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Polynesia's Genius Navigators

  • By Liesl Clark
  • Posted 02.15.00
  • NOVA

How did the first inhabitants of Easter Island arrive? It is the most remote inhabited island on Earth. The coast of Chile lies 2,300 miles to the east, Tahiti 2,500 miles to the northwest, and the nearest island, with a total population of 54 people, is tiny Pitcairn, 1,400 miles to the west. The answer lies in the deeply rooted traditions of Polynesian culture.

It's a feat, if intentional, that is perhaps unparalleled in the history of ocean navigation: finding Easter Island. How did the original settlers do it? Enlarge Photo credit: © Sebastien Cote/iStockphoto

A world of water

The people of the Pacific are intimately tied to the ocean. They sailed the sea hundreds of years before Europeans, using voyaging canoes crafted from island materials and stone tools. The Polynesians approached the open ocean with respect; indeed, the ocean was integrated naturally into Polynesian culture, as they came from small islands surrounded by vast ocean expanses. No other culture embraced the open sea so fully.

For the continental Europeans, on the other hand, the ocean was looked upon as a menacing world that only the bravest explorers ventured upon for long periods of time. And even these explorers felt at odds with the ocean upon which they traveled. One of Magellan's chroniclers described "a sea so vast the human mind can scarcely grasp it." To a Polynesian islander, the world is primarily aquatic, since the Pacific ocean covers more area than land in this region. The Pacific, in fact, covers one-third of the Earth's surface.

With far more ocean than land at their disposal, the ancient Polynesians were intimately familiar with the ways of the sea. Enlarge Photo credit: © Dean Turner/iStockphoto

a learned art

In island culture, the double canoe and its navigator were integral to the survival of the people. As an island became overpopulated, navigators were sent out to sail uncharted seas to find undiscovered islands. For weeks, they would live aboard boats made from wood and lashings of braided fiber. Thousands of miles were traversed, without the aid of sextants or compasses. The ancient Polynesians navigated their canoes by the stars and other signs that came from the ocean and sky. Navigation was a precise science, a learned art that was passed on verbally from one navigator to another for countless generations.

In 1768, as he sailed from Tahiti, Captain Cook had an additional passenger on board his ship, a Tahitian navigator named Tupaia. Tupaia guided Cook 300 miles south to Rurutu, a small Polynesian island, proving he could navigate from his homeland to a distant island. Cook was amazed to find that Tupaia could always point in the exact direction in which Tahiti lay, without the use of the ship's charts. Sadly, Cook was never able to learn and document Tupaia's navigational techniques, for Tupaia, and many of Cook's crew, died of malaria in the Dutch East Indies. Unlike later visitors to the South Pacific, Cook understood that Polynesian navigators could guide canoes across the Pacific over great distances.

Clouds, swells, and other natural signs helped Polynesian helmsmen find their way to islands hundreds of miles away. Enlarge Photo credit: © Simon Bradfield/iStockphoto

instruments of nature

But these navigational skills, along with the double canoe, disappeared with the emergence of Western technology, which mariners the world over came to rely on. In 1976, the Hokule'a', a replica Polynesian double canoe made by a team of Hawaiian canoeists, voyaged from Hawaii to Tahiti using the ancient navigational techniques of their ancestors. Ben Finney, a member of the team, explains their mission: "Since by the 1960s Polynesian voyaging canoes had disappeared and ways of navigating without instruments had largely been forgotten, those of us who objected to Heyerdahl's ...negative characterizations of Polynesian voyaging technology and skills ...concluded that we would have to reconstruct the canoes and ways of navigating, and then test them at sea, in order to get at the truth."

For the ancient Polynesians, finding Easter Island must have been like finding a needle in a haystack.

Using no instruments, the canoe team navigated as their ancestors did, by the stars. They had no maps, no sextants, no compasses, and they navigated by observing the ocean and sky, reading the stars and swells. The paths of stars and rhythms of the ocean guided them by night and the color of sky and the sun, the shapes of clouds, and the direction from which the swells were coming, guided them by day. Several days away from an island, they were able to determine the exact day of landfall. Swells would tell them that there was land ahead, and the surest telltale sign would be the presence of birds making flights out to sea seeking food. By sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti, Hokule'a's team was able to prove that it was possible for Polynesian peoples to migrate over thousands of miles from island to island.

The outrigger canoe—an integral part of the early Polynesians' oceangoing technology—is enjoying a renaissance. Enlarge Photo credit: © Tim McCaig/iStockphoto

Return of the Outrigger

With the success of this voyage came renewed interest in Old World navigation. More double canoes were built, and now several teams are attempting to be the first to reach Easter Island, using ancient navigational techniques. No one has navigated a raft or voyaging canoe from Polynesia to Easter Island since the early settlers arrived there in AD 400*.

For the ancient Polynesians, finding Easter Island, a small 64-square-mile speck in this vast ocean, must have been like finding a needle in a haystack; but the Polynesian community today is convinced their navigators intuitively discovered and settled this island. "At the backbone of the maritime tradition lies the outrigger canoe," explains archeologist and Easter Island specialist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, "the quintessential symbol of Polynesian mastery of the sea. The outrigger canoe is today part of every Polynesian island child's upbringing, except on Easter Island. There, the outrigger canoe was lost sometime in the mid-1800s." Van Tilburg has been instrumental in reintroducing three outrigger canoes to the island. The islanders' loss of their seafaring past, according to Van Tilburg, "took away the traditional link people had with the sea."

For Van Tilburg, the Polynesian canoe is a metaphor in her theories of how the Easter Islanders transported and erected their 15-ton moai. "It's not much different from erecting a mast on a very large canoe. It's a transfer of technology from one industry to another. The people who built these structures were both sailors and farmers, and they used their seafaring technology to help them in moving and erecting their moai....Erecting a mast on a ship or a statue on a platform requires similar abilities, skills, and tools."

*Editor's note: New studies since this article appeared in 2000 posit a later arrival for the first Easter Islanders, a smaller maximum population, and a more complex explanation for what transpired there. See, e.g.: Hunt, Terry. 2006. “Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island. 2006. American Scientist 94(5): 412.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Secrets of Easter Island.

Liesl Clark is web producer for NOVA.

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