Voyage to Polynesia's Land's End

By Finney, Ben | Antiquity, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Voyage to Polynesia's Land's End


Finney, Ben, Antiquity


Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is a small, lone island located in the southeastern Pacific closer to Chile than to Tahiti. It forms the southeast point of the Polynesian triangle and represents the farthest known advance to the east of the migration of seafaring farmers and fishers out of Southeast Asia and into the open Pacific. The question of how this distant speck of land was discovered and settled is therefore embedded in the larger issue of how early voyagers managed to work their way eastward across the ocean against the direction of the trade wind flow.

In 1769 Captain James Cook (1968: 154) raised this issue during his first voyage to the Pacific. Noting the similarity of Tahitian words with those gathered by earlier explorers from islands as far west as Indonesia, he concluded that the Tahitians must have stemmed from the `East Indias'. Yet Cook, ever the practical seaman, wondered how their ancestors could have sailed canoes so far to the east against the trade winds. Tupaia, the Tahitian savant who had joined the expedition as native geographer and cultural intermediary, laid the captain's doubts to rest when he explained how Tahitians returning from voyages made to the west exploited spells of westerly winds that blow during the Austral summer to sail east back to their home island. This led Cook to suggest that Tahiti and its neighbours had been settled by canoe voyagers who used these westerlies to work their way eastward, island by island.

The idea that such seasonal winds played a crucial role in Pacific migration was widely shared by later European explorers and other nautically informed visitors who often referred to them as summer monsoons. However, it largely faded from consciousness as voyaging canoes disappeared from most Polynesian islands and Westerners turned from sail to steam. In the mid 1900s Heyerdahl (1952; 1978: 332) ignored the tropical westerlies altogether and declared that the east-west flow of what he mistakenly called the `permanent' trade winds and accompanying currents had prevented early voyagers from sailing east into the ocean, and that Polynesia must instead have been settled from the Americas by voyagers pushed westward into the Pacific by wind and current. Several years later Sharp (1956) demoted Polynesian explorers to the status of hapless castaways. Although agreeing with the orthodox view that they had come from the west, he asserted that their canoes and wayfinding techniques were too crude and untrustworthy for deliberate exploration and colonization. Instead he proposed that Polynesia had been settled accidentally through a long series of involuntary drift and undirected exile voyages.

These challenges to a poorly defined orthodoxy of intentional west-east migration stimulated experimental research on voyaging. In the mid 1960s I conducted sea trials with Nalehia, a 13-m reconstructed Hawaiian double canoe, to measure the performance of such craft (Finney 1967; Horvath & Finney 1969). During the late 1960s and early 1970s Ward and his colleagues simulated drift voyaging by computer to test Sharp's accidental settlement hypothesis (Levison et al. 1973; Ward et al. 1976). From 1976 through 1987 my colleagues and I sailed Hokule'a, a 19-m, double-hulled voyaging canoe constructed for experimental sea trials, on three voyages through Polynesia in order to investigate how voyaging canoes sailed and traditional wayfinding worked on sailing routes recorded in legend and/or indicated by other evidence (Finney 1977; 1994; 1996). More recently a team led by Irwin built upon the previous computer simulations by programming virtual canoes to sail around the Pacific in order to test scenarios of exploration and colonization (Irwin 1989; 1992; Irwin et al. 1990).

These initiatives contradicted Heyerdahl's and Sharp's arbitrary limits on Polynesian voyaging capabilities and their respective migration theories, and have helped to put intentional voyaging firmly back into discussions of Polynesian prehistory (Finney 1996; Green 1998; 2000; Kirch 2000: 238-45; Rolett 1999: 250-62; Weisler 1997; 1998). …

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