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Hawaiian navigators sailing multi-hulled canoe, ca 1781

Polynesian navigation was a system of navigation used by Polynesians to make long voyages across thousands of miles of open ocean. Navigators traveled to small inhabited islands using only their own senses and knowledge passed by oral tradition from navigator to apprentice, often in the form of song. In order to locate directions at various times of day and year, navigators in Eastern Polynesia memorized important facts: the motion of specific stars, and where they would rise and set on the horizon of the ocean; weather; times of travel; wildlife species (which congregate at particular positions); directions of swells on the ocean, and how the crew would feel their motion; colors of the sea and sky, especially how clouds would cluster at the locations of some islands; and angles for approaching harbors.

These wayfinding techniques along with outrigger canoe construction methods, were kept as guild secrets. Generally each island maintained a guild of navigators who had very high status; in times of famine or difficulty these navigators could trade for aid or evacuate people to neighboring islands. To this day, original traditional methods of Polynesian Navigation are still taught in the Polynesian outlier of Taumako Island in the Solomon Islands.

Contents

History

At a time when many European sailors were navigating by keeping a watch for the shoreline in daylight or relying on dead reckoning by compass, Polynesians were navigating a vast extent of the Pacific Ocean. Polynesia comprised islands diffused throughout a triangular area with sides of four thousand miles. The area from the Hawaiian Islands in the north, to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east and to Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the south west was settled by Polynesians. It is theorized that Polynesian navigators reached the Americas at least a century before Europeans, made contact with Native Americans in Southern California, introduced chickens to South America and took back sweet potatoes to Polynesia.[1]

Between about 3000 and 1000 BC speakers of Austronesian languages spread through island South-East Asia – almost certainly starting out from Taiwan, as tribes whose natives had thought to have previously arrived about from mainland South China about 8000 years ago– into the edges of western Micronesia and on into Melanesia. In the archaeological record there are well-defined traces of this expansion which allow the path it took to be followed and dated with a degree of certainty. In the mid 2nd millennium BC a distinctive culture appeared suddenly in north-west Melanesia, in the Bismarck Archipelago, the chain of islands forming a great arch from New Britain to the Admiralty Islands. This culture, known as Lapita, stands out in the Melanesian archeological record, with its large permanent villages on beach terraces along the coasts. Particularly characteristic of the Lapita culture is the making of pottery, including a great many vessels of varied shapes, some distinguished by fine patterns and motifs pressed into the clay. Within a mere three or four centuries between about 1300 and 900 BC, the Lapita culture spread 6000 km further to the east from the Bismarck Archipelago, until it reached as far as Tonga and Samoa. In this region, the distinctive Polynesian culture developed.

Theories

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Pre-Columbian contact with the Americas

In the mid-twentieth century, Thor Heyerdahl proposed a new theory of Polynesian origins (one which did not win general acceptance), arguing that the Polynesians had migrated from South America on balsa-log boats.[2][3]

Irving Goldman, author of Ancient Polynesian Society, has this to say on the comparison between Kwakiutl and the Polynesians. "For reasons that remain to be discovered, the Indian tribes of this area [NW Coast] share formal principles of rank, lineage, and kinship with Pacific islanders. The Kwakiutl, seem very close to what I have designated as the "traditional" Polynesian society. They share with Polynesians a status system of graded hereditary ranking of individuals and of lineages; a social class system of chiefs ("nobles"), commoners, and slaves; concepts of primogeniture and seniority of descent lines; a concept of abstract supernatural powers as special attributes of chiefs; and a lineage system that leans toward patriliny, but acknowledges the maternal lines as well. Finally, Kwakiutl and eastern Polynesians, especially, associate ambiguity of lineage membership with "Hawaiian" type kinship, a fully classificatory system that does not distinguish between maternal and paternal sides, or between siblings and cousins."

The traditional name for the Haida homeland of Queen Charlotte Island is Haida'gwai'i, very similar linguistically to Ha'wai'i (homeland). Names such as Tongass (southern) Strait and Hakai'i Channel appear to also be relic names suggesting an Austronesian past to this area.

The presence in the Cook Islands of the kumara (sweet potato), a plant native to the Americas, and dating to 1000 AD, has been cited as evidence that Americans could have traveled to Oceania. A simpler explanation posits biological dispersal; plants and/or seeds could float across the Pacific without any human contact.

A 2007 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of chicken bones at El Arenal near the Arauco Peninsula, Arauco Province, Chile suggested Oceania-to-America contact. Chickens originated in southern Asia and the Araucana breed of Chile was thought to have been brought by Spaniards around 1500. However, the bones found in Chile were radiocarbon-dated to between 1304 and 1424, well before the documented arrival of the Spanish. DNA sequences taken were exact matches to those of chickens from the same period in American Samoa and Tonga, both over 5000 miles (8000 kilometers) away from Chile. The genetic sequences were also similar to those found in Hawaiʻi and Easter Island, the closest island at only 2500 miles (4000 kilometers), and unlike any breed of European chicken.[4][5][6] Although this initial report suggested a Polynesian pre-Columbian origin a later report looking at the same specimens concluded:

A published, apparently pre-Columbian, Chilean specimen and six pre-European Polynesian specimens also cluster with the same European/Indian subcontinental/Southeast Asian sequences, providing no support for a Polynesian introduction of chickens to South America. In contrast, sequences from two archaeological sites on Easter Island group with an uncommon haplogroup from Indonesia, Japan, and China and may represent a genetic signature of an early Polynesian dispersal. Modeling of the potential marine carbon contribution to the Chilean archaeological specimen casts further doubt on claims for pre-Columbian chickens, and definitive proof will require further analyses of ancient DNA sequences and radiocarbon and stable isotope data from archaeological excavations within both Chile and Polynesia.[7]

In the last 20 years, the dates and anatomical features of human remains found in Mexico and South America have led some archaeologists to propose that those regions were first populated by people who crossed the Pacific several millennia before the Ice Age migrations; according to this theory, these Pre-Siberian American Aborigines would have been either eliminated or absorbed by the Siberian immigrants. However, current archaeological evidence for human migration to and settlement of remote Oceania (i.e., the Pacific Ocean eastwards of the Solomon Islands) is dated to no earlier than approximately 3,500 BP;[8] trans-Pacific contact with the Americas coinciding with or pre-dating the Beringia migrations of at least 11,500 BP is highly problematic, except for movement along intercoastal routes.

Recently, linguist Kathryn A. Klar of University of California, Berkeley and archaeologist Terry L. Jones of California Polytechnic State University have proposed contacts between Polynesians and the Chumash and Gabrielino of Southern California, between 500 and 700. Their primary evidence consists of the advanced sewn-plank canoe design, which is used throughout the Polynesian Islands, but is unknown in North America — except for those two tribes. Moreover, the Chumash word for "sewn-plank canoe," tomolo'o, may have been derived from kumulaa'au, the Polynesian word for the Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) logs used in that construction.

Polynesian contact with the prehispanic Mapuche culture in central-south Chile has been suggested because of apparently similar cultural traits, including words like toki (stone axes and adzes), hands clubs similar to the Māori wahaika, the sewn-plank canoe as used on Chiloe island, the curanto earth oven (Polynesian umu) common in southern Chile, fishing techniques such as stone wall enclosures, a hockey-like game, and other potential parallels. Some strong westerlies and El Niño wind blow directly from central-east Polynesia to the Mapuche region, between Concepcion and Chiloe. A direct connection from New Zealand is possible, sailing with the "roaring forties". In 1834, some escapees from Tasmania arrived at Chiloe Island after sailing for 43 days.[9]

Post-colonization

Knowledge of the traditional Polynesian methods of navigation was largely lost after contact with and colonization by Europeans. This left the problem of accounting for the presence of the Polynesians in such isolated and scattered parts of the Pacific. According to Andrew Sharp, the explorer Captain James Cook, already familiar with Charles de Brosse’s accounts of large groups of Pacific islanders who were driven off course in storms and ended up hundreds of miles away with no idea where they were, encountered in the course of one of his own voyages a castaway group of Tahitians who had become lost at sea in a gale and blown 100 miles away to the island of Atiu. Cook wrote that the Atiu incident, "will serve to explain, better than the thousand conjectures of speculative reasoners, how the detached parts of the earth, and, in particular, how the South Seas, may have been peopled".[10] On his first voyage of Pacific exploration Cook had the services of a Polynesian navigator, Tupaia, who drew a map of the islands within 2000 miles radius (to the north and west) of his home island of Ra'iatea.

By the late 19th century to the early 20th century a more generous view of Polynesian navigation had come into favor, creating a much romanticized view of their seamanship, canoes, and navigational expertise. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century writers such as Abraham Fornander and Stephenson Percy Smith told of heroic Polynesians migrating in great coordinated fleets from Asia far and wide into present-day Polynesia.[3]

Experimental research

A more sober and analytical view was presented by Andrew Sharp, who amassed a wealth of evidence to challenge the ‘heroic vision’ hypothesis, asserting instead that Polynesian maritime expertise was severely limited in the field of exploration and that as a result the settlement of Polynesia had been the result of luck, random island sightings, and drifting, rather than as organized voyages of colonization. Thereafter the oral knowledge passed down for generations allowed for eventual mastery of traveling between known locations.[11] Sharp's reassessment caused a huge amount of controversy and led to a stalemate between the romantic and the skeptical views.[3]

By the mid to late 1960s it was time for a new hands-on approach. Anthropologist David Lewis sailed his catamaran from Tahiti to New Zealand using stellar navigation without instruments.[12] Anthropologist and historian Ben Finney built Nalehia, a 40-foot (12 m) replica of a Hawaiian double canoe. Finney tested the canoe in a series of sailing and paddling experiments in Hawaiian waters. At the same time, ethnographic research in the Caroline Islands in Micronesia brought to light the fact that traditional stellar navigational methods were still very much in everyday use there. The building and testing of canoes inspired by traditional designs, the harnessing of knowledge from skilled Micronesian, as well as voyages using stellar navigation, allowed practical conclusions about the seaworthiness and handling capabilities of traditional Polynesian canoes and allowed a better understanding of the navigational methods that were likely to have been used by the Polynesians and of how they, as people, were adapted to seafaring.[13] Recent re-creations of Polynesian voyaging have used methods based largely on Micronesian methods and the teachings of a Micronesian navigator, Mau Piailug.[14]

It is probable that the Polynesian navigators employed a whole range of techniques including use of the stars, the movement of ocean currents and wave patterns, the air and sea interference patterns caused by islands and atolls, the flight of birds, the winds and the weather.[15]

Scientists think that long-distance Polynesian voyaging followed the seasonal paths of birds. There are some references in their oral traditions to the flight of birds and some say that there were range marks onshore pointing to distant islands in line with these flyways. A voyage from Tahiti, the Tuamotus or the Cook Islands to New Zealand might have followed the migration of the Long-tailed Cuckoo (Eudynamys taitensis) just as the voyage from Tahiti to Hawaiʻi would coincide with the track of the Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) and the Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis). It is also believed that Polynesians employed shore-sighting birds as did many seafaring peoples. One theory is that they would have taken a frigatebird (Fregata) with them. These birds refuse to land on the water as their feathers will become waterlogged making it impossible to fly. When the voyagers thought they were close to land they may have released the bird, which would either fly towards land or else return to the canoe.[15]

The peoples of the Pacific, including Micronesians and Polynesians, developed navigating by the stars into a fine art. It is surmised that the Polynesians imagined the heavens as the interior of a dome where a star proceeded along a path which passed over certain islands. They had names for over a hundred and fifty stars. A navigator would have known where and when a given star rose and set, as well as which islands it passed directly over. Thus Polynesian navigators would have then been able to sail toward the star they knew to be over their destination, and as it moved westward with time they would then set their course by the succeeding star which would have then moved over the target island.[15]

It is likely that the Polynesians also used wave and swell formations to navigate. Many of the habitable areas of the Pacific Ocean are groups of islands (or atolls) in chains hundreds of kilometers long. Island chains have predictable effects on waves and on currents. Navigators who lived within a group of islands would learn the effect various islands had on their shape, direction, and motion and would have been able to correct their path in accordance with the changes they perceived. When they arrived in the vicinity of a chain of islands they were unfamiliar with, they may have been able to transfer their experience and deduce that they were nearing a group of islands. Once they had arrived fairly close to a destination island, they would have been able to pinpoint its location by sightings of land-based birds, certain cloud formations, as well as the reflections shallow water made on the undersides of clouds. It is thought that the Polynesian navigators may have measured the time it took to sail between islands in "canoe-days" or a similar type of expression.[15]

The first settlers of the Hawaiian Islands are thought to have sailed from the Marquesas Islands using Polynesian navigation methods. To test this theory, the Hawaiian Polynesian Voyaging Society was established in 1973. The group built a replica of an ancient double-hulled canoe called the Hokule'a, whose crew successfully navigated the Pacific Ocean from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti in 1976 without instruments. In 1980, a Hawaiian named Nainoa Thompson invented a new method of non instrument navigation (called the "modern Hawaiʻian wayfinding system"), enabling him to complete the voyage from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti and back. In 1987, a Māori named Matahi Whakataka (Greg Brightwell) and his mentor Francis Cowan sailed from Tahiti to Aotearoa without instruments. Polynesian navigation methods have been classified into three, non instrument navigation systems: the Taumakoan, Modern Hawaiʻian, and Modern Māori.

Notes

  1. ^ Wilford, John Noble (2007-06-05). "First Chickens in Americas Were Brought From Polynesia". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/05/science/05chic.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1181091707-e+ZDVqnF+pbc2icNHD+SfQ. Retrieved 2007-06-06.  
  2. ^ Sharp 1963, p. 122-128.
  3. ^ a b c Finney 1963, p. 5.
  4. ^ Whipps, Heather (June 4, 2007). "Chicken Bones Suggest Polynesians Found Americas Before Columbus". Live Science. http://www.livescience.com/history/070604_polynesian_chicken.html. Retrieved 2007-06-05.  
  5. ^ "Polynesians beat Spaniards to South America, study shows" by Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times, 5 June 2007
  6. ^ Storey et al., " Radiocarbon and DNA evidence for a pre-Columbian introduction of Polynesian chickens to Chile" (abstract, full article available through subscription), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 10.1073/pnas.0703993104, 7 June 2007
  7. ^ Indo-European and Asian origins for Chilean and Pacific chickens revealed by mtDNA. Jaime Gongora, Nicolas J. Rawlence, Victor A. Mobegi, Han Jianlin, Jose A. Alcalde, Jose T. Matus, Olivier Hanotte, Chris Moran, J. Austin, Sean Ulm, Atholl J. Anderson, Greger Larson and Alan Cooper, "Indo-European and Asian origins for Chilean and Pacific chickens revealed by mtDNA" PNAS July 29, 2008 vol. 105 no 30[1]
  8. ^ Kirch, Patrick V. Background to Pacific Archaeology and Prehistory, Oceanic Archaeology Laboratory, Univ. California, Berkeley.
  9. ^ "Rapa Nui" (in Spanish). http://www.rapanuivalparaiso.cl/arque_olog.htm#ar5. Retrieved 2007-06-05.  
  10. ^ Sharp 1963, p. 16.
  11. ^ Sharp 1963.
  12. ^ Lewis 1976.
  13. ^ Finney 1963, p. 6-9.
  14. ^ See also: Polynesian Voyaging Society, Hokulea.
  15. ^ a b c d Gatty 1999.

References

  • Finney, Ben R (1963), "New, Non-Armchair Research", in Finney, Ben R, Pacific Navigation and Voyaging, The Polynesian Society Inc.  .
  • Finney, Ben R, ed. (1976), Pacific Navigation and Voyaging, The Polynesian Society Inc.  .
  • Gatty, Harold (1999), Finding Your Ways Without Map or Compass, Dover Publications, Inc., ISBN 0-486-40613-X  .
  • Lewis, David (1963), "A Return Voyage Between Puluwat and Saipan Using Micronesian Navigational Techniques", in Finney, Ben R, Pacific Navigation and Voyaging, The Polynesian Society Inc.  .
  • Lewis, David (1994), We the Navigtors:the Ancient art of Landfinding in the Pacific, University of Hawaiʻi Press Inc.  .
  • Kayser, M.; Brauer, S.; Weiss, G.; Underhill, P.A.; Roewer, L.; Schiefenhšfel, W.; Stoneking, M. (2000), Melanesian Origin of Polynesian Y Chromosomes, 10, Current Biology  .
  • Kayser, M.; Brauer, S.; Weiss, G.; Underhill, P.A.; Roewer, L.; Schiefenhšfel, W.; Stoneking, M. (2000), Melanesian Origin of Polynesian Y Chromosomes, 11, Current Biology  .
  • Sharp, Andrew (1963), Ancient Voyagers in Polynesia, Longman Paul Ltd.  .
  • Sutton, Douglas G. (Ed.) (1994), The Origins of the First New Zealanders, Auckland University Press  .
  • King, Michael (2003), History of New Zealand, Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-301867-1  .

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