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The Polynesian expansion across the Pacific: Migration Theories


Over the past two centuries, anthropologists, archaeologists, scientists and historians have been trying to pinpoint the origins of Polynesians and to explain how they spread across the region we today call Polynesia...a number of issues still cause debate among specialists on the subject. Put simply these issues are:

  • Did the people who would become Polynesian occupy the islands and atolls in the region in carefully planned stages or by a series of happy accidents?
  • Did these people travel eastwards from Papua New Guinea or westwards from South America in their occupation of Polynesia?
  • How did they manage to successfully navigate the Pacific Ocean across vast distances using primitive technology and without maps?


Early European explorers like James Cook noted similarities in the language used on different islands thus establishing a link between Pacific peoples. Then a more modern explorer, Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Polynesia largely by ocean currents, suggesting South America was the Polynesian homeland. However little evidence supports his theory apart from the use of sweet potatoes in both areas. Read more...

Early Theories

The first explorers had no maps or navigational instruments, and there has been spirited debate among sailors and scholars as to how they settled the region. Early theories ranged from mythical hero navigators who discovered new lands and returned home with sailing directions, to accidental voyagers who drifted away from islands to which they could not return. Complicating the argument was the myth of a South American origin, advocated by some 19th-century scholars and popularised in the 20th century by the archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl. Read more...

Migration from South America?

A Norwegian adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl argued in 1947 that all the experts had it wrong. He argued that it was not possible for the Polynesians to have sailed east from Melanesia into the Polynesian triangle because both the winds and currents constantly would have been against them. Instead, Heyerdahl proposed that the Polynesians must have left the west coast of South America and sailed westwards into Polynesia. Read more...

The world’s first seafarers

The Pacific was the first ocean to be explored and settled, and its history is one of the voyages. New Zealand, isolated far to the south, was the last substantial land mass to be reached.

There were two distinct voyaging periods.

Ancient voyaging: from Asia to Near Oceania
The origins of the Pacific’s diverse peoples can be traced back along seaways to mainland Asia. The people of the ancient period (50,000–25,000 BC) had a palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) technology and a hunting and foraging economy. Setting off in simple rafts, they gradually dispersed through the large islands of South-East Asia. Eventually, they reached Australia and New Guinea, which were then connected by a land bridge.


Migration mystery solved

“Our research shows – and this has always been a conundrum – why there was this burst of activity followed by what seems like a cessation of long-distance voyaging,” says Professor Ian Goodwin.

His team at Macquarie University in Sydney revealed several windows around 800-1300 AD when it was easier to sail from the central Pacific, around Tonga and the Southern Cook Islands, to NZ and Easter Island. The discovery was made by  reconstructing historic wind patterns and sea level pressure conditions over the last 1200 years. Read more...

From West to East Polynesia

Emergence of West Polynesian culture
Some 3,000 years ago (around 1000 BC) the distinctive Polynesian culture and language began to emerge in West Polynesia. Decorated Lapita pottery evolved into Polynesian plainware, and there were other changes in technology and settlement.

Island geology and migration
There are two main types of island in the Pacific: continental and oceanic. Continental islands lie in the western Pacific, and oceanic islands in the eastern Pacific. On maps a geological division called the Andesite Line runs between the two regions; oceanic islands lie to the east of the line.


Ancient voyaging in Near Oceania

More than a million years ago an ancient type of human, known as Homo erectus, moved from Africa as far as the coast of mainland South-East Asia. Stone tools dated to around 800,000 years ago have been found on the island of Flores, midway between Java and Australia. This suggests that this ancient human might have been able to cross a couple of very short water gaps in the Lesser Sumba chain of islands in order to reach Flores.


East to the empty Pacific

The eastern Pacific is virtually empty, and huge areas of ocean had to be crossed to find remaining islands. The chance of any voyage resulting in a new discovery was low. It would have been pointless to send migratory canoes carrying people, plants and animals. Probably, exploring voyagers made discoveries and then returned home; migrating voyagers could then set off, sailing directly to known destinations. Read more...

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