Kahn, Jennifer G.; Abigail Buffington; Claudia Escue and Stefani A. Crabtree
While Eastern Polynesian archaeologists rarely recover archaeological remains of canoes (va'a), ethnohistoric texts document how such vessels played a central role in the daily lives of commoners and chiefs alike. Here, we refocus discussions of va'a in Polynesian societies through synthesizing proxy information (archaeological data, evidence from ethnographic and ethnohistoric sources, ecological modeling, human-centered interaction networks) on canoe use in the Society Islands of French Polynesia. While all communities who initially settled Eastern Polynesia archipelagoes must have done so with large double-hulled canoes, their use was absent in some societies by the time of European contact. We question why some Eastern Polynesian societies retained the use of large ocean-going canoes, while others did not. For high island archipelagoes like the Society Islands, sources document how large double-hulled canoes facilitated and supported elite intra-archipelago voyaging, warfare, and exchange with near and remote hinterlands up until European contact in the mid-eighteenth century. While smaller canoes were used by commoners on a daily basis for subsistence fishing and island-wide transport, larger ocean-going canoes were strictly the purview of high-ranking elites. Our human-centered interaction network models help us to identify how social processes put constraints on the manufacture and continued use of large ocean-going va'a in Eastern Polynesian contexts. We deploy such data to outline steps in the production, use, and re-use of canoes. We employ network science to better understand the relationships between animal and plant species used by the Ma'ohi in canoe manufacture, quantifying the number of resources used, the number of social personae involved, and the amount of labor/energy involved in their manufacture. Finally, we use Mo'orea settlement pattern data, as well as landscape and elevation data, to visually model the extent to which local ecologies or habitats constrained access to long-lived hard wood trees, key raw materials in the construction of ocean-going vessels. We consider the additional variables of soil pH and tree regrowth rates in our modeling of the ecological limits of preferred va'a species. We then query differential patterns of continued use of ocean-going vessels in two Eastern Polynesian archipelagoes: the Gambier archipelago and the Society Islands. Utilizing these multiple sources of data, we return to the age-old question of what roles social and natural processes played in the resiliency of the socio-political systems of Polynesian chiefdoms. We view ocean-going canoes as critical social tools in terms of resilience, as use of these water craft reduced island isolation and allowed for contact with near, and sometimes far, neighbors who served as critical buffering agents, particularly in times of ecological crises, such as drought, famine, or tsunamis.