The Extraordinary Voyages of Polynesians – II


Geographically, the Polynesians’ homeland was considered to be located, somewhere in the Pacific coast of South America. However, their languages share many words with the languages of South East Asians (especially the languages of Malaysia and Indonesia). Geographically, Polynesians are nowhere near Asia. The archipelagos that are closer to Asia are inhabited by a different group of people, whom Europeans called Melanesians. Melanesians are the groups of variety of cultures, which nearly had 1,300 languages. They generally had black skin, so, the Europeans categorized them as Melanesian – black islanders.

Other theories, mapped the migration of Polynesians to the Australian continent. But, over the years, the South East Asia theory is considered to be the most self-sustainable one. So, if the Polynesians homeland is somewhere near Indonesia, why did they took immense efforts to migrate to the distance lands amidst Pacific Ocean. Historians can’t pinpoint the reason for this migration, although one can assume that the reason might be the same one as in other migrations: tribal wars, epidemic diseases, natural disasters or the eagerness to find something new.

Crew members of Kon-Tiki expedition

Crew members of Kon-Tiki expedition

To solve the origination puzzle, Norwegian scientist Thor Heyerdahl — theory of a South American origin – made a famous expedition, in 1947, called ‘Kon-Tiki’ expedition. He sailed in a balsa raft, much like the ancient traditional canoes, from Peru, South America, to Polynesia. He used botanical evidence to support his theory. Sweet potato was first domesticated in the Andes of South America about 8,000 years ago and couldn’t have spread across the world, until contact has been made. European seafarers were credited for spreading food across the world, but anthropologists proved that few foods sailed across the Pacific Ocean long before Columbus landed in the New World. Sweet potato is the reason for this theory. Its presence in Polynesia made Thor to bring up the South American connection and his voyage also confirmed that there are no navigational problems. On addressing the Polynesians’ linguistic similarities with Southeast Asia, Thor suggested that these features had come from a great circular migration, which started at Southeast Asia. Although, Thor’s voyage and sweet potato theory was undeniable, it is said to have prove that either Polynesians went to South America at an early century or returned, bringing this plant, or native South Americans traveled to Polynesia.

Lapita Pottery -- over the past 50 years, this pottery has been found in some 250 sites.

Lapita Pottery — over the past 50 years, this pottery has been found in some 250 sites.

Thor’s theories were made obsolete by a scientist named Kenneth P. Emory, in the 60’s. He argued that the Polynesians were themselves a part of Melanesians. His theory was based on archaeological evidence, unearthed in the Melanesian island of New Caledonia: a pottery called ‘Lapita.’ This distinctive type of pottery was used from New Guinea to Tonga, which proves the historical roots of Polynesian culture in the islands of Melanesia. The similarities between the languages had also cemented the nature of this theory. The culture of the original Polynesians, was now, generally known as the Lapita cultural complex and has helped scientists to form a chronology for the Polynesian migrations.

Polynesians were supposed to have started from or through Melanesia to Fiji islands and eventually to Samoa and Tonga (around 11,000 BC). The actual migration is never clearly known, since conflicting evidence are emerging now and then. However, one thing is clear: the culture and languages of migrated Polynesians must have sundered from the people they left behind.


From Samoa and Tonga, they moved forward to Tahiti islands and later to Easter islands. The next major move was to Hawaii. Debate still goes on the exact timeline of this in-habitation. Hawaiian Islands was one of the major island groups to be colonized by Polynesian people. There is also much debate about the occupation of New Zealand. Some say, it is on 9th century AD or possibly by the 13th century AD. Although the timeline of the migrations are not clear, the historians are certain about one fact: that every island within what is now called the Polynesian triangle was inhabited, before the Europeans arrived in the 15th century.

The Polynesian voyage was a great feat of navigation. It establishes a fact that ancient cultures cannot be underestimated for their technological capabilities. Today also the young people from Polynesian islands are migrating from their lands. However, the reason seems to be the commonly found one, across the globe: poor job prospects and poor standard of living. Maybe, we know where they came from, but where are they going now?

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