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Our tales of the South Pacific and the art of wayfaring begin with the largest of the Pacific Islands, so big it earns the rank of continent. That would be none other than Australia. I start with Australia because it provides a convenient starting point for the web of migrations that occurred throughout the Pacific as the inexorable human urge to move onward propelled people across the planet.

According to information gleaned from the WWW, the earliest people in Australia date back at least 60,000 years. These dates are from recent studies and as more work is done in this area, it's entirely possible this date will be pushed back further. One thing I've discovered about archaeology and human anthropology is that hypotheses abound. As the world opens to collaboration among scientists, especially in China, I suspect some of our early history will be rewritten.

Be that as it may, there are two hypotheses put forth as to where the early people of Australia, known as Australian aborigines, or first people, came from. Some data suggests that they came from Asia-Indonesia. Other data suggests that they may have come from Africa. It is quite likely that both hypotheses are correct! People were moving all over the place in response to climate changes, food availability, tribal conflicts, religious beliefs, unemployment and just about any other reason humans move about, including the zest for exploration.

Wherever they came from, the first people of Australia certainly arrived by boat. Although Australia and New Guinea were by a land bridge during the Ice Age, there was still a bit of water to cover and undoubtedly crossed it. At the same time, it appears that  people from Southeast Asia, Indonesia and possibly Africa were colonizing many of the South Pacific Islands. Most of these islands occur in what is known as an island archipelago (or island arc) making island hopping quite a snap for anyone with a decent craft. You can learn more about island arcs in the lectures on plate tectonics.

According to Garrison's text, people colonized the Philippines and New Guinea at least 20,000 years ago, but in light of the Australian dates, these dates seem late (to my Indiana Jones way of thinking). Nevertheless, there was a veritable human tidal wave that spread across the Pacific, spreading to Hawaii in the north at about 400 A.D. (also earlier than Garrison's dates) and ending in New Zealand to the south at around 1000 A.D. As noted here and by other authors, the dates are subject to change.

According to Dennis Kawaharada at the University of Hawaii, evidence for the settlement of the Pacific Islands reveals the following patterns:

--Hunters and gatherers inhabited Australia and New Guinea by 50,000 years ago.

--Around 1600-1200 B.C., a cultural complex called Lapita (identified by a distinctive pottery and named after a site in New Caledonia) spread from New Guinea in Melanesia as far east as Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. Polynesian culture developed at the eastern edge of this region (i.e., in Samoa and Tonga).

--Around 300 B.C. or earlier, seafarers from Samoa and Tonga discovered and settled islands to the east of the Cook Islands, Tahiti-nui, Tuamotus, and Hiva (Marquesas Islands).

--Around 300 A.D. or earlier, voyagers from central or eastern Polynesia, possibly from Hiva, discovered and settled Easter Island.

--Around 400 A.D. or earlier, voyagers from the the Cook Islands, Tahiti-nui, and /or Hiva settled Hawai'i.

--Around 1000 A.D. or earlier, voyagers from the Society and/or the Cook Islands settled Aotearoa (New Zealand).

What is most remarkable about these migrations is the distances over which they were accomplished. The surface area represented by the geographical extent of these islands spans over 10 million square miles of ocean. The Pacific Island people did not hesitate to sail upon the great expanse of the open ocean, well out of sight of land. In contrast, the Vikings and Phoenicians, great sailors in their own right, were but coastal huggers.

Before I reveal the fascinating motivations and means by which these people accomplished these feats, let's first brush up on our geography of the region and make sure we have a good understanding of the people involved. Having some awareness of these places will serve our studies of plate tectonics, ocean currents and marine biology, when we tackle those topics later in the semester.

The Pacific Islands, known collectively as Oceania, are divided into three regions (not including Australia), based on geographic and cultural relationships. These regions include:

1.      Polynesia, in the central and South Pacific, encompassing Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa (American Samoa and Western Samoa) and the islands of French Polynesia, which includes Tahiti, the Society Islands, Marquesas Islands, Austral Islands, Tuamotu Islands, and Gambier Islands. These people are the true Polynesians (obviously) and appear to have migrated from Indonesia or southeast Asia.

2.      Melanesia, in the southwest Pacific Ocean, northeast of Australia and south of the equator, comprised of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, New Calendonia, the Bismarck Archipelago, Fiji and the Admiralty Islands. These people appear to have migrated from Australia.

3.      Micronesia, in the west Pacific Ocean, north of the equator, being made up of the Caroline Islands (including Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia), Nauru, the Gilbert Islands (including Kiribati), the Northern Mariani Islands and the Marshall Islands. These people descend from both Australian and Polynesian ancestors and are my nominee for the greatest sailors to ever have lived.

Traditional opinions concerning the motivation of these people to spread across the Pacific cite the compelling ecological factors, such as resource limitation, competition and predation; and the compelling social factors, such as politics, intertribal strife and religious beliefs. However, a small number of scholars, including myself, believe in an equally compelling reason to move about: deliberate exploration. While this idea has generated considerable controversy (and is, indeed, simply dismissed by some scholars), I believe it merits close examination.

Whether it's an innate quality of human behavior or simple curiosity, the desire to know what's over the next horizon has deep roots in our culture. Take Dorothy, for instance. While she gave that lame excuse about protecting Toto, face it, that girl wanted to see what lived somewhere over the rainbow. Have you ever been on a hike on the beach, in the mountains or through the desert when you just felt that urge to keep going, to see what was over the next dune, beyond the next ridge or around the next pile of rocks? I suspect that many of us have felt that urge and it had nothing to do with any of the ecological or sociological factors listed above. Humans are curious, plain and simple, and if I had to bet my money, I would be that the Pacific Islanders were curious as well.

There appears to be some theoretical evidence for this idea. A report written by Geoffrey Irwin and summarized by Dennis Kawaharada, The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonization of the Pacific, suggests that Pacific Islanders could have taken advantage of seasonal wind patterns to go for a look around on the open ocean with a reasonable chance of getting back. Kawaharada writes:

...those who settled Polynesia may have used a deliberate strategy of exploration that allowed them to find islands without an inordinate risk to their lives and with a high rate of survival. (Other scholars have assumed that the exploration of the Pacific was full of danger and involved high casualties at sea.) This deliberate strategy of exploration... involved waiting for a reversal in wind direction and sailing in the direction that is normally upwind (i.e. eastward in the Pacific) for as far as it was safe to go given the supplies that were carried on the canoe. The return home (westward) would be made easy when the wind shifted back to its normal easterly direction [coming from the east, going west]. Irwin believes that this strategy is supported by the west to east settlement of the Pacific, from the islands of southeast Asia and Melanesia to Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, th e Society Islands, the Tuamotus, and Hiva (the Marquesas). Although no factual evidence would prove that this strategy of exploration was actually employed by Polynesian navigators, the strategy would have been obvious to anyone familiar with sailing. The tradition of 'imi fenua (Hawaiian: 'imi honua), or "searching for lands," reported from Hiva and other Polynesian islands, supports such a notion of deliberate exploration.

Such are the controversies surrounding the motivations of an apparently sane people to launch off in a canoe across the deep blue sea with little way of knowing whether they could get back. However, as we learn more about how these people navigated across the deep blue sea, we find that they weren't as helpless and some scholars make them out to be. (As a sea-going person, I would state that most of the fears of the ocean are the fantasies of those who have never been to sea!)

The ability of these people to find their way from one place to another across thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean would knock the pants off any self-respecting oceanographer. Their knowledge of the sea, of the sky and of the stars surpasses the knowledge of any navigators who have ever sailed. That includes the Phoenicians, the Vikings and any sailor operating a vessel today. I state this unequivocally.

Here are a few of the skills required of an ocean-going navigator aboard a Pacific Islander canoe:

Night Time Navigation:

position and movement of the stars and constellations, position and movement of the planets, position and phases of the moon, wind direction, type and direction of clouds, cloud "streets", period and direction of swell, speed and direction of currents

Day Time Navigation:

position and movement of the sun and moon; angle of the sun above the horizon, wind direction, type and direction of clouds, cloud "streets", direction of swell, speed and direction of currents, flotsam, ocean color

Finding Final Destination

size and appearance of islands, type of wildlife (terrestrial and marine), effect of islands on clouds, effect of islands on ocean swell, ocean color, flotsam

Predicting Weather

Type of clouds, color of sunrise and sunset, wind speed and direction, swell period and direction, historical knowledge of weather patterns

This particular list was derived from the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which was founded to discover and recover the heritage of Polynesian sailors. One of their primary contributions has been the construction of replicas of ancient canoes. These canoes have been used to demonstrate that Polynesian sailors could have crossed the open waters of the Pacific. In 1976, the Hokule'a successfully navigated from Hawaii to Tahiti and back. Since that time, five successful voyages have been made aboard this vessel.

What makes this list so incredible is the sheer amount of knowledge and experience needed by the navigator. And even more staggering is the fact that none of it was written: no charts, no maps, no books, no lecture notes. Certainly more than one semester of oceanography was required. In a wonderful interview on the PBS web site, Wayfarers: A Pacific Odyssey, Nainoa Thompson, navigator of the Hokule'a, describes his experience learning and getting in touch with the knowledge and spirit for navigating the ocean. His most harrowing experience came at night under foggy seas. By lying in the front of the boat and letting his mind relax, he was somehow able to ascertain the position of the moon. When the skies cleared, he was dead on target. His commitment of mind, body and soul is well worth reading.

Training to be a sailor began at an early age and one of the tools used by the Micronesian sailors was a bamboo device called the mattang or stick chart (although it is in no way a chart). The Micronesian sailors were well known for their ability to cross the open ocean and their system of training reflects that ability. The Marshallese sailors were particularly skilled and Robin Herbst describes some of the techniques used to train young Marshall sailors: "Physical artifacts are used as mnemonic devices for...teaching the principles of swell refraction and intersection, and are used by the islanders as crucial navigational tools. The "sticks" that form the chart are the midribs of coconut leaves curved around a central point to model how swells from opposite directions refract around an island and intersect in nodes." [see Uncommon Directions by Robin Herbst]

A web site maintained by Stephen Thomas and Ward Goodenough at the University of Pennsylvania, Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific, provides wonderful insights into how these principles were taught.

Here's a GIF animation that provides a great example. If you don't see anything at first, try hitting the refresh or reload button.

To visualize the location of islands, Marshallese sailors relied on mental images. One such image envisions a triggerfish (a tropical fish you might have seen, unfortunately, in a pet store). The angular body of the triggerfish serves as a template for a chart: the head and tail fin represent east and west, respectively, and the dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) fins represent either north or south (depending on how you flip the fish; make a diamond with popsickle sticks and convince yourself). The center from head to tail represents the backbone of the fish.

Any ship heading can be visualized using the "triggerfish." The head could represent the starting point and the tail could represent the destination. The backbone would then represent the course that a navigator would keep to go from Point A (head) to Point B (tail). If you use your own popsickle-stick triggerfish, it won't take long for you to realize that any set of islands or ocean landmarks (like favorite fishing grounds, killer point breaks, great diving reefs and nude beaches) can be navigated using the triggerfish. For added complexity, triggerfish could be overlapped or put end to end. In this way, long voyages over great distances could be easily achieved.

I want to describe one more method used by traditional navigators because it blends oceanography, meteorology and astronomy and gets us thinking a bit about how these disciplines interact.

Here's another wonderful GIF animation borrowed from the UPENN site:

Whether you realized it or not, in most calendars, which may be divided into twelve or thirteen months, each month is represented by a star. A new month begins when that particular star reaches an angle of about 45 degrees above the horizon (90 degrees is straight up). The web site explains this angle as the tilt of your head "where one feels a roll of skin forming at the back of your neck." A fist is also a good way to measure star angles. An adult fist represents about 10 degrees. Stack one fist on top of the other for multiple tens of degrees.

Associated with each new star (translate: new month) are particular weather patterns. Months in which "fighting stars" appear might bring stormy weather. A fighting star is any star that makes its first appearance in the month (meaning the first time it is seen at all in the sky for that month) just at dawn. Single fighting stars apparently coincide with stormy weather at the end of the next new moon that sets in the west; double or more fighting stars "bring" stormy weather at the end of the moon's cycle for that month.

While this may first seem like hocus pocus, you should realize that the cycle of appearance of monthly and fighting stars coincide with bad or good weather months. The stars are used merely to let a navigator know which month he is in. If you think about weather patterns where you live and the kinds of weather you associate with certain months (in California, summer is dry, winter is wet, that kind of thing), then you get the idea. Just like the ancients, we associate certain climates with particular times of the year. The patterns of the stars and the moon were just their form of calendar.

As we proceed in our studies of oceanography, you might think about some other clues that wayfarers (traditional navigators) used to figure out where they were. The proximity of land might be recognized by the appearance of floating debris, the direction from which sea birds fly, the kinds of sea life, even the color of the water. What other clues might the ocean provide?

In my travels of the South Pacific aboard Calypso, the bluest water I ever encountered was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Tahiti and New Zealand. It was a kind of cobalt blue that practically hurt your eyes to look at it. We had stopped for a little swim and as we dove beneath the surface, a sudden shout came from the ship. I recognized rather quickly that the crew had spotted a shark. My colleague had just taken a deep dive and I remember thinking how grateful I was that he was below me because the shark would likely go for him first. (Okay, I admit it, I was scared sh$*less!). Fortunately, we all made it safely to the boat. Nonetheless, it provides a good example of how water color and the rapid response of hungry sharks indicates that you are in the middle of nowhere as far as the ocean is concerned. I wonder if the navigators were ever thrown overboard to determine position if the crew thought they were lost?

Finally, in keeping with this thematic approach to history, consider this question: how do the migratory achievements of Pacific Islanders relate to human desire for interstellar migration?

At least one author, Dr. Ben Finney, has mustered the courage to speculate on this question. He writes:

The exploration of the sea and the discovery and settlement of new lands is the phase of humanity's spread over earth that is most evocative of our future expansion into space. The Polynesian discovery and settlement of the far-flung islands of the mid-Pacific provides...for the adventure of exploring the unknown to establish colonies on worlds never before occupied or even visited [that] makes this oceanic migration relevant to the one about to unfold in space. Furthermore, the development of new technology was as crucial to expansion into the Pacific as it will be for settling space. Just as we are now striving to develop the means to spread human communities into space, so did the Polynesians disperse far and wide through an alien environment through developing large sailing canoes, precise methods of navigation, and a portable agricultural system to ensure survival on the fertile but biotically-impoverished islands they found. [see One Species, or a Million? by Dr. Ben Finney]

Perhaps we have more to learn from these ancient sailors than we even know.

Read about the new Remarkable Ocean World...coming soon!

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