Polynesian voyagers sailed without a compass or any other nautical instruments. Yet by reading the stars, waves, currents, clouds, seaweed clumps and seabird flights, they managed to cross vast swaths of the Pacific Ocean and settle hundreds of islands, from Hawaii in the north to Easter Island in the southeast to New Zealand in the southwest. Evidence has mounted that they likewise reached mainland South America—and possibly North America as well—long before Christopher Columbus.
“It’s one of the most remarkable colonization events of any time in history,” says Jennifer Kahn, an archeologist at the College of William & Mary, who specializes in Polynesia. “We’re talking about incredibly skilled navigators [discovering] some of the most remote places in the world.”
Tracing Polynesian Ancestry
Based on linguistic, genetic and archeological data, scientists believe that the ancestors of the Polynesians originated in Taiwan (and perhaps the nearby south China coast). From there, they purportedly traveled south into the Philippines and further on to New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, where they mixed with the local populace. By around 1300 B.C., a new culture had developed, the Lapita, known in part for their distinct pottery.
These direct descendants of the Polynesians rapidly swept eastward, first to the Solomon Islands and then to uninhabited Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, and elsewhere. “The Lapita were the first ones to get into remote Oceania,” says Patrick V. Kirch, an anthropology professor at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, and author of On the Road of the Winds: An Archeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact. “It was really a blank slate as far as humans were concerned.”
By the 9th century B.C., the Lapita had made it as far as Tonga and Samoa. But then a long pause ensued without further expansion. Researchers note that, beyond Tonga and Samoa, island chains are much further apart, separated in some cases by thousands of miles of open ocean, and that the winds and currents generally conspire against sailing east.
Perhaps Lapita boats simply weren’t up to the task. Moreover, as Kirch points out, the closest coral atolls had not yet stabilized by that time. “It’s possible that there was some voyaging past Samoa,” he says, “but they would have found just coral reefs and not actual land they could settle.”
Double-Hulled Canoes Accelerate Expansion
During the long pause, a distinct Polynesian culture evolved on Tonga and Samoa, and voyagers there gradually honed their craft. In time, they invented double-hulled canoes, essentially early catamarans, lashing them together with coconut fiber rope and weaving sails from the leaves of pandanus trees. These vessels, up to roughly 60-feet long, could carry a couple dozen settlers each, along with their livestock—namely pigs, dogs and chickens—and crops for planting.
“They now had the technological ability and the navigational ability to really get out there,” Kirch says.
Though the exact timeline has long been disputed, it appears the great wave of Polynesian expansion began around A.D. 900 or 950. Voyagers, also called wayfinders, quickly discovered the Cook Islands, Society Islands (including Tahiti), and Marquesas Islands, and not long after arrived in the Hawaiian Islands. By 1250 or so, when they reached New Zealand, they had explored at least 10 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean and located over 1,000 islands.
“You can fit all of the continents into the Pacific Ocean,” Kahn explains. “It’s a huge, huge space to traverse.”
Even the tiniest and most remote islands, such as Pitcairn, did not escape their notice. As Kirch points out, no one else in the world was remotely capable of such a feat at that time. “Around 1000 A.D., what were Europeans doing?” Kirch says. “Not much in the way of sailing.” He adds that, as late as the 15th century, even the most accomplished European seamen, like Vasco da Gama, were merely hugging the coast.
Easter Island Among Many Inhabited by Polynesian Voyagers
The Polynesians did not have a system of writing to record their accomplishments. But they did pass down stories orally, which tell, for example, of how Hawaiian settlers came from Tahiti, more than 2,500 miles away. “Where the sun rises, in Hawaiian understanding anyway, is a place where the gods reside and our ancestors,” says Marques Hanalei Marzan, cultural advisor at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. “To get to that place is probably one of the reasons why the migration east continued.”
(As an April 2023 study confirms, Polynesian voyagers sometimes sailed west as well into what’s commonly referred to as the Polynesian Outliers.)
Each island chain developed its own unique characteristics. On Easter Island, for instance, the inhabitants constructed giant stone statues. Yet all Polynesians spoke related languages, worshipped a similar pantheon of gods, and built ritual sites with shared features, Kahn explains.
The various islands also maintained at least some ties with each other, particularly during the heyday of Polynesian expansion. “It’s not just that they came from a place and left and never made their way back,” Marzan says. “They actually continued those relationships.”
Evidence that Polynesian Sailors Reached Americas
Most experts now believe the Polynesians crossed the entire Pacific to mainland South America, with Marzan saying it happened “without question.” Stanford University biologist Peter Vitousek has similarly told HISTORY that “we’re absolutely sure,” putting the odds of a South American landfall in the 99.9999 [percent] range.”
For one thing, experts note that Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) lies only about 2,200 miles off the South American coast, and that Polynesian voyagers, capable of locating a speck of rock in the vast Pacific, could hardly have missed a giant continent. “Why would they have stopped?” Kahn says. “They would have kept going until they couldn’t find any more.”
Genetic evidence backs up this assertion. A 2020 study found that Polynesians from multiple islands carry a small amount of DNA from indigenous South Americans, and that the moment of contact likely came some 800 years ago (not long after the Vikings, the best European sailors of their era, made landfall on the Atlantic coast of the Americas).
Archeologists have likewise found the remains of bottle gourds and sweet potatoes, both South American plants, at pre-Columbian Polynesian sites. Some scientists speculate that the sweet potato could have dispersed naturally across the Pacific, but most agree that the Polynesians must have brought it back with them. “Try to take a sweet potato tuber and float it,” Kirch says. “I guarantee it won’t float very long. It will sink to the bottom of the ocean.”
Poultry bones from Chile appear to show that Polynesians introduced chickens to South America prior to the arrival of Columbus, though some scientists have disputed these findings. Meanwhile, other researchers analyzing skulls on a Chilean island found them to be “very Polynesian in shape and form.”
Less evidence ties the Polynesians to North America. Even so, some experts believe they landed there as well, pointing out, among other things, that the sewn-plank canoes used by the Chumash tribe of southern California resembled Polynesian vessels.
What Happened to Polynesians in Americas?
No Polynesian settlement has ever been unearthed in the Americas. It therefore remains unclear what happened upon arrival, particularly since, unlike the Pacific islands, these landmasses were already populated. Perhaps, Kahn says, “they got up and left and went back.”
When Captain James Cook explored the Pacific in the late 1760s and 1770s, thus ushering in a wave of Western imperialism, he recognized the Polynesians’ exemplary sailing skills. “It is extraordinary that the same nation should have spread themselves over all the isles in this vast ocean, from New Zealand to [Easter Island], which is almost a fourth part of the circumference of the globe,” he wrote.
Eventually, however, as they colonized the islands and suppressed native languages and cultures, Western powers began to downplay Polynesian achievements, according to Marzan, who says they assumed “that the people of the Pacific were less than.”
Some falsely claimed, for instance, that Polynesian sailors had merely drifted along with the winds and currents. (It didn’t help that, at the time of European contact, many Pacific Islanders no longer used large, oceangoing canoes. Some, like those on Easter Island, had already chopped down all the tall trees needed to produce them.)
Worst of all, European diseases decimated the Polynesian population. “It was this massive, devastating loss,” Kirch says. “And when you have that, your society really falls apart.”
Before long, most remaining Polynesians began sailing with Western techniques. More recently, though, the old traditions have been revived, starting around 1976, when the Polynesian Voyaging Society sailed, without instruments, from Hawaii to Tahiti. They have since embarked on numerous other expeditions, including a worldwide voyage from 2013 to 2017.
“The Polynesian Voyaging Society has really inspired many cultures across the Pacific to reconnect with their traditional practices,” Marzan says. Once again, double-hulled canoes are plying the ocean.