Wednesday, March 19, 2008
British Museum "discovers" 2 pre-European Tahitian canoe sails
(Tahitipresse) - The British Museum in London has "discovered" amongst its collections two pandanus Tahitian canoe sails dating from pre-European times.
"Nobody believed it existed anywhere in the world," said Tara Hiquily, a Polynesian canoe specialist at the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands. These sails date back to three types of pre-European sailing canoes used in today's Society Islands of French Polynesia, she said.
The British Museum sent a series of photos to the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, where they are being carefully examined. The museum in Tahiti's west coast Commune of Punaauia considers the discovery a major event because no other examples of such sails are known to exist in any other national museums.
The discovery apparently was made when British Museum staff was taking an inventory of their vast collections of artifacts, which include a wide variety of original works from Polynesia.
What remain unknown for the moment is who collected the two sails and exactly when the sails were made during the pre-European times in Tahiti.
Archaeological excavations in French Polynesia have allowed specialists to update the remains of canoes, but never the sails used with the canoes for both short and long voyages among the islands.
On Huahine in the Leeward Islands, for example, fragments of a canoe dating back more than 1,000 years were found. On the Tuamotu atoll of Anaa, fragments of a twin-hulled voyaging canoe more than 13 meters (42.7 ft.) long were found.
However, no such excavations have enabled archaeologists to understand the techniques used to weave and attach the pandanus sails to the canoes. The only clues come from drawings and paintings done by early European navigators, who accurately presented historians with views of the Polynesian canoes in use at the time. But such illustrations do not necessarily provide a direct link to the pre-European period.
The British Museum's "discovery undoubtedly will provide a better understanding of the ingenuity of the talented Polynesian navigators who traveled considerable distances aboard canoes made from plant materials.
The British Museum's collection includes one of the earliest documented surviving sailing canoes brought to Europe from the eastern Pacific, according to the museum's Internet Web site. The first object from the region to be acquired by the museum, it was collected at the Tuamotu atoll of Nukutavake in June 1767 by Captain Samuel Wallis, just before Lt. James Cook's first Pacific voyage.
As the Web site notes, "The Tuamotus are low-lying islands with few forests, or trees large enough for a hull to be crafted from a single trunk. Instead the hull is composed of 45 wood sections bound together with continuous lengths of plaited coir, a coarse fiber made from the seed of the coconut palm. It probably had an outrigger (a parallel hull) to balance it in the waves.
"A single plank seat survives to suggest the manner of its use and on the upper edge of the left side there are burn marks made by fishing lines.
"Wallis brought it back to England lashed to the deck of his ship, HMS Dolphin. Given this treatment it is in remarkably good condition," the museum Web site notes.