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The Expedition
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Polynesians: An Oceanic People | European Explorers | Linguistic Evidence/Oral Traditions | Heyerdahl and Sharp | The Archaeological Response | Experimental Voyaging | Hokulea: The Rediscovery | Introduction

An ancient Polynesian canoe
An ancient Polynesian canoe. (Courtesy of Herb Kane.)
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Through a multi-disciplinary effort, recently enhanced by the contributions of modern Polynesians eager to experience their past, a picture is emerging of the development of a seafaring culture oriented toward oceanic exploration.

The islands scattered along the north shore of New Guinea first drew these canoe people eastwards into the ocean. By 1500 B.C., these voyagers began moving east beyond New Guinea, first along the Solomon Island chain, and then to the Banks and Vanuatu Archipelagos. As the gaps between islands grew from tens of miles at the edge of the western Pacific to hundreds of miles along the way to Polynesia, and then to thousands of miles in the case of voyages to the far corners of the Polynesian triangle, these oceanic colonizers developed great double-hulled vessels capable of carrying colonists as well as all their supplies, domesticated animals, and planting materials. As the voyages became longer, they developed a highly sophisticated navigation system based on observations of the stars, the ocean swells, the flight patterns of birds and other natural signs to find their way over the open ocean. And, as they moved farther away from the biotic centers of Southeast Asia and New Guinea, finding the flora and fauna increasingly diminished, they developed a portable agricultural system, whereby the domesticated plants and animals were carried in their canoes for transplantation on the islands they found.

Once they had reached the mid-ocean archipelagos of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, these seafarers - the immediate ancestors of the Polynesians - were alone in the ocean, for only they had the canoes and navigational skills needed to push so far into the Pacific. The gaps between islands widen greatly in the eastern Pacific and the prevailing winds become less and less favorable for sailing to the east. Nonetheless, the archaeological evidence indicates that they sailed eastward to the Cook, Society, and Marquesas Groups, and from there crossed thousands of miles of open ocean to colonize the islands of Hawai'i in the north, Easter Island in the southeast, and New Zealand in the southwest, thus completing settlement, by around 1000 AD, of the area we know today as the Polynesian Triangle.

When the Southeast Asian sailors started out on their odyssey they were not yet identifiably Polynesian. Only after many years of learning how to voyage long distances, and to survive on the high islands and atolls they found in the sea, did the ocean-oriented Polynesian culture take on its classic form.

In addition to a highly developed sailing and navigational technology, that cullture included a uniquely oceanic world view and a social structure well adapted to voyaging and colonization. Polynesian societies combined a strong authority structure based on genealogical ranking that was useful for mounting long expeditions and founding island colonies.

The Voyaging Canoe

SpaceView from the rear of a canoe
View from the rear of a replica Polynesian canoe.

The Polynesians' primary voyaging craft was the double canoe made of two hulls connected by lashed crossbeams. The two hulls gave this craft stability and the capacity to carry heavy loads of migrating families and all their supplies and equipment, while a central platform laid over the crossbeams provided the needed working, living, and storage space. Sails made of matting drove this ancient forerunner of the modern catamaran swiftly through the seas, and long steering paddles enabled Polynesian mariners to keep it sailing on course.

A medium-size voyaging canoe 50 to 60 feet long could accomodate two dozen or so migrants, their food supplies, livestock, and planting materials.