by Liesl Clark
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 island, 1,400 miles to the west. The
answer lies in the deeply-rooted traditions of Polynesian culture.
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.
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.
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."
Using no instruments, the canoe team navigated as their ancestors did, by the
stars. They had no maps, no sextants, no compasses, and 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 land fall. 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.
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 here 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 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 sea-faring 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 sea-faring 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."
First Inhabitants |
Ancient Navigation |
Stone Giants |
Photo: © Cliff Wassmann
Move a Megalith |
Explore the Island |
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© | Updated November 2000