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The Northern Equatorial Islands

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The early Polynesian voyagers travelled extensively throughout the Polynesian triangle and the northern equatorial islands. This Web site examines the remains of these early Polynesians and draws conclusions as to the probable nature of their origin.


Between the center and the southern angle of the Polynesian triangle there is a stretch of 2,400 miles. On this northern radial, the modern chart shows a number of small islands that would have formed useful ports of call had the Polynesian voyagers been able to sail directly north.

It has been suggested that the Polynesians, who were practical naturalists, may have followed the flight of the golden plover, land birds that migrate south from Alaska in winter and return in summer, to lands which they knew awaited their coming in the northern seas. Whether or not the prevailing winds would have allowed sailing canoes to follow the direct route of the birds is uncertain, however there is no doubt that the explorers reached the Hawaiian islands and made permanent settlements upon them.

It is also certain that the Polynesians discovered the intervening islands and, though they passed on, they planted coconut palms and left enduring monuments composed of coral rock to bear witness to their discovery and temporary occupation.

The islands on the northern radial are Christmas, Fanning, Washington, and Palmyra, lying just north of the Equator on a southeast to northwest line, covering a stretch of about 400 nautical miles, with Palmyra, the most northerly, about 1,000 nautical miles from Hawaii. Fanning was important then as a cable station, and Christmas, with an area of 300,000 acres is said to be the largest of all atolls. South of the Equator and 250 miles southwest of Christmas is Jarvis Island which, though not an atoll, has a desert climate. Farther south are Malden and Starbuck. Not so very far southwest from Starbuck is Tongareva (Penrhyn), already referred to as the most northerly atoll on the northwest radial.

These islands situated north and south of the Equator have been termed collectively the Line Islands. Howland and Baker Islands, lying farther to the west, are included in the term. Howland has kou trees and a depression which may have been excavated by Polynesians to grow taro. Though the two islands were probably not touched by the Polynesians travelling to the northwest, they were of practical importance to the United States as bases for air service across the Pacific.

When first visited by European ships, the Equatorial Islands were uninhabited. There are no myths or legends which might connect them with other phases of the great Polynesian adventure. So their brief history must be reconstructed from material traces of human occupancy. On lone islands the outstanding signs of previous habitation are the presence of coconut trees and coral temples erected to their gods by Polynesian navigators after landing. One or both of these traces have been found on all the Equatorial Islands except Howland, Baker, and Jarvis.

Coconut trees were seen by Captain Fanning on Washington and Fanning Islands in 1798 and by Captain Cook on Christmas Island in 1777. Both captains remained ashore for so brief a time that they did not see the archaeological remains and concluded that these islands had never been inhabited. Botanists now hold that coconuts are not endemic to atoll islands and must have been transported and planted by early Polynesian mariners. Those who remained for any length of time on these northern atolls adjusted themselves to the changed environment and made use of local materials much as do the present Tonagarevans.

How these atolls were discovered we shall never know. They may have been touched during the course of longer expeditions to the north, following the flight of the golden plover, or winds and currents may have blown ships upon them during storms. They may have been visited during short voyages between neighbouring atoll groups, or by turtle-catching and fishing expeditions. Even today uninhabited islands of the Tuamotus are visited to catch turtle, a great delicacy, which may be found in abundance near atolls not permanently settled.

The early visitors to the atolls made themselves as comfortable as circumstances permitted. Their primary needs, apart from food that teemed in the sea and lagoon, were water and shelter. The need for water was not so pressing to the Polynesian as it is to a present-day European. Western civilization with its improvement of sanitary conditions and refinements of living has required more and more water. A European uses water to wash his food, his clothing, and himself. He needs water to cook his food and to drink either by itself or in combination with other beverages. He requires it to water his garden and his crops, to flush out his water closets, to wash down streets, to use in various manufactures, and in a host of ways unknown to his own ancestors. On seeing an atoll without rivers or streams, he is likely to assume that life would be untenable owing to lack of water supplies.

Under the old conditions water was not so vitally important in the life of the Polynesians.The coral islander cleaned his fish and shellfish in sea water and did not need to wash coconuts and pandanus fruit. He replaced his simple garments with new ones when they became soiled, and washed his body daily in the sea. In volcanic islands, where streams or springs abound, the inhabitants washed themselves in fresh water after swimming in the sea. One of the perquisites of a high chief was a fresh-water pool reserved to his own use and named in the recital of his chiefly possessions. It is said that the fresh water removes the itchy feeling left by salt water. On atolls, however, the people spent so much of their time in salt water that their skins became inured to what was unpleasant to others. When rains occurred, they availed themselves of a natural shower bath and, at times, a scooped-out excavation in a fresh-water seepage on the beach with a coconut-shell dipper provided all the necessities for bodily ablution.

The earth oven, with its heated coral or shells, did not require water for cooking purposes. The beverage required by man was supplied by the coconut. However, on atolls without a luxuriant growth of coconuts, water was a necessity. It was obtained by digging shallow wells. Even though the water on the lower rock stratum was brackish, it was not unpalatable to those who had become accustomed to it. In post-European times, Polynesian labourers on Malden Island preferred the well water to rain water caught in tanks because they attributed medicinal properties to it. On this island, there are a number of shallow wells lined with coral limestone slabs. At the bottom of the wells, shells were found that had been used as dippers.

The inhabitants of these atolls built houses with poles procured from local plants and roofed them over with pandanus leaves or coconut leaves when coconuts had been planted. In order to have a smooth surface upon which to sleep, the floor was carpeted with a layer of coral gravel, which the ceaseless wash of the waves had smoothed on the beach. To prevent the gravel from being scattered, a low curb was constructed of flat slabs of coral or of low blocks of coral limestone. The curb was rectangular, conforming to the dimensions of the house and about six or ten inches high. When the temporary settlers sailed away, the framework and roofs of their houses crumbled to decay, but the rectangular curbs, having been imbedded on edge in the ground, remained as permanent witnesses of previous occupation.

On Washington Island, a coral enclosure was reported of indefinite shape, but on Fanning, Christmas, and Malden Islands, they were of the characteristic rectangular form. In Fanning, the coral limestone curb stones were worked with an inner step and a few were shaped with an upper ornamental projection which rose a few inches above the general level of the curb. Two corner stones were L-shaped, a form described only in Tonga suggesting that the builders of the Fanning Island structure came from Tonga.

At the structure in Tonga is dated by the Tongan lineages as having been built in the 16th century, it is apparent that the Fanning Island structure cannot antedate that. The Tongan origin of the structure is further supported by the discovery of some bonito hooks in an old grave. Polynesian hooks for bonito trolling are made in two parts: a shank of pearl shell which resembled a small fish when trolled and a curved piece which forms the point to hook the fish. The point pieces differ in the various groups and the Fanning hooks, resembled more closely those of Tonga than any other group. Also, some basaltic adzes had been discovered which are shaped like those of Tonga.

In both Christmas and Malden Islands, there are raised rectangular platforms with walls defined by coral slabs 2 to 3.5 feet high and with the interior filled with coral rocks. The platforms of Malden Island are definitely associated with curved rectangular courts. These platforms resemble the maraes described for Tongareva and were used for religious purposes.

On Fanning, Christmas and Malden Islands, there are small rectangular enclosures about six feet long by three feet wide or larger, defined by coral limestone slabs from one to two feet high and covered in the interior with a layer of coral gravel. Similar structures were made in Tongareva and other atolls for the burial of the dead. Instead of digging a hole down into crumbling coral with inadequate tools, the atoll dwellers found it easier to build upwards with the easily accessible limestone slabs and then to cover the dead with the layer of coral gravel.

Other signs of Polynesian occupation are given by the discovery of tools or implements. The basaltic adze found on Fanning Island and one on Christmas Island indicate that the early settlers came from a volcanic island. When they moved on again, they generally took their stone tools with them, but an occasional one may have been mislaid or purposely left as a funeral offering. Starbuck Island has no archaeological remains.

The story of Malden Island is as simple as that of any atoll. Some Polynesians settled upon it, made temples for the worship of their gods, buried their dead, made paths to the sea, dug wells, and made implements of tridacna shell. They lived on the native plants and animals and perhaps after a drought or a bad storm, they migrated elsewhere.

Tempting as it may be to weave mysteries about extinct civilizations that existed on sunken fertile lands, imagination along such lines conflicts with common sense. Geologists have found no evidence to support the theory of extensive lands that have sunk within the Polynesian triangle during the period of man's existence. The material evidences of previous human occupation on uninhabited atolls have nothing mysterious about them and can all be accounted for by temporary Polynesian occupation. Hardy Polynesian ancestors paid their visits, stayed their span, and passed on to return to or to seek more attractive islands.

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