The “discovery” of Polynesian intelligence

Image from "New Light on the Races of Polynesia," by Louis Sullivan, printed in Detach from Asia, 1923.

Image from “New Light on the Races of Polynesia,” by Louis Sullivan, printed in Detach from Asia, 1923.

News that “Polynesians May Have Invented Binary Math 600 Years Ago” (via HuffPost, see also: “Polynesian People Used Binary Numbers 600 Years Ago” at the Scientific American) has been making the internet rounds. The story here is that Norwegian anthropologists Andrea Bender and Sieghard Beller have recently published findings that the people of Mangareva, in French Polynesia, had a binary system of math. Specifically, says reporter Phillip Ball:

They had number words for 1 to 10, and then for 10 multiplied by several powers of 2. The word takau (which Bender and Beller denote as K) means 10; paua (P) means 20; tataua (T) is 40; and varu (V) stands for 80. In this notation, for example, 70 is TPK and 57 is TK7.

This news is reported as “astonishing” because it means Mangarevans “invented” binary centuries before German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz in 1703. Ball reports that this news, the “discovery” of Bender and Beller:

… made by analysing historical records of the now almost wholly assimilated Mangarevan culture and language and reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that some of the advantages of the binary system adduced by Leibniz might create a cognitive motivation for this system to arise spontaneously, even in a society without advanced science and technology.

As a Native Hawaiian woman, I also identify as a Pacific Islander and Polynesian. I am excited to see articles promoting Polynesian intelligence and creativity circulating in mainstream news outlets because that just does not happen. I am proud to know that Polynesian people used binary, and I am proud to see other people marveling at our ancestors’ genius.

However, while reading these articles, I am struck by a familiar uneasiness. More coverage of Indigenous Pacific Islander history does not automatically mean that readers of the Huffington Post or the Scientific American are really learning anything different than what they already know about Polynesia. For most people, Polynesia is a vague label for tourist kitsch like tikis and the plastic hula girls you can mount to your car’s dashboard. Polynesia is not definable as a place or a people within mainstream common knowledge because it is a fantasy world of vacations, a quaint respite isolated from the pressures of the modern world. This is an important source of the astonishment that mathematics expertise could have existed in Polynesia. These recent articles note Mangareva as “a tiny island” of French Polynesia “5000 kilometers south of Hawaii”– wow, so far, far away from civilization. They also note what John Bonnanon in the Huffington Post article calls “the catch”:

Even if the native mathematical system of Mangareva employed binary arithmetic, the current residents of the island no longer use that system. Two centuries of contact with the West has resulted in a complete switch to decimal calculation. Even the Mangarevan language itself is now threatened with extinction. Bender and Beller are relying on their analysis of the language and an account of the traditional counting words written by ethnographers in 1938. They acknowledge that it is impossible to prove exactly when Mangareva developed the system, but the entrenchment of the number terms in the language suggests a far-reaching origin. Unfortunately, the anthropologists may have made their discovery just one generation too late to see Mangarevan math in action.

In the comparison of ancient Mangarevans to contemporary Mangarevans, we also see a familiar narrative playing out. Polynesians once were a great civilization, but now they, along with their languages, cultures and ways of knowing, are nearly extinct. Rather than indicting the history and present of Western colonialism (formal and informal) directly, this narrative demurs into nostalgia about pre-“contact.” If only the anthropologists had come earlier! Then maybe Mangarevans would still be able to use their binary math!

This sentiment is, at best, naive. It plainly erases both the agency of Mangarevans and the participation of Western science (anthropology perhaps most of all) in the colonization of the Pacific. It should bother all readers that these articles cite anthropologists but no Mangarevans! What do Mangarevans think about these findings? Whatever they may have to say, I would guess surprise and astonishment are not the foremost reactions.

Beyond this critique of the tone-deafness (at best) of such “discoveries” of Indigenous intelligence and ingenuity, there is another reason why we must question what narratives this news coverage perpetuate. Though Polynesians recognize cultural and ancestral connections between Polynesians, as grounded in many Indigenous cosmogenies, the label “Polynesia” is itself a creation or “discovery” of Western science. Indeed, Polynesia’s association with whiteness in Western scientific literature has long been used to sediment settler colonialism in the Pacific. The French writer Charles des Brosses has been credited with the first use of the term in 1756 (in French, “Polynésie”), having derived it from the Greek “polloi,” meaning “many”- literally, Polynesia simply denotes “many islands.” However, as studied by ethnologists from early Western “contact” through physical anthropologists and sociologists into the twentieth century, Polynesians were people in whom, as anthropologist Louis Sullivan wrote in 1923, “nature seems just to have missed producing a Caucasian.” Polynesians were, and in many representations still are, in stark contrast to the more savage and more black Melanesians. Melanesian derived from “melas,” meaning “black” in Greek. Polynesia was more white and more civilized; therefore, white settlers felt more at home and indeed more “indigenous” there.

Because Western science has promoted the “almost whiteness” of Polynesians for centuries, anthropologists finding evidence of ancient Polynesian intelligence (sadly lost in contemporary Polynesian populations) actually is not a new story. It is the story of Pacific settler colonialism itself. Settler colonialism masks much of its violence through nostalgia for what it has destroyed; through conferring honorary humanity (almost whiteness) upon Indigenous peoples while at the same time claiming those peoples, histories, and lands as the heritage of whiteness. I write elsewhere about this process as a possession through whiteness. While it is delightful to see stories about Mangarevan mathematics in popular news, we must ask ourselves how might we tell this story without writing it into a universalized narrative of white humanity. How might we use this news to crack away at the settler colonial sedimentation of Polynesia and whiteness, rather than let that sedimentation embed itself further?

This post marks what I hope to be a return to blogging after a long hiatus. I hope to reinvent this space as one where I can contribute to answering that last question, where I can provide some alternative, unsettling narratives to highlight and foster decolonization of the Pacific. One project I hope to develop and share here is a syllabus of recommended reading on Pacific Islander Studies, which has a long history and exciting present with folks like Epeli Hau’ofa and Alice Te Punga Somerville.