Polynesian migration mystery solved

By Leila Berney 1 October 2014
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An ancient canoe has helped solve a puzzle as to how Polynesian seafarers first made it to the far reaches of the Pacific.



A LONG-STANDING mystery about how people migrated to remote regions of the Pacific, such as New Zealand and Easter Island, may have been 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.

Meanwhile, another team led by Dilys Johns at the University of Auckland, examined the remains of a canoe discovered in western NZ in late 2012 that was dated to around 1400 AD. This is the only confirmed pre-European contact canoe in Polynesia, and its sophistication suggests it was used for long voyages.

Polynesian expansion in the Pacific

These studies, published this week in the journal PNAS, have shed light on an enduring mystery. Polynesian expansion of the Pacific reached Samoa about 3,500 years ago, at which point archaeological evidence suggests a hiatus, with no further expansion south-east across the Pacific until around 1000 years ago.

Then, within the windows of opportunity revealed by Ian’s team, Polynesians suddenly reached Easter Island, Hawaii and NZ before the large-scale migration ceased around 1300.

“The winds were favourable for Polynesian migration in this couple of hundred year period,” Ian says.

The new data suggests the epic voyage could have been achieved in a couple of weeks during these climate windows, four times faster than during other periods with less favourable wind conditions –  especially when travelling in the type of canoe examined by Dilys’ team.

“It’s a large, powerful, robust canoe that would’ve been capable of travelling long distances – a lot more sophisticated than the canoes documented on European arrival,” she says. “The turtle carving on the canoe also points to Polynesians bringing their ideas to New Zealand, as turtles don’t historically feature in Maori carvings.”

Migration to New Zealand and Easter Island

Ian adds that the patterns of migration show how the Polynesian society was resilient to climate shifts, using wind conditions and canoe-building skills to colonise new lands that had more reliable rainfall.

“Exactly at the time this is occurring, the Vikings are spreading out across the north Atlantic, the Mayan civilization in Central America is collapsing because of intense drought, and there’s societal upheaval happening right across the world due to climate changes,” he says. “Certainly the Polynesians were adaptable to these conditions.”

Ian says the research provides us with an insight into the future, as similar climatic patterns are predicted to recur in the next century.


Figure below shows possible routes of migration available during windows of favourable wind conditions identified by Professor Ian Goodwin and his team at Macquarie University in Sydney (Credit: PNAS).