Magazine article Science News

Sail Away: Tools Reveal Extent of Ancient Polynesian Trips

Magazine article Science News

Sail Away: Tools Reveal Extent of Ancient Polynesian Trips

Article excerpt

The ocean wasn't enough to hold back the daring seafarers who settled the islands of East Polynesia beginning around 4,000 years ago. A new analysis of stone tools underscores the nautical skill of ancient Polynesian mariners. It indicates that, about 1,000 years ago and prior to European contact, these intrepid canoeists transported rocks for toolmaking from Hawaii to islands more than 4,000 kilometers to the south.


Legends recounted by Polynesian islanders refer to ancestors in the distant past who used canoes with sails to travel south from the Hawaiian Islands to Tahiti and then east to the Tuamotu Islands. Chemical studies of stone tools previously recovered in the Tuamotu Islands back up those local accounts, say geologist Kenneth D. Collerson and archaeologist Marshall I. Weisler of the University of Queensland in St. Lucia, Australia.

The Tuamotus and the nearby Society Islands "could be approached from all quarters and were thus probably important in Polynesian trade," Collerson and Weisler conclude in the Sept. 28 Science.

The scientists assayed a variety of trace elements and isotopes in 19 basalt adzes--woodcutting implements resembling hoes, with stone blades fastened to the ends of wooden shafts. The late Polynesian archaeologist Kenneth Emory found the artifacts on nine coral atolls in the Tuamotus between 1929 and 1934.

Collerson and Weisler also characterized 28 volcanic-rock sources throughout Polynesia by their trace elements and isotopic compositions.

Comparisons of the Tuamotu adzes with these rocks showed that all but one came from surrounding island groups, such as the Marquesas, Pitcairn, Austral, and Society Islands. …

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