The first Pacific Ocean crossings were almost certainly accomplished by Austronesian people who, over a period of some 5000 years journeyed from Taiwan and the Malaysian Region throughout the islands of the Pacific Ocean. While no written documentation exists of these journeys, traditional stories, songs and dance, alongside linguistic evidence and genetic studies conducted over the past 50 years have clearly demonstrated such a path of migration. Today it is understood that the people of Oceania have had the skills, knowledge and ingenuity to build seaworthy canoes and navigate countless miles of open ocean, using nothing more than the nature around them, for thousands of years.
As these ocean voyaging continued to develop, highly complex and sophisticated navigation techniques began to emerge. Traditional voyager’s discovered natural methods to find their way over the ocean including observing celestial events and patterns and the migratory habits of birds. They also built unique double hulled canoes, which were beneficial for stability and also enabled the carrying of substantial loads, including necessary sailing provisions and migrating families.
Early explorers were puzzled by how these people had settled so far away from the continental landmasses: How would they have managed to navigate over open ocean without modern maps and equipment? What type of ship would enable them to succeed in such a voyage? They could not believe that people with what they saw as ‘primitive’ sailing and navigation technology were able to find, reach and settle these islands they had just discovered. However, these paradigm’s finally began to change with the voyages of Captain James Cook.
Captain James Cook, who is widely recognised amongst the greatest explorers in second age of European expansion, was one of the few to seriously considered that Polynesians could have purposely sailed through and subsequently settled in the Pacific without any kind of external factor to guide them. However, evidence was required to prove by what means they were able to successfully complete such journeys. During an expedition to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, Cook was able to learn the language of the local people, finally enabling him to solve some of these long held questions. Through conversations, Cook’s local friend Tupa’ia revealed the voyaging knowledge and tradition that enabled the Tahitians to sail throughout the Pacific.
Source: The Maritime Heritage Project
Unfortunately, Cook’s notes were never expanded into formal findings, however they did provide some of the fundamental elements of an accurate Pacific settlement theory, providing brief answers to some of the troubling questions in relation to the ability of these canoes to travel such distances, how these sailors could orient themselves at sea and how long had these practices been established. Cook proposed the East Indies as the origin of Pacific migration, gauged from the similarities he saw between languages of the islands from Southeast Asia east into the Pacific to that of the Tahitians. However, it was difficult to explain this proposed migration trail because of the prevalent trade winds which consistently blow from the east. In light of this information, it would have more plausible for voyagers to have traveled from South America sailing westward.
Cook’s friend, Tupa’ia, was also able to provide an explanation for this conundrum, explaining that through November, December, and January the trades winds frequently weakened even stopping completely at times, being replaced by occasional westerlies that Pacific Islanders would then be able to harness to sail east. From these findings, Cook was able to put together a substantial explanation for how the Pacific had been settled that recognised the incredible abilities of the early voyagers.
Source: Wikimedia Commons