Transpacific Contacts: The Mapuche Connection

Ramírez, José Miguel. 1990/91. from Rapa Nui Journal Vol. 4 Nº 4: 53-55

At present, there is a renaissance of the old thesis of a prehistoric transpacific contact between Polynesia and America, from west to east, thanks to the succesful journeys of experimental sailing by the double canoe Hokule'a (Finney, 1967, 1977, 1979, 1985).

In spite of the untimely end of Eric de Bischop's attempt in 1956, the present knowledge of trade winds and wind patterns in the South Pacific is good enough to postulate that such a voyage was possible for Polynesian sailors and their crafts by means of the same mechanisms that brought them anf their culture to Easter Island (Finney et al, 1989; Irwin, 1989, 1990; Irwin et al, 1990).

There are many references concerning the supposed transpacific origin of a long list of cultural traits in different prehispanic american cultures (Dixon, 1933; Emory, 1942; Imbelloni, 1953; Rivet, 1960; Estrada et al, 1962; Meggers, 1975, 1987; Jett, 1983), even the "exchange" of valuable foods: the sweet potato (called "kumara" in both areas), a definetely american cultigen (Yen, 1974). Peter Buck (1938) first said that "kumara" was brought back by polynesian pioneers; the prehispanic chicken in America seems to have come from Polynesia (Carter, 1976).

The main problem concerning some of the archaeological, ethnographic and linguistic parallels is how to differentiate whether the origin was by independent evolution-convergence or by contact.

Some structural analogs (e.g. social organization, burial practices) could come from similar environmental-historical-cultural stimuli. Then, any parallels lacking such a basis can be better explained by contact, as long as some homologic traits (specific words, or the shape of an artifact that does not depend on its function) can be better explained in terms of contact, too (Godfrey and Cole, 1979).

The real analysis is quite difficult because of the nature of the record (most of the time silent) and the complexity of the cultural process itself, which includes different possible situations of contact, selectivity and change throughout time.


The Mapuche Data

The Mapuche area was once located all along central-south Chile (Lat. 33º to 43º south), from the coast to the eastern side of the Andes Mountains. According to many references, this old and strong culture (a million people at present) seems to have received some cultural borrowings from Polynesia in prehispanic times.

The first reference for an exotic artifact in a local archaeological site comes from 1910 when the former Director of the National Museum found two mata'a, Easter Island obsidian spear points, in a prehispanic shell midden south of Valparaíso (Aichel, 1924; Oyarzún, 1927).

Many mata'a have appeared in Mapuche collections, sometimes associated with other Easter Island artifacts (stone polished adzes ­toki- and stone pillows ­ngarua-) of suspicious origin, and there are at least three of them found in archaeological sites but they all lack firm provenience. The next reference is the Mapuche word for the old stone polished axes, toki, a word that was widely spread from Southeast Asia as far as the Mapuche area in South America (Imbelloni, 1928). Toki in Chile were functional axes (mainly adzes in Polynesia), the title for the warrior chiefs and their symbols of rank (tokicura, an adze-like stone pendant). There is even a reference for a Maori chant when cutting trees with toki which, as it has been said, was textually preserved in a Mapuche tale (ibid, 1931).

Linguistic parallels between Mapuche and Rapa Nui were already seen by Father Sebastian Englert (1934) who had come to the Capuchin Mapuche Mission in 1925, before his long stay on Easter Island (1937-1969) and they have been recently reviewed by Schumacher, 1992).

A very interesting simultaneous analog-homolog is the traditional cooperative work under rules of reciprocity, called minga in Mapuche, umanga in Rapa Nui, and mink'a in Quechua.

On the island of Chiloé there is also a parallel with Polynesia: the old earth-cooking oven, called curanto (umu in Polynesia). Nevertheless, the most mentioned Polynesian-like Mapuche artifact has been the so-called "Clava Mere Okewa" a stone polished handclub with a long flat body, wide and asymmetrical at the extreme end and with a rounded short handle, a shape that is closely related to the Maori wooden Wahaika (Imbelloni, 1953). Mapuche clubs lack the elaborate ornaments on the edges because of the raw material used: instead of wood, they were made from local slate.

Other club shapes are also present, attesting to a complex local evolution. Unfortunately, its late prehispanic association has never been confirmed by a well controlled archaeological context, only oral references for its presence in two mapuche burials. Spanish conquerers did not see them in use as was the case for the well-known tokicura. They remain one of the most intriguing items.

Recently, a new item has been included: three small stone busts (15 to 40 centimeters high) that were found on Chiloe Island (Looser, 1932), Mocha Island, and San José de la Mariquina. They are quite close in stylistic conception, but Rapa Nui models seem more expressive whereas the Mapuche figures were made by a more abstract mind, such as "rationally cooled" (Carvacho, 1983). Many other sculptures af this kind are at present in museums and private collections but, again, there are no accurate controls concerning their origin.

The "prehispanic chicken" and its possible polynesian origin must still be proven. Chicken bones were found long ago in shell middens on Mocha Island.

Somehow, Chiloé and Mocha islands seem to concentrate some specific traits which can provide interesting clues in the future. In fact, I have recently seen a possible "rocker jaw" (Gill, 1990) from a prehistoric burial in Mocha Island. Polynesian-like features were already mentioned for some skulls from Mocha Island long ago (Ureta, 1937).

In any case, if a contact between Polynesia and South America ever occurred, I think it was in the opposite way to the one claimed by Heyerdahl. If so, the best way was by means of the westerlies,. Reaching to about Lat. 35 º south, to sail directly to the Chilean coast before these favorable winds. If departing from Easter Island, "a canoe might be able to make it to South America in a month or so of sailing if consistently good winds were found, a voyaging time well within the carrying capacity of large double canoes and the endurance of Polynesian sailors" (Finney).

Bibliographic Note: Bibliographic references are too long to be included here, but I have published a more extensive paper in CLAVA Nº 5: 41-74, 1992 (Museo Sociedad Fonck scientific magazine; Viña del Mar): "Contactos transpacíficos: un acercamiento al problema de los supuestos rasgos polinésicos en la Cultura Mapuche", and some new insights in Italian: 1994. Rapa Nui. Gli Ultimi Argonauti. G. Ligabue & G. Orefici Eds. Erizzo Editrice. pp.239-248, including some new information coming from geographers (Cavieres & Waylen, 1994) who analyze the last El Niño events and its relevance for a prehistoric sailing from central Polynesia to the Mapuche area. More recent references come from excavations in Mocha Island, where some old prehispanic bone fishhooks seem closer to Rapa Nui.Talking about ethnoastronomy, mapuche and polynesians share the moon calendar, celebrating the New Year with rising Pleiades right after the winter solstice. New support for the possibility of a long distance trip, comes from an historic accidental sailing by prisoners who escaped from Tasmania's penal settlement in Sarah Island, to hit the Chilean port of Valdivia in 1834. From a general point of view, some new evidence and theoretical arguments indicate Easter Island was not colonized at once by the rapanui cultural hero (Ariki Hotu A Matu'a and his crew) since, for instance, to establish all the long list of new plants they brought requires more than one trip. Concerning the model of a complete isolation to explain the singularity of the rapanui cultural development, some evidence of marquesan contact 500 years after the first contact, indicate they were not alone up until the time they had no more timber to repair or build large double canoes. Rapa Nui is much more than giant statues, it is magic, a permanent challenge.


José Miguel Ramírez


Administrator Rapa Nui National Park