Tahiti, Hawaii, Polynesia, and Ocean Voyages Beyond
Across Humboldt’s rugged Pacific ocean, 2,500 miles away
in a Southwesterly direction, lay Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, and the
greater Polynesian islands.
The Polynesians were intimately tied to the ocean. No other culture embraced the open sea so fully with such skill and an intuitional adeptness for navigating it.
They sailed the sea at least 1,300 years before Christ– and hundreds of years before the Europeans– using voyaging canoes crafted from island materials and stone tools. The ocean was naturally integrated into Polynesian culture; the people came from small islands surrounded by vast and extreme ocean expanses.
For the continental Europeans, the ocean was looked upon as a menacing and terrifying world that only the bravest of explorers would venture out upon for any length of time. To a Polynesian islander of Tahiti, however, the world was primarily aquatic. It had always been that way for them. The Pacific Ocean covered more area than land in their remote corner of the planet.
In island culture, the navigator and his double outrigger canoe were integral to the survival of the people. As their islands became overpopulated, Polynesian navigators were sent out to sail uncharted seas to find thousands of undiscovered islands. For weeks at a time and with only a few earthly possessions taken along, they would live with their families aboard a small flotilla of boats made from wood and lashings of braided fiber in search of a new place to call home for the generations.
It was a dangerous undertaking. A mistake, an error in judgment, or any lapse of memory on the part of the navigator, no matter how small, could have deadly consequences on the open sea. The navigator’s responsibility was great and exacting. He held an enormous position of leadership, knowledge, and trust for which everyone in the clan depended upon for their mutual survival.
Thousands of miles were traversed by these ancient navigators without the aid of maps, sextants, or compasses. They navigated their canoes by the stars, swells, natural life, and other signs coming from the ocean and sky.
Asleep during the daytime, the paths of the stars and the rhythms of the sea guided these navigators by night. The color of the sky and sun, the angle of the light and shapes of clouds, the movement of the breeze and the direction from which the swells were coming, guided them by day. The ocean swells and the presence of certain sea and land birds would tell them exactly where land lay ahead. Several days away from an island still out of sight, they were able to determine the exact day of landfall.
Navigation was a precise science to the Polynesians, a learned art passed on verbally from one navigator to another for countless generations. Only the best, brightest, bravest and wisest were chosen to be navigators: taught over many years through lecture, songs, or with sticks and seashells laid out like a mental map on the sand by elders, they knew over 150 stars by name, as many islands and their chains, and the methods of vessel construction. It was all burned into the navigator’s collective memory, having no written aids to assist them during their long voyages. Stories are still told by the Polynesians today about the adventures and travels of these early explorers– whom they refer to as the Great, or Master, Navigators.
In 1768, as he sailed from Tahiti, Captain Cook was amazed to find the Polynesians could always point in the exact direction in which Tahiti and various islands lay, without the use of the ship’s charts. Unlike later visitors to the South Pacific, Cook understood that these Polynesian Great Navigators could guide canoes across the Pacific over great distances without help.
These traditional navigation skills, along with the double canoe, eventually disappeared with the emergence of Western technology, which mariners over the world came to rely upon.
By the 1970s, these Great Navigators from Tahiti and Polynesia, now old men with the millennia of experience taken from generations of explorers before them, began passing away in record numbers.
Except for Nainoa Thompson, these navigators are mostly gone, their knowledge lost forever. No longer do these ancient aquanauts– or even the newest generation of mariners– need to traverse the open seas discovering new lands for survival and home.
* * * * * *
We wonder: traveling thousands of miles in exploration across the Pacific, did these great navigators ever reach the shores of present-day California?
Recently, linguist Kathryn A. Klar of University of California, Berkeley and archaeologist Terry L. Jones of California Polytechnic State University have proposed there were contacts between Polynesians and the Chumash and Gabrielino Indians of Southern California, between 500 and 700 AD.
Their primary evidence consists of the advanced sewn-plank canoe design, which is used throughout the Polynesian Islands, but is unknown in North America — except for those two tribes. Moreover, the Chumash word for “sewn-plank canoe,” tomolo’o, may have been derived from kumulaa’au, the Polynesian word for the Redwood logs used in construction.
(This film is by courtesy of Devin Graham and best seen at a full-screen setting. For the good folks of Molokai who spent hours patiently telling us the story of these great navigators at the Coconut Grove, thank you.)