The Extraordinary Voyages of Polynesians – I

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‘Polynesia’ – the word itself makes us picture something exotic. However, we need a larger world map to pin point the ‘Polynesian Islands.’ Situated in the middle of Pacific Ocean, these islands would look like scattered dust particles, separated by great distances. In the modern era, these islands are considered to be the perfect spot for tourism and the lightly populated indigenous people of the islands are largely seen as savages trying to earn a dollar. However this is not true. Like any of the oppressed indigenous cultures, the inhabitants of these islands too have a long proud history.

History has always credited Christopher Columbus and other European seafarers, when it comes to great adventurous voyages. The European invaders – writers of modern history – have mostly suppressed the potentialities of ancient peoples and cultures from around the world. Anyway, as the story goes, Columbus discovered America in 1492. That theory was confronted in 1960, when archaeologists proved that Norse explorers likely beat Columbus to the punch by about 500 years. Years later, the sea-migrating patterns and startling DNA evidences confirmed that it was the Polynesians, who were the first humans to discover and populate most of the Pacific islands.

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Europeans first encountered the Polynesians in the 15th century. They found it difficult to understand, how these heathen, primitive people (according to Europeans) managed to cross Pacific Islands. The initial theory is that there were no transoceanic voyages from such far removed locations. The Christian God must have put the people on these islands. The theological hypothesis is soon nullified and European seafarers asserted that the Polynesians must have stumbled upon the islands by accident. They might have been blown off-course and the ocean currents must have carried them to new shores. All these proposed theories either stemmed from bigotry or from lack of better knowledge. It can be easily inferred that the ancient Polynesians navigated their canoes by looking at stars and other signs — from ocean or sky. These ancient navigation techniques had evolved into a precise art in those times, and were passed orally from one navigator to another for countless generations. So, despite many theories of Europeans, it can be said that the Polynesian explorers were anything but primitive.

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Although there are lots of debates ongoing, on the subject of Polynesians, one thing is agreed by academics: Polynesians used double canoes for long-range voyaging, especially the migratory ones. The canoes provide greater stability and its broad central platform renders a relatively larger and dry area to shelter people or food supplies. Double canoes sail mostly like a conventional boat and steered mainly by paddles. Historical facts showed that Polynesian migrations took place from east to west. Some explorers pointed out that a canoe couldn’t have resisted the tendency to resist leeway when pointed towards windward. These theories were proved wrong by real-time experiments, where the men tried to duplicate the traditional Polynesian double canoes and proved that they are indeed sea-kindly craft. As far as navigation is concerned, the Polynesians used three basic tasks of navigation common to all sea voyages: using the Sun, using the stars and by detecting wind and ocean swells.

The Polynesian culture was diversified into various cultures, namely Hawaiian, Tahitian, Maoris etc. But, where did they originate from? Why did they make this journey?

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