Polynesians in California: Evidence for an Ancient Exchange

Blog Entry

by James Blake Wiener
published on 26 March 2013
tomoloFor several decades, scholars have been searching for tangible evidence of Pre-Columbian contacts between the Old and New Worlds. Whether based on cross-cultural comparisons, historical records, studies of linguistics, or anthropological inquiry, these claims have stimulated heated debates and controversy in various fields. In recent times however, there appears to be a growing body of evidence to suggest that there were exchanges between Polynesian seafarers and native peoples in the Americas. From c. 300 to c. 1450 CE, the Polynesians traversed the Pacific Ocean, settling remote island chains like those of present-day Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island. Could they have also made it to the New World?
The Chumash had the most highly developed coastal technologies in North America.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Dr. Terry L. Jones, an archaeologist and Professor of Anthropology at the California Polytechnic State University, with regard to his assertion that there were technological and linguistic exchanges between the Chumash and Gabrielino tribes of California with ancient Polynesians.

JW: Dr. Terry Jones, welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and thank you for speaking with me about your research! I am pleased to inform you that you are the only archaeologist that we have spoken to about either prehistoric California or the Polynesians.

Before delving into the nuances of possible Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic exchanges between Polynesia and North America, I was curious to ask you how you first become interested in the Chumash tribe of California? Renowned for their baskets, rock art, and bead-work, the Chumash were also skilled navigators who maintained sophisticated networks of trade that impressed the Spanish during the Colonial era (1697-1821 CE). In your own words, what attracted you to them as an archaeologist (or anthropologist)?

ChumashheartlandTJ: Early in my career, I developed a special interest in coastal archaeology and marine-oriented societies. The Chumash (and Gabrielino) had the most highly developed coastal technologies and adaptations in California. Plus, the islands that they inhabited have a remarkably pristine and abundant archaeological record. It seemed inevitable that my research interests would eventually bring me to the islands and the Chumash although at present I mostly work on mainland Chumash sites.

JW: The Chumash and their neighbors to the south--the Gabrielino of the Tongva ethnic group--were the only North American natives to build seagoing-plank canoes. What makes these plank-built vessels so different from those of other Native Americans, which would suggest Polynesian antecedents?


TJ: Building a plank-sewn boat requires a significant amount of skill and specialized engineering. All of the other watercraft on the west coast of North America were either tule balsas (bundles of dried reeds fashioned into canoes) or single-dug-out logs. The latter in some cases were very large, and could be used for ocean travel, but the techniques used to produce them are profoundly different than those used to build the sewn-plank canoe. The technological differences between the Chumash sewn-plank canoe, and the tule balsa used by their neighbors for 800 km (500 mi) to the north and south, seem significant. The tomolo was the single most technologically complex watercraft built in North America and it stands apart from all of the other Native boats of western North America. In truth, it stands out across all of the New World.

comparisonboatsJW: Your research partner--Dr. Kathryn A. Klar, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley--claims that the Chumash word for "sewn-plank canoe," tomolo, might have originated from the Hawaiian word, kumula‘au, which refers to the redwood logs used in their construction. Is Chumash considered an "isolated" Native American language by scholars? Dr. Klar establishes several interesting, linguistic parallels between Chumash and Polynesian languages. Could you elaborate further?

TJ: What my colleague actually proposed was that the Chumash borrowed a word from the boat-building lexicon of speakers of the language at the time of the first possible contact event, the one which introduced the plank sewing technique; linguists refer to it as "proto-Central Eastern Polynesian," and the form at that time was something like *tumura'aakau. (Linguists "reconstruct" forms from earlier, unwritten languages using the methodology of historical-comparative linguistics.) Kumulaa’au is the Modern Hawaiian word for "tree which provides wood useful for making boats," and it meant something similar c. 1,200 years ago in proto-CEP. Hawaiian was one of the languages which developed out of proto-CEP (others include Tahitian and Maori).

The following additional words, which are phonologically anomalous in their languages, are believed to be borrowed from Central Eastern Polynesian (CEP):

  1. Ti'at, the Gabrielino/Tongva word for 'sewn-plank canoe,' is the word meaning 'to sew' in CEP.

  2. Taraina, tarainxa, the Gabrielino/Tongva word for 'any boat' is very similar to the word 'talai' meaning 'to hew or adze wood' in CEP.

  3. The Santa Cruz Island Chumash word, 'kalui,' a word for composite bone harpoon, seems to be derived from a combination of 'tala,' meaning 'sharp-pointed object, spine, or prong' in Polynesian, and 'hui,' meaning 'bone.'


One point of further clarification: Chumash is not an "isolated Native American language." It is surrounded on three sides by other indigenous languages, and the ocean (and Polynesians) are on the fourth side. It is a "language isolate," a technical term meaning that the Chumashan family has no known or well-established close relatives among other languages; in California, it is a true language isolate as it is not related to any other language or language family in the state. If any related languages are found, they will be much further away, probably somewhere along the west coasts of North and South America. But so far, it is still considered an "isolate" not "isolated."

JW: Thank you so much for that linguistic clarification as this is an essential aspect of your argument. I wanted to ask a question about another important aspect of your research: periodization. Which centuries are we speaking of in reference to these hypothetical encounters between the Polynesians and Chumash? Could they have been sustained over long periods of time or were they merely episodic in frequency?  

TJ: We do not believe that contacts were by any means sustained, but we do see the likelihood of two distinct contact events: one close to c. 700 CE that resulted in conveyance of sewn-plank boat technology and the composite harpoon, and a second event around c. 1300 CE that resulted in diffusion of the compound bone hook, grooved and barbed bone fishhooks, and grooved and barbed shell fishhooks. The earlier event may have originated from central Polynesia, while the second was from Hawaii.

polynesiantriangleJW: There is strong material evidence to support the premise that the Polynesians also visited South America; namely, that of sweet potato diffusion across the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. Much has also been made about alleged "Polynesian" chicken bones found at El Arenal, in Arauco Province, Chile. Are there commonalities in the evidence observed in Chile (or Ecuador) to what you have found among the Chumash and Gabrielino of coastal California?

TJ: Chile is the only other place in the New World where canoes were made by plank-sewing. The date of c. 1300 CE that we assign to the later contact event in southern California is very similar to the time when chickens were likely introduced into Chile from Polynesia. This date falls well within the era of greatest eastern Polynesian long-distance seafaring (documented by the chemistry of stone adzes) that ended around c. 1450 CE.

JW: I understand that your application of the "transpacific diffusion" hypothesis has proven quite controversial in the United States. How has it been received elsewhere around the world? Additionally, why do you believe there has been such theoretical resistance to your theory of transpacific exchange reaching North America? Is it due in part to Thor Heyerdahl (a Norwegian ethnologist, 1914-2002) and his Kon-Tiki theories?

TJ: My impression is that it has been better received elsewhere, especially in Europe. However, Pacific specialists are divided. Those who favor the new "short" chronology for Polynesian settlement of the Pacific do not like our date of c. 700 CE because according to this new dating scheme, it predates the initial settlement of Hawaii, the nearest Polynesian outpost to California.

There seem to be at least three mains reasons for the resistance among Americanists:

  1. Longstanding theoretical resistance to the notion of trans-oceanic diffusion and a strong inclination to attribute all innovations as independent adaptive responses at the local level. Virtually all other explanations for cultural variability over time in the Chumash area take this as a basic assumption.

  2. Arguments that our case denigrates Native Californians by implying that they were incapable of developing these innovations on their own (which we do not).

  3. Lingering concern about Thor Heyerdahl's methods and scholarship; he advanced the notion of trans-oceanic contact, but had the case backwards by asserting that indigenous South Americans settled and colonized Polynesia. He courted the mainstream media to promote his ideas rather than engage with academic scholars who recognized serious empirical flaws in his theories from the beginning.


PolynesiannavigationdeviceJW: Before concluding this interview, I wanted to inquire whether you have received comments from members of the Chumash or Gabrielino tribes about your research?


TJ: I have not done a formal poll, but we have encountered two opinions. One, expressed early on was something along the lines of, "yes and we might have come from the moon too." They were obviously not supportive. However, more commonly, we have been told that "this is something we have always known happened!"

This latter opinion has been expressed by Chumash and Gabrielino descendants who have contacted Kathryn and I over the years. In many cases, these are Native people who are today involved in building modern replicas of tomolos and resurrecting traditional seafaring skills.

JW: Dr. Jones, thank you again for speaking with us and sharing your expertise! This has been an absolutely fascinating conversation and it has been a pleasure to learn more about your investigation into long distance exchange across the Pacific. We wish you many happy adventures in research, and we hope that you will keep us posted as to your further studies.


TJ: Thanks for the opportunity, James. The case is presented in its entirety in Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World (AltaMira Press, 2011).

Photo Key & Credits:

1. Modern replica of a tomolo, Avila Beach, California, 2007. Image: courtesy of Dr. Terry L. Jones.

2. Distribution of the Chumash language in California during Pre-Columbian times. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Image created by ish ishwar, 2005.

3. Sewn-plank watercraft from California, Chile, and Oceania. Image: courtesy of Dr. Terry L. Jones.

4. Map of the "Polynesian Triangle," which stretches from New Zealand in the southwest, Easter Island in the east, and the Hawaiian islands in the north. This is a file from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain because it has been released there by its author. Image created by Kahuroa, 2005-2010.

5. This is an image of a Polynesian navigation device, showing the direction of winds, waves, and islands (c. 1904). This is a file from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain--in the USA--because its copyright has expired. Image uploaded by S. Percy Smith, 2010.

TerryJonesMaui2009Dr. Terry L. Jones is Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Social Sciences at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo where he has taught for the last 15 years. He has worked as a professional archaeologist for 30 years, mostly on the central California coast where he studies hunter-gatherer ecology and maritime adaptations. He has published over 60 scholarly articles in the world's leading archaeological journals as well as monographs and edited volumes, including (with L. Mark Raab): Prehistoric California: Archaeology and the Myth of Paradise (University of Utah Press, 2004), and (with Kathryn Klar): California Prehistory: Colonization, Culture, and Complexity (Altamira Press, 2007). In 2008, he received the Martin A. Baumhoff Award for Special Achievement from the Society for California Archaeology. Dr. Jones is editor of California Archaeology, the journal of the Society for California Archaeology. His most recent publication is Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World (AltaMira Press, 2011).

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be "illuminating."

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners and are copyrighted. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Dr. Terry L. Jones, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview. We extend our special thanks to Dr. Kathryn A. Klar for her time and cooperation in helping facilitate this interview. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.
Posted by James Blake Wiener on March 26, 2013, 16:06.

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