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

Andrew Sharp
Historian Andrew Sharp.
A Norwegian adventurer, followed by a New Zealand historian, burst into the otherwise quiet arena of Polynesian studies with pronouncements that the generally accepted ideas about origins and settlement were all wrong. Like some of the earliest European explorers in the Pacific, these writers doubted Polynesian seafaring capabilities and developed theories of Polynesian settlement that depended upon the vagaries of wind and current rather than the skills of the voyagers themselves.

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl drifted on a raft made of balsa wood logs from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands on the eastern edge of Polynesia to prove that these craft, once used by South American Indians, could have carried migrants to Polynesia. Heyerdahl needed this demonstration to support his theory that the first people to Polynesia came from the east, from South America. He claimed that it would have been impossible for early canoe voyagers to have sailed directly eastward from island Southeast Asia against what he called the "permanent trade winds and forceful companion currents of the enormous Southern Hemisphere" to reach Polynesian waters and discover and settle the islands there. Therefore, he concluded that Polynesia must have been first settled by people from the west coast of the Americas who sailed and drifted eastward into the Pacific before wind and current.

A few years after Heyerdahl publicized his theory, Andrew Sharp, New Zealand historian, wrote a book entitled Ancient Voyagers in the Pacific, in which he claimed that the vision of the Polynesians as great voyagers who had set out to explore and settle the Pacific was nothing but romantic nonsense. Although Sharp accepted that Polynesia had been colonized from the west, he proposed that the settlement was simply the product of many accidental voyages which had moved the Polynesians slowly westward across the Pacific and then throughout the Polynesian triangle. Sharp claimed that the canoes of the Polynesians were not seaworthy enough, and their navigational methods were not accurate enough, to have enabled them to intentionally set out to explore and colonize the Pacific. Sharp declared that all voyaging and island settlement was "accidental" for islands farther than 300 miles from their nearest neighbor.

Distant islands could only have been discovered and settled, he said, by the chance arrival of unintentional voyagers - who, because of storms or navigational incompetence had strayed far off course while making a short crossing between closely-spaced islands, or who, after fleeing from their home island because of famine or defeat in war, had been drifting blindly around the ocean hoping to land on an uninhabited island.