Daytime Wayfinding & Celestial Navigation
Charting The Path Of Ancient Polynesian Explorers
Charting The Path Of Ancient Polynesian Explorers
By the mid 21st century the ancient art of long distance wayfinding (without western navigational instruments) was all but lost to the polynesian societies of the Pacific. The ancient polynesian colonizers developed highly sophisticated vessels and a navigation system based on observations of the stars, ocean swells, flight patterns of birds and other natural signs which enabled them to find their way across the open ocean. These colonists carried all that they would need to survive at sea for a month or more while sailing there amazing double hulled canoes. It is said some voyaging canoes could have carried as many as 80 people as well as the plants and domesticated animals needed to build a new life.
Ancient Voyagers of the Pacific
There are several ongoing theories about how the Polynesian Triangle, an area of the Pacific ocean encompassing millions of square miles of open ocean, was settled and were these voyagers originated from. Most scholars believe polynesians originated in southeast Asia. DNA evidence shows all polynesians are descended from one race of people. But where did they originate from and how far did they travel?
One alternate theory was championed by explorer Thor Heyerdahl in 1947 when he famously sailed a wooden raft, called the Kon-Tiki, from the coast of Peru to the Tuamotu Islands in French Polynesia some 4300 miles away using only wind and currents. His theory and voyage was based on the sweet potato, a food source cultivated throughout all polynesian societies. DNA testing of these potatoes brought back by Cook in the late 1700’s from Hawai’i show they are a strain from south America. However, other recent evidence suggests the polynesians reached South America and introduced chickens (not native to South America) while possibly bringing back to central Polynesia the sweet potato. Chicken bones found in Peru have been carbon dated to 1350 A.D.
Another theory is native Alaskan Inuits may have voyaged to Polynesia, or vice versa, with a highly sophisticated canoe similar to the Polynesian canoes. Scientists have observed Alaskan natives may have physical features that resemble the Polynesians of Hawai’i and DNA evidence suggests a connection. However most scholars now believe the original peoples who became the polynesians originated in southeast Asia, possibly Taiwan. How Polynesians became linked to Alaska remains a bit of a mystery.
This ocean canoe is of the Haida tribe located in the archipelago of Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) in northern British Columbia. The construction resembles a Polynesian technique of carving large logs and lashing planks together to create a rugged, seaworthy vessel. The Haida tribe is also known to decorate their face and bodies with tattoos, as the Polynesians also do.
Additionally some 200 years ago a southern Californian Indian tribe was discovered to have in use a type of canoe constructed (large canoes built up of planks lashed together, and with seams caulked tightly) much as the polynesians had built but with no similar canoes existing among the many west coast tribes of the time. These connections continue to intrigue researchers and these theories will continue to be put to the test in the future…
Ancient Polynesian wayfinders use a series of techniques to navigate into unknown areas of the vast Pacific ocean. These included the flight of birds, star positions, ocean currents and waves, air and sea patterns caused by islands and atolls and the behavior of ocean animals.
European Contact in the South Pacific
Polynesian voyagers are believed to have arrived in Hawai’i sometime around 450 A.D., which is close to 1000 years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
The first scientific voyages by Europeans into the South Pacific were conducted by Captain James Cook in the late 18th century, though he used captured Spanish maps from the mid 1500’s to plot his course. It is believed the Spanish kept the South Pacific Island locations secret to dissuade pirates and colonizers. Luckily Cook was neither and managed to befriend most of the Polynesians he encountered. On his first of three voyages he had the services of a polynesian navigator from Tahiti named Tupaia, who drew a map of the islands within a 2000 mile radius of his home island of Ra’iatea. He had knowledge of 130 islands and named 74 on his map.
Cook believed the presence of Polynesians across such vast expanses was due to islanders who were driven off course by storms. The prevailing trade winds running east to west would seemed to have prevented exploration to the east of the central Pacific Islands. Thus the reason Polynesians were able to inhabit such a large number of Pacific islands was given to luck. This view was upheld for nearly 200 years. Some believe it was a form of bigotry, with westerners not wanting to believe a “savage and primitive” culture could accomplish such voyaging capabilities 1000 years before Europeans.
By the late 19th century historians such as Abraham Fornander and Percy Smith hypothesized a more courageous and romanticized view of Polynesian navigation, bringing into favor the idea of great seamanship, sophisticated voyaging vessels and navigational expertise. This reassessment caused much controversy and debate through the late 19th and into the early 20th centuries.
Discoveries and Experiments
By the mid 1960’s scientists and historians believed it was time for a more hands-on approach. Ethnographic research in Micronesia discovered that the people living there still used traditional stellar navigation in their everyday lives.
In the late 1960’s anthropologist David Lewis sailed a catamaran from Tahiti to New Zealand using celestial navigation without instruments. Anthropologist and historian Ben Finney built a 40 foot replica Hawaiian double hulled canoe, doing a series of sailing and paddling experiments in Hawaiian waters. All of these studies concluded the Polynesians did have the skills and knowledge to voyage throughout the vast Pacific ocean, making them the most adaptive seafaring peoples the world has ever known.
Mahalo for taking an interest in Hawaiian culture and ancient navigation! We enjoy sharing this kind of information on every one of our Maui tours. From our road to Hana tour to Haleakala National Park, we would be honored to share with you the unique sights, history and culture of Maui!
Links for Polynesian Voyaging & Wayfinding