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Scholars Paddle Upstream With Theory on Boat

Other academics reject the notion that the ancient Chumash learned to make their distinctive watercraft from the Polynesians.

September 15, 2005|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

In a newly published paper, two scholars have revived the controversial and long-dead theory that Polynesian sailors visited the California coast centuries before the first European explorers planted their flags here.

It might still be too soon, however, to swap out the Eureka on the state seal with an Aloha.

Even the paper's authors, UC Berkeley linguist Kathryn Klar and Terry Jones, an archeologist at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, acknowledge that their theory flies in the face of prevailing thought about how ancient cultures developed. In particular, it challenges how California's Chumash Indians developed a distinctive, superbly engineered boat called the tomol.

After five years of scouring Polynesian dictionaries, analyzing ancient fishhooks and evaluating more than a century's worth of scholarly findings, the two arrived at a tantalizing conclusion:

The Chumash learned a lot about how to build their tomols -- one of their culture's most important fixtures -- from Polynesian voyagers who paddled into the Santa Barbara Channel sometime between AD 400 and 800.

"I didn't believe it myself for the first year or two and didn't talk publicly about it until the year after that," said Jones of the theory he and Klar recently unveiled in the scholarly journal American Antiquity. "For at least 50 years, this whole idea has been considered unthinkable."

To some experts familiar with ancient Chumash watercraft, it still is.

"I flatly won't accept it," said Brian Fagan, a professor emeritus of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara. "It's a wonderful, bold theory, and I admire them for putting it out. But I don't think it's supportable at the moment."

The theory stemmed not from a single, huge discovery but from a smorgasbord of intriguing clues. One of the most significant involves terms -- like, say, "smorgasbord" -- that are borrowed from other languages.

For years, Klar, an expert in Celtic as well as Chumash, occupied herself with the kind of puzzle a linguist loves:

Why is tomol -- a word used for a boat unlike any other in native North America -- unlike any other word in Chumash, which itself is unlike any other known language?

Klar searched for a term resembling tomol or its cousin, tomolo, in nearby native tongues. She even explored languages from as far off as Aleut.

But poring over a Hawaiian dictionary one day, she was stopped short by kumulaa'au, which describes trees with useful wood. Knowing that the K and T sounds can be very close in Hawaiian, she was encouraged.

And when she discovered similar terms in the languages of the eastern Polynesians, who are believed to have ventured to Hawaii in plank canoes, she was enthralled.

"I must have looked through 30 or 40 Polynesian dictionaries," Klar said. "I found it in Hawaiian and Tahitian and Marquesan and in Cook Island Raratongan." In Tahiti, for example, the word is tumuraa'au.

On top of that, she found two more boat-related words with possible Polynesian roots in the language of the Gabrielinos, a tribe living just down the coast from the Chumash.

With each small discovery, the mystery deepened: Why and how did the Chumash, who, Klar said, "already had a perfectly good word for woodworked boat," come to use a Polynesian-sounding word for the vessel that was so crucial to their way of life?

That's just what Jones wanted to know after he heard Klar speak at an academic conference. Before tomol, an earlier type of craft was an axipenesh.

"It wasn't as if the Chumash borrowed the word for something like 'rock', " he said. "It was their word for boat, which I knew was an anomalously sophisticated craft for North America."

Slowly, he started to review the evidence found by other scholars years ago.

As early as 1939, scholars had observed some striking similarities between the tomol and certain Polynesian craft, Jones said.

Both were artfully fashioned from planks that were distinctively shaped by craftsmen using nearly identical shell blades.

In Polynesia, the planks were sanded with rough plant materials, whereas the Chumash used sharkskin. The Polynesians used sharpened bone to drill holes in the planks; the Chumash used sharp stones. Both used similarly elaborate procedures to caulk the planks and lash them together with tough fiber.

All that had been documented earlier, but a couple of years ago, Jones stumbled onto a discovery that, he said, "made the hair on my neck stand up."

Jones faxed some drawings of old Chumash fishhooks to Patrick Kirch, a Berkeley expert on Polynesian prehistory. One hook made from two pieces fastened together caught Kirch's eye.

"I AM STUNNED," he e-mailed Jones. "That's a Polynesian hook."

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