atolls off the coast of the Solomon Islands, of which the best known are Takuu and Luangiua (Ontong Java). Nearby atolls with languages only slightly more distantly related to Hawaiian and other East Polynesian languages are Sikaiana to the south and Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro to the north.

“The peoples of these atolls have highly developed traditions of navigation,” Wilson said. “They are also more dependent on fishing for survival than the people of the high islands of Samoa which, unlike atolls, have extensive agricultural lands. Ancient East Polynesian innovations in navigation and fishing methods developed first in these atolls.”

Wilson’s linguistic evidence linking East Polynesian languages with those of the Central Northern Outlier atolls includes words known to many in Hawaiʻi. One is a change from an earlier term kiu for a bird with a curved beak. In the Outliers and early East Polynesia, this became kiwi, which then developed into the Hawaiian bird name `i`iwi. The same term spread to New Zealand to name an endemic bird there known as the kiwi.

Wilson listed 51unique words and 22 grammatical similarities whose development is shared by the Central Northern Outlier and East Polynesian languages. Wilson traced all of the unique words and grammatical features back to an ancient Central Northern Outlier ancestral language that gave birth to Proto East Polynesian, the unifying ancestor of Hawaiian, Tahitian, Marquesan, Rapanui, and Maori.

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