I’m not quite sure how to give background on an idea that is not already an established part of fringe history. The focus of America Unearthed S02E13 “The Spearhead Conspiracy,” a spear point in Hawaii allegedly connected to Mexico, occurred too recently (2009) to have a great deal of scholarly material, and the question of a Polynesian connection to Mesoamerica is obviously not beyond the realm of possibility. Archaeologists, have in the past used Hawaii as an ethnographic comparison and model for the Maya in terms of the obsidian trade, and a highly controversial claim holds that the Mapuche of Chile—though not Mexico—share a word for obsidian with Polynesians from Easter Island.
Therefore, I am going to write about the history of extraordinary claims about Polynesia since the spine of this episode is a rather simple test of where the obsidian used in the spearhead originated.
The Polynesians have traditionally been an afterthought among fringe historians, sort of second-class citizens. Ignatius Donnelly mentioned them only once in Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, and then only secondhand to discount them as possessing any genuine Atlantis tradition. In fact, he considered the Pacific impassable. Of the many routes Donnelly and other fringe historians proposed for Old World peoples to migrate to America, the Pacific was not one of the more popular. The Bering Strait, the Viking route across the North Atlantic, and a southern Atlantic route between western Africa and Brazil were all considered much more probably down to the 1920s. The exception to this was claims for medieval Chinese voyages to the West Coast of America, which in the 1800s were sometimes thought to have taken a Pacific path. (Donnelly thought they came via Africa and the Atlantic.)
In Polynesia itself, the early investigators had little good to say about the history of the islands. In 1829, the missionary William Ellis published an early theory that the Polynesians were in fact related to the peoples of South America in his Polynesian Researches (vol. 2). Using the same evidence later marshaled by Thor Heyerdahl, he wrote that the two cultures were similar to each other—and to Madagascar off Africa!
There are also many points of resemblance in language, manners, and customs, between the South Sea Islanders and the inhabitants of Madagascar in the west; the inhabitants of the Aleutian and Kurile islands, in the north, which stretch along the mouth of Behring’s straits, and form the chain which connects the old and the new worlds; and also between the Polynesians and the inhabitants of Mexico, and some parts of South America. The general cast of feature, and frequent shade of complexion-the practice of tatauing [tattooing], which prevails among the Aleutians, and some of the tribes of America-the process of embalming the dead bodies of their chiefs, and preserving them uninterred-the game of chess among the Araucanians—the word for God being tew or tev—the exposure of their children—their games—their mode of dressing the hair, ornamenting it with feathers—the numerous words in their language resembling those of Tahiti, &c.; their dress, especially the poncho, and even the legend of the origin of the Incas, bear no small resemblance to that of Tii, who was also descended from the sun.
Although he allowed that most believed the Polynesians to have come from Asia, he felt that it would be “easy to imagine how they could have proceeded from the east.” On the analogy of ships known to have been blown westward across the Pacific in historic times, he concluded that South Americans were blown to Polynesia, finding it difficult to believe that “Asian” people could have had sophisticated navigational skills for a westward voyage. He did, however, concede that it was possible that Polynesia’s islands were “the remains of a continent, originally stretching across the Pacific, and uniting Asia and America” that disappeared during the Flood of Noah. This brief speculation would return more than once in fringe versions of Polynesian history. Being a good follower of Jacob Bryant, he assumed the Polynesians worshiped Noah’s Ark and descended from the first family after the Flood.
The first European explorers generally considered the Polynesians to be sensual, amiable, and dim. Therefore, the stone temples and idols found on islands across the major culture areas of the Pacific could not have been the work of the Polynesians, and certainly not in the historical period, when the Polynesians populated the Pacific. Instead, many assumed that the stone works were the ruins of a lost white civilization. Here is how the New International Encyclopedia described the stone ruins in 1915:
Stone structures are reported by savage informants as existing in the inland valleys of Bougainville, Solomon Islands, but it is not yet safe to attempt exploration, and by Prebendary Codrington in Gog of the Banks group, and in New Caledonia; these are of Melanesia. In nuclear Polynesia occur the Nanga in Fiji, the trilithon of Tonga, in Samoa walls in the mountains and the Fale-o-le-Fe‘e. In southeastern Polynesia walls and platforms are found in Rapa Iti, Pitcairn, and Easter islands, and walls in the Marquesas. In Micronesia there are stone remains on Howland Island; extensive remains at Tapak, Lele, and Metalanim in the Caroline Islands; interesting structures at Tinian in the Ladrones. The walls and platforms are built of unworked country rock, in general of cyclopean dimensions, erected without builder’s art or any use of cement. […] The modern Polynesian, an advanced neolithic type, has been less than 1000 years in the Pacific. The appearance of age in these megaliths and the absence of tradition of their erection (all the more noteworthy in a race which recites the history of a fragile mat through 15 generations and the story of a greenstone spearhead from even remoter antiquity) are strong evidence that the megalithic monuments of the Pacific islands far antedate the arrival of the Polynesians and are the work of a lost population.
I discuss these claims somewhat facetiously in my parody book Cthulhu in World Mythology where I note the similarity between the stone ruins dedicated to the octopus god of war, Fale-o-le-Fe‘e, and the stone citadel of R’lyeh, home to the octopus-headed extraterrestrial god Cthulhu.
By the end of the nineteenth century these ruins were recognized as the work of Polynesian people by scholars, missionaries, and travelers like William B. Churchward, George Turner, and John B. Stair, but because of the linger specter of racism, the historians who compiled encyclopedias were slow to acknowledge the obvious, clinging instead to the belief that the temples were thousands of years older than the Polynesians using them.
From the “lost race” interpretation of the Polynesian ruins, the French occultist Louis Jacolliot (1837-1890) wrote in Histoire des Vierges: Les peuples et les continents disparus (1874) that the islands of the Pacific had once been united in a single continent, now sunken, and that this continent was the home of an ancient lost race. Non-existent imaginary Hindu writings would confirm that this continent was called Rutas. He originally placed it in the Indian Ocean, but by the time Helena Blavatsky read his works in compiling Isis Unveiled (1877), it was firmly in the Pacific. He attributed to Polynesia myth the belief that the continent had been home to “yellow men” and “black men” who were forever at war. Blavatsky used this as evidence for the existence of the equally fictitious continent of Lemuria, and the fake “Col.” James Churchward in turn reanimated Jacolliot’s whole story—down to the proof in lost writings in India—as the lost continent of Mu, which answered in all details but one to Rutas. Churchward was a racist, so he added to his Pacific continent of Mu (a name originally attributed to Atlantis by Augustus Le Plongeon) a ruling “white race” of “superior” attributes who kept the peace between the yellow and black peoples they kept as slaves.
From Churchward the ancient astronaut theorist David Childress developed his own race-based prehistory where a ruling white race ran the Pacific Ocean and kept the Polynesians as slaves. From Churchward he borrows the idea that these white gods had blond hair and wore red turbans—the same seen atop the statues on Easter Island, monuments to the greatness of white people. It was, of course, Easter Island that was the focus on the most fringe speculation.
Erich von Däniken claimed that the Easter Island script was “astonishingly” like Chinese (no fooling: Polynesians were pushed out of Asia by the Chinese), and he attributed the similarities to aliens. He also asserted in Gods from Outer Space (1970) that the aliens made the famous stone statues, the moai, “which they set up on stone pedestals along the coast so that they were visible from afar.” Graham Hancock argued that instead the culture of Easter Island was a close cousin to that of South America, both in turn the gift of the white people who lived in a lost civilization. To find, he said, stone works and writing “together and focussed on a remote island in the Pacific, apparently at once, is extremely hard to explain in terms of normal ‘evolutionary’ processes usually ascribed to human societies.” When I raised the point with him back in 2001 that other Polynesian peoples built statues and walls and temples, he told me: “Although there are other statue making cultures in Polynesia (e.g. see examples from Tahiti) they don’t look specially like Moai to me.” So the lost civilization colonized just one Pacific island.
Hancock was here building off the famous work of Thor Heyerdahl, the great adventurer, who spent much of his life arguing that South Americans had settled the Pacific from the east, rather than Asians from the west. He argued that the material culture of the Pacific was too similar to that of Peru to be a coincidence, and that the stone architecture of the Polynesian temples was fairly close to that of Tiahuanaco (Tiwakanu) in Bolivia. Therefore, the people of Tiahuanaco had traveled to Easter Island under the god-king Viracocha and founded the island’s culture. As archaeologists Robert C. Suggs wrote in criticizing Heyerdahl in the 1960s: “Heyerdahl’s Peruvians must have availed themselves of that classical device of science fiction, the time machine, for they showed up off Easter Island in A.D. 380, led by a post-A.D. 750 Incan god-hero, with an A.D. 750 Tiahauanco material culture featuring A.D. 1500 Incan walls, and not one thing characteristic of the Tiahanaco period in Peru and Bolivia.”
(Disclosure: I have spoken with Dr. Suggs in the past and know him slightly. He is one of the pioneers of Polynesian archaeology, helping establish the Southeast Asian origins of the Polynesians.)
The lack of any South American artifacts in Polynesia helped seal the fate of Heyerdahl’s idea at midcentury. But there was in fact a connection between Polynesia and South America, and that was the sweet potato, an American crop that was also cultivated in Polynesia before the Europeans arrived and shares the same name, kumara, in both Quechua and Polynesian languages. Heyerdahl had argued that the sweet potato represented a South American contribution to Polynesia, but until the 1990s, there was no proof that the pre-Columbian varieties of sweet potato had been known in Polynesia. That changed with the discovery of the remains of one such potato types on Mangaia Island in 1992. More recently, DNA tests conducted in 2013 on a sweet potato sample obtained by Captain Cook before Europeans reintroduced the sweet potato to Polynesia suggest that the sweet potato originated in South America and was taken back to Polynesia by Polynesians who visited the Americas. It is now believed that this occurred around 1000 CE, according to the 2011 edited volume Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World, itself somewhat controversial.
Technically, of course, this evidence could support travel in either direction—either from Polynesia to South America or South America to Polynesia. The lack of any South American material in Polynesia, physical or genetic, suggests the contact came from the Pacific.
There is also evidence that the Polynesians brought chickens to South America, but because the dates obtained for the chicken bones are so close to the time of European contact (1300-1400 CE), the margin of error does not exclude a post-Conquest date. Nevertheless, the archaeologists who excavated the bones in 2007 are certain they came from a pre-Spanish context. Some have also speculated that the Polynesians learned the art of trepanning from contact with South America, but the dates for trepanned skulls in Polynesia—1300 CE and later—exclude this possibility, according to the 2003 edited volume Trepanation: History, Discovery, Theory.
Other evidence is more ambiguous but contributes toward a picture of occasional Polynesian contact with the Western coast not just of South America but perhaps North America as well. Terry Jones, the archaeologist who edited Polynesians in America, believes that there was contact between the Chumash people of southern California and Polynesians. Jones, whose specialty is North American archaeology rather than Polynesian, believes that the plank-sewn boats used by the Chumash are so different from those of neighboring tribes that they could only have diffused from Polynesia. His research partner, Kathryn Klar, a professor of Celtic linguistics, suggested that the name of the boat in Chumash, tomolo, is cognate with its Hawaiian name kumulaau from a proposed proto-Central Eastern Polynesian original *tumura’aakau. She has also identified several other Chumash words related to boats that seem similar to Polynesian words.
Jones and Klar propose two Polynesian contact events, as Jones told the Ancient History Encyclopedia last year:
We do not believe that contacts were by any means sustained, but we do see the likelihood of two distinct contact events: one close to c. 700 CE that resulted in conveyance of sewn-plank boat technology and the composite harpoon, and a second event around c. 1300 CE that resulted in diffusion of the compound bone hook, grooved and barbed bone fishhooks, and grooved and barbed shell fishhooks. The earlier event may have originated from central Polynesia, while the second was from Hawaii.
Most archaeologists who have studied the Chumash reject the claim that the sewn-plank boats were delivered to them from Polynesia because these boats have a continuous development in the archaeological record from 700 CE to the present, as Lynn Gamble wrote in American Antiquity in 2002. While the physical remains can only be dated back that far, the appearance of deep sea fish species at Chumash sites prior to this period, going back to the first or second century CE, suggests that there had been deep-sea boats of some time, probably developmental phases of the sewn-plank canoe, centuries earlier. Gamble does not exclude the possibility of contact with Polynesia but reports that other experts feel that the two types of canoe are constructed so differently (both in shape and technique) that they are not likely to be directly related.
What is perhaps interesting is Jones’s discussion of the academic response. He says that specialists in Pacific archaeology are themselves divided between a “long” and “short” chronology for Polynesian settlement. This gets technical, but the long and short of it is that the “short” chronology wouldn’t see the settlement of Hawaii until after the alleged arrival in California, which is problematic for Pacific scholars. He also says that while Europeans are receptive to the idea of Polynesian contact with the Americas, American archaeologists have been resistant because of fears that “our case denigrates Native Californians by implying that they were incapable of developing these innovations on their own (which we do not).” This is something we’ve seen over and again: When experts do not accept a controversial finding, the proponent accuses them of crying racism or being dogmatic, even when the objections are based on an interpretation of archaeological evidence or construction techniques.
It reminds me a bit of the controversy over two other types of boats: The famous reed boats of Lake Titicaca which superficially resemble those of Egypt, and the bark boats of the Mandan that supposedly resembled those of the Welsh. In those cases, the similarities were coincidental.
Jones’s and Klar’s work remains controversial, but the evidence seems to make a strong case for sporadic contact between Polynesia and South America. I’m not so sure about the North American connection.
Our show opens with Kennewick Man, of all things, the number one exhibit in the world of fringe thinkers who are focused on establishing a European—specifically Caucasian—presence in the New World because in the 1990s Jim Chatters, who excavated the resto of the skeleton (and whom we shall meet), said that the skeleton might be Caucasoid. For now, we simply see two men pull a skull from some water at Kennewick, Washington in 1996, and then the opening credits roll. I have no idea how this fits into a story about Polynesians, but I can take a guess.
After the credits, we are in Hawaii to investigate a spear point found in Hawaii. The photograph shows a stereotypical arrowhead-shaped spear point made of volcanic glass of a green-gold color. Wolter tells us that Hawaiian obsidian isn’t that color, so he meets with Janet Six, a University of Hawaii archaeologist, who tells him that the spear point may be distinctive Mexican Pachuca obsidian, and Wolter asserts that the mythic “Land of Mist and Fog” is assumed to be Mesoamerica, which is not true. It is possible to interpret myths that way, but to assert that they are unquestioningly related to Mesoamerica stretches the evidence.
After the first commercial, we dispense with the usual on-screen recap in favor of a more sedate spoken recap. I am rather dumbfounded that Wolter is uninterested in proving that the Polynesians reached Mexico—which would actually rewrite history—and instead cares only for whether they hit within the borders of the mainland United States. (Hawaii, after all, is already part of the United States.)
At the University of Hawaii, Wolter talks with Terry Hunt about Polynesian history and the role of the sweet potato and chickens (discussed above) in demonstrating that the Polynesians reached South America. Wolter seems uninterested in this and presses Hunt on whether the Polynesians reached North America. Hunt tells Wolter about the Chumash people, also discussed above, whose boats may or may not resemble Polynesian vessels. “That would change history!” Wolter enthuses, finally rousing himself to become interested in something related to the Polynesians once a mainland U.S. connection pops up. Apparently Mesoamerica is not good enough for this show.
Wolter goes to Maui to meet with the men who found the obsidian spearhead in 2009, Trevor Carter and Bryan Axtell. Axtell is an actor who formed a production company shortly after finding the spearhead, and I am unable to determine anything about Trevor Carter. A man of the same name was busted as part of a major gambling sting in 2012, but I don’t think it’s the same guy. Unfortunately, Wolter isn’t able to maintain interest for long, so we are subjected to a Manly Adventure as he zip lines across the ravine to meet the men. Carter and Axtell tell Wolter about discovering the spear head by literally stumbling over it. The men strangely tell Wolter that they were impressed by “the energy” that it “put off,” which implies a supernatural connection. The men tell Wolter that Park officials did not take an interest in the spearhead because it did not sound like a Hawaiian artifact, and one of the men had a picture of the spearhead tattooed on his body. This is the second time in this show’s history that someone has shown him his tattoo in lieu of evidence. Last time it was Ogham writing.
Wolter is outraged that the Park Service reclaimed the spearhead shortly before Wolter came to investigate it, some four years after its discovery, and he implies—but does not state—that this has nefarious intent. It was most likely due to the two men contacting the Park Service and rousing official interest.
After the break, both men assert that the Park Service only took interest in the artifact because they “knew you (Wolter) were coming.” Wolter wants to know why the Park Service took the artifact, and no one seems aware that archaeological material found within the boundaries of a national park are the property of the United States government. “I’ve never heard of anything like this before,” Wolter says. “I’ve never heard of a sting operation like this.” The men agree that the government is trying to get “in” in Wolter’s investigation. Afterward, Wolter dutifully reports that it’s illegal to remove artifacts from national parks, but slips the line in as a voice over so that viewers are likely to miss it amidst the talk about conspiracies. The men tell Wolter that the Park Service won’t let anyone speak to them until the investigation is over. I suppose on Monday I’ll have to call the National Park Service to find out about this. Wolter does not appear to actually contact the Park Service to ask for their views. That might turn up a logical explanation and undermine the evidence for Wolter as a martyr for the Truth.
Wolter pretends to receive a text message from Janet Six, who has tested the obsidian (obviously long before, since the Park Service has the spearhead) and found that it matches the Mexican sample. Unfortunately, there is no way to prove that the spearhead was actually left behind by Polynesians and not tourists, hoaxers, or travelers since the archaeological context is entirely absent. Further, no one checks with Mexican archaeologists to see whether the spearhead is in fact an ancient Mexican artifact (and if so, from which culture) or a more recent tourist knockoff.
After the break we get a recap on screen followed by a verbal recap. Then Wolter gives up on what should have been the centerpiece of the entire America Unearthed series—actual hard evidence of contact, allegedly!—to go off to California to meet Terry Jones. Jones shows Wolter a Chumash tomol and a Polynesian canoe that both use similar sewn-plank styles. Jones shows Wolter an image of a Polynesian canoe that is much closer to the tomol than the seagoing Polynesian vessels typically associated with Polynesia. Even Jones admits that the seagoing boats were different. Jones also reviews the linguistic evidence and the evidence of fishhooks that suggests a Polynesian connection to the Chumash. It’s not impossible, but more work is needed to prove this.
We then waste time watching Wolter paddle the Chumash tomol.
Wolter speaks with a Chumash woman who tells him that there are Chumash words that are similar to Polynesian words, but this is not an “oral tradition” as Wolter asserts but rather the woman is repeating for Wolter what she has learned from the work of Jones. She then tells Wolter that Kennewick Man was Polynesian.
This is prima facie stupid. Polynesians did not become Polynesians until they left Southeast Asia around 500 CE. Any connection to Kennewick Man—who dates back to 7600 BCE—is due only to the deep shared history of Polynesians and Native Americans in ancestral Asia. The Chumash woman is mangling claims from University of New Mexico anthropologist Joseph Powell, who claimed that the teeth of Kennewick Man were characteristic of the Sundadont group, whose modern representatives are the Ainu of Japan and the Polynesians, and other anthropologists like Jim Chatters (whom we’ll meet anon), who have also suggested a connection between the skull size and shape and the Ainu and Polynesians. In other words, Kennewick Man, if they are correct (and this is not certain), was part of an ancestral genetic group that was once prominent in Asia but which has now been largely displaced by modern Asians. This is not the same as saying he was a Polynesian—the people who colonized the Pacific islands between 500 and 1200 CE, some 8,000 or 9,000 years later.
After the last break, Wolter recaps in voice over what he’s discussed so far, but he then reveals his real interest. It isn’t in finding Polynesians in Mexico (why, that might actually rewrite textbooks!). Instead, it’s again going back to look for the first Americans. He talks with Will Thomas, who found the Kennewick skull in 1996, and we waste time listening to the story of how the bones were uncovered. Then we slowly drive to Jim Chatters’s lab. Chatters sued to study Kennewick Man, and he is the one who accidentally set off the wave of white supremacist ranting about the skeleton when he declared it “Caucasoid” before revising his claims later to suggest that the skull’s closest relatives were the Ainu and Polynesians.
Wolter is upset that he can’t view the skull, so he decides to waste precious minutes showing us how a 3D printer can be used to make a copy of the skull from its CAT scans. This is all for show since the results are predetermined: We know that Chatters sees a connection to the Polynesians that other anthropologists attribute to Clovis-era genetic diversity, lost around 6000 BCE when there was a dramatic shift in population demographics.
Wolter therefore illogically concludes that the Polynesians were in America in 7600 BCE, some 8000 years before the Polynesians ever settled Polynesia. He seems unaware of Polynesian prehistory, or the Asian populations from which they descended.
He finishes the season by drawing on his glowing map in his lab to connect random sites into a giant M with a crossed center, a symbol from his new book, which he believe stands for the Mary Magdalene Holy Bloodline conspiracy. This is utter bullshit since the sites have nothing to do with one another and Mary Magdalene was never mentioned this season. It seems to be a teaser for the upcoming season, meant as a parallel to the ludicrous Fibonacci curve drawn on last season’s map.
And so, after a season of half-baked treasure hunts the turned up nothing, attempts to resurrect the myth of the Mound Builders, and multiple efforts to suggest the existence of an endless conspiracy aiming to use Confederate gold to finance global genocide, it all ends with this: Wolter finally “finds” (well, reports someone else’s findings) about a spearhead that might actually prove something, and instead of running this down to make a solid case, he instead gives up and doesn’t care because it’s in Mexico! For crying out loud! The only interesting piece of new information this show has ever shown, and Wolter uses it primarily to support claims for an anti-Wolter government conspiracy. Of course it’s all about him!
I have to admit that this season was more a slog to get through than the last. The episodes were slower, with fewer outrageous claims per hour. On the one hand, it meant that I could review them faster since there was less to investigate, but on the other hand it made for programs that were occasionally exceedingly boring. The program’s new Saturday time slot didn’t help; I typically like to review shows in the morning when I am fresher and more alert, but I have other obligations on Sundays, and this made it hard on me to produce timely reviews.
I could use some time off before the show starts up again. If there is going to be more Holy Bloodline conspiracy stuff, I may need a long break.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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