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

Hokule'a, the recreated Polynesian sea-faring canoe. (Photo courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.)
In 1973, Ben Finney and a group of Polynesian specialists and canoe enthusiasts formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society to build a large voyaging canoe to attempt the Hawai'i - Tahiti round-trip in order to test the feasibility of making long-distance, navigated voyages in a voyaging canoe guided solely by traditional navigation. The canoe, christened Hokule'a, which is Hawaiian for the bright star Arcturus that passes directly over the island of Hawai'i, was launched in l975. Other than the findings at Huahine, journal notes and illustrations from early European expeditions, and verbal information from chants and legends, there was little evidence to help determine the actual size and shape of the ancient voyaging canoes. Furthermore, the lack of traditional materials and skills in modern Hawai'i meant that the canoe had to be partially built of modern materials. Archaeologists, maritime historians, and anthropologists collaborated on the design of a vessel that would simulate an ancient craft in shape, weight, and performance. Because no Polynesians knew how to navigate in the ancient manner, Mau Piailug, a traditional navigator from the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, was chosen to guide the canoe. His method of navigating by the stars and swells was closely similar to extinct Polynesian methods.

Navigator Mau Piailug used the rising points of the stars, supplemented by observations of the sun, moon, and ocean swells, as a natural compass to guide the canoe. Even when days of solid cloud cover hid the stars, sun, and moon from sight, Mau was able to keep the canoe on course and keep in his mind an accurate picture of the canoe's progress toward Tahiti. And, obligingly, small, white fairy terns skimming over the sea, told Mau that HOKULE'Athe atoll of Mataiva, just to the north-northwest of Tahiti, was near before it could actually be seen. Once this atoll had been reached, it was easy to orient the canoe for the short sail to Tahiti.

The fact that the canoe sailed from Hawai'i to Tahiti and back, and that Mau had been able to navigate to Tahiti without instruments, effectively demonstrated how Polynesian canoes and traditional navigational methods were up to the task of planned, long-distance voyaging. This voyage served to turn the tide against the Sharp hypothesis of accidental voyaging, and to develop a new appreciation for voyaging canoes and traditional ways of navigation.

As significant as these findings are to revising our view of Polynesian prehistory, the unique feature of this project has been the degree and character of the participation of Polynesians. Not only have hundreds of Hawaiians and other Polynesians sailed on Hokule'a, but in seeking to rediscover their maritime heritage they have greatly expanded the anthropological significance of the project. It was primarily the Hawaiians who, searching to rediscover their own maritime roots, took the lead in the project by extending the experimental approach far beyond the initial voyage of 1976. In so doing, they have provided realistic information on sailing over a number of legendary voyaging routes in Polynesia, which has served to greatly enhance the understanding of the discovery and settlement of the islands.

That modern Polynesians have taken the lead in demonstrating the capabilities inherent in the technology and methods of their ancestors is doubly fitting, for not only do they have the desire and talent for voyaging, but they stand to benefit most by this effort to reestablish the deserved nautical reputation of their ancestors. Assisted by their Micronesian teacher and advisor, Mau Piailug , who recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hawai'i for his efforts to revive Polynesian seafaring knowledge, the Hawaiians, Marquesans, Tahitians, Cook Islanders, Maori, Tongans, and Samoans who have sailed Hokule'a around Polynesia have been instrumental in changing scientific perceptions of their migratory past, and have brought to their fellow Polynesians a renewed pride in their heritage as oceanic voyagers.

The complex cultures of ancient Polynesia are largely gone. The incursions of modern technology, the demands of the world economy, and the impingement of foreign ideologies - religious, political or otherwise, have radically altered once integrated and largely self-sufficient societies. In some parts of Polynesia, the transformation from the old order is more complete, particularly in Hawai'i and New Zealand, where Polynesians are minorites in their own land.

Many contemporary Polynesians seem to be culturally adrift, neither fully participant in the modern cultures which have engulfed them, nor firmly anchored to even a memory of the ancient ways of life that once sustained their people. In this situation, the reconstruction and sailing of ancient voyaging canoes becomes more than adventurous and anthropologically-fruitful excursions into the past. These projects become ways culturally-uprooted Polynesians can themselves rediscover the means by which their islands were discovered and settled, indeed their ancient cultural heritage as a uniquely oceanic people. That is why the Hokule'a project so captured the Hawaiian imagination, and why its passage through Polynesian seas has so excited Tahitians, Cook Islanders, New Zealand Maori, and other islanders. In fact, Hokule'a has not sailed alone in those seas. Not only has the project spawned a veritable renaissance in Hawaiian sailing canoes, but it has inspired Tahitians and New Zealand Maori to reconstruct their own voyaging canoes and sail them over legendary sea routes.