Riding Ancient Waves

By Rogers, Lisa | Humanities, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview
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Riding Ancient Waves


Rogers, Lisa, Humanities


THOUSAND YEARS AGO, THE POLYNESIANS VENTURED ACROSS THE vastness of the Pacific guided only by the waves and stars. They created an empire of ocean at a time when most seafaring Europeans hugged their coastlines and believed that if they strayed too far they would fall off the Earth.

How the Polynesians found their way across the ocean was a skill lost for generations. The story of its rediscovery by a new generation of Polynesians is told in Gail Evenari's documentary, Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey.

The story begins two hundred and thirty years ago when a famous British sea captain met a Polynesian shaman. Captain James Cook was amazed by the Tahitian's accounts of Polynesian voyages, many in the opposite directions of the prevailing winds. Tupaia told Cook of exploration, discovery, and migration to rival the accounts of Europe's boldest adventurers, but with a striking difference: The Polynesians staked their claims across the open sea instead of land.

As Cook and his officers learned the Tahitian language, they persuaded Tupaia to describe the long voyages of his people, detailing the far-flung outposts of Polynesian society. In his diary, Cook described this as "by far the most extensive nation upon earth." Tupaia agreed to sail with Cook through much of Polynesia and on to England.

Tupaia's map, redrawn by Cook and later by other members of the crew, places seventy-five islands in the Polynesians' ocean realm, with Tahiti at the center. Modern geographers can positively identify about two-thirds of them. The remaining mysteries may not point so much to Tupaia's ignorance as the Europeans' misunderstanding of Tahitian words for north and south.

The area described by Tupaia comprises much of what is now Polynesia, a stretch of ocean larger than the continental United States. This roughly triangular area includes Hawai'i in the north, Easter Island in the east, and New Zealand in the southwest. Archaeologists estimate that pioneers sailed from the Caroline Islands near the coast of New Guinea to Samoa in central Polynesia between three and four thousand years ago.

From there the seafarers reached all the habitable islands in the Pacific by about A.D. 1000. Easter Island, more than a thousand miles east of its nearest inhabited neighbor, was settled by about A.D. 300.

As Polynesians settled the last of the Pacific islands, Basques from Iberia were bringing cod back from the Grand Banks off Canada's east coast and Vikings had built villages in what is now Newfoundland. But after A.D.1000, Atlantic crossings virtually ceased for five hundred years while Pacific voyaging continued.

The pattern of settlement across the Pacific resulted in cultures of striking homogeneity despite the intervening miles of ocean. In addition to the same mother tongue, the pioneers took with them many of the same domesticated plants and animals, from bananas and sweet potatoes to pigs and chickens. Time and distance wrought many changes, but similarities of custom and speech remained. When Cook arrived in New Zealand, it was Tupaia who broke the language barrier, using his Tahitian dialect to communicate with the Maori.

Polynesians knew how to plot a course eastward in their speedy canoes by taking advantage of seasonal interruptions in the prevailing westward trade winds. Tupaia shared his knowledge with the Europeans, as did other Polynesian navigators. But their skills and credibility faded quickly. Tupaia died on the voyage back to England and Cook was killed in Hawai'i a few years later.

Soon after, colonial powers prohibited sailing without compass or mechanical instruments in Tahiti and the Marquesas, and European historians rejected the concept of Polynesian settlement as one of deliberate exploration. They insisted instead that pioneers arrived at new islands entirely by accident, blown off course in their inadequate boats. This view prevailed well into the second half of the twentieth century.

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