The Ancient Polynesian Voyages: The Last Great Migrations to Distant Lands

The Polynesian Triangle

The islands of the Pacific Ocean were settled by people travelling great distances in flimsy craft, using only nature’s signs for navigation.

One of the greatest chapters in the story of humankind’s move out of Africa was that of the people who were to become the Polynesians. It was also one of the last. The final frontiers of habitable earth, the islands of the expansive Pacific Ocean, were populated in relatively recent times. The achievement of those ocean pioneers is one that continues to amaze. Its sheer scale also keeps it a subject of some debate and conjecture.

The Polynesian Triangle

On a map of the Pacific Ocean, a triangle can be drawn that encompasses what is now Polynesia. While simplistic, this triangle illustrates the achievements of those who settled the lands within it. At its northern apex is Hawaii, to the south-west are the islands of New Zealand, and to the southeast is Easter Island. The triangle’s indigenous people share a common ancestry that is evident in their languages and customs. They only reached their respective destinations between three and one thousand years ago.

The first sea voyages in the Pacific were relatively short hops through what is now Melanesia – from Papua New Guinea then on to Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. Further north Micronesia was being settled over a similar timeframe. The big voyages would follow when for whatever reason – exploration or nautical mishap, humans began to arrive at the widespread islands of the central Pacific.

Eastward Settlement of the Pacific

From Melanesia eastwards the voyagers came upon the islands of Tonga and Samoa over 3,000 years ago. Settlement of the Cooks, Tahiti and the Marquesas would take another thousand years, followed by the outlying points on the Polynesian triangle. The first settlers of Hawaii and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) are believed to have arrived there around 600AD and 700AD respectively, while the last part of Polynesia to be discovered was Aotearoa New Zealand. The people who would become the Maori are believed to have begun arriving on its shores around 800 years ago.

The historical facts around colonisation of the islands of Polynesia are shrouded in myth and legend. A common theme is that many of the islands were hauled from the ocean as giant fish. The legendary figure of Maui is credited with that feat in several instances. There are also stories of single migrations to populate new lands. It is considered more likely that communities were established through a series of journeys over time.

Polynesia Settled by Design and Accident

There is no way of knowing how many islands were discovered through intentional voyage of discovery. The prevailing winds are east to west, so travel would normally be upwind. In The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonization of the Pacific, Geoffrey Irwin suggests that to reduce the risks associated with such voyages, early explorers would wait for winds from the opposite direction, then sail with them to the extent their provisions allowed. The resumption of prevailing winds would send the voyagers home if no new land was discovered.

More likely many scholars suggest, the early Polynesian discoveries were accidental. Ocean-going expeditions sailing in search of or chasing fish might happen upon a new place. Weary from their efforts over many days and weeks, they would choose to stay rather than try to return home. To establish a viable population, such fishing expeditions must have had a sizeable community aboard.

Polynesian navigation is also a fascinating subject of study to many. Early Polynesians are acknowledged as having been considerably adept at following the stars, reading the sun and fixing position relative to the horizon. Bird life at sea would generally be a sign of land nearby, as would clouds on the horizon and drifting vegetation. Readings of the swells and wind direction would keep the primitive canoes on course.

The early Polynesians were superb sailors. A succession of 20th and 21st century voyaging re-enactments have been undertaken to demonstrate their great nautical achievements.


  1. Walker, Ranginui, Struggle Without End, Penguin, Auckland, 1990