Keith Rankin Analysis – Aotearoan Origins

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Analysis by Keith Rankin.

Keith Rankin.

Over the last month, I enjoyed watching Origins on TV1. Very ambitiously, it looked at the origins of Tangata Whenua, going all the way back to the origins of humanity in Africa.

Nevertheless, the final episode in particular bothered me. It presented a somewhat uncritical view of the ‘Express Train from Taiwan to Polynesia’ view which points to China as the pre-Taiwan homeland of Māori, and that the diaspora from China was comparatively recent (ie within the last 10,000 years).

To me, this ‘Taiwan model’ seems to have the same problems as the long-discredited Thor Heyerdahl ‘Kon Tiki’ model which postulated that the primitive but noble savages of Polynesia came from a civilised continental population source; in the one case South America, in the other case China. Both hypotheses were formulated by people with Eurocentric views of the diaspora of civilisations, and both emphasise the historical rapidity of the process from source (eg China) to final destinations (eg Aotearoa).

The other problem with the final episode of Origins was the suggestion that, because there is evidence of all forms of humanity and pre-humanity having existed in Ethiopia, then all of these forms of humanity must have evolved in or near modern-day Ethiopia.

Human Origins

From the history of primates, there is little doubt that the first pre-humans evolved in Africa. However, it is not now believed that apes first evolved in Africa. Rather – as Tim Flannery shows in Europe, a Natural History – apes, indeed bipedal apes, originated in Europe over ten million tears ago. They subsequently migrated to Africa and died out in Europe.

Where modern humans first evolved is not clear, because they most likely at some stage become extinct in their evolutionary home. The evidence seems to show, however, that the present world’s population of homo sapiens was largely or entirely populated from modern South Africa. This fits the idea that most humans were wiped out by a catastrophic event; the supervolcanic eruption of Lake Toba in modern Sumatra 75,000 years ago is an obvious candidate. Such an event could have left a population of humans in Southern Africa as the only (or principal) viable population of our species on Earth.

We might note that modern dystopian and science fiction stories frequently postulate the near-extinction of humanity. In my lifetime the idea of a ‘nuclear winter’ (caused by an asteroid collision if not by a nuclear holocaust) has been the main such catastrophe. This century, the ideas of climate or pandemic catastrophes are gaining traction for obvious reasons. In all of these cataclysmic scenarios, Aotearoa New Zealand has appeared to the wider world as a possible ark or bolthole for humanity, and subsequent human restoration. Indeed Aotearoans have milked that idea to the rest of the world: clean, green, temperate, and far away.

If, in a few centuries time, Aotearoa was to be the repopulation reservoir for the rest of the world, and was thousands of years later investigated by archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists, some would conclude that humanity had evolved in Aotearoa. Others would find archaeological connections to Europe; though their ideas would be rejected by many on the grounds that Europe is much too far away to have been a possible source population for Aotearoa. The academic consensus would probably settle on modern humans as being a South Pacific species.

In today’s world, probably over 60 percent of people live at altitudes of less than 100 metres above sea level. And a similarly large (or larger) percentage of people live in places that are especially vulnerable to earthquakes, volcanoes or alluvial flooding. There are good economic reasons why people live in these places which are subject to high natural risk. Past demographic catastrophes will have followed these natural forms – earthquakes, eruptions, floods – although warfare and pandemics have also taken large human tolls.

Principles of Evolution

Evolution happens, cultural and biological. Indeed most people who believe in a specific cultural creation story do accept that, subsequent to creation, people have evolved; ie changed and diversified.

The principle drivers of evolutionary change are death and isolation. It is most likely that new forms of human – or other lesser but substantial changes such as the development of new language clusters – arise from populations being separated for a long time, and for some populations to die, creating new spaces for non-extinct populations to occupy. The places therefore in which most evolutionary change is most likely to have taken place were those places most subject to natural disasters, including disasters such as the beginnings and ends of ice ages. In particular, it was at the ends of ice ages that sea levels increased (and increased substantially), quite rapidly in historical time. Rising sea levels created both death and isolation.

Africa is probably the most naturally stable part of the world. While Africa therefore becomes a good candidate for slow evolution – the small changes that accumulate over long time spans – it is a poor candidate for fast evolution. Aftrica is the part of the world least subject to the catastrophic vagaries of nature mentioned above. So, in the bigger story of humanity, Africa makes a great ark – a reservioir from which global repopulation may take place – but a poor site for the origins of the faster more dramatic forms of evolutionary change which are essential to the human story.

Māori Origins

For Pākehā, origins as Pākehā are simple. We are European. Most are of Anglo-Celtic European origin.

Māori on the other hand are Austronesian, Polynesian Austronesian. So where or what is Austronesia?

The core Austronesian territories today are Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia. Their languages are the present languages of those territories, just as Italian, Spanish and French are the principal modern variants of Latin.

Ancient Austronesia includes the lands of those three countries, plus Taiwan, and most probably Japan. (Possibly the placenames Fuji, Fujian and Fiji all have the same meaning, as places defining the sometime periphery of Austronesia. We may think of Japan much as we think of Britain; the ‘British’ people now live on the western fringe of that island, as Welsh. Similarly, the Ainu people now live in Japan’s northern fringe.) Just as Aotearoa, Australia, and the United States (and others) are regarded today as peripheral neo-Europe, so Polynesia, Micronesia, Island Melanesia and Madagascar are today peripheral neo-Austronesia.

Austronesia means ‘southern islands’, with the reference point being Asia. But this is misleading. 15,000 years ago during the Ice Age, Austronesia was an Asian subcontinent, Sundaland; comparable to India or Europe. The seas of modern Indonesia are shallow, for the most part less than 100 metres deep.

Austronesia was a prehistorical place, comparable with Europe, India, and China as prehistorical places. Further, if we consider an ice-age world, Austronesia was probably the most densely populated part of that world. A large proportion of its land had an altitude of less than 100 metres, making it much like northern Europe today. Further, ancient Austronesia was on the Pacific ring of fire, making it vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic explosions. It had all of the elements required to propel rapid evolutionary change.

After the year 15,000 BP (before present), the last Ice Age ended, not as a slow process of climate change but in three rapid leaps: about 14,000 then 11,000 then 8,000 year ago. Austronesia became, in stages, a drowned subcontinent made up mainly of islands. This context represents the perfect environment for the evolution of sophisticated marine technology and culture. Austronesia is a much more obvious place than China as an incubator for maritime technology. Taiwan should be understood, prehistorically, as connected to Austronesia rather than to China, with the likelihood that, during the ice age, Austronesian people settled from Taiwan along what is now the Chinese coast.

Māori are Austronesian, and Austronesians (like Europeans in later millennia) visited distant parts of the world (eg South America) and colonised some of these (eg Madagascar). In the case of the Polynesian and Micronesian islands, Austronesians were their first peoples.

Both the Polynesian and Madagascan ventures were comparatively recent examples of Austronesian voyaging, and therefore well known. But earlier lesser known adventures made these possible; just as European oceanic venturing from the 15th century was made possible by the Portuguese firstly learning to sail to and from the Azores, Canary Islands, and Madeira. (Other important early oceanic maritime zones were the western Indian Ocean and the Baltic and North Seas. While some have called the Polynesians the Vikings of the South, as James Belich noted, it would have been more accurate to have called the Scandinavian Vikings the Polynesians of the North.)

We can understand the early development of Austronesian maritime culture as having been due to the post ice-age flooding of their lowlands, leaving archipelagos of nearby islands in their place. The development of oceanic skills will have arisen as sea levels raised further, and will have enabled those with the best skills – probably in modern Philippines – to sail to and from islands such as Guam and the Northern Marianas. Thus, the Marianas Islands are almost certainly critical to the evolution of South Pacific oceanic voyaging and settlement. The analogies here are between the Philippines and Portugal, and between Guam and the Azore Islands.


Aotearoa New Zealand has its human origins in Austronesia, of which Taiwan was a part. It is most likely that the critical maritime culture that enabled Austronesians to become the world’s first global maritime explorers was developed in Austronesia through the millennia of stop-go global warming (ie between 15,000 and 7,000 years ago), and probably not in Taiwan specifically.

Further, at least in the late years of the most recent Ice Age, the Austronesian subcontinent was surely the most sophisticated human culture that the world had, till then, ever hosted. Most likely there was a cultural spread from Austronesia to India and later to Europe. After all, the Austronesian languages are closer in form to the languages of Indo-Europe than to Chinese.



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