Traditional Polynesian Navigation was used for thousands of years to make long voyages across thousands of kilometres of the open Pacific Ocean. Navigators travelled to small inhabited islands using wayfinding techniques and knowledge passed by oral tradition from master to apprentice, often in the form of song. Generally, each island maintained a guild of navigators who had very high status; in times of famine or difficulty, they could trade for aid or evacuate people to neighbouring islands. As of 2014, these traditional navigation methods are still taught in the Polynesian outlier of Taumako in the Solomons.
Polynesian navigation used some navigational instruments, which predate and are distinct from the machined metal tools used by European navigators (such as the sextant, first produced in 1730; the sea astrolabe, from around late 15th century; and the marine chronometer, invented in 1761). However, they also relied heavily on close observation of sea sign and a large body of knowledge from oral tradition.
Both wayfinding techniques and outrigger canoe construction methods have been kept as guild secrets, but in the modern revival of these skills, they are being recorded and published.
Between about 3000 and 1000 BC speakers of Austronesian languages spread through the islands of Southeast Asia – most likely starting out from Taiwan, as tribes whose natives were thought to have previously arrived from mainland South China about 8000 years ago – into the edges of western Micronesia and on into Melanesia, through the Philippines and Indonesia. In the archeogenetic record, there are well-defined traces of this expansion that 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. 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. Lapita pottery persisted in places such as Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji for many years after its introduction to Western Polynesia but eventually died out in most of Polynesia due to the scarcity of clay. Although the production of ceramics did not travel beyond Western Polynesia, some ceramic materials have been recovered through archeological excavations in the Central Polynesia but have been attributed to trade.
Specific chronology of the discovery and settlement of specific island groups within Eastern and Central Polynesia is hotly debated among archeologists, but a generally accepted timeline puts the initial settlement of the Cook Islands before 1000 AD. From this point, navigation branched out in all directions with Eastern Polynesia (including the Society Islands and the Marquesas Islands) settled first followed by more remote regions such as Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand peopled later. The pattern of settlement also extended to the north of Samoa to the Tuvaluan atolls, with Tuvalu providing a stepping stone to the founding of Polynesian Outlier communities in Melanesia and Micronesia.
The archeological record supports oral histories of the first peopling of region including both the timing and geographical origins of Polynesian society.
On his first voyage of Pacific exploration, Captain James Cook had the services of a Polynesian navigator, Tupaia, who drew a chart of the islands within a 2,000 miles (3,200 km) radius (to the north and west) of his home island of Ra'iatea. Tupaia had knowledge of 130 islands and named 74 on his chart. Tupaia had navigated from Ra'iatea in short voyages to 13 islands. He had not visited western Polynesia, as since his grandfather's time the extent of voyaging by Raiateans had diminished to the islands of eastern Polynesia. His grandfather and father had passed to Tupaia the knowledge as to the location of the major islands of western Polynesia and the navigation information necessary to voyage to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Tupaia was hired by Joseph Banks, the ship's naturalist, who wrote that Cook ignored Tupaia's chart and downplayed his skills as a navigator.
There is academic debate on the furthest southern extent of Polynesian expansion.
There is material evidence of Polynesian visits to some of the subantarctic islands to the south of New Zealand, which are outside Polynesia proper. Remains of a Polynesian settlement dating back to the 13th century were found on Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands. Descriptions of a shard of early Polynesian pottery buried on the Antipodes Islands are unsubstantiated, and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where it was supposedly stored, has stated that "The Museum has not been able to locate such a shard in its collection, and the original reference to the object in the Museum's collection documentation indicates no reference to Polynesian influences."
Oral history describes Ui-te-Rangiora, around the year 650, leading a fleet of Waka Tīwai south until they reached, "a place of bitter cold where rock-like structures rose from a solid sea". The brief description might match the Ross Ice Shelf or possibly the Antarctic mainland, but may be a description of icebergs surrounded by sea Ice found in the Southern Ocean. The account also describes snow.
Main article: Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact
In the mid-20th 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.
The presence in the Cook Islands of sweet potatoes, a plant native to the Americas (called kūmara in Māori), which have been radiocarbon-dated to 1000 CE, has been cited as evidence that Native Americans could have traveled to Oceania. The current thinking is that sweet potato was brought to central Polynesia circa 700 CE and spread across Polynesia from there, possibly by Polynesians who had traveled to South America and back. An alternative 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 examined chicken bones at El Arenal, Chile near the Arauco Peninsula. The results suggested Oceania-to-America contact. The domestication of chickens originated in southern Asia, whereas the Araucana breed of Chile is thought to have been introduced to the Americas by Spaniards around 1500. The bones found in Chile were radiocarbon-dated to between 1304 and 1424, prior to the documented arrival of the Spanish. DNA sequences taken were exact matches to the sequences 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 Polynesian island, at only 2500 miles (4000 kilometers). The sequences did not match any breed of European chicken. 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.
However, in a later study, the original authors extended and elaborated their findings, concluding:
This comprehensive approach demonstrates that the examination of modern chicken DNA sequences does not contribute to our understanding of the origins of Chile’s earliest chickens. Interpretations based on poorly sourced and documented modern chicken populations, divorced from the archeological and historical evidence, do not withstand scrutiny. Instead, this expanded account will confirm the pre-Columbian age of the El Arenal remains and lend support to our original hypothesis that their appearance in South America is most likely due to Polynesian contact with the Americas in prehistory.
Since the late 1980s, the dates and anatomical features of human remains found in Mexico and South America have led some archeologists[who?] 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 would have been either eliminated or absorbed by the Siberian immigrants. However, current archeological 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; 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.
In 2005, a linguist and an archeologist proposed contacts between Polynesians and the Chumash and Gabrielino of Southern California, between 500 and 700.[clarification needed] Their primary evidence consisted 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, a Hawaiian word meaning "useful tree".
In 2008, an expedition starting in the Philippines sailed two modern Wharram-designed catamarans loosely based on a Polynesian catamaran found in Auckland Museum. The boats were built in the Philippines by an experienced boat builder to Wharram designs using modern strip plank with epoxy resin glue built over plywood frames. The catamarans had modern Dacron sails, Terylene stays and sheets with modern roller blocks. Wharram says he used Polynesian navigation to sail along the coast of Northern New Guinea and then sailed 150 miles to an island for which he had modern charts, proving that it is possible to sail a modern catamaran along the path of the Lapita Pacific migration. Unlike many other modern Polynesian "replica" voyages, the Wharram catamarans were at no point towed or escorted by a modern vessel with modern GPS navigation system, nor were they fitted with a motor.
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), hand 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 Concepción 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.
The first settlers who sailed to the Hawaiian Islands are said to have arrived as early as 400 C.E and to have been Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands. Captain James Cook was the first European to arrive on the island of Kaua’i in 1778. He returned a year later and was killed in an altercation with natives at Kealakekua Bay. In 1973, Ben Finney established the Polynesian Voyaging Society to test the contentious question of how Polynesians found their islands. The team claimed to be able to replicate ancient Hawaiian double-hulled canoes capable of sailing across the ocean using strictly traditional voyaging techniques. In 1980, a Hawaiian named Nainoa Thompson invented a new method of non-instrument navigation (called the "modern Hawaiian 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 New Zealand without instruments.
In New Zealand, a leading Māori navigator and ship builder is Hector Busby, who was also inspired and influenced by Nainoa Thompson and Hokulea's voyage there in 1985.
In 2010, O Tahiti Nui Freedom, an outrigger sailing canoe, retraced the path of the migration from Tahiti to China via Cooks, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomons, PNG, Palau, Philippines in 123 days.
Knowledge of the traditional Polynesian methods of navigation was widely lost after contact with and colonization by Europeans. This caused debates over the reasons 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 Brosses'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 1000 miles away to the island of Atiu. Cook wrote that this 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".
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 19th- and early 20th-century writers such as Abraham Fornander and Percy Smith told of heroic Polynesians migrating in great coordinated fleets from Asia far and wide into present-day Polynesia.
Another view was presented by Andrew Sharp, who challenged 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. Sharp's reassessment caused a huge amount of controversy and led to a stalemate between the romantic and the skeptical views.
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. 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 proa canoes (wa) inspired by traditional designs, the harnessing of knowledge from skilled Micronesians, 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. Recent re-creations of Polynesian voyaging have used methods based largely on Micronesian methods and the teachings of a Micronesian navigator, Mau Piailug.
In accordance with Polynesian oral tradition, the geography of Polynesian navigation pathways is said to resemble the geometric qualities of an octopus with head centred on Ra'iātea (French Polynesia) and tentacles spread out across the Pacific. In oral tradition the octopus is known by various names such as Taumata-Fe'e-Fa'atupu-Hau (Grand Octopus of Prosperity), Tumu-Ra'i-Fenua (Beginning-of-Heaven-and-Earth) and Te Wheke-a-Muturangi (The Octopus of Muturangi).