Nainoa Thompson: Scientific Inquiry into Polynesian Pre-history
About forty to fifty thousand years ago, when the earth was colder and much of the ocean that we know today was trapped in the polar caps, the sea level was lower by about a hundred meters, three hundred feet. Australia, Melanesia, Indonesia were connected to the Asian continent. The first explorers into the Pacific came by foot and they walked out of the South China Sea area and occupied the land mass in Australia. As our people went south, other people went to the north and crossed the Siberian Peninsula on foot and occupied North and South America.
By the time the earth got warmer, the polar caps melted, sea levels rose and the people in Melanesia became islanders. We believe that they were able to island hop across short distances. Maybe they didn't even need to sail. They could have done it in crude rafts; they could have paddled. The longest distance between two islands in Melanesia was only eighty-seven miles. The islands then settled in what we now call Western Polynesia-Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji. There they became somewhat "island-locked." To make this "jump" from Western Polynesia into what we call Eastern Polynesia took them a thousand years. They developed the canoe, navigational systems and the ability to sail long distances. Once they were able to make this crossing, the expansion of Polynesia was quick. Hawai'i to the north, Rapanui in the east, and Aotearoa in the southwest.
We are taught in our history books today that the inhabitants of the Polynesian triangle were a people of common language, of common ancestry, of great achievements in exploring the earth. Consider the fact that there was no other culture in their time that was ocean-going ... deep sea ocean-going. In my opinion, these explorers were the greatest explorers on the earth at the time. If you exclude the total land mass of Aotearoa, there is three hundred times more water than there is land ... ten million square miles of ocean. And that is what makes their achievements more amazing. This is geographically the largest "nation" on earth. It's bigger than Russia. There was adze found in the artifacts on the beaches of Australia that are Polynesian. And also, through the sweet potato, we know that there was contact to the Americas. And just in recent times through the new science of genetics, there is evidence showing that the Native Alaskans, Haida Indians, have Polynesian blood.
How did the Polynesians do it? How did they build canoes from limited resources on small islands? How did communities come together to combine resources, material, and manpower, to build and sail these voyaging canoes? How did they navigate? How did they guide themselves across ocean expanses of 2500 miles long? And how did they transport all the food resources necessary for societies to flourish on uninhabited islands?
Three individuals back in the mid-1960s got together as they were very disturbed by the fact that individuals like Thor Heyerdahl suggested that the Polynesians could not sail upwind, into the weather. They could not come from Asia -- from west to east --against the prevailing tradewinds. Their canoes were not very seaworthy. There were those like Andrew Sharp in New Zealand who said, that from an anthropological point of view, Polynesians came from an Asian origin, but they were not smart enough to navigate more than. one hundred miles in the open ocean. These three people-Ben Finney, Herb Kawainui Kane, and Tommy Holmes-got together and said, well, we want to debate that. And the only way we can debate it is to build a canoe and sail to Tahiti.
Hokule'a is sixty-two feet long, she's about nineteen feet wide. And she carries a full load of about 26,000 pounds. She was launched from a beach on this island called Kualoa, a very sacred place, on March 8, 1975.
We know very little the design of ancient canoes. Much has been lost in the last 200 years. This is an etching - by an artist named Webber on Captain Cook's second voyage - of canoes in Kealakekua Bay but they are not voyaging canoes. The main evidence that we have of what the voyaging canoes were like came from this island called Huahine, which is about 110 miles west of Tahiti. In this area called Maeva, they were building a hotel called the Bali Hai and when they were digging up the ground they found some canoe bailers and so they called Dr. Sinoto from the Bishop Museum and he went down and conducted an excavation. He thinks that six hundred to a thousand years ago there was a canoe under construction here and the work place was hit by a Tsunami which buried the canoe under mud and sand and preserved it by cutting off the oxygen that causes rot.
Here is an actual plank of the canoe and this is a coconut fiber aha still holding the planks together. And here there was a knot in the plank and what they did was to put wood in from behind and lashed the two pieces of wood together it make a sandwich. Dr. Sinoto guesses that this canoe was 72 feet long, ten feet longer than Hokule'a. In the earliest days of Hokule'a, when she was going through sea trials, the steering mechanism was like the kind we use on a six man canoe but the problem was that a six man canoe weighs 600 pounds and Hokule'a weighs - fully loaded - about 24000 pounds and guys who were trying to steer her were getting knocked out, ending up in the hospital, and it wasn't working and I was looking at that thing and saying, "oh, man, it is really going to be a long trip. And so some of the beach boys said, "we are not going to do it this way anymore. We have got to come up with a steering sweep. And so they designed a steering sweep that would work - from their experience at Waikiki - and it solved the steering problem. And the steering sweep that they pulled out of that swamp in Huahine - it was discovered after the beach boys figured out how to design a sweep for Hokule'a - and this sweep is very similar in design and only two feet shorter than the ones we use to steer Hokule'a.