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

SpaceEarly explorers visiting Polynesia
Early explorers visiting Polynesia.
The early European explorers who first encountered the Polynesians could not believe that a stone age people, with only simple sailing canoes and no navigational instruments, could themselves have discovered and settled the mid-Pacific islands. Accordingly, they dreamed up elaborate theories that explained the presence of the Polynesians in the middle of the Pacific, while denying to them the ability of having reached there through their own sailing abilities. For example, in 1595 the Spanish explorer Quiros imagined a great "Southern Continent" stretching from Asia far into the Pacific across which their ancestors walked to a point from which, by a short canoe crossing, they could reach the Marquesas. Other early explorers invoked sunken continents, transport by the first Spanish voyagers, and even special creation of the islands to explain the presence of Polynesians in the middle of the Pacific.

Not until the late eighteenth century with the coming of Europe's second Age of Exploration did a reasonable hypothesis about where the Polynesians came from, and how they managed to discover and settle their island world, begin to emerge. Whereas explorers of the previous European age of exploration were primarily searching for new routes to the riches of Asia, those of this second age sailed the seas primarily, in Braudel's words, "to obtain new information about geography, the natural world, and the mores of different peoples." In the Pacific, the leaders of this new approach to oceanic exploration criss-crossed the ocean, finding and mapping the locations of islands, cataloguing the plants and animals found there, and investigating the islanders, their language, and customs. Only then was the true extent of Polynesia realized, and was credence given to the idea that the ancestors of the Polynesians could have intentionally sailed into this great ocean to find and settle so many scattered islands.

Captain James Cook

SpaceCaptain James Cook
Captain James Cook.

Captain James Cook, who is considered by many to have been the greatest of the explorers in this second age of European global expansion, was the first to realize and document that a vast region of the Pacific was occupied by people who shared a common cultural base. Cook was also the first European explorer to consider seriously that the Polynesians could have intentionally explored and settled their island world without the aid of a nearby Southern Continent, Spanish ships, divine intervention, or other external agencies. "How shall we account for this Nation spreading itself so far over this Vast ocean?" is the question Cook asks in his journal when in l778, on his third and last voyage, he chanced upon Hawai'i and its inhabitants, and so realized that the Polynesian nation extended north of the equator as well as for a considerable distance across the South Pacific. Cook did not live to answer that question fully, as he met an untimely end on the shores of Kealakekua Bay, Hawai'i. Nonetheless, the seeds for his theory of Polynesian settlement, one that takes into account the nautical abilities of the Polynesians, can be found in an earlier journal entry dating back to l769.

That year, while on his first voyage into the Pacific, Cook stopped four months in Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun as part of an international effort to determine the distance between the Earth and Sun. During his stay in Tahiti, Cook did something no previous European explorer to touch on a Polynesian island had ever done: he learned the basics of the local language, and then he used his rudimentary linguistic skills to ask how the islanders sailed and navigated their canoes, and where they voyaged. His primary guide in local nautical matters was Tupa'ia, a learned Tahitian who befriended the expedition. Tupa'ia was able to explain how the Tahitians sailed their canoes and navigated by reference to the sun, moon, and stars, and to provide information on islands immediately surrounding Tahiti as well as those a considerable distance away.

SpacePolynesian native
A Polynesian native.

Cook, in turn, was impressed enough with both the practical seamanship and navigational skills of the Tahitians, and their wide geographical knowledge, to accept that which had been unthinkable to earlier European voyagers: that the ancestors of these islanders must have sailed into the Pacific on their own, covering great distances in their canoes, orienting themselves by observing the celestial bodies. Unfortunately, Cook never developed his thoughts beyond a few lines in his journal, which include elements basic to a modern theory of Polynesian settlement: an acceptance that Tahitian canoes were seaworthy and capable of sailing at least "two or three hundred leagues" (600 to 900 nautical miles), that the Tahitians had a "compass" provided by the sun, moon and stars and that they used this to orient themselves at sea, and that their ancestors could have employed this technology to move, from island to island, all the way from the "East Indias" (roughly modern Indonesia) to Tahiti.

Cook chose the "East Indias" as the origin point for the Polynesian migration because a linguistic Sailing with Cook as his botanist was Joseph Banks, who had studied philology at Oxford, and who later was to become president of the Royal Society. On board the ship was a small library containing published accounts of previous voyages through the Pacific, and in these accounts were short lists of words from islands scattered from Southeast Asia eastwards into the Pacific as far as the the western edge of Polynesia. By comparing the list of Tahitian words he compiled with these other vocabularies, Banks was able to show how Tahitian was directly related to languages spread across the Pacific to the Southeast Asian islands of the "East Indias."

Cook saw only one obstacle to accepting a Polynesian origin in island Southeast Asia: the proposed migration trail led through tropical latitudes, and in the tropics easterly trade winds normally prevail. Whereas these would make it relatively easy for voyagers from South America to sail westward with the wind into the Pacific, steady trade winds would seem to present a formidable obstacle for any voyagers sailing eastward across the ocean. Yet, because he saw no cultural resemblance between the islanders he had met and the native Americans, Cook rejected the idea of an American origin of the Polynesians. The trail of linguistic evidence clearly marked the direction of migration, and he therefore sought to explain how canoe voyagers could have moved eastward into the Pacific against the direction of the trade winds.

Tupa'ia supplied the solution to this apparent dilemma: he told the puzzled Cook that during the months of November, December, and January the trades frequently died down and were replaced by spells of westerly winds, and that the Tahitians then used these westerly winds to sail to the east. From that crucial bit of intelligence, Cook constructed his seaman's explanation for how Polynesia was settled from the west that takes into account both the oceanic environment and Polynesian nautical abilities: the early voyagers worked their way eastward from the Asian side of the Pacific, moving from island to island, by exploiting seasonal westerly wind reversals.