Polynesians: Mankinds Greatest Explorers?

The Thinker by Rodin

While in Hawaii last month we stopped at the Bishop Museum, a sort of Smithsonian for all things Hawaiian. I didn’t expect to like the place so much and I wish I had much more time to explore it than we had. Both my wife and I were drawn to the part of the museum tracing the showing the spread of Polynesian people and culture across the Pacific. You can get some idea of the place by going to http://www.bishopmuseum.org.

Across one wall was a map of the Pacific Ocean tracing the migration of the Polynesian people across the Pacific hundreds of years ago. This much is known about them: they didn’t understand math and science in the sense that we do. And yet somehow they managed to explore and spread out across the entire Pacific region.

To help understand how this was possible we took the Planetarium tour and discovered that it was indeed possible to do a crude sort of navigation with longitude and latitude without sextants and resorting to math. By noting the angle above the horizon of the Southern Cross at various times of year one could infer latitude. And from noting where certain constellations rose at certain times of the year one could also infer latitude. It’s not known whether this was really the method by which these people determined where they were. But islands like Hawaii are so far removed from everything it seems impossible that these people could journey for thousands of miles in these large outrigged canoes and even survived. And yet they populated the entire Pacific region long before the rest of us discovered sailing ships.

Their canoes could hold a surprising amount of stuff, like dry foods and water. Fish was available off the side of the ship. Presumably when it rained they could get some fresh water. But spending weeks at sea on these canoes in waters that were doubtlessly often turbulent and occasionally dangerous seems hard for us to understand.

The origins of the Polynesian people seem to be from south Asia, principally areas like Indonesia. A slow eastern migration occurred. But what would motivate people to make these sorts of long and dangerous journeys with perhaps little expectation that they could ever find their way back home? Survival could be part of the picture. The races probably needed room to grow although it doesn’t appear they were ever overpopulated by modern standards. And certainly they got good at getting between local island groups, and looking for signs like birds to direct them to land.

But journeys into the unknown for thousands of miles is something completely different. What would keep them going if after, say, 500 miles, there was still no sign of land when they had only currents and their own canoe paddles to get them where they needed to go?

Doubtless many tried such journeys and failed but some obviously succeeded. I am trying to picture myself as a native of such Islands hundreds and thousands of years ago. My world would be pretty small. I would think the desire to explore would come mainly from boredom.

What adventures these trips must have been! In a way I am envious, feeling I am born too late. Today we think of trips to the moon or planets as adventures. But something on the order of Polynesians discovering Tahiti or Hawaii … this ranks right up there was one of mankind’s greatest adventures. One can admire Marco Polo, for example, for trekking across Asia. But there were people there already. For the Polynesians there was nothing but long and endless open water, with no certainties of anything.

It is hard for me to think of adventures and human history that are grander than what must have occurred during the human migration of Polynesia. And yet the story is largely unknown and untold and much of it must simply be inferred. It’s a shame that this history is lost; it may have been mankind’s ultimate adventure.