The Canoe Is the People
Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific
4000–3000 years ago
The first islands reached in the tropical northwest Pacific were Palau, Yap, and the Marianas. The people who came to Palau and Yap to fish and garden may have been from nearby Halmahera (in Indonesia) and northwest New Guinea. The people who reached the Marianas from the Philippines sailed over 2500 km – the longest open sea crossing in the world until that time! The Marianas had bad droughts (long periods with little or no rain) and storms, but the reefs were full of fish, turtles, and shells that were valuable for trading.
South of the equator in the Bismarck Archipelago and the western and central Solomon Islands, the canoe people made decorative red pottery. Archaeologists (people who study ancient living places and artifacts (objects made by people)) call this pottery Lapita [See figure 1] after the place in New Caledonia where it was first found. Over long distances, the people on these islands traded obsidian (hard volcanic rock that is good for cutting) and valuable shell ornaments. Like the people in the north, they probably also exchanged marriage partners.
3000–2000 years ago
The southern canoe people sailed east across 450 km of open sea to the Reef and Santa Cruz Islands (eastern Solomon Islands) and probably from there to Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. The open sea crossing between Vanuatu and Fiji is 950 km! Lapita pottery has been found on all these islands.
By about 2000 years ago, the very low sea level had uncovered the Marshalls and Kiribati (Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands). The people who settled (came to and occupied) these coral islands probably came from Vanuatu and the south-east Solomons. They grew many kinds of pandanus and coconuts, as well as giant swamp taro in holes fed by underground water. They also became some of the world’s best sailors.
2000–700 years ago
Canoe people were settling (coming to and occupying) the small coral islands in Micronesia. At Lamotrek in the Carolines, turtle and fish bones have been dated to about 800 years ago. People also settled in the most remote (far away) islands of Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and Aotearoa (New Zealand). The similarities in the artifacts (objects made by people) and languages now spoken in these three places suggest that the settlers came from west and central Polynesia (Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Society Islands, and the Cook Islands). They probably used large, double-hulled canoes (canoes with two hulls), which can safely carry many people and things. These canoes sail best in calm seas, not strong winds, and the navigators timed the trips for these conditions.
Great navigators guided the canoes to these islands thousands of kilometres away. The people needed to be strong and adaptable. The climates, land, animals, and plants were different. People developed new ways to fish and to farm (for example, to protect plants from the winds). They also started to plant a new crop – the sweet potato from the Andes Mountains of South America. The South Island of Aotearoa was often too cold to grow crops, so the people there fished, collected wild plants, and hunted animals.
So how did the people of the Pacific get the sweet potato? They may have sailed all the way to South America and brought it back. This apparently happened around the same time that people were settling Hawaii, Rapa Nui, and Aotearoa. Sweet potatoes were taken further west too. Bits of burned sweet potato have been found on Mangaia in the Cook Islands. These have been dated to about 900 years ago.
Peopling of the Pacific
Many thousands of years ago, the sea was much lower than today. A lot of the world’s water was frozen in glaciers GLOSSARY glaciers - large area of slow-moving ice on the continents GLOSSARY continents - large area of continuous land . As the earth’s climate warmed up, the ice slowly melted. Water began to cover the lowlands. People had to move and begin a new way of life. Some went inland. The ancestors of today’s Pacific Islanders became canoe people who travelled and traded between the newly created islands.
Through time, some islands rose and some fell due to underwater earthquakes and sea level adjustments. Today, people tell accounts of big floods and about islands being formed – sometimes fished up. These stories could be about what happened thousands of years ago.
Linguists GLOSSARY linguists - people who study languages and archaeologists GLOSSARY archaeologists - people who study ancient living places and artifacts (objects made by people) are beginning to learn where and how people lived through the flooding and why they moved: to find new homes, to trade, to fish, to visit relatives, to find a wife or husband, and even to escape a fight or attack another island. To learn when people were in a place, archaeologists use radiocarbon dating GLOSSARY radiocarbon dating - measuring the rate of decay of radioactive carbon in objects to work out their age on objects that they find there.
Photo © Christophe Sand