Friday, January 14, 2005

Turtle Island

Ainu totem pole collection in British Columbia

Totem pole, Alaska

The cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast and Austronesia shared many similarities. They both used communal longhouses, built similiar war canoes and possessed complex dual clan systems.

Gavin Menzies claims these were features were brought by the Chinese admiral Zheng He, while Thor Heyerdahl invokes "Aryans" who came from the West possibly from the Canary Islands. These theories have gained much publicity but the Austronesians and indigenous Americans are rarely considered as more than passive recipients in such scenarios. This view ignores the well-accepted ancient seafaring prehistory of this region.

Haida war canoe with totem prow, similar to those of Pacific islands,

The importance of the clan is evidenced by the frequent appearance of the totem in indigenous art. Much effort was put into learning long oral genealogies. In some cases on both sides of the Pacific these genealogies could take many days or even weeks to recite.

Oral records have some advantages over written ones. There are cases of oral traditions that survive written ones as with the Maya to the south. While written genealogies in the pre-modern era were limited to the elite and usually only to royalty, we have many instances of ancient oral genealogies among the common people.

To aid in the memorization of oral traditions, we find the use of devices like string records on both sides of the Pacific. The use of knot language make much sense for people who traveled extensively on the sea. The totem pole also records, at times, large amounts of information in the form of symbolic records. At times, these special symbols are known only to a small group of people such as the makers of the pole. In order to understand the meaning of the symbols, one has to consult these initiates.

The importance of clan identity was often shown through the wearing of special emblems on one's person. Especially important in our context are ear ornaments. The use of ear discs and related earlobe extension, often bearing clan ensignia, apparently was widespread.

Kalinga woman with ear disc and shell ear disc from Duyong Cave with calibrated date of 4,300 BC (Philippines)

These types of ear ornaments were also worn in Peru by the Orejones "Long-Ears." In Easter Island, people with extended ear-lobes were associated with the large stone heads carved out of volcanic rock.

The practice of making stepped pyramids has been mentioned earlier. Ancient shell mounds have been found along the Pacific coast of America including Mexico. As we have noted, shell and earthen mounds in Asia eventually became used for burial and ritual purposes probably signifying a link between the mound and the sacred mountain. The tops of these mounds were flattened as ritual platforms or to support homes. Here are a few examples of stepped pyramids in the region under consideration:

From top to bottom and left to right: Candi Sukuh, Indonesia; Borobodur, Java; Papara temple and burial place, Tahiti; Chimu temple/burial place, Peru; temple, Peru; royal tomb, Tonga.

Paul Kekai Manansala