The Canoe Is the People
Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific
Peopling of the Pacific People
left the Asian continent and arrived in Taiwan about 27,000 years ago. Between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago people who spoke Austronesian languages were sailing out from SE China to Taiwan, Northern Philipines, and beyond.
4000–3000 years ago
The first remote islands that these voyagers reached were in the tropical northwest Pacific. They are called Palau, Yap, and the Marianas Islands. 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.
There is over 6000 km of open sea between Taiwan and the Reef and Santa Cruz Islands (eastern Solomon Islands) Some of the voyagers in Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa had a type of red pottery with designs stamped into it. It is named “lapita”ware, for the name of the place it was first found, in New Calendoniea. The open sea crossing between Vanuatu and Fiji is 950 km against the Trade Winds that blow most of the time! But the same type and design of pottery has been was found on all these islands.
South of the equator, in the Bismarck Archipelago and the western and central Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, the Lapita pottery canoe people made red pottery with special designs stamped onto it. Archaeologists (people who study ancient living places and artifacts (objects made by people)) call this pottery “Lapita” 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 makes good cutting tools) and valuable shell ornaments.
Austronesian voyagers traveled very far and very fast. Archaeological remains show that they arrived in the Marianas Islands over 3000 years ago. DNA from human bones shows that by 3000 years ago they also reached as far as Vanuatu in the south, and the central Pacfic islands of Tonga. Eventually the voyagers inter-married with Papuan people in Indonesia, Phillipines Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands.
2000 -700 years ago
Some islands only became islands after the sea levels became lower, like the coral island of the Marshalls and Kiribati (Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands) Language similarities and artifacts suggest that great voyagers from Vanuatu and Solomon Islands sailed to these islands about 2000 years ago. They brought useful plants with them, including. Many kinds of pandanus and coconuts, and giant swamp taro that they planted in holes fed by underground water. These islands are far from other islands, so the people of these islands became some of the world’s best sailors.
Canoe people settled (came to and occupied) 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). About 700 years ago some settled on the African side of the Indian Ocean, in Madagascar. 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, canoes that had two hulls the same size (double-hulled) or had a huge outrigger on them. These canoes could safely carry many people and things on long voyages. They sail best in moderate seas, and fair winds (from behind the side of the canoe). Good wayfinders, timed their voyages for these conditions.
Great wayfinders guided the canoes to islands thousands of kilometres away. The people making such voyages had 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 that somehow came to the western Pacific 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? By studying the dna of plants, botanists suggest that voyagers may have sailed all the way to South America and brought it back. This apparently happened around the time that Pacific voyagers were settling Hawaii, Rapa Nui, and Aotearoa. Sweet potatoes were taken further west too. Researchers dated the bits of burned sweet potato they found on Mangaia in the Cook Islands to about 900 years ago.
Tahitian voyagers were sailing to and from the Hawaiian Islands throughout the 1200s. Tongan voyagers ranged widely through the Pacific for about 200 years, and Europeans met them in far western Pacific Islands in the 1800s. They used voyaging canoes made in the Lau Group of Fiji. Archaelogists found that an adze blade in Tonga was made in Taumako. A Tahitian wayfinder, Tupa’ia, told Captain Cook’s officers how to get to over 100 islands from Tahiti, and which ones had friendly people living there. Captain Cook used the information that Tupa’ia gave him to find islands, and to decide which ones to visit.