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The Chumash plank canoe, or tomolo, held up to a dozen people — and may hold a clue to pre-Columbian contact between Polynesia and the New World. (Photo courtesy Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.)

Scholars swim in choppy waters
Did Polynesians visit Southern California many centuries ago? The evidence — some fishhooks, a boat design, and a few words in common — is limited. But to some those clues are tantalizing, even persuasive

| 03 August 2005

In academia no less than Oceania, voyagers are sometimes called upon to sail against the prevailing winds. Polynesian seafarers, equipped with sophisticated boats and navigational skills, may have braved the trade winds in their quest to colonize the Pacific during the first millennium. Now a pair of scholars are making waves by flouting what they call "the prevailing theoretical orthodoxy of North American archaeology."

Kathryn Klar, a lecturer in Berkeley's Celtic studies program, and Terry Jones, an associate professor of anthropology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, teamed up five years ago for what would prove a risky voyage of intellectual discovery. In a recently published article, they claim to have found new linguistic and archaeological evidence that Polynesians landed in Southern California between 400 and 800 A.D. and shared their advanced boat-building techniques with the region's Chumash and Gabrielino Indians. The political incorrectness of the thesis is clear from a phrase in the paper's original title, which dubbed the suggestion "The Unthinkable in Western North American Prehistory." (As published in the July issue of the peer-reviewed journal American Antiquity, its title is the more subdued "Diffusionism Reconsidered: Linguistic and Archaeological Evidence for Prehistoric Polynesian Contact With Southern California.")

Terry Jones and Kathryn Klar: pondering the "unthinkable" (Deborah Stalford photos)
Their bumpy academic journey started casually, almost accidentally. At a conference on California Indians in 2000, Klar delivered a paper on linguistic "residue," or words that appear to be borrowed from other languages. Toward the end of her talk, Klar, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on "Topics in Chumash Grammar," mentioned the tribe's word for boat, tomolo'o, and noted she'd been unable to find similarities with any other word in the language.

"I threw that one out because intuitively I knew there was more to it," she recalls. "I'd looked at all the surrounding languages, plus all the languages spoken by people that anyone had ever suggested could be in contact" with the Chumash tribe, whose traditional lands include the Channel Islands and the coastal region that is now Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Jones, whose research focuses on California's central coast, was in the audience that day. To him, the fact that the orphan word meant "boat" — "the one word," he says, "that would be unequivocally exchanged if there was any kind of contact" between cultures — was tantalizing. Moreover, the word didn't refer to just any boat, but to a tomolo, or plank canoe. In contrast to the rafts and simple dugout canoes employed by other maritime Indian cultures, the tomolo was carefully crafted from logs split and shaped into planks, which were then glued together using tar and pine pitch and sewn together with string made from vegetable fiber. The Chumash and the Gabrielinos, just down the coast, were the only indigenous people on the North American continent to use tomolos.

As early as 1939, Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber noted the strong resemblance between the tomolo and the ocean-going vessels of the ancient Polynesian seafarers. Most anthropologists and archaeologists, however, have long dismissed the notion of so-called cultural diffusion — a disdain, Jones says, attributable largely to two factors. One is the discplines' current fondness for population and ecology models, which emphasize local conditions as the root of cultural changes. The other is Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian adventurer who popularized diffusionist notions by sailing his raft, the Kon-Tiki, from South America to Polynesia in 1947. The expedition spawned a best-selling book, an Academy Award-winning movie, and legions of fellow-traveling authors.

"He proposed this theory that there was contact between Oceanians and the New World, but he had it in the wrong direction. He was always wrong, and the scholars always knew he was wrong," Jones says, and "the fact that he was wildly acclaimed by the public" stigmatized the very idea of pre-Columbian contact. "When I went to the library the first time to look for books on trans-oceanic diffusion, I got scared again. I knew I was going down a dangerous path, and then when I saw shelves and shelves of this crazy stuff. . . ."

For Klar, too, the idea seemed crazy, even though it was Travis Hudson, a respected authority on Chumash culture, who first suggested it to her in the 1970s. "He asked me several times, 'Have you ever found anything linguistic that would link the Polynesians with the Chumash?' And I thought he was nuts," she laughs. In fact, she held Hudson in the highest esteem, and never let go of the idea — despite her doubts that any Chumashan borrowings from the Polynesian could have survived long enough to be recorded by a modern linguist.

"We've worked on this for five years," adds Jones, "and the first year or two I didn't even believe it myself."

The turning point came when Jones faxed a chart showing illustrations of fishhooks to Patrick Kirch, Berkeley's Class of 1954 Professor of Anthropology. In 1990 Kirch had found sweet potatoes in the Cook Islands dating to 1000 A.D., the sole confirmation of early contact between Oceania and South America, where the plant grows wild. Jones wanted to know if Kirch saw any similarities between the one-piece shell hooks used by Polynesians and those used by Chumash Indians. As it happened, the faxed chart also showed two-piece hooks made of bone.

"He e-mailed back 'I AM STUNNED' — all in capital letters — 'that's a Polynesian hook,'" Jones recalls. The hooks were from the same period as planks from the earliest known tomolo, providing a second piece of material evidence.

Klar, meanwhile, had built what she felt was a persuasive case that the Chumash word for "sewn-plank canoe," tomolo'o, derived from the Polynesian word tumuRaa'au, which describes wood in the boats used by Oceanic explorers. "Out of curiosity," she began looking at words in Gabrielino, and discovered that the Gabrielino words for "boat" and "sewn-plank canoe," if not conclusively rooted in Polynesian, at least pointed to a possible link. The far greater certainty of the Chumash connection, in her mind, vastly increased the likelihood that the Gabrielino forms had been borrowed from the same source.

"So at that point we've got three words in two languages, two technologies, and they all fall into this same period of time," Jones recounts. "And when you compare that with developments in the Pacific Rim — the Polynesians were discovering the most distant outposts of the Pacific during that same window — you go, boy, there's a case here, we need to bring this to light and see what people think about it."

That, however, was easier said than done. In late 2003 their paper was rejected by Current Anthropology, after no fewer than nine peer reviewers had weighed in. None of them, Jones notes, identified a fatal flaw, and most were supportive of publication. The journal's rejection letter, however, regretted that the reviews "do not provide adequate support for the linguistic evidence of the parallels that are central to your manuscript," and pointedly noted the paper "stands in sharp contrast to the main trends of scholarly views on the cultural history of a well-studied region." Making matters worse was the fact that the journal is devoted to cutting-edge research, and offers critics the opportunity to respond to controversial articles in the same issue. Given all that, Klar says, the rejection "really blew us away."

Although they eventually found a publisher, both recognize they have a long way to travel before academia accepts their premise. "No one would say it's proven," Jones admits. "Even we wouldn't say it's proven."

And while Jones is eager to return to calmer scholarly waters, Klar is in for the long haul. Much of her investigation into Chumash-Polynesian ties is based on a vast body of research — compiled by American linguist and ethnologist John P. Harrington — dealing with dying Native American languages. Without his work, she says, "these languages would have been absolutely, completely lost," along with the evidence for Polynesian contact, "however small."

"I've barely scratched the surface of the published vocabularies," Klar insists. "I have to go back and look through 10,000 pages of microfilm to see what might be there that hasn't been mined at all yet." Acknowledging the desire of even the most sympathetic scholars for "a few more words" than the three she's turned up so far, she adds that she has "a list of possibilities, and I'm going to work through that entire list as assiduously as I can and see what's there."