Here I share the history and ancient lore of the Pacific peoples and recent archaeological research. Placing the latest scientific studies alongside the histories of the ancestors is an exciting experience. Here I attempt to answer some of the questions that others pursue.

When the elders asked me to bring the ancient lore of the Maori/Polynesian people into the world, I had no idea that might mean. It brought an astounding library of over 3,000 chants into play in a powerful way. Some lasted for hours and some for days. They encapsulated an ethos for a life lived in a good way, philosophies and principles based on a remarkable understanding of people and the world we live in.

Few understand that the Pacific World knew peace for over 2,500 years. The old histories that cover those years speak of the days without conflict, say to take the life of another is to destroy your own. Archaeological excavations find no weapons of war in the sites of those times. Warfare in the Pacific is a tragic development born of natural devastating events that tore apart their world soon after 1200 AD.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

‘The unthinkable — Hawaii to California in a canoe’

‘Archaeological evidence led them to a remarkable conclusion’

Dr Terry Jones, of the California Polytechnic State University, and his colleague Dr Kathryn Klar, of the University of California, are making waves; big waves that have generated great tides of contention. Their research plunged them into troubled waters where others thought they could not swim.

Step-by-step, archaeological evidence led them to a startling conclusion. They detected sudden and remarkable changes in the life of the Chumash and Gabrielino Indian tribes of Southern California.

All cultures changed over time, that’s a given, and most changes in ancient societies are thought to pivot around the environment and how people adapt as it changes. The view that ‘environment is the engine of change’ has held sway for a number of decades. It’s dominated the American scientific scene. Jones and Klar concluded that the changes they saw in the two tribes — came from the ‘outside their environment’ not from ‘within’. Strangers had arrived to introduce significant, useful technologies that were very new.

‘It’s about building a better boat’

Sometime after 400 AD the Chumash and Gabrielino began building canoes that were remarkably different, in fact in a way that was unique in North America. They were ‘plank-sewn canoes’ that were totally unlike their old boats.

Jones and Klar explain…

‘The plank canoe, or tomolo, used by the Chumash and Gabrielino between the Channel Islands and the mainland of Southern California has long been recognised as a uniquely sophisticated craft for prehistoric America.

‘The distinguishing feature of these boats is their woodwork, which included hand-hewn planks, sewn together with cordage and caulked with Asphaltum sealer.’

First recorded in 1542, by Cabrillo, they have been documented in some detail by numerous European explorers since. However, John Peabody Harrison gathered the greatest collection of data between 1913 and 1957, running to 3,000 hand-written pages.

These canoes were up to 25 feet long, could carry a dozen people and were used for fishing, trade and carrying people from island to island and along the mainland shore. All other North American craft were dugouts, balsa log/rafts or skin/bark canoes. The only other sewn-plank canoe known in North, Central and South America was found in the Gulf of Coronado, in Central Chile.

                                                                                                  Bettina Barrett

The Chilean craft sends us back to the chicken bones sourced to Tonga and Samoa. Is it another link in the voyaging history of the Polynesians? For there is no doubt that the sewn-plank canoe was important in Polynesian life and the world of their ancestors. It’s an exported technology, a very special form of boat building that goes back to the Philippines and beyond and is found in island after island between. The list is endless — Guam, the Marianas, Carolines, New Hebrides, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Tuamotu, the Marquesas and Easter Island, are but a few.

‘It’s about a better hook to catch a fish’

If a better boat means a better way to catch a fish, then a better fishhook is even better. To suggest the sewn-plank boat design proves Polynesians, who held the patent on it, actually exported it to California, is not enough to prove that connection. There has to be more if we are allowed to think the ‘unthinkable’ — a Hawaiian-California connection.

That’s why the ‘sudden’ appearance of a new style of fishhook in the Santa Barbara Channel becomes important. The word ‘sudden’ might seem a bit odd when it’s applied to a few centuries but that sits better when we realise the ‘sudden bit’ is the first real change in perhaps 10,000 years.

For thousands of years the locals fished with a piece of straight bone sharpened to a wicked point at both ends; it was called a gorge. A line was tied to the centre and baited and if your luck held, lodged in the throat of a fish that you carefully hauled aboard. While, this method served well for years beyond recall, a simple two-piece bone hook— one being a straight shank and the other the sharp business end — was developed. It didn’t replace the gorge that had served them well, merely added to their kit. It clearly took longer to make and depended on a join that might break.

Then along came the fisherman who ground away at a shell some 3,000 years ago and made a curved hook. This also took on but didn’t displace the other two. Their kit was slowly improving as thousands of years slipped by. Then comes the ‘sudden change’ the focus of our story.

Sometime after 400 or 500 AD, it’s hard to be precise on this, an intriguing new style of fishhook appeared — a two-piece fishhook with a difference. Instead of
binding two straight pieces of bone together to catch a fish, this hook introduces curves. It’s a very stylish hook, a very successful hook and a very important hook because it mimics the beautifully curved Polynesian two-piece variety.

'Did they catch more fish?'

The ‘accidental’, ‘coincidental’ or ‘parallel invention’ of such an innovative and effective hook, just happened to overlap with the ‘arrival’, on the fishing scene, of the unique sewn-planked canoe. Moreover, this rather special hook doesn’t appear north or south of the Chumash–Gabrielino tribal area. It’s theirs and theirs alone, but does it give them an edge when fishing?

Changes in their catch are clear proof of that. This curved bone hook was better. Midden remains reveal an ever-increasing haul of swordfish, blue shark, short fin mako shark, albacore and other tuna. All are open-sea fish that can be reached in a better boat and caught with a better hook. So while, on archaeological grounds, the ‘unthinkable’ becomes more and more reasonable, there’s another line of enquiry still to purse. It’s from the world of historical linguistics, the place where the shape and sound of words can be tracked over thousands of years.  

‘Words open ancient trails that echo through the ages’

In the world of science it’s interesting to hear people speak about ‘words as artifacts’. When we think of artifacts, stone tools, carved wood, bone hooks, shell amulets, really solid pieces of the past usually come to mind. However, words that have been borrowed by one culture from a very different one can stand out. English is a wonderful example of how a language is enriched by borrowing and how we often sense the origin of a word, be it French, Spanish, Latin or Greek.

The words under scrutiny here are those used by the Chumash and Gabrielino for their boats. If you acquire a new boat design from a culture with a totally different language, you want to name it. After all its so unlike your old dugout design, the balsa/raft pulled up on the shore or the skin covered canoe, that it needs a new name. The suggestion is that those who brought the sewn-plank model to the Americas offered its name too.

                                                                                                  Bettina Barrett

However, borrowing from a totally unrelated language has its difficulties; they often lack corresponding sounds. For instance it’s impossible to bring the Zulu ‘click’ sound, that’s made in the back of the throat, into English. It’s very difficult to carry some English sounds into German, Chinese and Japanese because of the difficulty they have with ‘w’ and ‘v’. We speak of borrowed words, taken into English, as being anglicised, changed to suit the English tongue, modified to suit the speaker’s ability to best make that sound. So, linguistics is about words moving through time and different cultures, and how they change. It’s about the original sound for an object shifting, in subtle, but recognisable ways, to become comfortable in its adopted home.

The historical linguist looks behind a word, tracks its evolution, becomes a ‘sound detective’ who follows a logical, often predictable path of change to identify its language of birth. It’s a fascinating world of word research. It brings exciting new evidence of how, and where, and when, the lives of different peoples intersected. It’s that research into ‘word as artifact’ we venture into now.

‘One word seems to become another but they still might be sister and brother’

‘Axipenes’ was the Chumash word for their dugout canoe, but when they began constructing the sophisticated sewn-plank canoe, they called the radically new design ‘tomolo’. That word didn’t come from neighbouring tribes because they didn’t have such vessels. Furthermore, the Chumash language is totally isolated from others, it having no known language relatives in North America or elsewhere. ‘Tomolo’ was so different from ‘axipenes’ it got Kathryn Klar historical linguists thinking. Was it borrowed from somewhere outside of America?

With the sewn-plank canoe so prominent in the Pacific, the hunt focused on that world. To cut the story short, linguists discovered ‘tumu-Raa‘au’ in Polynesia meant ‘wood that was made useful’ or if you will, tree trunks that were split and shaped and planked. When first borrowed into Chumash, the sounds of that Polynesian word became ‘tumula-o’ and later ‘tomolo’o’ and eventually just ‘tomolo’. It’s easy to follow the ‘tumu’ to ‘tomo’ shift. It’s harder for the uninitiated to see ‘raa’au’ becoming ‘la-o’ but it helps if you say the ‘raa’ and ‘la’ sounds over and over again and hear their closeness and imagine the shift. Finally, the Polynesian ‘au’ is a difficult one for most English speakers to handle well. It’s a challenging sound that generally comes out as a kind of ‘ah-oh’. So, it’s not hard to envisage the Chumash settling in time for a simple ‘o’. Thus we finish up with ‘tomolo’. The linguistic link with Polynesian sewn-plank canoes is very solid one.

Terry Jones and Kathryn Klar, end their paper on the Hawaii-California connection with these words…

‘Similarities in the style of the shared items are very strong, techniques of their construction are nearly identical, and their design, particularly for the planked watercraft, is elaborate and technically complex enough to make independent invention highly unlikely.’

‘… the combination of linguistic and archaeological findings… offer a classic case… that probably would not be questioned if not for the vast expanse of ocean separating the donor and the recipient cultures.’

‘Conquering the vast expanse of ocean’

Hawaii and California are 3,360 kilometres or 2,112 miles apart. That’s about 150 kilometres less than a voyage from Easter Island to Chile, the assumed place of departure for those who carried the famous chickens to the shores of South America some 700 years ago.

Those who sail modern yachts from Hawaii to California today, depart early in summer, around November – December, to pick up favourable winds. By sailing north from Hawaii, until the Pacific High is cleared, they come to strong westerly winds that fill your sails to speed their vessel east to California.

To satisfy the critics, who see the ocean between Hawaii and North America as a daunting physical barrier, let’s review the state of Polynesian voyaging around 400 to 900 AD. By this time the voyaging canoes were superb craft guided by navigators who were able to tap into centuries of accumulated lore relating to the location of countless islands fixed in memory by the stars. When they sailed to meet the challenge of tomorrow, they sailed with the wisdom of many yesterdays; knowledge sometimes won at great cost by their ancestors. As maritime nations they were complete.

It’s this expertise that saw voyaging canoes leave the southern hemisphere, cross the equatorial currents, conquer the doldrums and reach the Hawaiian Islands. In 2001, Hale Makua, one of the last Hawaiian kahuna, shared with me some crucial Polynesian voyaging lore.

I’d been trying to unravel the Hawaiian story and been intrigued by a particular people who seemed to drift in and out of the established history. Were they real or just a myth? There were associated with mysterious stone workings and other tantalising glimpses of earlier voyagers? So I’d asked Makua — Who were the Menehune of Hawaii?

He smiled and said, ‘I am Menehune. We existed and still exist and we hold the story of the past. Our ancestors who sailed from South America to Tahiti, on to the Tuamotus, the Marquesas and eventually to Hawaii.’ South America was not cited as his homeland of distant origin for he placed that elsewhere.

Makua assured me that return voyages were part of that age. He held a map of the location of a great school of learning in Tahiti, where the old lore was taught before Hawaii came into the Polynesian orbit and where they sailed for learning later. He went further, linking Hawaii, Tahiti and Aotearoa/New Zealand in a voyage made by Maoritu with a navigator named Hema. Then he surprised me by describing voyages from Hawaii to North and Central America. For him these long voyages were very ‘matter of fact’, a given that didn’t need to be proved.

The old knowledge joined all that has been with all was still to come. It wove ancestor into ancestor, creating a cord of remembrance touched by the sacred, for within it the spirit of the Ancestors lived on.

I love these words by Anais Nin…  ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.’  When we probed the old knowledge from the past, what do we make of it? Sometimes good history and sometimes farce! 

We sailed too far

Crossed too many horizons
To convince some who
Now weigh us with their words

We trusted older tides
And deeper currents
Touched stars beyond the reach
Of those who try to follow
They circle the ocean
    We are of it 
 Copyright 2012  Barry Brailsford 


Terry L. Jones & Kathryn A. Klar — 2005, American Antiquity, 70 (3)]

Julienne L. Bernard — 2001, The Origins of Open-Ocean and Large Species Fishing in the Cumash Region of Southern California, Masters thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of California.


  1. The Chumash were a very advanced seafaring people, and almost completely Maritime culture. They had been working with abalone for thousands of years, I doubt they needed Hawaiians to teach them how to make a fish hook. The TOMOLS ( not Tomolo) hey made were planked because they had no decent trees to make a sea worthy boat, so they used redwood driftwood to make the planks for their boats. The Chumash Indians worked with the same raw materials, and lived a similar lifestyle as the Polynesians, there is bound to the same parallel inventions going on. If some Polynesians came to the Channel Islands why didn't they bring anything else from the culture? No diseases, no pigs, no chickens, no IDNA, no weapons, nothing just a word and boat design. Speaking of oral histories, the Chumash People have no stories of strange men in boats coming from the West to teach their Dug Out making ancestors how to make planked canoes and fish hooks, if that would of happened all the Chumash, Esselen, Olhone, Tongva, and Kumeyaay indians would all have oral history of this event, especially since they were all involved in trade with one another to a large percent, but there is nothing, no stories. You know Klar and Jones are a minority in this belief , they are not Chumash experts in any sense of the word, and the real Chumash experts are fully confident that the Chumash Indians were unique in that they were the only people in North America or maybe even the Western Hemisphere to invent and build a true planked boat and invent a new better fishing hook out of an abalone shell, something they ate every day of their lives. There is zero evidence that anyone from anywhere came to the Santa Barbara Channel Area before the Spaniards in the 1500s.

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  3. For an in depth rebuttal of Klar and Jones, read JE Arnold's Credit where credit is due:! Chumash Planked Canoe, and another By Y Meroz about the planked canoe/boat.

  4. I love the poem. Is it by you?

  5. If the only explanation in yours, Klar and Jones, Then how do you explain all the other early planked boats found all over the world, that were independently invented 7,000 bc in Kawait, Europe, Siberia, Africa, and the Americas? if they cane about by convergence once, then it must have happened all aroubd the world! why woold it be up to Polynesians , only when it cones to tge Chumash indians?! Without other contributing evidence like rats, cocunut shells, DNA, artifacts that can ve directly tied to Hawaii, or Easter Island, or anywhere else in Polynesia. without even a semblance of real evidence, then it seems to be just the same old load of bull, of how the everything good that the Chumash did in their world will always be attributed to outside influences, on the most scarce evidebce. No wonder no one wants to to this subject. there is no evidence, not even frim the Chumash themselves wgo credit their own ancestors with their own invention of the Tomol. If the Hawaiians came to the SB channel coasts they would of seen smoke from all the villages on the coastlines, and island villages. They would of kbown that their would be a fight if they landed, abd they would of been looking for more islands to settle, their is no reason to land in densely packed territories of the Coastal Chumash, they would of been outnumbered, and killed. There is no evidense, of a artifacts of soley Polynesian providence. There is no evidence that the chicken bones found in SouthAmerica were even from a time period before the European invasion were brought by free, exploring Polynesian seafarers...soooo.

    1. The Chumash are the senior tribe in the area, the tongva have only been in the SC coastal area since 3,000 ybp from inland from the great basin, the Chumash have been in the Southern California.islands and mainland for millenia, they " Diffused" tge Tomol tech making to the Tongva , not the non existent Polynesians!!the Channel Islands both North and.South have been continuously occupied for At least 14,000 years , they have always been separated by a expanse of open water, and San Nicolas was separated by 60 miles, not sure about the distance during the Pleistocene, but it was occupied during that time, and it could not of been less than 50 miles from the mainland, and there was no continental shelf on the California Mainland like the East Coast.