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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Problems of the 'Traditionalist' Model of Long-Distance Polynesian Voyaging


The nature of prehistoric, long-distance Polynesian seafaring has been debated for centuries, primarily because it was never witnessed by Europeans and left almost no traces beyond the colonization of far-flung islands. The dominant mode of understanding has been ‘traditionalism', an appeal to information about vessels, navigation and voyages contained in supposedly-authentic Polynesian traditions that came to light during the nineteenth century. More recently, neo-traditionalism, which relies upon even more recent ethnography and experimental sailing, has supplanted its older form. Here, I criticize several cases of traditionalism in modern research on Polynesian prehistory, arguing that in one it has disguised a scholarly error and that in another it is illogical. Prehistoric Polynesian seafaring will continue to defy close analysis, but cogency could be expected to improve by abandoning the traditionalist research agenda in favour of explicit historical analysis, continued archaeological research and a broadly-based form of simulation modeling.

Insights Paper