Probably the most extraordinary voyages ever accomplished by man on Earth were not the voyages of the early European explorers of the age of exploration but the voyages of the Polynesians after 1 C.E. Sadly we do not have the details of the voyages themselves; we merely have the indisputable results, that when Europeans explored the Pacific they found Polynesians from Easter Island to Hawaii to New Zealand.1 Obviously the Polynesians had got there, for otherwise they would not be there to begin with. The obvious question is how did they do this? The facile answer is that they sailed there; which is obviously true and frankly rather trite. The real question is how did they actually sail there?
Sadly the whole issue was basically drowned out in the notion that the Polynesians being a “primitive” people could not have done it deliberately. Of course Academics were aware that the Polynesians had outrigger canoes and sailed between islands, but the notion of long range exploration and colonization was dismissed and frankly many scholars displayed an amazing lack of interest in actual Polynesian ship building and navigation techniques.
Also the fact that in the course of European colonization and occupation of the central Pacific islands, (Polynesia) a great deal of disruption and social chaos had occurred didn’t help matters. Still the lack of attention paid to actual Polynesian culture to help explain how the colonization of the Pacific actually happened is more than a bit hard to explain.
The idea grew that deliberate long range voyages were rare and that the colonization of Polynesia was basically the result of accidental long range voyages.2 This notion, for it was no more than a notion was based on the idea that the Polynesians being “primitive” could not have devised a system of long range navigation and further that their ships, various types of outrigger canoes could not have successfully navigated such distances and were highly vulnerable to bad weather.3
This required that little research be done concerning actual Polynesian boat builders or studies of the native Polynesian traditions of navigation.
It of course left plenty of room for the proliferation of “alternative” theories concerning the colonization of the Pacific by the Polynesians. Thus was set the stage for the theories of Thor Heyerdahl.4
Heyerdahl was a fantasist who simply did not believe that the ancient Polynesians could possibly have sailed and colonized the Pacific from East Asia. They were in his opinion just too “primitive” to have done so. Instead they have to have done so from the Americas. Thus Thor Heyerdahl postulated that the ancestors of the Polynesians came from the area of the Alaska panhandle and British Columbia. They sailed over the Pacific to Hawaii and then colonized the rest of Polynesia from there. Heyerdahl talked at great length about the similarities between the West Coast Indians and the Polynesians etc.5
Much later Heyerdahl postulated that Peruvian Indians, (ultimately the descendants of people from the Atlas region of North Africa), brought high culture to Polynesia by sailing on balsa rafts to Polynesia.6
It turns out that Heyerdahl’s entire hypothesis is bogus. To put things simply. Heyerdahl just didn’t understand the fact that the Polynesians speak Austroasiatic languages which clearly come from East Asia. It appears that the Polynesians ultimately came from the region of south China / Taiwan. Their ancestors, with their ancestral language, many thousands of years ago migrated from there first to the Phillipines and then into Indonesia. From there they spread to the coasts of New Guinea where they intermingled with the native population producing the Polynesians, who most definitely have New Guinea cultural traits along with a genetic inheritance. From there they colonized Samoa and then the rest of Polynesia. No one has found any influence of an American Indian language, much less those of the Pacific North-West Coast of North America. The evidence of genetics and archaeology also indicates an origin in East Asia with some mixture from the people of New Guinea. The alleged high cultural influences from Peru are similarly dubious.7
It is interesting that Thor Heyerdahl received then and receives now all sorts of praise for his Kon-Tiki voyage. The idea being that it was a daring adventure in experimental Archaeology etc. And of course the exciting Academy Award winning documentary made from the film that Thor Heyerdahl took during the voyage along with the best-selling book certainly helped. And one should not forget about Thor Heyerdahl’s genius for self-promotion.8
The result is that Thor Heyerdahl gets all sorts of credit for being innovative and daring. That he ignored the well documented navigational skills of the Polynesians is generally ignored.
A fascinating little fact is that Thor Heyerdahl is not, by any stretch of the imagination the first to try the experimental voyage idea in Archaeology. There was for example Eric de Bisschop. In the 1930’s de Bisschop did extensive research on Polynesian outrigger / double canoes and on Polynesian traditional navigation techniques. He built a double canoe in Hawaii and in 1937 sailed from there to Futuna, near Samoa and then sailed to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. Then he sailed from Surabaya to Capetown and from there to Cannes in the Mediterranean. In all these voyages took 14 months. Thus by 1938 de Bisschop had spectacularly proved the seafaring capacity of the double canoe / outrigger and its ability to sail in all sorts of weather.9
De Bisschop series of voyages were far more spectacular than Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki trip. However unlike Thor Heyerdahl de Bisschop had no genius for self publicity and was forgotten rather swiftly and remains forgotten to the general public at least. This is so even though after this epic voyage de Bisschop continued to sail experimentally. In fact one of his experimental voyages was to sail a raft from Polynesia to South America, (Against prevailing winds and currents.), to complete the Kon Tiki experiment. Although de Bisschop made it, (Although before reaching South America the raft was largely wreaked.), the voyage was so slow and difficult and therefore took so long that it did not provide altogether convincing collaboration for Thor Heyerdahl’s idea of two way voyages between South America and Polynesia.10
De Bisschop spent much of his life on various voyages demonstrating the seaworthiness of the double canoe / outrigger in experimental voyages. Unlike Thor Heyerdahl he was simply not that good at self promotion and is almost entirely unknown to anyone but specialists.
Thor Heyerdahl seems to have been unaware of de Bisschop’s voyages of the 1930s which demonstrated that the double canoe could sail long distances over the ocean and the navigation techniques of the Polynesians. What this also demonstrated was that the Polynesian outrigger / double canoe was perfectly capable of sailing against prevailing winds and currents. So that contrary to Thor Heyerdhal’s belief Polynesia was indeed settled from East Asia.
So not only was the Polynesian double canoe perfectly capable of sailing in all sorts of weather including severe ocean storms but the navigational skills of the Polynesians are beyond dispute.
We now know a fair bit about Polynesian traditional navigation. It appears that the use of stars to navigate was common and the typical Polynesian Pilot had memorised the position of hundreds of stars in the sky. Further the Polynesians during the day used the position of the sun to orient themselves. They could even get a rough idea of their latitude from comparing the relative position of the sun at the same time during the day over the voyage. Also Polynesian navigators were experts on wind and ocean swells, along with birds.11
To give one example. Polynesian navigators noticed that Polaris, the Pole Star, barely moved in the sky in terms of any circular motion, however has you moved / sailed north Polaris moved further above the horizon.12
The Polynesian navigators would divide voyages into segments which they would mentally calculate in terms of determining when each segment was finished. Further their knowledge of birds, and the swells created by unknown islands were a great aid in terms of discovering new islands on voyages of discovery. Further they could most definitely sail against prevailing winds and currents. In fact they could navigate during overcast days and storms by keeping a constant ratio between the pitch of the ship and the dominant swell. This would enable the ship to also keep on course.13
Since de Bisschop’s voyages of the 1930s there has been and continues to be experimental voyages in outrigger / double canoes. This includes experimental voyages in recreated, traditional Polynesian double canoes from Tahiti to Hawaii and Hawaii to Tahiti. In fact in 1976 the double canoe Hokule’a did in fact make such a voyage. The navigation was entirely traditional Polynesian and managed to reach Hawaii in about a month and to return to Tahiti in about the same amount of time.14
The old idea that Polynesia was colonized by accidental voyages is now pretty well disregarded. Aside from the fact that computer simulations seem to have revealed that accidental voyages just don’t cut it in terms of colonizing the Pacific it appears that Polynesian competence in sea craft would appear to indicate that the major way they colonized the Pacific was through deliberate voyages of exploration and colonization.15 Further it appears that the Polynesians were in terms of sea craft and navigation fairly sophisticated. So however unlikely it appears the Pacific was indeed colonized against prevailing winds and currents.
So perhaps indeed the Polynesian colonizing expeditions to Hawaii and Easter Island from the Society islands in the central Pacific were indeed among the most spectacular and daring human sea voyages.
1. See Terrell, John Edward, Colonization of the Pacific Islands, Electronic Copy, 1997. I will send a copy to all who request one. Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998, pp. 334-353, Davies, Nigel, Voyagers to the New World, William Morrow and Co. Inc., New York, 1979, pp. 191-218.
2. IBID, Davies.
3. IBID, Wharram, James, Boon, Hanneke, The Pacific Migrations by Canoe Form Craft, Electronic copy, p. 68. Well send copy to all who request it.
4. See Heyerdahl, Thor, American Indians in the Pacific, 1952, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., New York, 1952, and Early Man and the Ocean, Vintage Books, New York, 1978.
6. IBID, 1978, pp. 377-379.
7. Davies, pp. 191-218, Crawford, Michael H., The Origins of the Native Americans, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, pp. 1-31.
8. See Heyerdahl, Thor, Kon-Tiki, Skyhorse, New York, 2010. Original publication date 1948. For the film see Kon-Tiki (1950 Film), Wikipedia Here.
9. Wharram, pp. 69-70.
11. Chan Siok Pheng Pamela, Yang Meng Jasvinder Kaur, Lee Seng Lee, Tan Choon Aik, Jeffry, The Lionhearts of the Pacific: Polynesians - culture, history and navigation, Electronic Copy, pp. 25-33.
12. IBID, p. 39.
13. IBID, pp. 40-41.
14. IBID, pp. 35-39.
15. Davies, pp. 191-218.