How Did Ancient Seafarers Settle The Far-Flung Islands Of Polynesia?

A genetic study published on Wednesday has deciphered the timing and sequence of this settlement of an area spanning about a third of Earth’s surface, with Samoa as the starting point while Rapa Nui, also called Easter Island, and other locales known for megalithic statues were among the last to be reached.


I always thought Hawaii was settled before moving south to Tahiti where the majority then headed West populating Tonga, Samoa, Rarotonga and finally New Zealand. The eastern islands of Fiji were ruled as vassal states of Tonga. The rest of Fiji is settled by Melanesian rather than Polynesian natives.
Māori settled in New Zealand from about 1300 and DNA links them back to Taiwan. They are believed to have started their voyage from Rarotonga and their spoken language is similar to that spoken by native Tahitians. Captain Cook used a Tahitian navigator called Tupaia to converse with Māori in 1769.


From one of the authors of the paper; * Alexander G. Ioannidis twitter account - this map:

Another article:

Interesting to note the genetic map. But as the article suggest, maybe there are some nuances that still give a reason to consider more than just the one way voyages.

In fact, since 1976, the voyages of the ancient Hawaiian Sailing Canoe HOKULE’A give much credence to the stunning ability of Polynesian navigators that clearly showed they not only knew how to sail across vast distances of the ocean. But could do so repeatedly and frequently.

I’m still amazed after all these years how little recognition is given to the Polynesian navigators for their ability to navigate over the horizon with nothing other than the information stored in their mind. Its as if European academics and historians are almost embarrassed to admit the achievements of these Pacific explorers, that they were literally generations ahead of what the best Europeans mariners were even dreaming of trying to accomplish in their day.

It’s worth remembering, Polynesians had no written language, no utensils to write with, or time pieces, of navigational tools. The voluminous details of voyaging from one island chain to another over the horizon, days or weeks away, was all accomplished by memory.

Worthy of reading for those interested is a book by David Lewis, “We, the Navigators” which was the first real stab (as far as I know) at truly discussing the details of ‘how they did it’.

Another noteworthy author who made the effort to explore the details of the Polynesian Canoes that did the exploring / voyaging was Tommy Holmes. One of his books, “The Hawaiian Canoe” is an excellent work on the subject.

I was lucky enough to meet both of these gentlemen and heard them speak at a few public gatherings in Honolulu many years ago. In the 1970’s people of Hawaii rediscovered their own Native Hawaiian culture, it was the “Hawaiian Renaissance” and an amazing time to be in Hawaii. The voyages of the Polynesian Voyaging Canoe HOKULE’A from Honolulu to Tahiti and back were earth shattering events to Hawaiians. Many of the crew on those voyages were dear friends of mine.

To this day, as a part-Hawaiian mariner who has crossed many oceans navigating the European way with a sextant, timepiece, and nautical publications … I can appreciate more than most, what the Polynesian Navigators accomplished in their day.

I’m glad somebody has pieced together another intricate detail of how the Pacific Oceanic Islands were explored, discovered, and populated. But it only underscores what amazing achievements these seafarers accomplished, likely more times than we will really ever know. Not only with repetition, but with the skilled detailed knowledge that allowed them to sail back and forth between two small specks of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that were not only separated by distant miles but several days away by sail.


madagascans are malays who are polynesian so lots of paddling there

There were different waves at different times from different archipelagoes. It wasn’t a wave but an expanding criss crossing of different peoples at different times.

Hawaii is believed to have had two settlement periods. The later settlers from Tahiti impressed their language and culture on the earlier arrivals who were not from Tahiti. In Hawaiian culture some gods were from Kahiki. A Hawaiian speaker can understand Tahitian without much difficulty.

The same for Aotealoa (New Zealand). The later arrivals were from Hawaii (yes, that’s far). You can hear it in the language. A Hawaiian speaker can understand Māori without much trouble. In Māori culture the gods were from Hawaiki.

A Tahitian speaker has some difficulty understanding Māori, and vice versa.

Not embarrassment I don’t think as much as just a failure to understand.

I haven’t really dug in to it yet but my understanding is that wrt how Europeans may have miss-interrupted Tupaia’s map could be a key point.

The book Cognition in the Wild by Edwin Hutchins has a chapter on Polynesian navigation that is worth a read. It’s available on-line as a PDF but the OCR text is a little rough in places.

With regards to the failure to understand it is in part this - from Hutchins:


The first line is: “A surprising side effect of the heavily drawn inside/outside boundary is that it reinforces the idea that individuals in primitive cultures have primitive minds”

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Yes, you are correct, Cap.

That passage you shared says it all. In fairness, the context of what he wrote … at that point in time … pretty much says it all. It’s what they genuinely believed back then.

I’ve enjoyed participating in a few discussions and lectures on what the Polynesian Voyagers did, learned some insights on how they learned to do what they did. I had an opportunity to go on one leg of an around the world voyage on the HOKULE’A but just had too many conflicts with my ‘real life’ and that adventure … which I could not do.

It was one of the few regrets in my life.

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Yes, agree.

In fact, one error I see in this new paper is that the author entirely ignores the Micronesian and Melanesian sections of the “Pacific Triangle”. What I read is that he didn’t even mention the other two portions. So I wonder if he simply neglected to do so or was entirely unaware of how the Pacific Archipelagos have been divided up by other researchers/scientists?

Perhaps an oversight? Or maybe further research is needed to include them(?) We shall see.

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Hutchins mentions Thomas Gladwin who worked with navigators of Puluwet Atoll. Another name that comes up is Ben Finney.

Gladwin wrote East Is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll

The cognitive system which enables the Puluwatans to sail their canoes without instruments over trackless expanses of the Pacific Ocean is sophisticated and complex,

edit: Reading the review I see David Burch left a review:

David Burch

5.0 out of 5 stars A classic…

Reviewed in the United States on October 21, 2012

Verified Purchase

This is a classic text on the subject it covers. It deals more with the important cultural matters and background than with specific details of actual techniques, but it provides the foundation and insights into the mentality that is the backbone to primitive navigation. All who have written on the subject, including myself, have acknowledged the great value of this early work. The big bird, by the way is Aquila, the eagle, with east represented by the bright star Altair, but since the declination of Altair is N 9 deg and not 0, we have to assume that “east” in the minds of these early navigators was some 9 deg north of what we would now call east… but they did not use compasses nor charts as we do now, so none of that matters. East is where the sun comes up on certain times of the year.

Yes, I had forgotten about Ben Finney.

Finney and Lewis were on the original voyage of the HOKULE’A in 1976, from Hawaii to Tahiti. That voyage had Mau Piaulug from the island of Satawal as the only person aboard who truly knew how to navigate by the traditional methods.

The others were there to observe and learn all they could from Mau. Another very young man was Nainoa Thompson. Thompson remains today a leader in the continuing effort to teach other the methods of Polynesian voyaging. There are probably no more than dozen individuals who could sail a canoe over the horizon and land at their intended destination today. That group is held in high regard by many here in Hawaii, at least those of us that appreciate the time and dedication it not only takes to learn but to retain those skills.

Finally, one other noteworthy person on the original voyage was Captain Dave “Kawika” Lyman. Kawika was my mentor, later my business partner and fellow Pilot member in our group out here in Honolulu. He died years later in an accident while disembarking a ship off KAUAI. You can learn more about him at

Finney, Lewis, Lyman, and Piaulug we’re all part of the original crew of the first voyage of the HOKULE’A. That trip (the first of many over the next 40+ years) would prove that Polynesian voyaging truly was an art and a technical skill that actually worked. The voyage spawned interest in a generation of new young navigators all across the Pacific. Many of them would sail aboard the HOKULE’A on many more voyages across the Pacific and around the world.

The effort to continue interest in this unique community and to cultivate understanding of our modern maritime industry today and the connection between the two, is a challenging one. I am a Board member for another non-profit educational effort that focuses on high school aged kids and fosters their interests in their own Native HAWAIIAN culture and working in Hawaii’s maritime industry.

After a decade it’s a pleasure to see young men and women I met years ago as kids, that today are sailing as Mates aboard an MM&P ships that I climb aboard each day at work.


A couple trips to Oah’u ago, I visited the Bishop Museum. If Polynesian navigation and history is a topic that interests you, I highly recommend it. At the time I went, they had a presentation at the museum planetarium all about Polynesian navigation and how the ancient Polynesians got around. It was a really informative program. Hokulei’a was built to revive the dying art and to restore interest in Polynesian maritime culture.

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If we are ever allowed to travel again I will make a point of visiting the museum.


Here’s is that pdf of Hutchins.

The OCR text is riddled with errors but an Alt-F search works good. A search for Lewis turns up about 29 hits including the section I got this:

Hutchins is a scholarly work and is tough sledding in places, still working on some sections.

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Yes the Bishop Museum’s planetarium has been instrumental in both teaching and learning the ancient art of way-finding. Had it not been for their continuous contribution in this effort, I do not think the progress would have advanced as far as it has. I’ve a few friends that work there and they are a Hawaiian treasure for all of us.