“Ben Finney, Anthropologist Who Debunked Theory on Island Settlement, Dies at 83” – TTG


“On June 4, 1976, the Hokulea, a double-hulled sailing canoe of ancient design, glided into Papeete Harbor in Tahiti, greeted ecstatically by a crowd of 17,000 — more than half the island’s population. For the first time in six centuries, a traditional Polynesian sailing vessel had made the voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti, covering more than 2,700 miles without instruments.

For Ben Finney, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii, it was sweet vindication. In an effort to prove that the settlement of Polynesia came about through deliberate exploration, rather than aimless drifting — the so-called accidental settlement hypothesis — he oversaw the construction of a 62-foot double canoe based on 18th-century illustrations made by members of Capt. James Cook’s crew.

He then found a master navigator from the Caroline Islands, Mau Piailug, who was capable of guiding the Hokulea (the name means “Star of Joy”) in the age-old way: using the rising points of the stars, supplemented by observations of the sun, the moon and ocean swells, as a natural compass.

Thirty-four days after leaving Honolua Bay, in Maui, on May 1, the Hokulea reached its destination, affirming the navigational expertise of the ancient Polynesians and throwing additional cold water on Thor Heyerdahl’s conjecture that settlers had come from South America, a theory he hoped to prove in his famous 1947 voyage aboard the raft Kon-Tiki.”  (NYT)


I was always enamored of the Hokule’a. I first saw her in the Ala Wai Harbor near the Hale Koa Hotel in Honolulu around Christmas in 1977. She sat in the water all alone. It was just me and her… love at first sight. I was heart broken when I missed her arrival at Alexandria, Virginia last May. This port call was part of her three year circumnavigation of the earth tour. Perhaps some day we will meet again. I have kept the knowledge of this love affair from SWMBO. She thinks we’re just friends. 

I have seen many recreated sailing vessels. Most have auxiliary engines and modern navigational equipment. Not the Hokule’a. She relies on the wind and the stars as well as the sun, moon and ocean wave patterns to reach her destination. That is special. Ben Finney left quite a legacy in the Hokule’a and everything she stands for.


P.S. – My profound thanks to Colonel Lang for allowing me to indulge my occasional off-the-wall thoughts such as this.





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43 Responses to “Ben Finney, Anthropologist Who Debunked Theory on Island Settlement, Dies at 83” – TTG

  1. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Finney, and Heyerdahl before him, are testaments to a very qualitative difference between Wesrern Diocletians and everone else.
    Such men would be considered deranged everywhere else for not devoting themselves to the acquisition of wealth or power.

  2. Degringolade says:

    I could not agree more….they are like the odd scientist who simply pursues knowledge or the occasional artist who yearns for beauty.
    Folks like this have always been thin on the ground. The burghers of the world have never really had much use for them.
    Great post

  3. Gene O says:

    I had read Kon-Tiki as a boy. But at the time wondered why ‘if you could sail west from Peru to Polynesia’ then why not the opposite?
    There was a French expedition sailing from Tahiti eastwards 10 years after Heyerdahl sailed west. That raft made it to an island not far off the Chilean coast. Not sure why they focused on a raft, as Heyerdahl did? Why didn’t they use the traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe like Finney sailed in? Surely the French in Tahiti knew of those canoes, Admiral Bougainville had explored the Tuamotos and Tahiti ten years prior to the American Revolution.

  4. JJackson says:

    I enjoy your ‘off the wall post’ they are part of what has made this a ‘Renaissance man’ site and for those who read the ‘The Total boat skiff’ this project is now complete and had been a pleasure to follow from start to finish. Thanks again.

  5. Jack says:

    TTG, Sir
    I don’t want to indulge in debate on the theories of Ben Finney and Thor Heyerdahl.
    The Kon-Tiki Expedition had a profound impact on me personally as a teenager. It fostered a love of adventure and exploration. I’d say even an infatuation when I was a young man, which took me on journeys to remote parts of South & Central America as well as Africa and the Himalayan range and of course to many of the Polynesian islands in the South Pacific.
    I recall the thrill in seeing the raft in Oslo much later in my life and seeing the images from the Ra expedition too. Sir, I can completely relate to your love affair with the Hokulea!

  6. kao_hsien_chih says:

    A most astute observation, but doing things for the sake of curiosity, beauty, or knowledge just for their sake is increasingly a rarity even in the West. The disease of the decadent East, where everything is justified on the basis of wealth and power has been corrupting the West, in the name of “rationality,” falsely so called.

  7. sixpacksongs says:

    TTG – Also this weekend, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-40316930
    “A traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe has returned to Honolulu in Hawaii, completing the first-ever round-the-world trip by such a vessel.
    The boat, the Hokule’a, took three years to journey around the globe.
    Its crew navigated without modern instruments, using only the stars, wind and ocean swells as guides.
    They aimed to use the same techniques that brought the first Polynesian settlers to Hawaii hundreds of years ago.”
    Simply marvellous.
    — sixpacksongs

  8. will short says:

    Sirs, happened to read, “The Last Navigator” by S.D. Thomas, pub. 1987. For me first exposure to this topic. It was fascinating account of authors apprenticeship. Anyone else?—Regards, Will

  9. Babak Makkinejad says:

    And I am willing to bet you anything that during all of your wondering you never met a Hindu or a Muslim or an Oriental; excepting the indigenous peoples.

  10. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Google “In praise of useless endeavors” and “In praise of useless knowledge”.

  11. lally says:

    Thanks for this post TTG.
    “Hometown” coverage of the return of the Hokule’a including an inspiring, wide ranging speech by navigator Nainoa Thompson:

  12. Jack says:

    Au contraire!
    What was the “anything” you bet?
    One thing I have noticed in my reading of your comments over several years, is that you are incredibly prejudiced towards the Hindu. Something personal or is it pervasive among Iranians?

  13. Babak,
    My youngest brother was visiting recently. It’s been years since we’ve seen each other. He was taking one of his son’s for a visit to DC. We was looking at my nautical library and back copies of “Wooden Boat” so we started talking bout building boats. He took a course with someone who builds traditional skin on frame Greenland style kayaks. It ended up being a one-on-one course in which he built a frame with traditional lashings of nylon rather than sinew. At the end of the course, he was given the opportunity to buy that frame. He chose not to. His intention was to build a kayak with wood he harvested from his own land even though it ended up being a little heavier than the first one he built. My brother cleared his own land up in the White Mountains, harvested and milled his own lumber, and built his own timber framed house and carriage house. He also constructed his own road on his property to save money. One of my brothers is a long time logger. Another is a tool maker running his own machine repair business. With their help and the help of his old school New England neighbors, he managed to create a nice home for his family… even though it took a few years. Now if he could just reliably bear-proof his chicken coop.

  14. Jill says:

    TTG, The writing is good. I know it is good because I can feel the joy and love you have for water and vessels upon the water. You brightened my day.
    *Col. Lang wrote a piece on sloping around Yemen that brought me to feel the air, see the light of the place, and almost smell it. I didn’t comment on it at the time but I remember it.

  15. All,
    What a coincidence. I just received an email from Tulsi Gabbard entitled “The mission of Malama Honua.” The bottom line was about Hawai’i recommitting to the Paris Climate Accord. Here’s some of it. I know a big part of the first voyage of the Hokule’a was the reawakening of the indigenous Hawai’ian spirit. I witnessed that firsthand while i was assigned there.
    “Thousands of years ago Hawaii’s ancestors settled every livable landmass across a large swath of the pacific. They used the technology of their time to explore the unknown and they lived in harmony with nature. Today, too often, technology is used to exploit nature, creating more suffering around the world. Every action has a reaction, and the voyage of the Hōkūle‘a over the last three years has spread aloha and the message of Mālama Honua, uniting a network of people committed to creating a better world. Yesterday marked the final day of the Hōkūle‘a voyage and Tulsi joined thousands to celebrate their homecoming.”
    “The mission of Mālama Honua means preserving our limited resources, taking care of each other and our island earth. Much like our ancestors used technology to create a balance between our civilization and nature, so can we today.”

  16. kgw says:

    Having a “double-canoe” myself, albeit a bit smaller, I have followed Hokule’a since the early splashes into the water. Nanoa’s stories of the teaching of Mau Piailug during the voyage to Aeroatea (New Zealand) are wonderful. One night as Hokule’a was northing before making east for Hawai’i, Piailug got up and told the crew to take the sails down NOW! They did so, smartly, and in a few seconds, a serious squall roared over them.

  17. will short,
    I haven’t read that book yet. Although I’ve spent some time examining the shunting proa, I haven’t really studied those ancient navigational methods. I’ll have to get a copy of that book.
    One I’m reading right now is “The Starship and the Canoe” by Kenneth Brower. It’s about Freeman Dyson, the renowned physicist, and his son, George Dyson. Freeman was a designer and champion of the Orion Project. His son chose to live along the British Columbia and Alaskan coast. He built a large three cockpit baidarka out of aluminum tubing and canvas and paddled/sailed it up and down the coast. That’s as far as i got in the book so far. My brother sent me his copy.

  18. Mark Logan says:

    Gene O,
    Why a raft? I will speculate base on something my paternal grandmother told me (a full blooded French Samoan who immigrated to the US in the early 60’s). For a few years in due to the turbulence of my teens I had to live with my grandfolks and thereby somewhat steeped in the ex-pat Samoan community. Which, I will include, did a number on some of my evil ways. Nuff’ said about that.
    The rapid disappearance of the old ways was a particular point of emphasis among the elders. Not only traditions but of the sort of handed down knowledge which goes into the construction of a sea-worthy craft such as this. Many believed their language was to blame. It’s the sort of language which is ill-suited to writing, communicating complex thoughts by means of common metaphors and the information provided by tone and inflections which only exist in face-to-face communications. This sort of language doesn’t fit well with the task of recording technical details such as navigation and boat-building..even in lore. One word can mean several things, Margaret Mead was famously confused on many issues. I suppose a discussion could be had one the here-and-now mode of stone-age thinking and what we have today…but I digress, badly.
    Bottom line is they may not have known about the sea-going large double canoes when they considered the voyages. Who talked about them when they were no longer being build? Not many, not many at all.
    Here’s and interesting tid-bit about the DNA of sweet potatoes providing evidence the Polynesians made it to the Americans long long ago and came back.

  19. kao_hsien_chih says:

    The West used to engage in a lot more of useless endeavors in the past, just to see if something could be done. Much less now than before. Almost everything now being done needs to be justified in terms of “wealth” or “power,” even if not necessarily in so many words, and much of what passes for “rationality” nowadays is exactly this justification.
    Much of what people do “just because” can only be justified because we don’t know what the “right answer” is, and because we don’t know what the right answer is, we need to try and find out what the right answer looks like. But once everyone knows what the “right answer” is supposed to be, there is no point in trying and doing, just to see. Or, in other words, we pursue “useless” knowledge because we don’t really know if it really is useless after all. But many people nowadays are so sure that they know “the right answer,” or that they just need to know the right answer, regardless of how. I’ve seen this before: cram school mentality for all-important exams in East Asia. This attitude is spreading and becoming more influential. This is what I was getting at.

  20. Degringolade says:

    In the words of Carl Popper
    Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.

  21. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Where were they from? And how many, compared to Euro-Americans?
    The best thing that has happened to Hindus over the last two millennia has been English rule.

  22. Degringolade,
    I’ll take your Carl Popper and lay down a Pope Francis:
    “We do not need to be afraid of questions and doubts because they are the beginning of a path of knowledge and going deeper; one who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith,”

  23. Gene O says:

    Thanks for that link. I’m a believer. No way the Polynesian diaspora stopped at Easter Island. The South Pacific current goes due east towards Chile. Then turns north along the coast to Peru before turning back west as the South Equatorial current. Same same for the ocean winds, the Westerlies and the Trades. Probably was never a major route as the distances were huge across open ocean and the risks high.
    You also have to admire the Ocean People of the Okhotsk area in Siberia. Ancestors perhaps of the Aleuts – and the Sea People of the Alaskan panhandle, coastal British Columbia, and Puget Sound.

  24. Gene O says:

    Another great read on paddling the Alaskan/BC coastline is Ivan Doig’s “The Sea Runners”. Neat story on four Swedish indentured laborers who flee Russian Alaska. They paddle a Tlingit cedar dugout from New Archangel (now Sitka) to Astoria.

  25. john says:

    as the cadet who sunk COL Lang’s sail boat at west point and who had admired your posts on here
    great post and love it all
    I have multiple tours in Hawaii and knowledge of the trip you post
    great for you and yours
    thanks for what your bring to this discussion – on this topic and especially all others

  26. Tidewater says:

    Tidewater comments to Jack and to V.S. Makkinejad,
    Jack, I think this is not just about some sort of choleric Iranian bias. Babak, aren’t you referring to the Kala pani taboo in Hinduism? This prohibition against an ocean voyage across “the black water” is found in the Baudhayana Sutra, one of the Hindu Dharma Shastras, which lawfully ordains that ‘making voyages by sea ” is an offense which will cause pataniya or loss of caste and social exclusion. It prescribes a complicated and difficult penance, which lasts three years. Apparently, going to sea messes up the reincarnation cycle, since you are too far from the sacred Ganges. Also, I think the priestly suspicion that one might be having reefer maddened fun and drunken sex with wanton young foreigners over on the other side in some roaring Barrio Chino bar might be factored in as another cause of this outrageous ‘samudrayana’ sanction.
    Wiki is good on ‘Kala pani (taboo.)’
    I didn’t realize that the 1857 Indian Mutiny was caused in part by this taboo.

  27. mauisurfer says:

    Interesting, a topic that I actually know something about.
    First, the accepted view today is that Polynesians came from (“evolved” from) SE Asia, and that view is no longer seriously disputed.
    But Finney’s view of Heyerdahl is seriously wrong.
    Heyerdahl did NOT say Polynesian settlers came from South America (as Finney claims). Please read “American Indians in the Pacific”, Heyerdahl’s extensive scientific book, which evidently Prof Finney never read. Heyerdahl’s theory is that Polynesians were the same people as Haida and Kwakiutl. Heyerdahl compares the big canoes of PacNW with those of Maori, he even compares their footwear. Too much to detail here, must read for yourself to form an opinion.
    As for South America, and rafts, Heyerdahl contended that natives of west coast of South American were intrepid sailors and fishermen and traveled far at sea, even to the Marquesas Islands.
    These “rafts” had centerboards, a unique invention. Heyerdahl mentions that Mendana was given sailing directions to the Marquesas by natives on west coast of So America who had traveled there in their rafts. Heyerdahl did NOT claim that Polynesians of Marquesas were the same people as South Americans.
    Heyerdahl was not a sailor, he was an adventurer. He did not know how to sail the raft he helped to build, that is why he ended up shipwrecked in the Tuamotus (“L’Archipel Dangereuse”).
    Long after Heyerdahl’s adventure, someone found a manuscript written by a 16th Century Spanish sea captain which described and diagrammed the seagoing rafts in question. He promoted them as a seaworthy craft for emergency construction in case of shipwrecks.
    Enuf for now.

  28. rusti says:

    Seems like an opportune place to drop this link of a 1939 article, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”

  29. Peter Reichard says:

    TTG, my only boat building project was a 14 foot proa of my own design that I paddled around San Francisco Bay in the early seventies. I have long shared your awe and respect for the seamanship and skills of naval architecture and navigation possessed by the peoples of Oceania. We vastly underestimate these ancient mariners whose boats of high stability, seaworthiness and upwind capability might well have reached the Americas in pre-Colombian times.

  30. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Very impressive, especially considering that it is not driven by necessity rather than sheer joy of working with one’s hands.

  31. Dave Speck says:

    Ah yes. I recall watching your submersible activity on COL Lang’s sailboat from the shore. I was impressed that the last thing I saw go under was your hand holding a beer.

  32. turcopolier says:

    Dave Speck
    Are you sure you were not also on the boat? I seem to recall three of us on that Cape Dory ten foot cat boat. Yes, John was steering and pointed it up too high in a stiff, gusty breeze. At one point the wind died suddenly and the bow went straight under. pl

  33. Bill H says:

    Off topic but related to sailing, the coverage by NBC of the America’s Cup is outstanding. Camera work and commentary is excellent. They resume 6/24 on NBC for two days and finish on NBCSN.

  34. Bill H,
    I happened upon this coverage yesterday as soon as the first race of the day started. I also found it fascinating. I stayed on channel through both races. Even though the technology is out of this world and half the crew is used to keep up hydraulic pressure by pedaling, it’s still sailing. You are right, the commentary was excellent. And I thought the 7.2 meter sail on my windsurfer was sophisticated. It’s a nylon and mylar rigid wing on a carbon fiber mast. The cams allow me to pop it into shape when I change tacks. Now I see windsurfers and kite surfers on hydrofoils.

  35. Babak Makkinejad says:


  36. kao_hsien_chih says:

    Thanks. The point I keep raising is not that “useless knowledge” is useless, but increasingly larger proportion of people nowadays seem to be denigrating them as “useless,” which, in my opinion, is a sad and unfortunate proposition. I will go so far as to claim that the energies diverted to pursuits of “useless knowledge” that has propelled the West, while the insistence on “provably useful” knowledge has kept the East stagnant. “Wasting” more effort on “useless knowledge” is what we need, not less.

  37. Mark Logan says:

    TTG, I have a bit of experience in foiling. I owned one of the early Moths,
    Even world class sailors like Buchan and McKee couldn’t keep the things upright on the first few tries. Eventually we sort of hashed it out…but the intense trimming needed was gassing us…even Olympics-fit guys like them. It’s an inherently unstable platform when foiling..even the advent of rudder foils only help just so much. The amount of lift provided by a foil in water is staggering but so is the need for precise control of the angle of attack of the foil. The difference between foiling and either leaping out of the water or pitch-poling catastrophically (net end result from either…really) is a couple degrees. It’s of course easy to make it much more stable by overloading the ass end and using small foils but that is slower.
    They have hashed it out pretty well for the AC boats but the foils are adjusting themselves constantly and automatically by means of computers. The grinders have to keep hydraulic pressure up or it’s curtains.

  38. Jack says:

    I don’t believe there is any choleric Iranian bias. I’ve known many Iranians who arrived here in the US after the fall of the Shah. They didn’t exhibit any prejudice towards the Hindu. I think it something personal with Babak. Maybe a smart Hindu beat him to a position or award.

  39. Dave Speck says:

    COL Lang
    Hard to remember. I seem to recall that Chris was on the boat with you and John while I helped your wife prepare the food on shore. But the sight of John holding his beer aloft as the boat went under is imprinted on my memory with great clarity. Times have changed. My wife and I spent a few years helping race 35 foot sailboats on Lake Erie. I’ve come to love sailing.

  40. turcopolier says:

    Dave Speck
    Yes. it was Chris. The little sailing dinghy was a fine boat. The fiberglass hull had sailing ship lines, but the single red and white sail way up in the bow was very large and drove her hard when close hauled. We were going very hard on the starboard tack when the wind suddenly died dead. The boat had been planing a bit and the bow dropped. The speed drove the bow under and we went down like a submarine submerging. the boat turned over but it had a lot of flotation built in and did not sink. We righted the boat, bailed it out and sailed it to the shore of Stilwell Lake. pl

  41. Dave Speck says:

    I remember being impressed at how quickly the three of you righted the boat and got her back to shore. If I recall, we even took it out later after eating. Fun times.

  42. Lars says:

    The Water Tribe is in many ways following the ancient mariners, albeit with better tools and materials. The latter had to have a different psychological make up, but anyone who has spent some time in the middle of a large body of water has always wondered what is beyond the horizon.
    I appreciate TTG’s passion and even share some of them. I remain in constant trouble with my wife over the years of Wooden Boat magazines that I have kept (for some unknown reason) for many years.
    I am glad to see that so many are still pushing this old envelope and gaining new insights. As a very young boy, I got to watch Bengt Danielsson build a small camper, after he had been a crewman on the Kon-Tiki, which he used to travel around Australia. At the time, he seemed larger than life.

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