As the author of the acclaimed book Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, Christina Thompson is deeply knowledgeable about this remarkable region—and the people who populated it. For more than a millennium, Polynesians occupied the remotest islands in the Pacific, expertly navigating vast tracts of ocean without maps or modern-day tools. But how did they do it? Their epic achievements have long been a subject of fascination and bewilderment, and in her riveting book Thompson goes on a quest to unearth answers to some key questions. Here, she shares a few thoughts on Polynesia’s storied history—just in time for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
So, Where Is Polynesia?
For anyone who isn’t exactly sure, it’s a huge triangle—about 10 million square miles—right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. All of the islands inside this triangle were first discovered by voyagers sailing in large double-hulled canoes. These people, the ancestors of many of today’s Pacific Islanders, were the first humans to venture out into the mid-Pacific and the first people to colonize a region that, until about 1,000 years ago, had been inhabited only by sea life and birds.
Today, as a result of European colonialism, Polynesia is divided into a number of nations: French Polynesia, including Tahiti; former British colonies like Aotearoa/New Zealand; some territories associated with the United States, including Samoa and of course Hawai‘i; and Rapa Nui (Easter Island), which is a territory of Chile. But the indigenous inhabitants of all these islands still have a lot in common: foods, dances, stories, traditions, and a unique and spectacular history as descendants of the greatest seafarers in the world.
How Did They Get There?
So, how did these ancient voyagers actually reach the islands of Polynesia? Well, the short answer is that they sailed. There was a time, however, when people argued that the distances were too great, the islands too small, and the wind patterns too challenging to make intentional colonization a possibility. They couldn’t have purposefully sailed all that way; they must have drifted there by accident.
One of the more creative attempts to counter this narrative was made in the early 1970s by a couple of geographers and a computer scientist. Back in the days when computers were still the size of rooms, R. Gerard Ward, John W. Webb, and Michael Levison designed a computer simulation to test the drift hypothesis. After running over 120,000 simulated voyages, they came to the conclusion that—to take just one example—the chance of a canoe drifting from anywhere in Polynesia to the Hawaiian Islands was nil.
Just a few years later the drift theory was permanently laid to rest when the Polynesian Voyaging Society built a voyaging canoe and sailed it using only traditional navigational techniques from Hawai‘i to Tahiti. This canoe, the Hōkūle'a, has since sailed not just to every island group in Polynesia but, in 2014–17, around the world.
East or West? Where Did They Come From?
Another long-running debate has to do with the question of where these ancient voyagers came from. Thanks, largely, to the popularity of the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Kon-Tiki expedition—in which he drifted on a raft from Peru to the Tuamotus—a lot of people think that the ancestors of today’s Polynesians started out in South America. But the truth is that virtually all the evidence points the other way.
The foods that Polynesians brought with them on their voyages: the taro, breadfruit, banana, and yam, as well as useful plants for making tapa cloth and the pigs, dogs, chickens, and rats that accompanied them in their canoes—they all originated in Southeast Asia. The languages spoken in Polynesia are also closely related to languages found in the islands from Papua New Guinea to Taiwan. Canoe and fish-hook styles, cooking techniques, tattooing, mythological motifs, basically the whole “cultural complex” of the people who settled the remote Pacific—not to mention their DNA—connects them indisputably to Asia.
But there is one piece of evidence that doesn’t quite fit.
Where Did the Sweet Potato Come From?
What is mysterious about the sweet potato? Well, in the context of Polynesian history, it is the plant’s geographic origin. Every other food plant that these voyagers brought with them was originally cultivated somewhere in Asia. Not so the humble sweet potato. The sweet potato—known as kūmara in temperate Aotearoa/New Zealand, where it was an especially important staple because many tropical plants couldn’t grow—has a South American origin. So, how did it get into Polynesia?
The most plausible theory is that Polynesian voyagers, who had already figured out how to traverse thousands and thousands of miles of ocean, sailed to South America and picked it up. Another idea is that indigenous South Americans somehow made their way out into the mid-Pacific—possibly drifting on a raft like Thor Heyerdahl—bringing the sweet potato with them. A third argument is that the sweet potato might actually have been present in the islands all along, having arrived there some thousands of years before people. Unfortunately, there is not quite enough hard evidence to say which of these is the correct answer, so the sweet potato remains a Polynesian mystery, at least for now.
Want to learn more? You can find answers to many other questions about the history of this fascinating region in Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. We highly recommend you read it before you join us aboard one of our our in-depth Pacific Islands itineraries.