Across the Pacific in Twelve Steps

Time Travel

A tour of the garden, pausing twelve times so that you can see one name at each major stage in sequence of the Austronesian migration from Taiwan, starting about 5,000 years ago, through the Philippines and the North-eastern coast of New Guinea, on into the Pacific and finally south to Aotearoa (and north to Hawai'i), arriving some time in the thirteenth century AD at the ends of the earth.

As a guided tour in the real world, this walk through the trees could take a couple of hours, but you can do it much more quickly in virtual reality, provided always that you don't get distracted by the other plants you'll meet along the way.

In the real garden the iconic plants were each marked by a bamboo cylinder with  information about their names. Here you can read these notes, and let your fingers do the walking. Click on the links to see pictures of the plants and get more information about them and their names if and when you want it.


Stage 1 - Proto-Austronesian
These are transmutations of words known by the Austronesians before they left Taiwan for the Philippines, at least 5,000 years ago. (There are only two plant names inherited from this stage, one of which came into Proto-Polynesian as *fara, originally probably denoting various pandanus species; its modern cognates in Māori refer to plants with sheaving leaves, like harakeke, whara, and wharawhara.)


Stage 2 - Malayo Polynesian
You are in Greater Wallacea - island Southeast Asia east of the extended "Wallace Line", moving through the Philippines and into Eastern Indonesia (if you're lost now, don't worry - there is a map on the web!), a region with an amazing array of plants and animals. Our representative for this phase is the , a word covering species of Cordyline in general (as it seems to have throughout its history), and in this part of the garden manifested as the tī kōuka, Cordyline australis.


Stage 3 - Oceanic
You have now definitely left Wallacea and entered the Australia / New Guinea region, but there are already a lot of people here, so you have sailed further and settled, for a while, somewhere in or near the Bismarck Archipelago. The plant name representing this stage is kahikaatoa, Leptospermum scoparium (a.k.a. mānuka) which incorporates the Proto Oceanic word *kapika, inherited by Proto Polynesian as *kafika and Māori as kahika.


Stage 4 - Eastern Oceanic
This period marks the arrival of the Austronesians at the end of the known world. Up till that time, the islands of the Central and South Pacific to the west of what are now known as the Solomon Islands had never been visited by human beings. The plant name from this era is miro (Proto-Polynesian *milo), designating a species of Thespesia in most Oceanic languages, but in Māori (and Rapanui) applied to other, equally graceful and useful trees.


Stage 5 - Proto Central Pacific
We are now in real Star-Trek territory, getting further into the unknown and beginning to lose contact with the old world that had been home for millennia just a few centuries previously. For those who would become Polynesians, this sojourn in the vicinity of Fiji was relatively brief, but long enough for some new names to develop, of which poroporo (Proto Polynesian *polo) represents this stage on our current journey.


Stage 6 - East Fiji / Western Polynesia
Some of the Austronesians who settled near or in Fiji have now moved on to further new worlds in Tonga and Samoa, but for a while remain in contact with people in their most recent homeland and maintain a common language. Mānuka, incorporating the older word *nuka, is our representative of this stage.


Stage 7 - Polynesia
The everyday links with Fiji have now been cut and over the next 500 years or so -- the longest interlude for quite some time, a common language develops in the Tonga / Samoa area, and large numbers of new words, still common to most Polynesian languages, arise. The plant name symbolizing this era for our walk is māmāngi, from Proto Polynesian *mamangi.


Stage 8 - Nuclear Polynesia
Another few centuries have gone by, and the Polynesians living in and around Samoa have developed their own distinctive language separately from that which has developed in Tonga and Niue. Some are poised on the brink of another great adventure. A plant name from this era is kauri, from Proto Nuclear Polynesian *kauli.


Stage 9 - Eastern Polynesia
Another great era of long distance voyaging and discovery starts, culminating in the establishment of contact with South America and the introduction of the hue, the gourd Lagenaria siceraria, its new Eastern Polynesian name a recycling and appropriation of an older word, *fue. Another, equally important food plant, the kumara, was also introduced to Eastern Polynesia from South America, during this era, but possibly on a different expedition -- at any rate, the kumara seems to have been taken to Rapanui several centuries after it was first cultivated in Tahiti and the Marquesas.


 Stage 10 - Central Eastern Polynesia
The distances are huge, and regular contact with the people who settled Rapanui is lost, leading to a divergence of their language from a new common language uniting, for the time, Tahiti, the Tuamotus and the Marquesas. Tōtara is the plant name representative of this era, from a rather surprising Eastern Polynesian source, a slightly different kind of Tōtara.


Stage 11 - Tahitic
This is in effect the last stage in the development of modern Māori within tropical Polynesia, although there will be an influence through links with the Cook Islands for a while after direct contact with Tahiti is lost. For now though, around the end of the first millennium AD, a distinctive language is developing in the Marquesas, which will have a major influence also in Hawaii, and a last great push outwards from Tahiti into the fast receding unknown is about to take place. Our plant name representing this era is tawhiwhi, from an original ProtoTahitic word *tafifi.

. . .

Stage 12 - Rarotonga / Aotearoa, and afterwards
After contact with Tahiti faded, some closer links seem to have been maintained for a while with Rarotonga, so there are a number of words shared exclusively by Cook Islands languages and New Zealand Māori. A plant name from this stage of the development of both languages is pōhutukawa, possibly from an original word *pōfutukava. And as we walk back to base we can take a quick look at the modern koromiko, the post-modern ōriwa (olive) and the pre-modern karaka that really wasn't one!

Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License