Examining Prehistoric Migration Patterns in the Palauan Archipelago: A Computer Simulated Analysis of Drift Voyaging

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A number of recent genetic, linguistic, and archaeological studies have attempted to ascertain the origin of settlers to the Palauan archipelago, but it remains a complex and debated issue. To provide additional insight into colonization strategies and settlement patterns, we conducted computer simulations of drift voyages to the Palauan archipelago based on historically recorded winds and currents. Drift voyages were considered here as drifting before the wind when lost, a strategy documented for Pacific Islanders. The simulations suggest that peoples drifting before the wind from the southern Philippines would have had the most success in landfall. This finding supports the current hypothesis of human colonization to the islands of Palau. KEYWORDS: Computer simulation, drift voyaging, seafaring, colonization, Palau, Micronesia.


ARCHAEOLOGISTS WORKING IN THE PACIFIC have long been concerned with how islands in Remote Oceania were colonized prehistorically. To determine patterns of oceanic human dispersal to these islands, researchers have typically relied upon the distribution of stylistically or geochemically unique artifacts (e.g., Descantes et al. 2001; Dickinson and Shutler 2000; Irwin 1978; Pavlish et al. 1986; Weisler 1990, 1998; White 1996; see also Rolett 2002; Rolett et al. 2002), while linguistics and genetic studies have also played an important role in establishing where settlers may have originated (e.g., Bellwood 1997; Blust 2000; Lum 1998; Lum and Cann 2000; Reid 1998; Starosta 1995).

One useful means for investigating voyaging and prehistoric colonization patterns is the recording of traditional seafaring techniques and the experimental construction and use of watercraft based on ancient technologies (see Bechol 1972; Doran 1978; Finney 1988; Lewis 1978; Ling 1970; also Bednarik 1998; Irwin 1998). To complement these studies, computer simulations of seafaring have provided additional data about how peoples may have traveled over time through the Pacific (Avis et al. 2007; Irwin 1992; Levison et al. 1973). However, these and other simulations are not explicitly interested in, nor can they hope to provide great insight, into the timing of human arrival, which must be ascertained instead through careful consideration of radiocarbon chronologies from stratified archaeological and paleo environmental deposits. Nonetheless, these experiments can help to refine theories on prehistoric migration routes and direct future research objectives to areas that may be understudied.

Archaeologists have postulated that human populations in the Palauan archipelago (see Fig. 1), may have migrated from Taiwan, Indonesia, New Guinea, or the Philippines based on archaeological, historic, linguistic, and genetic studies (see Bellwood 1997; Irwin 1992; Reid 1998; Semper 1982 [1873]: 17-18). To further examine possible routes of migration to western Micronesian islands, we investigated computer simulated drift voyages to the Palauan archipelago. These simulations take advantage of detailed oceanographic, anemological, and climatological data to determine how watercraft will move or react to ocean conditions during a given time of the year. This type of approach to studying ancient seafaring has been increasingly used worldwide to investigate colonization, migration, and culture contact in the Pacific Islands (Avis et al. 2007; Irwin 1992; Levison et al. 1973), the Caribbean (Callaghan 2001, 2003a), between Ecuador and Mexico (Callaghan 2003b), Costa Rica and Colombia (Callaghan and Bray 2007), from Japan to North America (Callaghan 2003c), and other regions (Montenegro et al. 2006). The results of these simulations can then be coupled with other data to develop more robust hypotheses regarding the human colonization of islands worldwide.


There are a number of voyaging strategies that can be investigated using computer simulations. …