Canoe Building


Canoe Life

Polynesian Migrations

The Settlement of Polynesia, Part 1

Dennis Kawaharada

Photo Below: Canoe Petroglyph, Huahine, Tahiti

Exploration and Discovery

In the 19th century, Hawaiian scholars Kamakau and Kepelino attributed the discovery of Hawai'i to a fisherman named Hawai'iloa. He is said to have discovered the islands during a long fishing trip from a homeland in the west called Ka 'Aina kai melemelea Kane ("Land of the yellow sea of Kane"); the Big Island was named after him while Kaua'i, O'ahu, and Maui were named after his children. Hawai'iloa's navigator, Makali'i, steered in the direction of Iao, the Eastern Star, and hoku'ula, the red star (perhaps the rising Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus). After replenishing his supplies, Hawai'iloa returned home and brought his wife and his children back to Hawai'i, again using the fixed stars as guides. The Hawaiian people are all descended from him.

Some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the tradition of Hawai'iloa because of similarities between Biblical stories and stories in the tradition of Kumuhonua, of which the story of Hawai'iloa is a part. These scholars believe that parts of the tradition of Kumuhonua were invented in the 19th century to conform to Biblical traditions. However, Randie Kamuela Fong of Kamehameha Schools writes, "after careful review of Fornander's version of the Kumuhonua tradition, the Hawai'iloa portion bears no resemblance to any biblical account. The names, places, and basic settings and plots give us no reason to question their age and authenticity. Further, Patience Bacon of the Bishop Museum remembers kupuna (elders) being interviewed in the 1920's and 30's by Tutu Puku'i. These kupuna spoke of Hawai'iloa as their 'reality.'"

A tradition published in Teuira Henry's Ancient Tahiti attributes the discovery of Hawai'i to a voyaging hero named Tafa'i (Hawaiian Kaha'i), son of Hema and an underworld goddess named Hina-tahutahu (Hina, the magician). Tafa'i "cut the sinews" of the islands of Tahiti (i.e., fixed them in their places), fished up the islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago and then "went exploring the trackless ocean northward." He found a chain of islands beneath the sea and fished it up, naming the first island "Aihi" ("Bit-in-fishing," now called "Hawai'i"). "Next he drew up Maui and all the other islands of our archipelago.Éthen those intrepid navigators went south and returned with people to dwell on the beautiful new land, bringing with them their gods, their chiefs, and breadfruit and other plants." Later, Tafa'i tried to pull the Hawaiian islands south, closer to the Tahitian islands, but failed when the kapu forbidding the crew to speak or look back from the canoe was broken.

The connection between discovery and fishing is part of pan-Polynesian tradition of islands being fished out of the sea. A fisherman named Huku is said to have found Rakahanga island while on an aku fishing voyage from Rarotonga; later the three Maui brothers came to the same area and began fishing.. Maui-mua caught a shark; Maui-roto an ulua; and Maui-muri the island of Manihiki (Tairi "The Origin of the Island Manihiki"). Maui is also said to have fished up, among other islands, Tonga, Mangaia in the Cook Islands, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) (Buck 53).

This traditional association between fishing and the discovery islands suggests that fishermen, of whatever identities, were perhaps the most frequent discoverers of islands in ancient times, either while they roamed the ocean looking for new fishing grounds or chasing schools of pelagic fish, or after they were driven off course by storms on their way to known fishing grounds. A poetic way of describing their discoveries would be to say that the fishermen caught islands, not fish. Perhaps the name of Maui was given to anyone who discovered an island, in honor of some ancestral fisherman-explorer noted for finding islands.

Another intriguing possibility is proposed in Geoffrey Irwin's The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonization of the Pacific. Irwin suggests that 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, according to Irwin, 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. 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, the 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. Teuira Henry gives exploration and discovery as the motivation for the voyages of Ru and Hina, a brother and sister who circumnavigated the earth in their canoe Te-apori to locate islands: "After exploring the earth, Hina's love of discovery did not cease. So one evening when the full moon was shining invitingly, being large and half visible at the horizon, she set off in her canoe to make it a visit." She decided to stay there and remains today as the figure seen in the moon.

Whatever the motives and methods of exploration and discovery, once the location of an island was known, it became open to settlement.

The Polynesian Settlement of the Pacific

The Polynesian migration to Hawai'i was part of one of the most remarkable achievements of humanity: the discovery and settlement of the remote, widely scattered islands of the central Pacific. The migration began before the birth of Christ. While Europeans were sailing close to the coastlines of continents before developing navigational instruments that would allow them to venture onto the open ocean, voyagers from Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa began to settle islands in an ocean area of over 10 million square miles. The settlement took a thousand years to complete and involved finding and fixing in mind the position of islands, sometimes less than a mile in diameter on which the highest landmark was a coconut tree. By the time European explorers entered the Pacific Ocean in the 16th century almost all the habitable islands had been settled for hundreds of years.

The voyaging was all the more remarkable in that it was done in canoes built with tools of stone, bone, and coral. The canoes were navigated without instruments by expert seafarers who depended on their observations of the ocean and sky and traditional knowledge of the patterns of nature for clues to the direction and location of islands. The canoe hulls were dug out from tree trunks with adzes or made from planks sewn together with a cordage of coconut fiber twisted into strands and braided for strength. Cracks and seams were sealed with coconut fibers and sap from breadfruit or other trees. An outrigger was attached to a single hull for greater stability on the ocean; two hulls were lashed together with crossbeams and a deck added between the hulls to create double canoes capable of voyaging long distances.

The canoes were paddled when there was no wind and sailed when there was; the sails were woven from coconut or pandanus leaves. These vessels were seaworthy enough to make voyages of over 2,000 miles along the longest sea roads of Polynesia, such as the one between Hawai'i and Tahiti. And though these double-hulled canoes had less carrying capacity than the broad-beamed ships of the European explorers, the Polynesian canoes were faster: one of Captain Cook's crew estimated a Tongan canoe could sail "three miles to our two."

After a visit to the Society Islands in 1774, Andia y Varela described the canoes he saw: "It would give the most skilful [European] builder a shock to see craft having no more breadth of beam than three [arm] spans carrying a spread of sail so large as to befit one of ours with a beam of eight or ten spans, and which, though without means of lowering or furling the sail, make sport of the winds and waves during a gale, their safety depending wholly on two light poles a couple of varas or so long (about eight feet), which, being placed athwartships, the one forward and the other aft, are fitted to another spar of soft wood placed fore and aft wise in the manner of an outriggerÉ These canoes are as fine forward as the edge of a knife, so that they travel faster than the swiftest of our vessels; and they are marvellous, not only in this respect, but for their smartness in shifting from one tack to the other." (Corney, Vol. II, 282).

The voyaging was by no means easy. There was always a danger of swamping or capsizing in heavy seas, of having sails ripped apart or masts and booms broken by fierce winds, of smashing the hulls against unseen rocks or reefs; and while there were grass or leaf shelters on the decks of voyaging canoes, the voyagers were often exposed to the wind, rain, and sun, with only capes of leaves or bark-cloth wrappings for protection. A stormy night at sea, even in the tropics, can be brutally chilling. If supplies ran short during a long voyage, and no fish or rainwater replenished them, then starvation became a possibility. As a tradition about a voyage from Hiva (the Marquesas) to Rarotonga puts it: "The voyage was so long; food and water ran out. One hundred of the paddlers died; forty men remained."

A long voyage was not just a physical, but a mental challenge as well, particularly for a navigator without compass or chart. To navigate miles of open ocean required an extensive and intimate knowledge of the ocean and sky. Captain Cook noted that Polynesian navigators used the rising and setting points of celestial bodies for directions. Andia y Varela was told how Tahitians also used the winds and swells to hold a course: "There are many sailing-masters among the people, the term for whom is in their language fa'atere (Hawaiian: ho'okele). The fa'atere are competent to make long voyages like that from Otahiti to Oriayatea [Ra'iatea] (about 150 miles) and others farther afield. One of these sailing masters named Puhoro came to Lima on this occasion in the frigate; and from him and others I was able to find out the method by which they navigate on the high seas.

"They have no mariner's compass, but divide the horizon into sixteen parts, taking for the cardinal points those at which the sun rises and sets.

"When setting out from port the helmsman partitions the horizon, counting from E, or the point where the sun rises; he knows the direction in which his destination bears. He observes, also, whether he has the wind aft, or on one or the other beam, or on the quarter, or is close-hauled. He notes, further, whether there is a following sea, a head sea, a beam sea, or if the sea is on the bow or the quarter. He proceeds out of port with a knowledge of these [conditions], heads his vessel according to his calculation, and aided by the signs the sea and wind afford him, does his best to keep steadily on his course.

"The task becomes more difficult if the day is cloudy, because the sailing-master has no mark to count from for dividing the horizon. Should the night be cloudy as well, the sailing-master regulates his course by the wind and swells; and, since the wind is apt to vary in direction more than the swell does, he has his pennant, made of feathers and palmetto bark, by which to watch changes in the wind, and he trims his sails accordingly, always taking his cue for holding his course from the indications the sea affords. When the night is clear, he steers by the stars; and this is the easiest navigation for him because he knows the stars which rise and set over not only the islands he is familiar with, but also the harbours in the islands, so that he makes straight for the entrance by following the rhumb of the particular star that rises or sets over it. These sailing masters hit their destinations with as much precision as the most expert navigators of civilized nations could achieve" (Corney, Vol. II, 284-6) .

To keep track of their position at sea during long sea voyages, the navigators used a system of dead reckoningÑmemorizing the distance and direction traveled until the destination was reached. Finding islands before they could actually be seen was also part of the art of navigation. Voyagers followed the flight of land-dwelling birds that fished at sea as these birds flew from the direction of islands in the morning or returned in the evenings. The navigators also watched for changes in swell patterns, cloud piled up over land, reflections on clouds from lagoons, and drifting land vegetation.

When European explorers found the islands of Polynesia, the common ancestry of the Polynesians was evidentÑthe inhabitants of widely separated islands looked alike, spoke alike, and had similar cultural practices. Their manufactured products such as fishhooks, trolling lures, adzes, and ornaments also revealed similarities. And they had the same basic stock of domesticated plants and animals.

The peoples of Polynesia came from a common ancestral group that developed a distinctive fishing and farming culture in the islands of Tonga and Samoa.

While dates constantly change with new archaeological discoveries, the general sequence for the settlement of Polynesia has been relatively well established (Dates represent earliest archaeological finds; they almost certainly do not represent the earliest presence of human beings.):

--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 eastÑthe 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).

The ethnobotanical evidence reflects this progression of settlement from the Western Pacific islands, through central Polynesia (the Cook Islands, Society Islands, and Hiva), and then to Hawai'i. Of the 72 plants identified as having been transported to Polynesia by people, 41-45 are found in the Cook Islands, the Society Islands, and Hiva; 29 are found in Hawai'i, including taro, breadfruit, sugar cane, bamboo, ti, yam, banana, 'awa, paper mulberry, kukui, coconut, gourd, sweet potato, and mountain apple. The settlers also brought the pig, dog, chicken, and rat along with them. The transport of plants and domesticated animals on voyaging canoes suggests that the early settlers planned to colonize Hawai'i, after having discovered its location.

The Settlement of Hawai'i

Hawai'i, which contains the largest islands in Polynesia outside of Aotearoa, must have appeared particularly rich in land and resources to its discoverers. The tradition of Hawai'iloa records the event as follows: "[The voyagers] went ashore and found the land fertile and pleasant, filled with 'awa, coconut trees, and so on, and Hawai'iloa, the chief, gave that land his name. Here they dwelt a long time and when their canoe was filled with vegetable food and fish, they returned to their native country with the intention of returning to Hawai'i-nei, which they preferred to their own country." (Fornander, Vol. 6, 278; other traditions suggest that 'awa and coconut were brought by those who settle Hawai'i.)

Scholars believe that early settlers of Hawai'i came predominantly from Hiva (Marquesas). The argument for a Hivan homeland is based in part on linguistic and biological evidence: "Indeed, the close relationship between the Hawaiian and Marquesan languages as well as between the physical populations constitutes strong and mutually corroborative evidence that the early Hawaiians came from the Marquesas" (Kirch 64).

The Marquesan language has been grouped under the category Proto Central Eastern Polynesian, along with Hawaiian, Tahitian, Tuamotuan, Rarotongan, and Maori. Vocabulary comparisons seem to indicate that the dialect of the Southern Marquesan Islands (Hiva Oa, Tahuata, Fatu Hiva), is the closest relative of Hawaiian language (Green 1966):

Hawaiian / Marq-So. / Marq-No. / Gloss
  • inoa / inoa / ikoa / name
  • mano / mano / mako / shark
  • moena / moena / moeka / mat
  • one / one / oke / hunger

(From "Lexical Diffusion in Polynesia and the Marquesan-Hawaiian Relationship," Samuel H. Elbert, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 91 (4) December 1982, 505.)

About 56% of basic words in the two languages are the same or similar. For example:

Hawaiian / Marquesan / Gloss
  • mahina / mahina /moon, month
  • po / po / darkness
  • pu / pu / conch
  • kino / tino / body
  • kahuna / tuhuna / expert
  • imu / umu / oven
  • i'a / ika / fish
  • lawai'a / awaika / fisherman
  • wa'a / vaka / canoe
  • hoe / hoe / paddle

("Glossary of Marquesan Native Terms," E.S. Craighill Handy, The Native Culture in the Marquesas, Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1923)

Hawaiian and Marquesan also share words that are not found in other Polynesians languages:

Hawaiian / Marquesan / Gloss
  • 'elele / ke'e'e / messenger
  • makali / mata'i / tie bait to hook (Haw.); string to tie bait to a hook (Marq.)
  • pa'akai / pa'atai / salt

(For a longer list of words, see Elbert's "Lexical Diffusion in Polynesia and the Marquesan-Hawaiian Relationship," 510-511.)

The two languages also share unique phonological changes from Proto Central Eastern Polynesian (the hypothetical original language). Elbert concludes that the linguistic evidence supports the hypothesis that the Hawaiian language derives from Marquesan (511).

Another argument to support the proposition that the primary migration to Hawai'i came from Hiva is that the islands of Hiva are the best departure point for sailing to Hawai'i from the South Pacific. They are closer to Hawai'i and farther east than the Society Islands, the Tuamotus, or the Cook Islands. A canoe heading north in the easterly tradewinds is better off starting from a point as far east of Hawai'i as possible. In computer simulation of voyages from the Marquesas to Hawai'i, over 80 percent of the canoes that headed in the right direction (NNW to NW by N) reached Hawai'i (Irwin 164-166).

Archaeological evidence also connects early settlers of Hawai'i with Hiva--adzes, fishhooks, and pendants found at an early settlement site at Ka Lae on the Big Island of Hawai'i are similar to those found in Hiva. Of course, the archaeology of the Pacific is still in its infancy. As comparative work progresses in the Pacific, similarities are emerging among artifacts of all the Polynesian islands, suggesting that perhaps widespread contact and trading were more frequent than previously thought.

It is probably too simplistic to attribute the settlement of any island group to a single migration from another single island group. The voyages of the Polynesian Voyaging Society's Hokule'a and computer-simulated voyages have shown that Polynesians could have sailed in traditional canoes all the north-south and east-west routes among their islands. Kenneth Emory has noted that some words in the Hawaiian language (such as the names of some days in the lunar month) are shared uniquely with the Tahitian language (Kirch 66), suggesting settlers to Hawai'i came from Tahiti as well as the Marquesas. More archaeological evidence is needed from Hawai'i, Hiva and other islands of Polynesia before any definitive statements can be made about the relationship among the island groups during the period of the early settlement of Hawai'i.