Putting the life back in science fiction

The Way of the Island Locust

Sorry for the click-bait title, this has nothing to do with martial arts.  It’s a reference to a post I wrote in December 2015 about humans being locust-like in our ability to have mass outbreaks when and where conditions are right.  My idea was that we call these outbreaks civilization.  I came at this from the biology side, but of course the anthropologists and archaeologists have been looking at the same phenomenon in their own way for quite a long time.  Over Christmas, I ran into a highly readable version of their thinking based on archaeology and anthropology from Oceania, one of my favorite regions, and…

well, there hangs a substory.  I was originally going to post this after Christmas, but I realized I didn’t quite understand what was going on.  So I read more books by the same author (Patrick Kirch), developed some germ of understanding about what he thinks is going on, and finally looked up to realize that it’s been a long time since I posted last.  Anyway, if you want to read about my holiday reading, aka how a small group of people settled the Pacific using mostly indigenous resources and founded one and possibly two archaic, pristine states, then read more after the jump.

Over Christmas I read Pat Kirch’s A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai’i.   It’s a worthy book if you’re into archaeology, Hawaiian culture, or worldbuilding.  The thing that most of us don’t realize is that the Kingdom of Hawai’i was the last pristine state to form in the world. A pristine state is one that forms in total isolation from other states, and they’re vanishingly rare in the archaeological record.  We’re talking about Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Norte Chico (Peru), China, Teotihuacan (Mexico and Guatemala), the people of the Indus River Valley, and possibly West Africa. And definitely Hawai’i.

The great thing about Hawai’i was that its final formation into a kingdom happened a few centuries ago, under western observation at the end, so we’ve actually got good outside records.  We’ve also got a lot of archaeological data, thanks to all that tourist infrastructure the islands have laid on since NEPA forced all the developers to chronicle what they were destroying when they built all those resorts.  And finally, we’ve got the internal history of the Hawaiians themselves, who became literate with a vengeance soon after they got the technology (Hawai’i had a higher literacy rate in the 19th century than did the US), and quickly wrote down their previously oral history.  That oral history has proved unexpectedly accurate, shedding quite a bit of light on the materials the archaeologists have dug up.  Compared with Mesopotamia, we’ve got a huge amount of information about how state formation happened in Hawai’i.

While I was originally going to do the equivalent of a book report on A Shark Going Inland, as I reread it, I realized that it didn’t make as much sense as I thought it did.  Since Kirch has written over 30 other books, I read others: The Wet and the Dry, How Chiefs Became Kings, and On the Road of the Winds.  Since he rehashes and reuses material quite a bit (an important tip for how to write over 30 books), I got a better idea of what he was talking about.  The process of getting to a state level political organization, with the functional equivalent of peasants and kings, is actually one possible outcome for what the ancestral Polynesians set off when they and their Lapita ancestors started colonizing the islands.

This process started maybe 3,000-4,000 years ago, but it really went in two stages: the time when colonization reached out to perhaps Samoa around 200 BC, and the age of exploration around 800-1200 CE, when they colonized most of the livable islands in the Pacific and made it to South America.  Incidentally, that roughly 1,000 year gap, the Long Pause, between the two waves of settlement is the origin of Disney’s Moana (although they have a fantasy answer for why it happened).  No one’s quite sure how big the Long Pause really was for one thing, and some argue it’s an artifact of incomplete archaeological data.  If the Long Pause happened it might have been caused by a changing climate, with the second push corresponding to the Medieval Warming Period , or it might have something to do with people needing symbionts (cultivars of plants and such) that could survive month-long trips across the ocean, or better boats, or it might have required people to wait until there were enough big trees to make a lot of big voyaging canoes.  Whatever, there appears to be a multi-century gap between when people headed west to Tonga and  Samoa, and when they settled Tahiti, the Marquesas, Hawai’i, New Zealand, Rapa Nui, and all those other islands you probably haven’t heard of.

Like me, you might hold the Polynesians up as a great example of how humans can settle space.  After all, they developed a culture and technology that was entirely locally sourced, they figured out how to find islands remotely, and they figured out how to terraform the islands they found so that they could support human life.  Thus, a few canoes, each holding maybe 30-40 people , set off to find new islands, settled where they could, sailed back to the homeland for a couple of generations, then generally cut off contact with the ancestral island (especially in the eastern Pacific).

The more I read, though, the more I realized that Polynesia isn’t a great model for, say, settling the asteroid belt.  For one thing, they weren’t settling barren rocks.  Uninhabited islands in the Pacific are all (so far as I know) giant seabird rookeries that generally have/had a contingent of flightless birds (rails, ducks, and/or pigeons).  The seabirds would have been pooping on these islands for centuries, whether they were volcanic cones, atolls, or raised coral makatea islands.  As a result, the soil was generally fertile, and each island had a lot of birds that were totally unused to humans and thus easy to hunt and kill, along with an ocean full of fish (especially if there was a reef) just offshore.   The Polynesians knew that, if they could find an island, they wouldn’t exactly starve while they got their crops in.  They had two other factors in their favor: they colonized mostly tropical and subtropical islands (South Island New Zealand and the Chathams being the only exception), so they had to deal with wet and dry seasons, not winters when crops wouldn’t grow.  Moreover, many of their crops could be grown clonally (yams, taro, sweet potato, sugar cane, banana), meaning they took cuttings, wrapped them in soil and wet leaves, and transferred them along with the soil they needed to grow.  This might have helped transfer the fungi and bacteria the plants needed to grow better as well.  While uninhabited islands weren’t (and aren’t) paradises, once the Polynesians had learned how to colonize them, they could repeat the colonization process as long as they could reach new tropical or subtropical islands.

Why colonize?  Population pressure wasn’t to blame, since the great period of colonization seems to have happened over a couple of centuries, when most of the populations were much lower than their peaks in the 1600s.    That leaves social factors.

Socially, the Polynesians had a rank ordered society: everybody was putatively descended from the gods or at least revered ancestors, and the highest ranking lineages were the eldest children of the eldest children of the highest ranking ancestors/gods, while the lowest ranking were the youngest children of the youngest children of the lowest ranking ancestor.  Or so went the theory.  Mana, the life force responsible for fertility, descended from the gods via these lineages, and the eldest or head male of the lineage was the ariki, a word that changed into aliki (Tahiti) or ali’i (Hawai’i) and is generally translated as “chief.”  One of the chief’s jobs was to keep everything fertile by keeping the mana flowing, and this required creating taboos to protect the mana.  It’s all very authoritarian.  However, there’s an equally ancient, countervailing meme of the upstart younger son/low-ranking chief who overthrows his incompetent older brother/high-ranking chief, thus demonstrating that the usurper has the mana.  This conflict was baked in to Polynesian culture: the youngest lineages got the worst areas on each island to cultivate, and there were a plethora of stories of usurping younger chiefs.  Early on, given a choice between fighting or building a canoe, probably a lot of low-ranking young chiefs chose to set off into the unknown to find an island where they could be the senior chief.  They’d get their boats built, recruit ten or a dozen young couples to go with them, fill their boats full of supplies, crops, and animals, and set off, following the directions migrating golden plovers and other birds took to find the islands that these birds flew to.  Once they found new islands, they’d engage in something like a hunting and gathering life of eating fish and birds until the crops grew.  At first, with only 30 or 40 people, each child was precious, one step back from the brink of colony failure and extinction.  Eventually, as they filled all the good spots in the island, with the highest ranking families taking the best land, there would be pressure for those with the worst deals to either fight or build canoes again.

But that’s just the first stage, and by 1400 it appears that it was over.  Why did they stop exploring and making the long trips between, say, Hawai’i, Tahiti, and New Zealand?  No one knows.  My guess is that they started running into a birdshit constraint.  This is my own idea (presumably others have proposed it, but I haven’t seen it).  If an island is full of seabirds, there’s a net nutrient flow from the sea to the island, via bird poop.    This allows the island to grow a lot of big trees, in a process analogous to the huge nutrient flows that used to go into the Pacific northwest forests, via bears carrying dying salmon into the woods (and yes, shitting in the woods themselves).  When humans get rid of the birds, there were a lot less nutrients flowing onto the island until the humans started carrying fish inland and depositing the remains where their crops could get them.  As a result, the  generation of trees after the island was settled might have been smaller.  My suspicion is that, once the Polynesians killed off the seabirds and cut down the biggest trees to make their boats, they found that their islands no longer grew the big trees they needed for the giant, voyaging double-hulled canoes.  Indeed, modern canoes of that design are either made with fiberglass (Hokule’a) or with trees shipped in from the Pacific Northwest.

In any case, after a few centuries, the islands cut off contact with each other. But the end of migration and exploration isn’t the end of the story.  As the islands  isolated themselves, their populations exploded, and the archaeologists think that the growth followed something like a sigmoid curve.  One might think this is simple reproductive pressure, but the archaeologists and anthropologists don’t think so, for there were already enough people that no colony was going extinct (at least on the bigger islands), and the Polynesians had a variety of mechanisms (infanticide, abortion, celibacy, exile) for controlling populations.

This is the part I’m still struggling to understand, because I’m a garden variety geek who looks for scientific and deterministic explanations.  Kirch and others think that the fundamental driving force wasn’t an increasing population, it was increasing productivity: a simple desire to live a better life.  In Polynesia, productivity was power and prestige, so being able to grow way more than you needed was not just a great way to live a better life and show off, it provided a surplus that the chiefs could turn into feasts, crafts, rituals, or warriors, all of which added to that group’s power, not to mention their quality of life.  Of course, once you have a surplus, you can also have more kids, and so for a few centuries on most islands, there was this “virtuous cycle,” where people cleared land, made farms, grew more crops, and as they did, they prospered and became more and more powerful.

Some of this growth was spurred by innovation, generally in farming methods (for example, the Hawaiian systems for growing wet taro were so good that they’re generally used unchanged to this day).  Each new innovation–sweet potatoes coming in from South America, new crops arriving on a voyaging ship, new dryland farming techniques, and so forth–allowed the population to get that much bigger before Malthusian limits popped up again (some talk about a innovation-malthusian ratchet).  Still, this kind of growth generally happened under chiefs, who organized their people to provide the surplus that kept the chiefs and their entourages living high on the hog.  The surplus allowed the chiefs to increasingly distinguish themselves from the commoners, to have more and more elaborate religious rituals.  But they weren’t, by themselves, enough to cause state formation.

This point in island development is where environmental constraints started coming in to play.  Some of the smallest islands (like Henderson) only survived through trading with nearby neighbors (in Henderson’s case, Pitcairn) for things like useful stone.  While Henderson was settled for about 600 years (much like Viking Greenland), it was empty when the Europeans found it, as were Pitcairn and a bunch of other, tiny islands in the area.  Slightly bigger islands usually hit their carrying capacity and went to war.  So did New Zealand, which because of its limited growing season, acted a lot like a small island.  In all these cases, life became a protracted feud between or among the chiefs, with none of the chiefs strong enough to control their region or their island(s) for more than their lifetimes.  Often the fighting was between the older settled areas on the wet parts of the island (where taro was grown in irrigated fields) and the dry parts of the island (where dryland taro, yams, or sweet potatos were grown in slash-and-burn or rainfed fields).  Typically the drylanders were the aggressors, perhaps because they lived with increased chances of famine due to drought.

In the Hawaiian archipelago, changes started in O’ahu around 1400 CE.  Prior to that time, people lived in lineage-based clans, and where they could live, farm, and fish was dictated by which family they belonged to.  Around 1400 O’ahu was probably the most populous Hawaiian island, and the kinship based land tenure system was getting hopelessly unwieldy.  The high chief of the island unified the island (it had been under three warring chiefs) and reworked the social structure into commoners and chiefs.  The commoners were told to forget their all-important lineages.  They were to become basically peasants, and their access to land and fishing depended on loyalty to their local district chief, who assigned them their places.  The district chief was in turn loyal to the high chief–well, let’s call him the king.  Rank among the chiefs still followed the old Polynesian hierarchy.  This reforming king also redistricted his island, set up chiefs to take care of the divisions, and beat the tar out of a Big Island chief who tried to conquer O’ahu.  The rulers of the other islands took note of his success and started to copy his system, reforming their own districts or islands into a set up of commoners, chiefs, and kings.

Uniquely in the Polynesian islands, the biggest island (Big Island Hawai’i) is both the largest, the youngest, and the driest.  As a result, the Hawaiian drylanders who lived on the Kona side of the island became (by perhaps 1500-1600) the most populous, but most unstable district.  Going back to 1400, the rulers of Kona almost always tried to conquer, first the other districts of the Big Island, then Maui and Molokai, then O’ahu and Kauai, the oldest and wettest islands.  The conquerors often succeeded in uniting Hawai’i and Maui, sometimes Molokai, but these multi-island kingdoms inevitably fell apart at the conqueror’s death.  Presumably the rulers of the Kona coast were hoping that they could solve the problem of having too many people and too little productive land by conquering more land, but typically, it proved to be impossible for their successors to hold onto their conquests.

This changed in 1778 and 1779, when Captain Cook visited the Hawaiian Islands and was killed in 1779 on the Kona coast.  After Hawai’i became known to the outside world, Kamehameha, who was a younger cousin who overthrew the king of Kona and took the position, got the idea (by then centuries old) of conquering the Hawaiian chain.  He actually conquered everything but Kauai, using guns and cannon that he took from some white traders (long story).  Kauai submitted to him without a fight in 1810, and Kamehameha I ruled until 1819.

One might argue that Hawai’i became a state only through outside interference, but the basic point is that they had reorganized their society into a system of commoners, nobles, kings, and trade specialists centuries before Cook showed up, and the patterns of warfare and conquest among the separate “statelets” were also centuries old.  In this regard, they were little different than the feuding city states of Mesopotamia or the Maya.

The other theme is the role of the drylanders as conquerors.  In the Hawaiian chain, the Kona district was the biggest and most populous, simply due to an accident of geography.  In the Society Islands, the drylanders of Borabora and other dry islands did try to conquer the wet islands of Tahiti and its neighbors, but since Borabora was much smaller, they simply could never pull it off, though they tried repeatedly.  On smaller islands, such as Futuna, the drylanders repeatedly conquered the wetlanders, and although these two districts are still separate, the drylands chief is still recognized as the higher-ranking of the two.

So this is a too-brief overview of what properly could occupy several books.  Still, several themes show up repeatedly.  One is that the have-nots were always trying to conquer the haves.  While I’m not sure that this has parallels in current American politics…hmm.  Another is that the period of mass migration did not correspond to the period of maximum population.  The Polynesians didn’t migrate to new islands when the old ones were full. Indeed, in eastern Polynesia they were all totally isolated when they hit their maximum populations.  Finally, there are all the fascinating parallels between the states of Hawai’i and other pristine states.  Indeed, ethnographers had assumed through the 1930s that the Polynesians had brought their civilization from somewhere else, whether it was Mu or Egypt, and that this dispersal was the reason that Hawaiian kings had so many of the weird habits (incestous royal matings, god-kings, high ritual, a subjugated peasantry) seen in so many other authoritarian states.  Instead, the archaeologists showed unequivocally that these institutions had evolved in place, building on indigenous precursors.  This leads to an interesting argument about how much “human nature” (for lack of a better term) constrains how states evolve from people who have no tradition of such an institution.  Presumably, if our civilization crashes very thoroughly, our distant successors may go through this evolution on their own, making their own pristine states with god-kings and so on.

And for the worldbuilders, the final point is that the history of Hawai’i and Polynesia is a good, and underused, resource, whether you’re writing about the evolution of space colonies or what happens long after civilization collapses.  There seem to be some commonalities in how authoritarian states form.


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Human nature or social options that have proven to work? Survivorship bias may be what we are looking at, something that might be testable with game theory models. It is an uncomfortable idea that democracy in its various incarnations may not be a stable social state. It may require a lot of [social] energy to maintain.

Comment by Alex Tolley

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