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Moana and the Austronesian


I had previously written about the Austronesian expansion with respect to the peopling of the Philippines, but given recent events, I felt compelled to write more about this fascinating subject. Beyond the Philippines, the migration of people across the sea from our lands (from either Taiwan or Island Southeast Asia, or ISEA) to as far as Madagascar to the West and Hawaii or Easter Island is a great feat of the human race, even if academic opinion is split on how it happened. And perhaps a Disney film released in November 2016 became an unexpected catalyst that brought about renewed public interest. It goes without saying that this discussion may involve mild spoilers of the film in question.

Disney’s latest animated feature is Moana, a narrative about a girl from an island in the Pacific on an adventure in the vast ocean, aided by a demi-god from Polynesian lore. This film, apart from it being another tale for the latest addition to the pantheon of Disney “princesses”, surprisingly depicted the culture it aimed to portray in a very sensitive and well-researched way. In fact, the “Oceanic Story Trust” was formed specifically for this film, composed of cultural advisors for conceptualizing and advising the filmmakers, composed of anthropologists, linguists, historians, and even native experts in boat-making, fishermen, tattoo artists, etc. Though some liberties were still taken, it is still impressive for Disney to have sought the opinion of social scientists and the indigenous population for a feature.

If you ever needed a visual representation of the Austronesians’ voyage halfway across the globe, there it was.

One of the most iconic scenes in the movie depicts Moana’s discovery of her people’s legacy—their being descended from ocean voyagers. The animation clearly illustrates the outrigger canoes and the bigger camakau (slightly analogous to the local balangay) sailing through the Pacific Ocean from island to island, in search for a land more prosperous. They accomplished this with mere wooden boats and rudimentary navigation. If you ever needed a visual representation of the Austronesians’ voyage halfway across the globe, there it was. That’s if you do remember the gist of the Austronesian expansion theory…

As I wrote before, the two main angles of the expansion of peoples across the Philippine archipelago were those of Peter Bellwood (with Reid, Blust, Renfrew, et al.) and Wilhelm Solheim (with Meacham, Terrell, Oppenheimer, et al.) Respectively, they argued that the ‘homeland’ of these people was Taiwan or ISEA, such as the Celebes area, both with their share of genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence. Now, extending the point-of-reference to the whole of the Austronesian area from Madagascar to Easter Island, the two contending models are also referred to as the “pulse-pause” and “slow boat” model.

Once seen as an ‘express train to Polynesia’, the ‘Out-of-Taiwan’ theory faced criticism on its chronology in the Pacific, resulting in a modified one. The pulse-pause model is mostly based on linguistic evidence via something called phylogenetic estimates, which is basically a complicated method of dating languages based on their complexities and divergences on a ‘family tree’. Linguists concluded that there were two distinct pauses amidst the relatively ‘rapid’ expansion of the Austronesian languages (pulses, hence the name): the first occurring at ~4000 years ago, prior to the crossing of the Bashii channel (between Taiwan and Batanes), and a second, peculiar 1500-year pause, at around 3000 years ago, in Western Polynesia, the area of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Archaeological evidence may also contribute to a notion of long pauses, since assemblages also appeared fairly late (~1000 AD) in the rest of Polynesia, though there is still less evidence on the Taiwan crossing.

The other theory, the slow boat model, argues that, based on genetic and archaeological evidence, the dispersals originated from ISEA at least 13,000 years ago. These dispersals include one to the north, to the Philippines and Taiwan, west to Madagascar, and East to Polynesia. However, this was done through complicated forward and back migrations over centuries rather than a simple one-way diffusion, especially upon reaching Melanesia (prior to the expansion towards Eastern Polynesia) through what some researchers coined as a “voyaging corridor”.

It is important to note that Moana presumably takes place in the area of Western Polynesia. A clue being the Tokelauan lyrics of the film’s songs, courtesy of Samoan-born songwriter Opetaia Foa’i, himself half-Tokelauan and half-Tuvaluan. It might be more than a coincidence that the film’s premise involves a lull in seafaring by her people, confining themselves to an island and its neighboring reef for safety. Perhaps the story also aims to provide a mythological explanation for the so-called ‘long pause’ in the pulse-pause model. Recent studies now suggest that climate or ecological changes in the region may be the culprit for disrupting the equilibrium towards migration. Still, perhaps there was some mythologizing that occurred, and Moana’s story might not be purely fictional or coincidental.

The song which plays during that iconic number mentions, “We sail across to find a brand new island everywhere we row […] We keep our island in our mind, and when it’s time to find home, we know the way.” Though it may be a stretch, it may serve as a reference to the slow boat model’s voyaging corridor. Whichever theory the movie seems to prefer, there is undoubtedly a synthesis that is well-aware of the prehistorical nuances of the context it aimed to depict.

Culturally speaking, the movie tried to be sensitive by hiring voice actors of Malayo-Polynesian (or Austronesian, if you will) descent, such as the Hawaiian native Auli’I Cravalho playing the lead character, Samoan-American Dwayne Johnson, Maoris Temuera Morrison and Rachel House, and Filipino-Hawaiian Nicole Scherzinger, in order to prevent a sort of white-washing. They also featured the cultural traditions and the material culture of the native costumes, fishing and sailing practices, specificity of flora and fauna (including chickens and pigs that also trace their DNA to the same origin), and even tattooing methods (pe’a—not dissimilar to Whang-Od’s own technique), which all seem really familiar to our own, not-so-distant culture. There’s a scene that shows an intricately designed hill- or mountain-top area on her island, where their ancestors placed stones for ritual purposes—hearkening to similar ‘fortresses’ across the Austronesian-influenced regions, like the Ivatan idjang or the Maori .

They too call to us, to shed our ignorance and complacency with our understanding of the past; please, no more ‘waves of migration’-, absurd land bridges, the silliness of “Malay, Indones A and B” and appreciate the Austronesians as our ancestors.

There were however some criticism from natives, especially with regard to the character of Maui, the demi-god. Apart from the complete omission of his mythological partner and equally revered mother-goddess Hina (notice the cognate in ‘ina’), Maui was depicted as obese, a sort of caricature of men of Polynesian descent. In reality, obesity and its accompanying lifestyle-related illnesses (e.g. diabetes and cardiovascular disease) constitute a real epidemic and is a legitimate health concern throughout the Western Pacific Region of the World Health Organization (which includes the Philippines). This is mainly due to abrupt dietary shifts in these populations from a more traditional one of staple crops, fish, and meat, to a more Western-dominated one with high levels of sugars and cholesterol in the form of processed and fast food. This translated to the WHO having a unique set of cut-off values for obesity among this population. Given this view, the oft-cited predilection of Pacific Islanders to diabetes and obesity may actually apply to Filipinos as well, given a similar historical and cultural context.

Going back to Moana, the movie is sure to ignite sentimentality among Filipinos, due to the cultural proximity of the setting. A certain politician even went so far as to claim that an alleged affinity to the sea is behind the trend of Filipino seamen being employed across the world. However, he said this without mentioning the joblessness within the country, and worse, cited this “scientific theory” and “genetic memory” to assert that Polynesians came from the Philippines (and other misplaced sentiments), without acknowledging the bigger implications to our own history.

A legacy that this film should leave is a better appreciation for our shared culture and prehistory. Like Moana, we are descended from voyagers. They too call to us, to shed our ignorance and complacency with our understanding of the past; please, no more ‘waves of migration’, absurd land bridges, the silliness of “Malay, Indones A and B” and appreciate the Austronesians as our ancestors. The debate may not be over with regard to the models of the dispersals, but the one on the validity of Beyer’s outdated theory is. Domestic promotion of the film may have missed the opportunity to relate Moana and its songs to an already relatable culture, but let us not waste yet another chance to educate ourselves and future generations about our past.

Josh San Pedro is an aspiring physician-anthropologist. A graduate of both Anthropology and Medicine from the University of the Philippines, he dabbles in the fields of social medicine, critical medical anthropology, and health & development.

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Image from Josh San Pedro



2 thoughts on “Moana and the Austronesian

  1. Reblogged this on Malory Columbretis and commented:
    I’ve already seen Moana TWICE! And I’m gonna go see it with my parents tomorrow for the third time. I wanted to make a post about it here, but I’m caught up between…stuff… so here’s a highly informative post! I couldn’t do any better than this.

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