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Sunday, September 25th, 2005, 11:33 PM
Scholars Paddle Upstream With Theory on Boat

Other academics reject the notion that the ancient Chumash learned to make their distinctive watercraft from the Polynesians.

By Steve Chawkins, Times Staff Writer

In a newly published paper, two scholars have revived the controversial and long-dead theory that Polynesian sailors visited the California coast centuries before the first European explorers planted their flags here.

It might still be too soon, however, to swap out the Eureka on the state seal with an Aloha.

Even the paper's authors, UC Berkeley linguist Kathryn Klar and Terry Jones, an archeologist at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, acknowledge that their theory flies in the face of prevailing thought about how ancient cultures developed. In particular, it challenges how California's Chumash Indians developed a distinctive, superbly engineered boat called the tomol.

After five years of scouring Polynesian dictionaries, analyzing ancient fishhooks and evaluating more than a century's worth of scholarly findings, the two arrived at a tantalizing conclusion:

The Chumash learned a lot about how to build their tomols — one of their culture's most important fixtures — from Polynesian voyagers who paddled into the Santa Barbara Channel sometime between AD 400 and 800.

"I didn't believe it myself for the first year or two and didn't talk publicly about it until the year after that," said Jones of the theory he and Klar recently unveiled in the scholarly journal American Antiquity. "For at least 50 years, this whole idea has been considered unthinkable."

To some experts familiar with ancient Chumash watercraft, it still is.

"I flatly won't accept it," said Brian Fagan, a professor emeritus of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara. "It's a wonderful, bold theory, and I admire them for putting it out. But I don't think it's supportable at the moment."

The theory stemmed not from a single, huge discovery but from a smorgasbord of intriguing clues. One of the most significant involves terms — like, say, "smorgasbord" — that are borrowed from other languages.

For years, Klar, an expert in Celtic as well as Chumash, occupied herself with the kind of puzzle a linguist loves:

Why is tomol — a word used for a boat unlike any other in native North America — unlike any other word in Chumash, which itself is unlike any other known language?

Klar searched for a term resembling tomol or its cousin, tomolo, in nearby native tongues. She even explored languages from as far off as Aleut.

But poring over a Hawaiian dictionary one day, she was stopped short by kumulaa'au, which describes trees with useful wood. Knowing that the K and T sounds can be very close in Hawaiian, she was encouraged.

And when she discovered similar terms in the languages of the eastern Polynesians, who are believed to have ventured to Hawaii in plank canoes, she was enthralled.

"I must have looked through 30 or 40 Polynesian dictionaries," Klar said. "I found it in Hawaiian and Tahitian and Marquesan and in Cook Island Raratongan." In Tahiti, for example, the word is tumuraa'au.

On top of that, she found two more boat-related words with possible Polynesian roots in the language of the Gabrielinos, a tribe living just down the coast from the Chumash.

With each small discovery, the mystery deepened: Why and how did the Chumash, who, Klar said, "already had a perfectly good word for woodworked boat," come to use a Polynesian-sounding word for the vessel that was so crucial to their way of life?

That's just what Jones wanted to know after he heard Klar speak at an academic conference. Before tomol, an earlier type of craft was an axipenesh.

"It wasn't as if the Chumash borrowed the word for something like 'rock', " he said. "It was their word for boat, which I knew was an anomalously sophisticated craft for North America."

Slowly, he started to review the evidence found by other scholars years ago.
As early as 1939, scholars had observed some striking similarities between the tomol and certain Polynesian craft, Jones said.

Both were artfully fashioned from planks that were distinctively shaped by craftsmen using nearly identical shell blades.
In Polynesia, the planks were sanded with rough plant materials, whereas the Chumash used sharkskin. The Polynesians used sharpened bone to drill holes in the planks; the Chumash used sharp stones. Both used similarly elaborate procedures to caulk the planks and lash them together with tough fiber.

All that had been documented earlier, but a couple of years ago, Jones stumbled onto a discovery that, he said, "made the hair on my neck stand up."

Jones faxed some drawings of old Chumash fishhooks to Patrick Kirch, a Berkeley expert on Polynesian prehistory. One hook made from two pieces fastened together caught Kirch's eye.

"I AM STUNNED," he e-mailed Jones. "That's a Polynesian hook."

Jones said tests showed that the hook was about 1,200 years old — roughly as old as the oldest known planks from a tomol. That was the approximate age, he said, of some swordfish bones found on the Channel Islands, suggesting to him that the technologically advanced hook was used to troll for big fish.

"The timing is kind of remarkable," he said. "In Southern California, people had been making two-piece hooks for 10,000 years; but around 800 AD, they suddenly changed to a more elaborate, sophisticated style — one that looks Polynesian."

All of this was leading Jones and Klar into treacherous academic waters. Scholars long ago turned against "diffusion," the idea that ancient peoples adapted the advances of other cultures, rather than inventing things on their own.

"It was an intellectually lazy concept in the old days," said John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. "People used it to say that pottery was invented once and spread around the world, that agriculture was invented once and spread, that the people who built the pyramids in Mexico must have known about the pyramids in Egypt."

The case for contact between Polynesians and North America was particularly touchy.

At one point, one of Jones' old professors asked him: "What do you want to be — the next Thorburn Heyerdahl?"

It wasn't a compliment.

In 1947, the Norwegian adventurer captured the public's imagination by sailing a balsa raft from Peru to the South Seas. He hoped to show that ancient South Americans could have settled Polynesia, but many scholars today dismiss Heyerdahl as a showman who got it all wrong.

The paper by Jones and Klar was rejected for publication by one scientific journal, but even its critics take it seriously.

"I think it's important that these ideas be placed on the table," said Lynn Gamble, a San Diego State University archeologist who has written extensively on the Chumash.

But some critics question whether anyone can say when the first tomol slid into the Santa Barbara Channel, speculating that the purported arrival of the Polynesians occurred centuries earlier. Others wonder why the Polynesians didn't leave a more permanent footprint.

"I think we should find more evidence than a fishhook," Gamble said. "There are only so many ways to make a fishhook."

Even Jones and Klar admit that the jury is still out.

"For the scholarly community to accept this as fact, we need something more substantial," Jones said. "We know we have an uphill battle."


Sunday, September 25th, 2005, 11:41 PM
I agree that a vaguely connected word, and a fish hook are hardly enough to conclude a connection. I do not doubt that Polynesians could have visited the Americas. Afterall, the Vikings, Egyptians, and Chinese did as well. ;)

Look! It's a video on building a tomol. http://www.gajason.org/tomol_animation.htm