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

SpaceA petroglyph of a canoe
A petroglyph of a canoe discovered on Tahiti. (Photo courtesy of Polynesian Voyaging Society.)
Of Thor Heyerdahl and Andrew Sharp's attacks on Polynesian settlement orthodoxy, Heyerdahl's drew the most public attention. Expert opinion was, however, almost universally against Heyerdahl's thesis, for he brought forth no solid evidence for settlement from the Americas and ignored all that in favor of an ultimate origin in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, it soon became evident that Heyerdahl had uncovered a major weakness in orthodox thinking. The archaeological excavations and analyses of recovered materials that were needed to establish definitively that the ancestral Polynesians had migrated from island Southeast Asia to Polynesia simply had not been done. There was no firm archaeological evidence as to whether the ancestral Polynesians had passed through Melanesia or Micronesia on their way to Polynesia, much less as to where in Southeast Asia they originated. The picture was grossly incomplete, and Heyerdahl was not remiss in pointing this out.

The findings of the archaeological work subsequently conducted throughout Polynesia and in Melanesia have not been kind to Heyerdahl's theory of American origins. Through their excavations and analyses of artifacts and other recovered materials, archaeologists were able to develop a model of Polynesian settlement that demonstrated the eastward movement into the Pacific of ancestral Polynesians, located the "true" homeland of the Polynesians on the western edge of Polynesia itself, outlined population dispersion within the Polynesian triangle, and demonstrated the lack of evidence of any noticeable population movement from the Americas to Polynesia.

The discovery of a distinctively decorated type of pottery called Lapita provided the first solid evidence of the general route by which the ancestors of the Polynesians migrated into the Pacific. The Lapita cultural complex, made up of his pottery and associated artifacts, began turning up in excavations from islands extending from the islands off the northeast coast of New Guinea to archipelagos at the western edge of Polynesia. These sites, with their distinctive artifacts, not only demonstrated that the ancestral Polynesians sailed through Melanesia, and not Micronesia as some had proposed, but also indicated that it probably took them no more than a few hundred years to move from island to island through Melanesia to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, some 2,000 miles east of their starting point off New Guinea.

There followed the realization that the long-sought Polynesian homeland was not outside the Pacific, but was really within Polynesia itself. The Lapita voyagers were seen as ancestral to, but not yet identifiably Polynesian. Not until they began to adapt to life in the isolated mid-Pacific archipelagos of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa do sites there indicate that the distinctively Polynesian cultural complex begins to emerge from its Lapita roots.

The archaeological record then showed that the movement eastward across the Pacific continued, with the central archipelagos of East Polynesia being settled from these West

Polynesian Migration RoutesPolynesian centers. The Marquesas Islands were reached between 200 BC and 300 AD, and although the evidence is so far lacking, some archaeologists believe that the Cook and Society Islands may have been settled from West Polynesia even earlier. Then, from this nuclear region of East Polynesia, voyagers explored the length and breadth of the Polynesian triangle, reaching the distant islands of Hawai'i (by at least 400-500 AD), Easter Island (by about 400 AD), and New Zealand (around 1000 AD) to complete the settlement of Polynesia.

Despite major programs of archaeological excavation in Hawai'i, the Marquesas, Easter Island (including some work sponsored by Heyerdahl), and other islands facing the Americas, no potsherds from South America or other identifiably native American artifacts have been found. At prehistoric levels, the cultural materials are thoroughly Polynesian. The only definite evidence that points to the possibility of human contact between the Americas and Polynesia is the presence in Polynesia of the sweet potato, a plant indigenous to South America. In 1990, archaeologist Dr. Patrick Kirch found sweet potatoes in the Cook Islands dating back to 1000 AD, thus confirming the early introduction of these plants in central Polynesia. Whether they were brought on a raft from South America (and then spread around Polynesian by canoe), or whether some intrepid Polynesians sailed all the way to South America and carried sweet potatoes on the return voyage, remains unanswered.

Fragments of canoes were found in caves and swamps. One such find appears to be from a deep-sea voyaging canoe. Dr. Yoshihiko Sinoto of Honolulu's Bishop Museum, found the remains of an ancient voyaging canoe that had been buried in the mud when a tsunami struck the island of Huahine, near Tahiti, sometime between 850 and 1100 AD.

The distribution of domesticated plants and animals across Polynesia at the time of European contact, and archaeological evidence of the early introduction of these, lends credence to the idea that this migration was intentional. All the Polynesian food plants except the sweet potato - notably taro, bananas, yams, breadfruit, and sugar cane - and the three domesticated animals - the pig, dog, and chicken - come from the Asian side of the Pacific. Most Polynesian islands have these domesticates, which suggests that colonization was intentional since accidental drift voyagers were not likely to have carried all the plants and animals with them on short inter-island trips or fishing expeditions. The presence of pig, dog, and chicken bones at the lower levels of a number of early archaeological sites, along with indirect evidence of the use of domesticated plants, testifies further to the probability that voyagers carried with them the species needed for colonization, and that they were not introduced piecemeal by a long series of random drift voyages.