The Pacific Ocean covers almost half the surface of the Earth and despite its name can be the scene of massive storms. The entire region can be split into three regions, Micronesia and Melanesia that are on the western end of the ocean, close to Australasia, and Polynesia that occupies the central region. Polynesia is vast as can be seen by the size of the so-called Polynesian triangle consisting of Hawaii as the northern vertex, Rapa Nui (formerly called Easter Island) as the southeast vertex, and New Zealand as the southwest vertex. Each side of this triangle is about 9,000 miles. The people of Polynesia, despite being so widely dispersed, form a single, identifiable cultural group.
Even though there are many island archipelagoes in the ocean, the total amount of land that makes up the islands that dot the ocean is minuscule although that aspect can be obscured by atlases that label the islands since the lettering that gives the names are much larger than the islands themselves. Take away the labels and there is nothing there unless one greatly magnifies the scale. Although the Polynesian triangle covers 10 million square miles, the area of actual land is approximately 300,000 square miles. If we leave out New Zealand and the Hawaiian archipelago, we are left with just 15,000 square miles for all the other islands, just 0.15% of the total area of the triangle. Within this huge triangle are familiar places like Samoa and Tonga plus various archipelagoes such the Cook Islands, Society Islands (which contains Bora Bora and Tahiti), the Marquesas and the Tuamotu archipelagoes.
These islands are all just tiny dots in the ocean, so small and dispersed that early explorers from Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, seeking new westerly routes to the Spice Islands by going around Tierra del Fuego in South America, could sail right through the archipelagoes and not realize that there was any land (relatively) nearby. The famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan did just that in 1593, seeing nothing except two tiny atolls. It was he who gave this ocean the name Pacific because just by chance it so happened to be calm when he first arrived. Two years later another explorer Alvaro de Mendana came across the island Fatu Hiva at the southernmost edge of the Marquesas archipelago, itself at the western edge of Polynesia, making him the first European to make contact with the Polynesian people.
And yet, thousands of years ago, the people we now label as Polynesians managed to populate every single habitable island. This raises three major questions: Who are they and from where did they originate? How did they manage to navigate these vast distances and find and populate these remote islands? Why did they undertake these perilous journeys into the unknown across a dangerous ocean?
The book Sea People by Christine Thompson (2019) looks at the efforts to unearth answers to these questions. The simplest and most obvious way to answer them is of course to ask the Polynesians themselves. But theirs is an oral culture in which knowledge was handed down from generation to generation in the form of chants and epic narratives that mixed genealogies and myths, often in a non-linear style that was difficult to translate into the linear chronologies that we are more familiar with.
One might think that modern DNA analysis techniques might answer the question of origins but not so since there were multiple population bottlenecks as small groups of people founded new populations on previously unoccupied islands and then mixed with later arrivals that have muddied the waters. Finding DNA of ancient people in burial grounds that might give clues to the original inhabitants is also not easy because the conditions on the islands are not conducive to preserving the DNA of bodies in burial sites, coupled with the reluctance of people to allow scientists to dig up what they consider the sacred burial grounds of their ancestors.
Since the Pacific ocean is so vast and the islands that dot it so tiny, it seemed incredible to western explorers and anthropologists that the island populations could have been the result of planned colonization by people who deliberately set out on the journey from either some part of Asia and went east or from South America and went west. Since both models had problems, some early suggestions were that the people originated on the islands themselves, an idea that is now of course rejected in the light of our knowledge of human evolution. The problem is that while linguistic and other ethnographic indicators suggest Polynesians originated in the Micronesian and Melanesian regions and thus must have traveled eastwards across the ocean, the trade winds that are dominant in the equatorial and tropical regions blow from the east to the west which would have made that route very difficult. There are so-called ‘westerlies’ that blow in the opposite direction but those are close to the polar regions far north and south of the Polynesian triangle. (p. 39)
Some have suggested a ‘Beringian theory’, that they did go eastwards in the far north near the Bering Straits and then looped back in the opposite direction using the trade winds. But such a long circuitous route is judged to be unlikely. That led to suggestions that the Polynesians came from South America and took advantage of the trade winds to travel in a westerly direction. The most famous proponent of this view was Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon Tiki project, where he and five others set off in 1947 from Peru on a large raft made of balsa wood. Three months later, they reached the island of Raroia in the Tuamotu archipelago, seemingly having proved their hypothesis.
The Kon Tiki expedition received massive publicity and cemented in the public imagination that this was how Polynesia was populated, an impression that remains to this day. (In my middle school in Sri Lanka, Heyerdahl’s book The Kon Tiki Expedition was one of the readings.) But its central thesis has been rejected by pretty much every scholar because the counter-evidence is so great that Polynesian roots were not from South America. As Thompson writes (p. 240), “virtually all Polynesian food plants and domesticated animals and the well-established linguistic arguments” suggested that they came from Asian region. The people of the islands had dog, pigs, and chickens, all of which were unknown in in South America at that time. (The one exception is the sweet potato which is from the Americas and its presence on the islands remains a puzzle, with various speculations including the suggestion of natural long-range dispersal of seeds.) As one critic wrote, Heyerdahl’s arguments could not be supported “chronologically, archaeologically, botanically, racially, linguistically, or culturally”. (p. 245). Other critics point out that Heyerdahl rigged the experiment by first having his raft towed out fifty miles to sea so that they could catch the Humboldt Current which then took them to he South Equatorial Current that would sweep them along the direction they sought. They also took with them modern navigational instrument such as the compass, sextant, and charts to work out their position, as well as a radio.
So if the early Polynesians came from the other direction, how did they overcome the opposition of the trade winds? While they were expert canoe builders, making large, stable seagoing vessels that could carry over a hundred people as well as dogs, pigs, and chickens (and rats), the opposing winds were a formidable obstacle. Computer simulations suggest that simply drifting along and trusting to chance has almost zero chance of success in reaching an island. But if one introduces a slight navigational advantage to the simulations, that can be done. The catch is that the ancient navigational lore that was handed down orally from generation to generation is in danger of being lost but enough remains that we know it can be, and now has been, done. What is required is detailed knowledge of the stars in order to navigate, the ability to read oceans currents and swell patterns to sense directions, and the patience to wait for occasional changes in wind direction and take advantage of them. One technique is to watch for birds, since different species can travel for different distances. In the mornings, birds travel away from land and in the evenings they travel back to land so observing birds can be an aid. Inter-island crossings have now been demonstrated by expert navigators, using these ancient techniques that involved nothing but knowledge about the “stars, winds, and swells, could hold a course, calculate the distance traveled, hit a target with sufficient accuracy, and incorporate all the necessary information into a mental construct that was both flexible enough to allow for adaptation and systematic enough to be passed on.” (p. 294)
The question of when these migrations occurred has been studied extensively and the dates have shifted over time. The islands of what is known as western Melanesia, consisting of New Guinea, Bismarck and the Solomon Islands have been occupied for tens of thousands of years, much longer than the Polynesian islands. New Guinea and Australia were once joined by a land bridge and were settled at least 40,000 years ago. (p. 197) The current dominant theory based on excavations of pottery and other archeological artifacts is that the so-called ‘Lapita’ people (named after a village in New Caledonia that lies east of Australia) went eastward and reached Samoa and Tonga (on the west edge of the Polynesian triangle) around 900 BCE. This eastward migration then stalled for a long time and then there was a new and sudden further eastward expansion to central and eastern Polynesia around the end of the first millennium AD, with a looping back west to New Zealand around 1200 AD.
The final question is why the early Polynesians undertook these hazardous journeys into the unknown in search of land that they could not know even existed. That is the most difficult to answer, since it speaks to the motivations of long ago peoples. The reasons that people undertake such dangerous migrations now (such as over-population or fleeing persecution and poverty) that result in tragedies like the large number of deaths due to overloaded refugee boats sinking in the Mediterranean may not apply. There is always the option of people seeking adventure, the thrill of heading out into the unknown and unexplored, and Polynesian culture definitely has that streak of romanticism, but such risks are not usually taken by large numbers of people carrying livestock along with them.
Thompson suggests that there could also be another factor at play, which is that of the importance of founders in their culture.
Many Austronesian cultures show a deep reverence for founder figures; this is certainly true in Polynesia, where lineages are named for founders whose names and deeds are the very backbone of the mythology. Founders hold positions of rank and command material advantages, and over time those benefits accrue. As one anthropologist put it, the original settlers of New Zealand, whose journey constitutes the final chapter in this great migration, “would have been heirs to perhaps 3,000 years of successful Austronesian expansion” – three thousand years of founder tales “stacked one upon the other.” Under such circumstances, what “ambitious young man of a junior line” would not seek to become a founder himself by setting off in search of his own island, no matter how far away? (p. 233)
There is still a lot we do not know as well as some uncertainty about what we think we know about the Polynesians. I had not thought a lot about the origins and history of the Polynesians, except incidentally from those accounts that used those islands as settings. The places such as Tahiti, Bora Bora, Fiji, Samoa, Pitcairn Islands, and Tonga sounded idyllic in those accounts but the Polynesian people formed mainly a backdrop to the events described. Thompson’s book was helpful in combating my ignorance and I now have a much greater appreciation for the abilities of these peoples who had such high levels of endurance, knowledge, perseverance, and skills to be able to achieve such tremendous feats of navigation over a vast ocean.