Polynesian Navigators

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The ancient world had many great accomplishments. The Pyramids of Giza, The Great Wall of China, and the Colosseum are just a few of the great wonders which are still standing. 

However, one of early humanity’s greatest achievements is one that didn’t leave any physical monuments. Its legacy is the people who live on the remote islands in the Pacific Ocean. 

Learn more about the Polynesian navigators and how they explored the Pacific on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

While humanity has been traveling by sea for thousands of years, there was always one thing that defined ancient seafaring: they stuck close to shore. 

Ancient ships weren’t very large in the big scheme of things, and navigation techniques were primitive. Sailing within eyesight of the shore was safer, the seas were calmer, and it was much easier to navigate if you could always see land. 

Even if they knew what was on the other side of the water, like in the Mediterranean or the Aegean Sea, staying close to land was always preferable. 

…and even if they could cross a sea, they would never ever sail into the unknown of the deep ocean.

However, there was one major exception to this rule. The Polynesians.

Polynesia is a region of the Pacific Ocean located in an area known as the Polynesian Triangle. 

The Polynesian Triangle is roughly defined as the area bounded by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui. The islands enclosed by this triangle include Samoa, Tonga, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and other smaller islands. 

Most importantly for this discussion, these islands are very far away from any continental landmass. In fact, the middle of the Pacific is the farthest place on Earth from continents.

10,000 years ago humans had settled most of the Earth which were reachable on foot. This includes areas such as Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which were connected to the Eurasian landmass when sea levels dropped during the last ice age. 

We know from genetic evidence that the ancient Polynesians originally came from Southeast Asia. Human remains from a pre-Polynesian people known as the Lapita have been found in Samoa dating back to about 3000 BC. 

From Samoa, they migrated eastward to what is today French Polynesia, and from there, there was expansion in all directions to Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island.

The expansion into the fringes of Polynesia happened rather recently in the big scheme of things. Hawaii saw its first humans arrive around the years 300 to 600, and New Zealand had its first human footprints around the year 1300.

So how did these islands, so far away from the coast of any continent get settled, when humans were so reluctant for so long to sail into the open ocean?  Moreover, how did they do it without the compass, sextant, or maps?

The short answer is that they were extremely skilled navigators. 

Not every Polynesian was a navigator. It was a skill that was passed on from generation to generation, and it was a very high-status position in their society. It required a lot of learning and a lot of time to master the techniques. Moreover, it was considered a secret tradition that was only passed along in certain families. 

One of the biggest tools was the development of a mental map. The map divided the night sky into four quadrants, and then further divided it into 32 houses. Their boat was always in the center of the mental map. 

Based on what time of year it was, they knew which stars would be where on the horizon, and from that they could determine direction. 

I should note that most of Polynesia is in the southern hemisphere, where the north star isn’t visible. They were aware of the north star and the southern cross, but their stellar navigation system was far more elaborate than just trying to find north or south in the sky. 

This system would have been incredibly difficult to learn, as you have to learn the locations of a lot of stars, and how they change throughout the year.

Moreover, maps of islands were passed down from generation to generation. When Captain James Cook made his first voyage to the Pacific, which is a story for another episode, he had a Polynesian navigator named Tupaia. Tupia came from the island of Ra’iatea in what is today French Polynesia.

Tupia was able to map out 130 islands within a 2,000-kilometer radius from Ra’iatea. He had personally only visited 13 of them. The rest were all handed down from his father and grandfather.

This knowledge of island locations would have been built up over generations and probably shared between islands when they made contact with each other. 

However, this mental map method wasn’t exact. It could get you close to where you needed to get, but it wasn’t like using a GPS. 

There were other techniques that were used to know when they were close to land. 

Certain bird species, like a white tern, could only be found a certain distance from land. They would go out in the morning to fish and then return to the island they came from. If they saw these birds, they would just have to follow it back to land.

There are some rumors that some navigators would take a frigate bird with them, and then release it when they thought they might be close to land. Frigate birds can’t get wet, so they would fly directly to land and you could then follow it. 

The other technique which they used was learning how to read waves and swells. Waves behave differently when there is land nearby. Waves in the deep oceans are more undulating, whereas when closer to land, they can be sharper. A navigator would have spent years learning to read the subtle behavior of waves.

Clouds were also a signal. Certain types of clouds would only form over islands. The color of the underside of a cloud would also determine if there was dark vegetation below it or not. 

The ships used by Polynesians were double-hulled canoes with a sail. The space between the hulls was the main storage space where they would store fishing nets, tools, and also animals for the voyage such as chickens. 

So how far did the Polynesians get? 

There is evidence of Polynesians getting to some of the sub-Antarctic islands which are south of New Zealand. However, there is no evidence, either physical or via oral tradition, of Polynesians, ever reaching Antarctica itself. 

There is a growing belief that they might have reached the coast of South America around the year 1300. There is DNA evidence from chicken remains found in Chile. The remains were from before Europeans arrived, and were not from European breeds of chicken. 

Also, there were sweet potatoes found in the Cook Islands which were native to South America. 

Much of the knowledge of Polynesian navigation was lost after the Europeans arrived. There was little reason to use it when the Europeans arrived with their larger ships and their navigation instruments. 

However, there has been a revival of this ancient art over the last few decades. In the 1970s a Hawaiian group called the Polynesian Voyaging Society created a double-hulled Polynesian ship and sailed it to Tahiti from May 1st to June 3rd, 1976, using only traditional techniques. 

Since then they have built other ships and have visited other Polynesian islands using traditional techniques.

From 2014 to 2017, another double-hulled canoe managed to sail around the world. 

At this point, even if you can accept that the Polynesians were able to navigate from island to island, just using the stars and nature to guide them, there still might be one nagging question: How did they know these islands were there in the first place?

There is a lot of evidence showing that the Hawaiian islands were settled by people from Tahiti. However, how did the people in Tahiti know that Hawaii existed? They are 2,700 miles away from each other. 

The best guess at this point is….they didn’t know. Either these islands were discovered by accident when boats were thrown off course by storms, or people set out not knowing if they would find anything. 

Rapa Nui is a thousand miles from the nearest speck of land. If you just look at a map of the Pacific, there are a whole lot of directions people could have traveled where they wouldn’t have encountered anything.  

The implication is that over the centuries and millennia, it is quite probable that hundreds of thousands of people may have died at sea searching for land which they never found. 

I think there really is no question that Polynesian navigation has to go down as one of the greatest achievements of the ancient world. They managed to achieve what no other culture was able, and did so in a dramatic fashion. 

The legacy of their accomplishment isn’t found in ancient ruins, but in the lives of all the people living across the islands of the Pacific.


The Associate producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Thor Thompson.

Today’s five star review comes from Apple Podcasts in the United States. Listener Jim M writes:

Well researched and fun

My wife and I have walked a lot for exercise in the last year, for obvious reasons. It helps to listen to podcasts to pass the time, using Airplay so we can both listen to the same thing on our AirPods. Our walk is usually 1 to 1.25 hours. We listen to some longer podcasts (e.g., Travel with Rick Steves, The Daily from NY Times, Post Reports) but like to fill in with shorter ones towards the end of the walk. This podcast fits that need perfectly. It’s well produced, excellent sound, and covers a wide variety of historical and scientific topics. Whenever Gary has crossed paths with something I already knew about, he’s been spot on. Unfortunately, we’ve gone through the whole catalog! Yes, I listened to every single podcast. The one about “Did Shakespeare write the works of Shakespeare” was probably my favorite. I had a prof back in college talk about it, but not as clearly as Gary.

Thank you very much Jim. I’m glad I can be of help during your walks. As always, if you keep listening, I’ll keep making them. 

Remember, if you leave a five-star review, you too can have your review read on the show.