The history of Polynesian voyagers
The story of the settlement of the Pacific begins on the island of Taiwan around 3000 BC and with the spreading of the Lapita culture around 1500 BC.
From here, peoples speaking Austronesian languages migrated south into the islands of Southeast Asia. These people originally from Taiwan and other regions of East Asia were skilled seaborne explorers & colonists, and by 1500 BC had established themselves on the Bismarck Archipelago (off Indonesia). Archaeological records of Lapita pottery show this culture spreading out from the Bismarck Archipelago across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the islands of Melanesia, Fiji and western Polynesia.
Tonga and Samoa are believed to have been settled around 1300 BC to 900 BC, but after this rapid period of exploration there was ‘The long pause’. It would take another 1000 years before they left West Polynesia and settle Eastern Polynesia. There are numerous theories behind this. Tahiti and the Cook Islands were not settled until 1000 AD. Shortly after 1000 AD, the outlying parts of Polynesia were settled: New Zealand in the south, Easter Island and the Marquesas and Society Islands in the east and Hawaii in the north. The Lapita were the ancestors of Polynesians including Maori.
It is believed that the reasons for people migrating included difficulty competing for resources with other tribes, an authentic curiosity about unknown areas of the world, and imposed exile.
Over thousands of years, distinctive cultures developed in island groups. These are the island nations that we know today.
Although many different languages are spoken in the Pacific, they have common roots and similar oral histories. Many Polynesian languages describe the geography of Polynesian navigation pathways as resembling the geometry of an octopus or wheke, its tentacles representing the many branches of wayfinding through the Pacific. Without modern technology, wayfinding or navigating across the vast expanses of the Pacific relied on enlightened observation and interpretation of natural phenomena, particularly upon the positions of the sun and stars.
Polynesian voyagers settled the Pacific through impressively sophisticated navigation and boat-building. The craft they built were made of two straight, waka lashed together to provide stability, with a platform for shelter, storage of food and fishing and hunting equipment separating the two hulls. Sails which needed to be strong and durable for long ocean voyages were woven mats made from plant fibres such as resilient and salt-water resistant pandanus leaves.
The traditional sail type known as a ‘Crab claw’ was a triangular V shape sail with the pointed base attached near the deck and the wider side higher up to catch where the wind is stronger & steadier.
Navigators needed to be able to constantly memorize what they observed. Known route markers were memorized in songs and stories which were passed down the generations to new navigators.
The position of stars at night and the sun during the day, and the appearance of clouds above landmasses were helpful ‘wayfinding' signs. Seabirds were also indicators of nearby land masses. The reflection of shallow water on the undersides of clouds could indicate the approach of land.
It was recognized that seabirds fly away from land in the morning to feed at sea, and toward land in the evening to nest. Ocean swells were also recognized as going in a consistent direction due to a prevailing wind source, while local waves could be variable. Furthermore, island chains can impact the direction and momentum of currents and waves.
Polynesian peoples looked after their knowledge of navigation and boat-building carefully.
Experts (tohunga) in these areas were highly valued members of a tribe, and having this education was rare.
Alternative views of the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific have held some sway in the public mind over the decades, but have largely been discredited. One theory proposed by Thor Heyerdahl is that Polynesians migrated from South America on balsa-log boats. Another theory was that Polynesian settlement was the result of luck, random island sightings and drifting rather than organized voyages.
Hawaii was settled in two waves, originally around 400 BC from the Marquesas Islands over 3,200 kilometres to the south in an area now known as French Polynesia, and around the 9th century from Tahiti. The subantarctic Pacific Ocean may have been visited, although not thoroughly settled, by Polynesian navigators. Evidence for this includes the oral history of a Waka Tīwai fleet reaching “a place of bitter cold where rock-like structures rose from a solid sea,” and the remains of a Polynesian settlement dating back to the 13th century found in the Auckland Islands.
In summary, Polynesian navigators were masters of reading the natural world to find their way across the vast Pacific ocean in search of new lands. They were also expert boat-builders and sailors, resourceful and courageous. The development of a distinctive Polynesian culture relied upon Polynesian boat building and navigational skills, which over some four thousand years brought the people of east Asia into all inhabitable regions of the Pacific.
We write about Polynesian navigation wayfinders, the masters of reading the natural world to find their way across the vast Pacific ocean in search of new lands. Innovation processes are very uncertain. You cannot write down the unknown.The innovative and curious nature of Polynesian voyagers highlight their attraction to an indefinite future. Creating the future instead of trying to predict it. Sometimes it is only upon arrival that it will become clear what you were looking for. That’s how you discover new islands in an ocean of possibilities.
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