Early Pacific Migration in South Pacific

Scientists from Australia, New Zealand, Russia, USA, Germany, Cook Islands and Rapa Nui, who have for many years been studying the migrations of the Polynesian ancestors across the Pacific Ocean, met between the 6th and the 10th of last November at Villa Biyu-Siyu in Ubud, Bali. Several representatives of the Rapanui community were in attendance at this small, exclusive gathering which was organized by the archaeologist, Sonia Haoa of the Mata Ki Te Rangi Foundation.Papers were presented with samplings of the research which has been undertaken in recent years on traditional navigation, archeology, DNA of the travelers, language, flora and fauna, obsidian resources and cultural remains, especially in ceramics, all with the objective of determining when and how Polynesia was settled.

Around 3,400 years ago, before the Iron Age or the rise of Ancient Greece, the people of the Solomon Islands were sailing the waters of the South Pacific toward the most remote corners of Oceania, the tropical isles of Hawaii, Tonga y Fiji. Archaeological evidence suggests that, from the time they set off from the Solomon Islands, these people crossed more than 2,000 miles of open ocean to colonize Tonga and Samoa. But after 300 years of hopping from island to island, expansion stopped for 2,000 years before they began to sail again. This period is known as the “Long Pause”, representing an intriguing enigma for scholars of Pacific cultures.

Recent research has shown that the conditions of the oceanic phenomena El Nino and La Nina, as well as the direction and intensity of the winds and other currents, were an essential part of the initial expansion of humans to these islands. As they sailed from the Solomon Islands toward Tonga y Samoa in the east, they had the wind at their back which made for easy passage to Fiji and Vanuatu. After they got to the Eastern Pacific, especially Samoa, the environmental conditions changed considerably. Beyond this point, instead of being able to travel with the wind, they found that if they wanted to continue over long distances they would have to venture against the wind. Studies support the thinking that what they lacked was the technology in construction of boats or in navigation which would let them sail efficiently upwind. Once they discovered methods to overcome the wind, these nomads were able to colonize the entire area of Oceania, reaching the islands of Hawai’i, New Zealand, Tahiti and Rapa Nui.

A notable attendee at the Conference was Tua Pittman of the Cook Islands, who, together with micronesian Mau Pialug and hawaiian Nainoa Thompson, is one of the three remaining masters of non-instrumental navigation in the South Pacific Islands. He has sailed great canoes for more than thirty years without modern technology, just by using a system of traditional navigation based on a star compass. Navigators must memorize nearly 200 stars in the sky as well as the different constellations and understand where the stars will rise and set. Tua explains: “Dawn and sunset are the most important moments of the day for traditional navigation. When the sun goes down, the color of the sky and the type of ocean waves will indicate how the weather will be tomorrow. When you face the setting sun, your right hand shows you which way is north.”

At the end of this conference, there was a workshop to clarify and organize the scientific and communal objectives for the up-coming International Conference to be held on Rapa Nui in November of 2018. All parties interested in attending may sign in at www.matakiterangi.org.