The World’s First Seafarers

The Pacific was the first ocean to be explored and settled, and its history is one of voyages. There were two distinct voyaging periods.

“Ancient” Voyaging: From Asia to Near Oceania

The origins of the Pacific’s diverse peoples can be traced back along seaways to mainland Asia.

The people of the ancient period (50,000–25,000 BC) had a palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) technology and a hunting and foraging economy. Setting off in simple rafts, they gradually dispersed through the large islands of South-East Asia. Eventually they reached Australia and New Guinea, which were then connected by a land bridge.

These ancient people ultimately travelled as far into Melanesia as the southern end of the main chain of the Solomon Islands. They made a remarkable series of adaptations to diverse environments, which ranged from tropical islands in the north to glacial Tasmania in the south, from coastline to interior, and from rainforest to near-desert.

This wider region is known as Near Oceania. It consists of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Admiralty Islands and the Solomon Islands

“Recent” Voyaging: Into Remote Oceania

Migration into Remote Oceania began around 1200 BC. Remote Oceania lies to the east and south of Near Oceania, and consists of Melanesia (south-east of the Solomons), Micronesia and Polynesia. The islands were generally smaller, with fewer food resources, and were beyond the reach of simple water craft.

The migrating people, however, had neolithic (New Stone Age) technologies, and food-producing economies. Known as Lapita, they had learned to explore the open sea and survive. After millennia of developments in boat building, and accumulated experience of seafaring in Near Oceania, skilled navigators began to explore in sophisticated canoes. Migrants voyaged east across the tropical Pacific into Remote Oceania, carrying with them domesticated plants and animals to sustain settlement in their new island homes.

Ultimately explorers arrived at South America, and then returned to their home islands in Remote Oceania with the kūmara (sweet potato) and a species of gourd. Radiocarbon dates for kūmara found on Mangaia, in the southern Cook Islands, show that Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000 AD.

Why Explore?

While research suggests how the Pacific was probably settled, it is harder to explain why. Among the motives that have been put forward are the need for trade and junior kinship lines wanting to establish seniority on new islands. A common reason for seeking new lands is overcrowding. But early Pacific migrations were not forced by the need for more space. In Lapita times population numbers were lower than they would ever be again. Stories of voyages of exile, overpopulation and warfare all belong to the end of Polynesian prehistory, long after the islands were settled. There is also little support for the Pacific being settled by accidental drift voyages – it was clearly intentional. It may be that Pacific migration was driven by other impulses, which are both universal and personal – discovery, prestige, exile, a sense of adventure, wanderlust, curiosity. Technological innovation and exploration have also been essential features of human behaviour for more than a million years.

Early Theories

The first explorers had no maps or navigational instruments, and there has been spirited debate among sailors and scholars as to how they settled the region. Early theories ranged from mythical hero navigators who discovered new lands and returned home with sailing directions, to accidental voyagers who drifted away from islands to which they could not return. Complicating the argument was the myth of a South American origin, advocated by some 19th-century scholars and popularised in the 20th century by the archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl.

Recent Understanding

We now know that migrations were deliberate, because they involved taking the people, plants and animals needed to establish sustainable colonies. There have been many experimental voyages in replica canoes and rafts, as well as other ‘computer voyages’. Computer experiments using data for winds and currents show that the major voyages could not have occurred by drift.

Survival, Not Speed

The human instinct for survival meant that exploration almost certainly occurred in stages, using different sailing strategies:

Against the wind – this was the initial search-and-return voyage, to find out whether there were islands on the exposed side of the home island.

Across the wind – once navigators had found new islands, they could then begin to sail safely across prevailing winds. They would know that on their return they could stop at these islands if they could not make it all the way home.

Downwind – this happened at a later stage. Sailing downwind usually requires returning by a different route, and it took time for explorers to discover the intermediate islands that made these routes possible. Sailing downwind also indicated that navigators understood how to use the various weather systems.

Search and Return

Lapita navigators explored in only one direction – south-east, against the prevailing trade winds. All island groups in island Melanesia and West Polynesia that lie in a south-east direction have Lapita settlements. None of these settlements have been found on other islands. At predictable times each year the trade winds would reverse from south-easterly to westerly. At these times canoes could set off with the wind behind them, and explore to the east. When the winds reverted to south-easterly, a safe return could be made.

The exploration strategy was to search and return. All the occupied island groups acted as broad safety nets for returning canoes.

East to the empty Pacific

The last migrations were to the distant points of Polynesia – Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand – and to South America.

The eastern Pacific is virtually empty and huge areas of ocean had to be crossed to find remaining islands. The chance of any voyage resulting in a new discovery was low. It would have been pointless to send migratory canoes carrying people, plants and animals. Probably, exploring voyagers made discoveries and then returned home. Migrating voyagers could then set off, sailing directly to known destinations.

The further east you sail in the Pacific the more difficult it is to navigate. Over time, voyagers had learnt how to navigate this part of the ocean. Computer-simulated voyages suggest that homecoming canoes must have been increasingly reliant upon latitude sailing: returning navigators would use zenith stars (which at their highest point shine directly over a known island) to reach the latitude of their destination while still upwind of it. They would then run downwind to reach the island.

In prehistoric voyages from central East Polynesia to islands at its distant margins, canoes generally made round trips. The prevailing winds did not normally allow voyagers to return directly so they stopped at islands along the way, or used different weather systems.

Southward to New Zealand

New Zealand, isolated far to the south, was the last substantial land mass to be reached. Lying in a band of prevailing westerly winds far south of the tropics, it presented a severe challenge to Polynesian navigators.

A good way to reach the country was to sail with easterly tail winds across the top of an anti-clockwise rotating high-pressure system. Early summer, before the cyclone season, is an ideal time to make the journey. Two replica canoes, Hōkūle‘a and Hawaiki nui, did just this in November 1985. Another approach is to use northerly winds on the leading edge of an advancing frontal system or those behind a high-pressure system, which happens about once a week.

Exploring canoes may have followed migrating birds, as told in Māori tradition. The long-tailed cuckoo comes to New Zealand from tropical Polynesia in October, and shearwaters would have been observed flying south in September. People would have known that land lay in that direction, but not how far away it was. The first landfalls were probably on the northern North Island, with the rest of the country being explored later.

Māori Ancestors

At the time of New Zealand settlement, there was a voyaging and trading sphere in East Polynesia where ideas and cultural traits were shared and spread. All the available evidence of artefacts, language, biology and tradition suggests that this was the Māori homeland. It consists of the Society Islands, the southern Cook Islands and the Austral Islands in French Polynesia.

Even so, specific archaeological evidence is scarce. The shank of a fishing lure of black-lipped pearl shell, found at Tairua in the Coromandel, is one of a very few items from New Zealand archaeological sites that were actually brought from Polynesia.

It is unlikely that the ancestors of Māori came from only one particular location. DNA from New Zealand’s Pacific rat shows diverse lineages from the Society and Cook Islands. This suggests that several canoes came from a number of sources. They may have come over several generations, or even centuries. A study of human DNA also suggests that there was a minimum of 70–100 women as founding ancestors. Many canoes, possibly coming from several locations, would be needed to bring this number of people.

Return Journeys

For a time, the Kermadec Islands and Norfolk Island were occupied as stopover points for canoes returning to East Polynesia. There is also evidence of direct New Zealand–Norfolk connections. But when voyaging slowed, these stepping-stone islands were abandoned. They became part of the group of ‘mystery islands’ that showed evidence of habitation, but were empty when Europeans arrived. Once they stopped returning to Polynesia, the settlers in New Zealand were cut off from the outside world.

From Malay to Māori: language links

All Polynesian languages belong to the Austronesian language family, now the most widely dispersed in the world – from Madagascar to Easter Island. Words for outrigger canoes with sails and paddles can be traced from Near Oceania back through the ancestral languages of island South-East Asia. The Māori words waka (canoe) and ra (sail) have the same origin as the Malay words – wangka and layar.