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Geoffrey Irwin | Ask the Experts | Pose Your Question

SpacePortrait by Herb Kawainui Kane
Portrait by Herb Kawainui Kane.

In the following interview, archaeologist Geoffrey Irwin addresses questions about his theories of Polynesian migration. You will need to download RealPlayer to listen to the interview.

Q: Could you explain that origins of the Pacific people?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) So it's 50,000 years ago, we're back on the mainland of the Asian continent. And that's about as early as fully modern Homo sapiens are in this part of the world. Homo erectus had got to Asia maybe a million years ago but for one reason or another couldn't cross water. So the first water crossings in the world coincide with the arrival of fully modern humans at the edge of the Asian continent. And the situation that they found was that there was effectively a voyaging corridor that stretched through islands Southeast Asia--the Philippines, what's now Indonesia and New Guinea and its nearer neighbors through to the Solomons.

So from mainland Asia to the end of the Solomons there was what you might call a voyaging corridor where there were large islands, often inter-visible, sheltered from the cyclones, and the weather consisted of seasonal reverses of trade winds and monsoons. And what was actually represented was a zone of easy island (unintelligible word) so the situation was we have hunter/gatherers out of Asia gradually penetrating through this voyaging corridor until they get to the end of the Solomons. And that took from probably 50,000 years ago down to about 30,000 years ago. And that was as far as they got because at the end of the Solomons the circumstances of the Pacific change radically. Roger talks about the difference. You can ask Roger about, he talks about the difference between Near Oceania and Remote Oceania. To get beyond the Solomons, beyond the Solomons islands get small, they get remote and their natural resources become pretty impoverished.

So what we actually have is we have the first 25,000 years, the background to this business of Pacific colonization is in the voyaging corridor. And there are 25,000 years there where people gradually acquired maritime skills. It's not just a voyaging corridor, it's a voyaging nursery. And the very first evidence that we have in archaeology that people were going beyond it, by the time they actually sailed beyond it, they had learned how to explore at sea, in deep sea, and survive. So that's the background. And that brings us down to about three and a half thousand years ago. And around about three and a half thousand years ago there were two independent expansions, radical and rapid expansions of people out of that voyaging corridor. One of them was from somewhere north of New Guinea and it went into Western Micronesia. And the other was characterized by Lapita pottery, by the so-called Lapita people and they came through Melanesia, the Solomons and they simply blazed across the Western Pacific in just a couple of hundred years until they got to West Polynesia which is Fiji and Tonga and Samoa. Okay, now the fact that there were these two prongs, independent prongs in the Pacific, means that there were a lot of shared ideas about voyaging so the voyaging corridor must have been becoming through time a sort of a field of interaction and ideas about sailing technology were being shared among people who were distinguished by different cultural characteristics.

Now the ones which we can associate with ancestral Polynesians are the Lapita people and so they came out around about three and a half thousand years ago. Now these Lapita people, they suddenly appear. They're mysterious. On the one hand the situation is that a very large part of the earth's colonization is characterized by something very distinctive. So they're very conspicuous. But on the other hand they're rather mysterious because their precise origins aren't known. Except that they're Asian. Now whether they came directly from Southeast Asia and just sort of hopped along, just sort of like skipping stones past the islands around New Guinea, or whether or not they were one of several diverse populations say in the Bismarck Archipelago, which is near New Guinea, is a matter of considerable debate. But what happens is that once they go out past the Solomons they're distinguished by a number of very sharp characteristics.

At that time, whatever they were before, whatever kind of mystery lies behind them, they do appear to be some sort of ethnic group, very directed and very motivated once they hit the deep ocean. What are some of the things about them? The first thing about them is that they seem to have been very small in number. When I say small in number I'm talking in the hundreds and thousands, not the tens of thousands. This isn't any kind of expansion by hordes of people. They are small groups of people and as they move out into the Pacific they are supplying their own recruits. They're not just explorers, deliberate explorers, but they're reproducing as they go. They're not being reinforced from Asia by a continuous...not like North America being settled from Europe by a sort of a continuous trickle from a large population nest. They're small in number and they're traveling very fast. They're moving extremely fast. From the Solomons say to Samoa it could have been 200 years, it could have been 400 years. Archaeological datings aren't all that precise.

But when I say 200 or 400 years I'm actually saying ten human generations or 20 human generations. We're seeing something that's explosive in world terms. So they're small in number, they're traveling fast, and they're using a kind of exploration strategy which is designed to let them find land and survive. And what we find is basically, that's basically what that boils down to is that people are searching for land up-wind. In other words, they're searching in the direction from which they can most easily return in the event of not finding land. And they're all doing that. Now, we actually ran a computer simulation which shows that there was a whole lot of alternative island destinations which were there to be had had they searched for them. They didn't search for them. They just focused on the islands which were generally up-wind. Now, what this means is that the Lapita was a kind of a coordinated expansion. Nobody was breaking that rule. Nobody was going this is something that's shared in the mind. This is something which is in their mind. This is something which they were all doing. And what they clearly weren't doing is going off to die at sea. And what they clearly were doing is searching, exploring, settling land as they found it and then moving on.

Q: How did Polynesian colonization work?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Colonization is a two-way process. People are going out and establishing colonies and people are coming back. It's two-way. It's ongoing, it's continuous. It isn't as if people were going out on one-hit missions and they're never heard of again. It's ongoing. It's backwards and forwards. That's part of the reason why they sail up-wind. If they sail up-wind they can get home most easily and they need to do that for the thing to work. And if I can sort of jump ahead in case I forget to say this later on, it looks as if the further people sailed in the Pacific and the more difficult it was to find new islands and the lower the chance of finding new islands, the more likely it was that voyages didn't carry colonists. Why send out every canoe full of plants and piglets and kids and everybody if they're not going to find land. And once you start getting out near Easter Island or Hawai'i, which are a very long way from the nearest neighbors, the chances of finding land are remote. So it looks like a wave of exploration preceded a wave of colonization. Discovering preceded settlement. The whole thing was sort of two-way.

Q: How did the Polynesians discover Easter Island?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) The fact that they found Easter Island at all is simply astonishing. It's virtually nowhere. Hawai'i is 2,000 miles from its nearest neighbor. And yet they hit almost every piece of land that there was to be hit. And they settled islands which in the long term weren't actually able to sustain human settlement. Okay, now, it looks as if the order that they followed, even though this happened explosively fast on a world scale, it was actually directed to safety more than to speed. They were sailing up-wind. They first sailed against the wind knowing that in the event of not finding land they could make a safe return. So the radio carbon dates say they went first against the wind. Only then did they sail across the wind. It became safer to sail across the wind once they discovered islands that were up-wind.

Q: What is the difference, do you think, between the way that the Polynesians saw ocean traveling and the Europeans as they were beginning their exploration? How would you characterize that?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) I think that the Polynesians were very realistic about their environment and they could manage their environment. The length of the voyage involved say a month, couple of months. They could plan in terms of weeks and months whereas the first Europeans had to plan in terms of years because they had to get into the Pacific and then they had to get out of it. A lot of anthropologists have said Polynesians had a different ... Polynesians saw the sea as a bridge and not a barrier and they always expected more coconut trees to pop up above the horizon. And I think that there's some truth in that. But if you emphasize that point too much what you're really saying is that they had a mistaken view of the world. Because there are some parts of the Pacific where there's huge amounts of water and almost no land. And when they were traversing them and traversing the empty spaces everywhere else, they must have realized that there was this huge amount of empty ocean.

So I think they had a very realistic view of their world. And it was no happy mistake, what happened. They didn't keep sailing because they expected to find land. I think that as colonization went on, as a statistical proposition, in order to find what land there was, they had to search a huge amount of empty ocean. And the canoes that were returning were returning with information about where land wasn't, just as it was, just as when they were returning with news about where land was. And they actually searched huge amounts of space before they discovered that they'd done it. And it's interesting that after this great episode of colonization, once it was over, once they had touched America and they couldn't have missed Australia -- there are artifacts of unknown context on the Australian coast -- then voyaging began to wind down. And the rules changed. There was a different game.

Q: What do you think of Thor Heyedahl's theories of eastward expansion?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) What Heyerdahl says goes against the weight of cultural, archeological, linguistic and biological evidence. All of that even suggests that the main thrust was from the west. But Heyerdahl does remind us that on occasions people could go by purpose or accident from almost anywhere to anywhere and we can never really, our theories can never really control for these odd stray things. And there is the whole question of the sweet potato which became the staple crop of certainly New Zealand. Being South American the options are someone went to get it or someone brought it. And the Polynesians almost certainly did it, I think.

Q: You've referred to Heyerdahl's period of research as the kamikaze era. Can you elaborate on that?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Discovering the Pacific from South America reverses the whole idea about survival sailing. If you sail with the wind and you don't find land, you're dead. Okay, I mean, Heyerdahl's proposition is really that exploration was a kamikaze exercise, when all the evidence really suggests that coming from the other way was done by people who wanted to do it, knew what they were doing, and wanted to stay alive. or someone brought it.

Q: Can you talk a little about navigating using trade winds and prevailing winds?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) One of the things about searching up-wind is that you're going against the direction of the prevailing winds. Now it's well-understood that the prevailing winds are interrupted by seasonal winds that come from other directions. Generally westerlies that actually take you out against the direction of the prevailing wind. And insofar as these are seasonal, they're predictable. But even so, you need canoes which were searching up-wind, were probably following erratic tracks, they were climbing out against the wind, they were following the wind shifts, they were using fronts and so on that were coming through to actually climb up-wind. And that meant that their upward track was fairly erratic. Okay, and they'd hit land, they'd find land, but they wouldn't have a very clear idea necessarily of where that land was. But because sailing down-wind by latitude sailing is actually systematic and fairly predictable, that meant that the return voyage actually secured the discovery. You knew at the end of the up-wind voyage that there was land there after you'd made the closure, a navigational closure. By returning back to the island that you began from, you would actually pinpoint it's location. So one of the early ideas of Sharp, there has been a controversy about whether voyaging was one-way or two-way, it had to be two-way to find out where you'd been. You actually had to go there and back to find out how far it was, which is the old drug.

Q: Talk a little about Andrew Sharp and what his place is in our discussion of the Pacific.

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Andrew Sharp was a land lover theorist who decided that a lot of the contemporary theories about how Polynesia was settled were exaggerations. I think that some of the early theorists of the century had gone over the top, okay. They were happy to believe that hero navigators could sail around the Pacific and find their way around. It wasn't clear how they were doing it and therefore what Andrew Sharp had to say was timely and in a sense helpful because Andrew Sharp actually triggered off a major debate that took place in the 50's and 60's. And as a consequence of that debate, it stimulated two major lines of research. One major line of research were computer simulations, actually to feed in data about Pacific winds and so on and set off voyages on the computer and see what would happen to them. And a major pioneer computer simulation by Leverson Warden Webb showed that you couldn't actually settle the Pacific by drift, which showed that Sharp was wrong. And the second line of inquiry was all of the ethnographic and experimental work building replicas and so on, people like Ben Finney and David Lewis and James Sears and many, many others. That work has been incredibly useful, not just in demonstrating the canoes can sail between islands, because obviously if islands were settled clearly they could, but working out how they were actually able to navigate and so on as they went.

Q: You've developed some computer simulations of exploration voyages. What have you learned from these simulations?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) We learned a few major things. The first thing we learned was that it got more difficult to settle the Pacific as you went from west to east. And so people must have been getting better as they went. So over the course of 1,500 years or so as it took place, they were accumulating experience and honing up their skills. So it was the whole business of learning as they went. They were good to start with but the information they began with wouldn't have completed the job. The second thing is that we discovered that some of the directions that people might have searched, they chose not to search when it was dangerous to sail that way, that it was still dangerous. That applies particular to Lapita. Okay. And so the computer discovered things which people chose not to do. And essentially what they were choosing not to do was they were choosing not to die. Okay. The third thing that we discovered was that the order of settlement wasn't the order of closeness of islands, it wasn't the order of ease of getting to islands, it was the order of the ease of return in the event of not finding land. So basically what it boiled down to was that the order of settlement was the order of safety. So clearly these people were motivated and part of their motivation was to search the ocean, to settle it and to survive, which they did.