How Did the Polynesians Find Their Homeland?


Time: Over 30,000 years ago - AD1200
Location: The Pacific

In these Proas or Pahee's as they call them from all accounts we can learn, these people sail in these seas from Island to Island for several hundred leagues, the Sun serving them for a compass by day and the Moon and Stars by night.

Captain James Cook, 1769

In 1766, Captain Samuel Wallis in HMS Dolphin approached the island of Tahiti in a dense morning mist. When the mists cleared, he was astonished to find his ship surrounded by dozens of canoes manned by tall, 'well-shaped' warriors. Tahiti soon became known in Europe as a distant tropical paradise, where the women were beautiful and poverty unknown, the home of human beings who were the epitome of the noble savage. But when a more sober observer, Captain James Cook, visited Tahiti in 1769, he puzzled over a question which has fascinated scholars ever since: how had the Tahitians colonized their remote homeland? How had humans with only simple canoes and no metals sailed across vast tracts of open ocean and settled on the remotest islands of the Pacific?

Cook himself was in no doubt that the Polynesians had come from further west. He wrote prophetically: 'We may trace them from Island to Island quite to the East Indias.' The great British navigator talked to a local canoe pilot named Tupaia and asked him how their skippers made their way to remote islands far out of sight of land. Tupaia explained how they used the sun and the heavenly bodies as a compass. When Cook marvelled at the Polynesians' ability to sail against the prevailing trade winds for hundreds of miles, Tupaia pointed out that westerlies blew from November to January, make good progress to windward. Tupaia carried a mental image of Polynesia around with him. He listed islands, the number of days required to sail to them, and their direction, which Cook made up into a rough sketch map. Modern scholars believe Tupaia could define an area bounded by the Marquesas in the northeast, the Tuamotus to the east, the Australs (Tuhai) to the south, and the Cook Islands to the southwest. Even Fiji and Samoa to the west lay within his consciousness - a mental map of an area as large as Australia or the United States. Cook persuaded Tupaia to accompany him to the southwest when he voyaged to New Zealand, so he could observe his methods. Unfortunately, Tupaia died of fever while Endeavour was in southeast Asia.

From speculation to experiment

No later explorers interviewed Tahitian navigators. Many armchair scholars assumed the Pacific Islands had been colonized by canoes blown accidentally far offshore. But in 1965 English cruising sailor David Lewis encountered aged canoe navigators in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. He learned how the pilots used the zenith passages of key stars to navigate far from the land, as well as swell direction, waves reflected off distant land, and even the flights of sea and land birds, to make landfall on island archipelagos far from their departure point. These navigators were able to return to their homes safely, using the same signs of sea and sky. Determined to preserve a rapidly vanishing art, Lewis sailed his European-designed ocean-going yacht from Rarotonga in the Cook islands to New Zealand, using only a star map and a Polynesian navigator to help him. In the 1970s, Lewis apprenticed himself to the pilots of the Caroline Islands.

Pacific navigators learned their craft from their elders at sea, both memorizing the movements of heavenly bodies and by using simple lattice charts showing  islands and constellations.

Thus speculation gave way to experimentation. In the late 1960s, anthropologist Ben Finney began long-term experiments with replicas of ancient Polynesian canoes. Finney's first replica was Nalehia, a 12-m (40-ft) copy of a Hawaiian royal canoe. Tests in Hawaii's windy waters showed the vessel could sail across the wind, so Finney planned a voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and back, using a replica built from a composite of known canoe designs from throughout the Pacific Islands. Hokule'a, designed by Hawaiian Herb Kawainui Kane, is 19-m (62-ft) long, with double hulls and two crab-claw shaped sails. Finney, Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug and a mainly Hawaiian crew successfully sailed Hokule'a from Hawaii to Tahiti and back in 1976. This journey was followed by a two-year voyage around the Pacific using only indigenous pilotage. Thanks to the successful Hokule'a experiments, ancient Polynesian navigational skills have been preserved for posterity.

Ancient migrations

At the same time, archaeologists and linguists have traced the ancient migrations across the Pacific. A recent analysis of 77 Austronesian languages had placed the ultimate origins of the Pacific Islanders in Taiwan from where they island-hopped through the Philippines and New Guinea, passed east through Fiji and from there to Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island. This complex journey is estimated to have taken little more than 2000 years, a mere blink of an eye in prehistoric terms. Humans had settled in the Solomon Islands of the southwestern Pacific by at least 28,000 years ago. By 5000 years ago far-flung exchange networks transported sea shells, obsidian (volcanic glass) and other commodities over enormous distances from the Asian mainland deep into the central Pacific. We can trace these people from their characteristic 'Lapita' pottery, which may have developed in the Bismarck Archipelago off New Guinea and is found as far east as Fiji dating to the 1st millennium BC. The ocean-going double-hulled canoe and easily storable root crops like taro were the catalyst for bolder offshore voyaging, to islands far over the horizon, hundreds of miles apart. New Zealand archaeologist Geoffrey Irwin, himself a sailor, has used computer modelling and his own voyages to show that the offshore passages were systematic, deliberate and based on an intimate knowledge of the ocean environment and the heavens.

A modern replica of a Hawaiian twin-hulled canoe, the Hokule'a. Interest in traditional navigation has taken Hokule'a and other replicas on voyages along ancient canoe routes.

The achievements of the navigators were remarkable, but not mysterious, given their pilotage system, passed from generation to generation. Micronesia and eastern Polynesia were colonized within the last 2000 years, originating in Fiji by AD 1. Tahiti was settled by AD 800, Hawaii by 600, Easter Island possibly between 300 and 400, New Zealand by AD 1000. With these voyages the last chapter of the 150,000-year spread of modern humans across the world ended.


Time: AD 1000-1700
Location: Easter Island, southeast Pacific

If people ask you if we have 'solved the riddle', you can say that we do not claim to have done that, but we have found much that is new and interesting.

Katherine Routledge, 1915

The geography, geology and ecology of Easter Island (Rapa Nui or Rapanui) shaped the destiny of Polynesians who settled there at an uncertain date in the 1st millennium AD. The island's watery isolation, combined with the impoverished landscape seen by European voyagers in 1722, seemed an impossibly barren stage on which to raise the majestic moai (stone statues). This gap between nature and culture baffled Western science for generations. Recent international scholarship, however, has enriched the Rapa Nui archaeological database and revealed more of the ecological context. At the same time linguists and physical anthropologists have contributed new models of Polynesian origins and dispersal. In the words of Katherine Routledge, co-leader of the Mana Expedition to Easter Island in 1913-15, 'much that is new and interesting' is emerging.

The island

Rapa Nui lies in the southern hemisphere on the Nazca Plate in the southeast Pacific Ocean, a dynamic focal point of geological tension and seismic instability. It is a roughly triangular, basaltic high island formed by the coalescing flows of three undersea volcanoes. At 63 sq. miles (163 sq. km) Rapa Nui is small, but not the smallest of habitable Pacific islands. Geographically isolated but culturally linked to the rest of Polynesia, Rapa Nui is a sub-tropical 'outlier' in rainfall and temperature. This produces a marginal local ecosystem, limited natural resources and patterns of slow plant growth or recovery, although there was once lush palm cover.

Rano Raraku, a volcanic cone of consolidated lapilli tuff, assumed an important role in pre-contact Rapa Nui culture. Over the course of at least 500 years, this near-perfect sculptural material was quarried to produce 95 per cent of 883 known statues. It was a major impetus to the development of monumental public works and innovative ceremonial architecture.

All Rano Raraku statues fall into one of four body shapes or types, and the proportionate relationships of design attributes are unvarying. This demonstrates proof of aesthetic continuity, uninterrupted social patterns, significant food management strategies and political stability for multiple generations. By the end of the 16th century AD about one-third of known moai had been successfully transported to and erected upon ceremonial platforms )called image ahu). Major ahu sites along the Rapa Nui shoreline evolved into elaborate, multi-phase structures with massive dressed stone walls capable of supporting multiple numbers of statues. Most of these coastal ahu and some moai were embellished with distinctive red scoria features quarried from a single volcanic source called Puna Pau.

Origins and isolation

The Polynesians built massive sailing rafts and double-hulled canoes capable of long-distance voyaging. Their vessels were characterized by robust construction, flexible but touch lashed joinery and durable, seaworthy design. Heavy timbers, some more than three times the length of the largest moai successfully raised, were moved over rough terrain. Trained navigators set courses according to wind direction, adjusted to wind shifts and attended to the natural movement patterns of birds and fish. Early Polynesian movements in the East Pacific were underway by the 1st millennium AD. Discovery of Rapa Nui may have taken place between AD 300 and 400, but certainly by AD 800. Mangareva, Pitcairn (Rapa Nui's nearest neighbour) and Henderson were in sporadic but repeated trade contact from AD 800 and 1600. While the specific island of embarkation for Rapa Nui settlement is not known, there are suggested archaeological affinities to Mangareva and to Mangaia in the Cook Islands. Monumental stone carvings in red scoria link Rapa Nui to Pitcairn and, perhaps, to Raivavae in the Austral Islands.

Archaeological, linguistic evidence of Polynesian strategic voyaging in the east Pacific has, in the words of P.V. Kirch, 'turned the tables on Thor Heyerdahl's theory of an American origin for the Polynesians'. The increasingly convincing hypothesis is that Polynesian voyagers reached the vicinity of the South American coast, where they acquired, perhaps in trade, the domesticated sweet potato (Ipomoea batatus) and the Lagenaria gourd. Subsequently introduced into pre-contact Polynesia, the sweet potato evolved into an invaluable food staple throughout the Pacific. On Rapa Nui it was intensively cultivated in large plantations and household plots. It fuelled massive megalithic building projects and surpassed other staples in religious importance. 

The Polynesians

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