Before Christopher Columbus’s 1492 New World discovery on the Atlantic Ocean side, Polynesian navigators may have already landed on the Pacific Ocean side.
Pacific Islands scholars are asking: Was the 1492 landing by Italian Navigator Christopher Columbus in the West Indies, the first contact American indigenous people made with the Outside World?
Academic research has been slow to recognize the roles of Polynesian and Pacific navigators in the halls of maritime achievements. Some European scholars are even insulted by the thought that a “stone-age” people could challenge Europeans’ superior maritime technology.
Theories have been advanced to discredit Pacific navigators’ history. For example: New Zealand anthropologist Andrew Sharp (1964) characterized his European ancestry’s arrogance: “Sailing the vast Pacific was beyond the primitive knowledge of illiterate navigators…” he opined.
Europeans Feared “Falling Off Edge of Flat Earth”
Undeniably for centuries, Europeans feared falling off the edge of the earth if they sailed far off their comfortable shores. Meanwhile, Pacific Islanders had no such fears. Maori ethnologist Dr. Sir Peter Buck (1939; Hawaiian Bishop’s Museum director; Yale University professor) reasoned that Polynesians saw the Pacific Ocean as “highways” to find land.
In fact, by the time European navigators arrived in the Pacific, Polynesian indigenous people have settled every inhabitable island centuries earlier. Even far-flung Easter Island (European discovery, 1722 A. D.) had been settled by Polynesians as early as 300 A. D.
Were Pacific navigators capable of reaching either North or South American shores? Did they predate Columbus’ Atlantic landfall, but on the Pacific shores of the Americas? In academic traditions, the lack of recorded Pacific history made the Europeans’ experience superior to Pacific oral history.
The Rise of “Qualitative” Research Recognizes Indigenous People’s Oral History
Recently, however, “qualitative” research methodologies had given rise to the recognition of indigenous people’s experiences with their cultures, languages, literatures, and traditions. Researchers are no longer confined to scientific laboratories, doing “quantitative” research based on numerical calculations, and logical inferences.
Qualitative researchers are out performing field studies collecting data while observing, conversing, and recording their subjects’ experiences, and living amongst them. These are the anthropologists, ethnologists, archaeologists, etc.
Two prominent scientists of the 20th century are worth recognizing in surfacing the achievements of Pacific Islands ancient navigators. Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) and Maori Sir Peter H. Buck (1877-1951) promoted the two most popular theories of the century.
Thor Heyerdahl and Sir Peter Buck Sailed in Opposite Directions
Norwegian explorer Dr. Thor Heyerdahl first challenged the scientific establishment with his own field works. He lived amongst Polynesians, and sailed his Kon Tiki Expedition (1947) from Peru to French Polynesia in support of his “American Indians in the Pacific” theory. He suggested the possibilities of Polynesians’ migrations moving westward.
Dr. Peter Buck’s field works in Polynesia established the legitimacy of indigenous people oral history: chants, songs, poetry, arts and crafts, and the importance of traditional tales and myths. His “Vikings of the Sun Rise” (1938) posited the direction of Polynesian settlement as moving eastward.
Traditionalists in the scientific community were not convinced, but Heyerdahl raised world awareness of possibilities in Pacific indigenous people’s ingenuity. He made suggested connections between South American stone masonry art to Polynesian masonry in Easter Island, The Marquesas, Hawai’i, Tahiti, and Tonga.
European academic arrogance, as illustrated by Dr. Andrew Sharp, called Pacific indigenous people an “illiterate” lot, and with a “Stone-Age” marine technology. But Thor Heyerdahl suggested in his scientific “Sea Routes to Polynesia” model that Polynesian ancestors perfected sailing to a profession of royal orders. Anything less would have meant death at sea. Their inter-island sailing vessels (double-hulled canoes) were built with construction precision.
“Vikings of the Sunrise” by renowned Maori ethnologist Dr. Sir Peter Buck, theorized that Polynesians, anticipated the direction of the sunrise with hope of survival. In their view, the Pacific was home to thousands of fenua (lands) or motu (islands). Between these islands they developed “highways” charted in the heavens above. And lacking fear of falling off the edge of a “flat” earth further encouraged their desire to sail far off into the horizon.
Buck also suggested the possibility of Polynesians sailing all the way to the Americas, partook of Peru’s indigenous crop “kumara” (sweet potato), and brought enough varieties to spread across the Pacific. Secondly, Thor Heyerdahl could be correct that American Indians are to be credited with bringing the sweet potato to the Pacific.
Either way, it could have all taken place centuries before Christopher Columbus landed (1492) on the Atlantic Ocean side of the New World.
- Andrew Sharp, “Ancient Voyages in Polynesia.” 1964, Berkeley, California: University of California – Berkeley Press: United States.
- Sir Peter H. Buck, “Vikings of the Sunrise.” 1939, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawai’i: United States.
- Thor Heyerdahl, “Sea Routes to Polynesia.” 1968, London, England.