Because of the way that flat maps are drawn with the Atlantic Ocean in the middle and the Pacific Ocean split and placed at the left and right extremes, it is easy to not realize how big the latter ocean is. Google maps now shows maps on a spherical basis and if you zoom out, you get a view of how the ocean covers pretty much half the globe. You see the Americas on the right edge, Asia on the left edge, and only Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea form the major land masses.
But it is not all water. The ocean is pockmarked with a large number of tiny islands that are too small to show up on the map at this scale. The red flag shows Tahiti. But these islands were populated by the Polynesians a long time ago. Where these people came from and how they navigated this 10 million square miles of ocean to find and populate every single one of these islands makes for a fascinating story.
In the May 2019 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Damien Searles reviews the book Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christine Thompson who discusses the challenges faced by these pioneering peoples. He quotes a passage from the book:
All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a particular body of myths, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a “portmanteau biota” of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went. They had no knowledge of writing or metal tools- no maps or compasses – and yet they succeeded in colonizing the largest ocean on the planet, occupying every habitable rock between New Guinea and the Galapagos, and establishing what was, until the modern era, the largest single culture area in the world.
Who were these people and where did they come from? There have been many wild speculations but the best current scholarship suggests that they came from the East despite the fact that the ocean currents generally flowed in the other direction. Thompson’s book focuses on how scientists figured out the history of the Polynesians.
The key questions, of course, are how, and from where. Pacific winds at the relevant latitudes blow west, which would suggest a point of origin in the Americas, but the languages of the South American coasts have nothing to do with Polynesian languages; the locals there were not seafarers; and the pigs, dogs, and chickens found throughout Polynesia were unknown in South America.
When, in the late twentieth century, the mystery of how ancient proto- Polynesians could sail east, against the prevailing trade winds blowing west, was finally solved, the answer “turned out [to be] just as Tupaia had described it to Cook”: wait for the wind to blow east after all, which did happen occasionally.
Modern scientific tools such as DNA testing has solvd many of the puzzles. This map traces the pattern of migration over a period of 2,000 years.
There are still unsolved questions, such the kinds of navigation tools that the Polynesians used to find these tiny islands in a vast ocean and how they obtained sweet potatoes which come from North America.