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

SpaceGetting wood from a canoe
Polynesian natives chop down a tree for a canoe. (Courtesy of Herb Kane.)
While Thor Heyerdahl's theory of American origins found little acceptance in scholarly circles, Andrew Sharp's theory of accidental settlement was seen by many anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians as a welcome correction to an overblown image of Polynesians as great voyagers and colonizers. Instead of accepting what seemed to them to be superhuman sailing and navigational skills, by following Sharp's model of accidental settlement, all these scholars had to assume was that the Polynesians had enough seafaring ability to put themselves at risk of being randomly pushed around the Pacific by the vagaries of wind and current.

Not all students of Polynesia embraced Sharp's theory of accidental settlement, however. They felt that not only had Sharp arrogantly denied to the Polynesians their due as ingenious canoe designers and builders, and skilled seamen and navigators, but that in labelling the process of settlement as accidental he had without foundation denied to the Polynesians and their ancestors any volition in the shaping of their own destiny as colonizers of a vast Pacific realm.

However, as the debate over Sharp's thesis continued in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it became clear that the information needed to refute or confirm Sharp was simply not there. The voyaging canoes and traditional navigators had long since disappeared from Polynesian waters, victims of the radical transformation of Polynesian societies over the last two centuries. The debate therefore was primarily being conducted with information on Polynesian canoes, navigation methods, and voyaging accomplishments penned by the explorers and other early European visitors to Polynesia. Since these writers typically had neither the time, language skills, nor motivation to investigate these topics thoroughly, their writings on these subjects were sketchy and often ambiguous. Disputants could often pick from this literature whatever observations or opinions supported their case, and their opponents could do likewise, with the predictable result that the debate produced little in the way of new insights, much less any definitive answers.

New approaches were needed to break out of this impasse. A few adventuresome researchers sought to find out exactly how Polynesian canoes sailed, and how the non-instrument navigation system worked, by reconstructing the canoes and ways of navigating, and then testing them on long voyaging routes between Polynesian islands.

This experimental effort got underway in the mid-l960s. David Lewis, a physician turned voyaging researcher, navigated his catamaran from Tahiti to New Zealand without instruments in order to test the feasibility of using star observations made with the naked eye to guide a vessel over thousands of miles of open ocean. By following Kupe's legendary sailing instructions to a landfall on New Zealand's North Island within 30 miles of where he expected to sight land, Lewis demonstrated the quality of Polynesian methods. While Lewis was conducting this navigation experiments, Ben Finney, an anthropologist, built a 40-foot replica of an Hawaiian double canoe and tested its sailing performance. The sailing trials indicated that the basic double-canoe design, composed of two hulls lashed together with a central platform upon which one or more sails were raised, was well adapted for deep-sea voyaging. The double canoe was stable and seaworthy; it sailed well downwind and across the wind, and could sail to windward, although not as well as a modern yacht.

On the basis of these findings, Finney proposed that it would be feasible to sail a Polynesian double canoe from Hawai'i to Tahiti and return, over the legendary voyaging route that once connected these two centers, and navigate it by traditional methods without the use of a magnetic compass, charts, or any other instruments or aids. Such a voyage would constitute a realistic test of Sharp's claim that it had been impossible for Polynesians to have made purposefully navigated round-trip voyages between islands separated by more than 300 nautical miles, for Hawai'i and Tahiti are separated by more than 2,000 miles of open ocean.