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The Polynesian Connection Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005
by Blake Edgar

Did ancient Hawaiians teach California Indians how to make ocean-going canoes?


They called themselves "people of the tomol" and their canoe the "house of the sea." For the Chumash people, who inhabited the southern California coast as well as several islands across the Santa Barbara Channel, the sewn-plank canoe, or tomol, anchored both their identity and economy. Tomols transported goods and people and were ideal craft for pursuing deep-sea fish or hunting marine mammals. Chumash who owned tomols commanded wealth and prestige--they wore bearskin capes to mark their status--as well as political leadership. Some archaeologists argue that the tomol made possible the complexity of Chumash culture.

Among North American Indians, only the Chumash, and later the neighboring Gabrielino, built sewn-plank canoes. In the Western Hemisphere, this distinctive technology is otherwise known only from the coast of Chile and among Pacific islanders. Compared to wooden dugout canoes or balsas made from bundled tule reeds, tomols are faster, more stable at sea, more durable, and able to carry larger loads for longer distances. It has been called "the greatest invention of the California Indians," but whether the Chumash were the tomol's inventors is now being questioned. What if the idea just washed ashore? What if the Chumash encountered the unchallenged masters of oceanic navigation, the Polynesians, and learned the idea from them? The suggestion provokes archaeologists because it implies that the tomol did not stem from Chumash cultural evolution but rather from a chance landing of people who traveled from more than two thousand miles away. Could something as important as the development of the tomol have been an accident of history?

Although the possibility of Polynesian influence on Chumash culture has been floated before, such radical notions were ignored as American archaeologists became reluctant to consider cases of cultural diffusion (the spread of cultural elements from one group to another) across vast distances. But now a distinguished California archaeologist and a linguist of the Chumash languages have marshaled new evidence for a Polynesia-California connection.

Blake Edgar is an editor at the University of California Press and the coauthor of The Dawn of Human Culture (2002) and From Lucy to Language (1996).

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America