A long essay.
by Te Putatara
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Stated very simply culture is the narrative or story that explains where we came from, or where we think we came from, who we are, what we believe and how we live.
Daniel Quinn, author of a series of novels about culture and worldviews, describes a culture as “a people enacting a story”. A story is “a scenario interrelating man, the world, and the gods”, and to enact a story is “to live so as to make the story a reality”. The story usually describes the act of creation and builds a model of the universe and the world according to the particular culture (1992, “Ishmael, An adventure of the mind and spirit”, Bantam, New York).
A worldview and the culture it produces is based on a set of continuously reinforced ideas; the story. The ideas are not immutable laws of nature but human constructs that shape the way humans live within their culture.
The story might persist over long periods of time but it does evolve, sometimes slowly and sometimes rapidly. Cultural evolution involves three central processes; adaptation, remembering and forgetting.
Cultures adapt and change over time in response to climatic change, migration and settlement in new environments, interaction with other groups or cultures, changes in the availability and types of resources especially food, technological, artistic and religious innovation, and many other factors. Culture has undergone great change throughout the history of Homo sapiens, modern human. It is important to note that all cultures continue to adapt and change over time and that none is fixed or static. What is more important though is the rate of adaptation and change.
As I depict below cultural adaptation was relatively glacial for most of the first 50,000 years of the history of humankind out of Africa. It was so slow that change was probably largely unnoticed, until the advent of the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago. The agricultural revolution brought with it new ways of living and being after countless millennia of hunting and gathering. It brought with it new gods and new religions. That revolution was followed by the scientific revolution of the 14th century through to the 18th century, the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the technological revolution of our time.
The agricultural and scientific revolutions did not reach into the lives of the ancestors of the Polynesians though, in their journey out of what is now called Asia into and across the Pacific. Perhaps the major changes in the lives of the Polynesians were as a result of sea going wanderlust, voyaging, exploration, migration and settlement as they peopled the Pacific. Whilst the Polynesians did travel huge distances the culture probably traveled with them from island to island without undergoing radical or even significant change.
The migration from Eastern Polynesia to Aotearoa New Zealand certainly brought about much cultural adaptation as that new homeland demanded radically different ways of living, and as those in the new land became isolated from the mother culture. Despite that much of the Polynesian culture was retained and over time was adapted to the new environment. But the major and most dramatic adaptation and change occurred after the arrival of the Europeans. They brought the agricultural, scientific and industrial revolutions with them, as well as their religion and worldview. We met them head on and rapidly adapted.
Whether the adaptation is slow or rapid the culture is passed on from generation to generation to generation. I have called this transmission of the cultural story the remembering.
The remembering is spoken from mother to child and from grandmother to grandchild. The story is told by teacher to student, by writer, poet, journalist and cartoonist, by actor, songwriter, singer, musician, performer and film maker, and by painter and sculptor. It is passed by sporting coach to player, priest to congregation, and by political and corporate public relations and advertising propagandists to a gullible public. We say that no one believes politicians any more yet their insidious messages infect the minds of hundreds of thousands and become part of the remembering. The great and powerful whether prince, priest, warrior or merchant, have always sought to implant their worldview as the dominant or only worldview.
In this modern and increasingly complex and globalised world there are many thousands of strands to the story that is now our culture. The culture has vastly expanded in content and reach and it now comprises many sub-cultures, or cultural strands within an overarching globalized culture. The progression of scientific discovery and technological innovation is having a huge effect on bringing about cultural adaptation and change faster than at any other time in history. Most of us are culturally schizophrenic, being different persons in our different situations and areas of interest; ethnicity, religion, family, career, work, politics, hobbies and so on. It wasn’t always so in ages past before the advent of printing, books, newspapers, telephone, radio, film, TV, air travel, the internet and smart phones.
It used to be that the story was told face to face, kanohi ki te kanohi, from mouth to ear, and by comparison it was a very simple story. It used to be that we all had the same skin colour and similar physical build and features, we all thought the same and we all shared the same relatively simple story. Physical, mental and spiritual conformity, or sameness, was our permanent state of being. The culture evolved ever so slowly; so slowly that change was imperceptible; unnoticeable and undetectable. Things were as they always were. Or so it seemed.
Except for the forgetting.
Consider this whakapapa of the universe, the earth, and life on earth; this big history. These figures are of course approximate and subject to change as new discoveries in archaeology and palaeontology are made, and as new DNA evidence emerges. What is important is the vastness of the timescale. To put some perspective into this whakapapa it would take you 50 years to count from one to a billion if you worked at it for 10 hours a day.
We begin with the narration of the Creation, the long unfolding.
Ko Te Kore (the void, energy, nothingness, potential)
Te Kore-te-whiwhia (the void in which nothing is possessed)
Te Kore-te-rawea (the void in which nothing is felt)
Te Kore-i-ai (the void with nothing in union)
Te Kore-te-wiwia (the space without boundaries)
Na Te Kore Te Po (from the void the night)
Te Po-nui (the great night)
Te Po-roa (the long night)
Te Po-uriuri (the deep night)
Te Po-kerekere (the intense night)
Te Po-tiwhatiwha (the dark night)
Te Po-te-kitea (the night in which nothing is seen)
Te Po-tangotango (the intensely dark night)
Te Po-whawha (the night of feeling)
Te Po-namunamu-ki-taiao (the night of seeking the passage to the world)
Te Po-tahuri-atu (the night of restless turning)
Te Po-tahuri-mai-ki-taiao (the night of turning towards the revealed world)
Ki te Whai-ao (to the glimmer of dawn)
Ki te Ao-marama (to the bright light of day)
Tihei mauri-ora (there is life)
And on into the scientific narration.
- 13.8 billion years ago Universe birthed itself. For more than 1/2 of the universe’s history there was no Earth;
- 6 billion years ago the Earth was born;
- 3 billion years ago life on Earth began;
- 6 million years ago the African ancestors of the modern chimpanzee and the modern human diverged onto separate evolutionary lines from their common ancestor;
- 4.5 million years ago the first human like species appeared (Australopithecus ramidus) followed by Australopithecus anamensis about 4.2 million years ago;
- 3.5 million years ago both of those species were replaced by Australopithecus afarensis;
- 2.5 million years ago Australopithecus africanus appeared;
- 2 million years ago Homo habilus appeared, the first members of the Homo lineage. Homo habilus carried tools and stone artifacts. Human ancestors became meat eaters;
- 1.8 million years ago Homo erectus or Homo ergaster appeared and the first exodus of humans out of Africa occurred. Homo erectus appeared in East Africa, Middle East, China and Java. They existed for about 1.5 million years before becoming extinct;
- 900,000 years ago the early species of human, Homo erectus or Homo ergaster developed into the Archaic Homo sapiens species. Archaic Homo sapiens are the ancestors of Modern Homo sapiens. We are modern Homo sapiens. The Archaic ancestors existed for about 800,000 years and persisted alongside modern humans until about 100,000 years ago;
- 420,000 to 840,000 years ago, the second human migration out of Africa (to Asia). All now extinct;
- 80,000 to 150,000 years ago there was a third major exodus out of Africa of species of Homo that also became extinct. It included Neanderthal Man (Homo neanderthalensis) in Europe, and Denisova Man (Homo denisova) in Asia. They persisted alongside modern humans for a short time before becoming extinct. Modern Europeans and others retain a small amount of genetic inheritance from Neanderthal Man, and modern Asians and Polynesians retain a small amount from Denisova Man, indicating a limited amount of interbreeding between the species;
- 50,000 to 75,000 years ago there was a dispersal of modern humans out of Africa. The people of this small migratory group are the ancestors of all of humankind now living outside of Africa. Their siblings and cousins who remained in Africa are the ancestors of indigenous Africans. All of us on earth are cousins, descended from these people. Everyone else disappeared – became extinct;
- 45,000 to 60,000 years ago modern humans arrived in Australia. They reached Asia on their way to Australia 24,000 years before any other humans (including the ancestors of the Polynesians). DNA research confirms that the Australian Aboriginal culture is probably the oldest continuous living culture on Earth;
- 35,000 to 40,000 years ago modern humans arrived in Europe;
- 12,000 years ago modern humans were well established in North America;
- 11,000 years ago they were well established in Central and South America;
- 12,000 years ago saw the start of the period of agricultural revolution in the Middle East, Asia and South America. This was a major cultural, social and economic adaptation. Over time humankind in the Middle East and Europe genetically adapted to eating wheat and other grains. This genetic adaptation did not occur in the ancestors of the Polynesians;
- 10,000 years ago in a weird genetic mutation blue eyes appeared somewhere near the Black Sea, and today there are about 300 million blue-eyed people, and many fake-eyes wearing blue tinted contact lenses (2011, Steve Gullens and Juan Enriquez, “Homo Evolutis”, Ted Books);
- 8,000 years ago some populations in Northern Europe, notably in present day Denmark, genetically adapted to consuming milk beyond the age of weaning. This adaptation did not occur in the ancestors of the Polynesians;
- 5,000 years ago the female ancestors of modern Polynesians moved out of mainland Asia towards South East Asia and eventually into the Pacific (the male ancestors travelled by a different route and many of them originated in the Melanesian population of a much earlier migration);
- 3000 years ago the ancestors arrived in Western Polynesia;
- 2500 years ago they arrived in Eastern Polynesia;
- 1000 to 3000 years ago saw the development over that 2000 year period of a distinctive Polynesian culture. of which Maori is a sub-culture;
- About 800 to 900 years ago the ancestors (much later identified by their tribal names and much later still as Maori) arrived in Aotearoa and occupied the land for about 400 or 500 years before the arrival of the first European, a very short period of time in the great sweep of human history;
- 1642 (371 years ago) Abel Tasman arrived, new faces;
- 1769 (244 years ago) James Cook arrived, new technologies and knowledge;
- 1814 (199 years ago) On Christmas Day Samuel Marsden preached the first Christian service, bringing a totally new worldview to Aotearoa New Zealand;
- 1840 (173 years ago) Treaty of Waitangi;
- 1975 (38 years ago) Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal Act enacted.
- 1993 (10 years ago) Homo smartphone appears.
How much of that journey do we remember as part of our own story, our culture? Some of you weren’t even around when the 1975 Act was passed into law, some 3 billion years after life on earth began.
One comparison I draw from that whakapapa is absolutely humbling. In the Western Desert of Australia or in Arnhem Land an aboriginal person today can stand in an ancient dwelling place or ceremonial site, sometimes embellished with rock paintings tens of thousands of years old, knowing that her ancestors had lived there for 1500 generations, perhaps as many as 2000 generations. When I made my pilgrimage to Marae Taputapuatea on Ra’iatea I was standing where perhaps 50 to 60 generations of the ancestors stood. When I stand at any of the ancient sites of my many hapu in Aotearoa I stand in the footprints of a mere 20 to 30 generations of the ancestors.
Vast is the forgetting compared to the remembering.
We consign that vastness of forgetting to our creation stories, our mythology, our religious beliefs and our legends; metaphors for all that we have forgotten. Those stories represent the vast forgetting that until the discoveries of science we didn’t even know we’d forgotten. We nominate Hawaiki to be the ancient homeland or homelands, and having long forgotten its location it becomes a spiritual homeland rather than an actual place, a metaphor for a forgotten place of beginning.
Roughly two hundred years ago, after contact and collision with representatives of the other world of the colonists and settlers, and with the missionaries, our cultural evolution went dramatically into overdrive. In two hundred years we have transformed ourselves and have been transformed from a disparate loosely connected collection of hunter gathering, partly horticultural, mainly autonomous hapu. We have become just a tiny part of a global agricultural, scientific, industrial, commercial, technological, material, and economically and digitally connected super culture.
For about 50,000 years after coming out of Africa the rate of change was so slow that change went unnoticed and almost all that went before was forgotten.
The last 200 years have by comparison been as a cultural tsunami of towering height. The future has come upon us as a giant unstoppable wave. It swamped the present and washed away much of the past. It sweeps us onwards into an unknowable future whereas once the future came upon us so slowly that it didn’t exist beyond the knowable tomorrow and the eternal parade of seasons. We used to say in another time that we walked backwards into the future with our eyes and minds firmly on the past, or that small part of it that we remembered.
From the time before the tsunami we remember our whakapapa, tikanga, kawa, pepeha, aoteatea and moteatea. Perhaps the most scholarly exposition of tikanga is by Professor Hirini Moko Mead (2003, “Tikanga Maori, Living by Maori Values”, Huia Publishers, Wellington). We remember also our language, Te Reo Maori, which is part of the larger family of Polynesian languages, which is itself part of the much larger Malayo-Polynesian group of languages. When the language was in danger of becoming part of the forgetting we devised ways to revive the language, for the time being at least, lest it too be washed over the abyss and into the void of the Great Forgetting.
Our understanding of that which we remember has also been transformed under the influence of Christianity, modernity and nostalgia, in ways that we rarely if ever appreciate and acknowledge. The further we ride the wave from the cultural beliefs and ways of two hundred years ago the greater the transformation in our understanding. None of us has a living parent or grandparent from the time before the tsunami to whisper the remembering as it was whispered to them. So our remembering tends to the nostalgic, a yearning for a romantic past that exists mostly in our imaginations.
That is the way of all cultures. We reshape the past to accord with our vision and explanation of the present and our dreams of the future. The collective cultural mind mimics the individual human mind, selectively remembering and conveniently forgetting.
Collectively we Maori have forgotten a great deal over the last 200 years.
We remember little of our time in Eastern Polynesia, before the migrations, and nothing before that apart from our metaphorical and mythological remembering. We can reach some way into that past through the writings of others such as Teuira Henry (1847-1915) the renowned authority on ancient Tahitian society (2004 edition, “Tahiti aux Temps Anciens”, Publications de la Societe des Oceanistes, Musee de l’Homme, Paris). Few bother. For most of us history and culture began in Aotearoa with the arrival of the migratory waka, and even that remembering has been distorted by early Pakeha pseudo scholarship into a Great Fleet and many other myths.
Having universally adopted the Christian story and practice as our own we push to the back of the mind, into the unconscious, the fact that we once had our own brand of religious story, belief, superstition and magical thinking. We retain some of the ritual from before the tsunami, often intermingled with Christian ritual, and always shorn of its deep mystical and magical foundations.
We forget that our ritual, like the ritual of many other bygone cultures across the world including that of Eastern Polynesia, involved human sacrifice. There were for instance 5000 human skulls discovered in the great stone marae of Polynesia at Taputapuatea on Ra’iatea. And that was just one of many hundreds of sacrifical marae throughout Eastern Polynesia.
We forget that we, like many other and perhaps most past and present cultures, placed a relatively low value on human life beyond our own kinship group and often within it. We forget, and become offended and agitated, when reminded that our culture condoned kaitangata (cannibalism) as both ritual and food. We brush it off and remember only that it was for ritual purposes rather than food. Recorded history says otherwise, not just for Maori culture, but for all or most cultures on earth. Infanticide, especially female infanticide, as a form of gender selection and population control is an absolutely verboten subject despite it being a worldwide practice in times past, and even in the present.
It has been said as part of the forgetting that inter-tribal warfare was an intermittent and minor activity something like a weekend rugby match. The evidence says otherwise and our own oral histories record the widespread killing and enslavement of men, women and children as a result of frequent warfare. The threat of warfare was a constant, evidenced by the construction of numerous fortified pa strongholds throughout all tribal areas.
We selectively remember that we are all descended from chiefs, and forget that Maori society was structured into social classes with ariki and rangatira at the top, supported by tohunga and the knowledge they employed in the service of chiefs. Below them and their immediate families we were tutua or commoners. Beneath them were pononga or taurekareka (slaves). Slavery was once the primary form of energy in all cultures, including our own. Such was the ubiquity of slavery that the philosopher A.C.Grayling writes that everyone on earth is probably the descendant of both slaves and slave owners (2009, “Ideas that Matter”, Orion Books, London). None of us in this modern post tsunami age willingly admit to being the issue of commoners or slaves. We prefer to cloak our commoner nakedness in the korowai of chieftainship.
We fondly believe that ours was an egalitarian society. We vehemently deny that women were often chattels. The widespread practice of gifting daughters as wives to other chiefs for political and economic reasons is transformed into make believe romantic love and matchmaking. They were enforced strategic marriages with women as the currency of diplomacy and trade. We fondly believe that children were always treasured and forget the infanticide. We believe that decision making was a consultative and consensual process and forget that many chiefs ruled by decree and that mind washing was a high art form as it is to this day.
We forget that we did not think for ourselves and were not permitted to think for ourselves, our minds moulded into a group mind by chiefs and tohunga, and their oratory, their stories and their rituals. In Eastern Polynesia the Arioi class functioned not only as priests and entertainers, but also as thought police and enforcers.
Mind control was the universal way of being in all structured societies and is still. In some places in the world today religion is still used to control the minds of whole populations, holding back the tide of progress that results from liberated minds. In recent history the world has witnessed the wholesale slaughter of the educated in some countries (i.e. in Stalin’s Russia and in Pol Pot’s Cambodia) to remove the threat of thinking. Mao banished China’s thinkers to the countryside. Modern society has developed public relations, advertising, and other forms of propaganda to achieve the same purpose.
Most Maori imagine that before the tsunami we were free thinking individuals in an egalitarian society, whereas thinking autonomously was actually the private domain only of rangatira and tohunga, including those who studied in the wananga. Attendance at that curriculum was strictly limited, for knowledge in the hands of the masses was and is a dangerous thing.
We also forget that life was short, often harsh, and sometimes brutal. And we forget much more besides.
Convenient is the great forgetting.
There is no good reason to reshape the past and to deny the reality of the pre-tsunami age. We do it to counter the widespread racism that feeds upon the negative aspects of our past judged by today’s values, and some do it out of unwarranted shame. But we shared those distant beliefs and practices with all cultures on earth at some time in their own evolution, despite their own selective remembering and convenient forgetting. Despite also the ingrained belief of our cultural partners here in Aotearoa New Zealand that theirs was a pristine culture of great goodness compared to ours. The efficacy of that Pakeha belief rests on forgetting much and remembering little. For instance, they forget that they finally abandoned human slavery at about the same time as we did.
What is the lesson we draw from this remembering and forgetting, viewed within the perspective of the vast sweep of human history. Human culture at any point in its evolution is but a fleeting moment of remembering before the great forgetting. It is a transient understanding of who we are, it is what we believe and how we live now. It is not fixed in time and does not foretell who or what we might become. Even with the enormous cultural impact of the modern institutions of memory including books, film, sound recording, libraries, museums, archives, digital storage and the World Wide Web we are still much inclined to selectively remember and conveniently forget. We are still much inclined to imagine the past as we would like it to have been. And we imagine a future just like the present, ignoring the reality that the future is an unknown foreign land on the great migratory journey of humankind through time and space.
And in a thousand years’ time what will we have remembered and what will be forgotten. Such is the speed of cultural evolution today that we cannot imagine what will be in a thousand years. What then in 200 years time, just 400 years on from the tsunami.
Our absorption into the rapidly evolving global super culture is going to increase exponentially with global connectedness and as the global economy develops. Transnational corporations are driving towards a single global market; a single global market controlled by the corporations themselves beyond the control of nations and their governments. It is already happening with the transnationals now operating outside and around national taxation regimes. The continuing impact of scientific and technological advance is going to be enormously life changing. Those advances are in computer science, nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, neuroscience, the genetic sciences and many others. Consider the mind-blowing possibility of human directed biological and cultural evolution as a result of research in the genetic sciences alone. Or cringe at the mere thought of it.
Apart from that impossible to imagine future the near term future is much easier to prophesy with some degree of certainty. We have three of the four most populous countries in the world to our northwest in China, India and Indonesia. They are all going to be global super powers and they are going to profoundly influence who we are and how we live for centuries to come. At some time in the coming Asian millennium we might all become Asian, or whatever evolves from the Asian cultures. They could simply absorb us and the remnants of our culture. We know from Statistics NZ projections that Asians will comprise about 14% of the population by 2026, just twelve years from now. Maori will be just ahead on about 14.6% of the population.
One thing is for sure. In a thousand years, or five thousand years, or even 200 years, we will have forgotten much and remembered little. And our strand of a new global culture will have evolved into a form we might no longer recognize as Maori. And that has been the way of things, mai rano.
* Download: Rethinking Polynesian Origins – Human Settlement of the Pacific by Michal Denny & Lisa Matisoo-Smith
* reflections on running – a journey through mythological time
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