Early Uses of Pacific Migration Routes

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Polynesia is a beautiful place, and it's no surprise people have settled across the various islands. But, how did their ancestors manage to settle on islands thousands of miles from mainland Asia? In this lesson we'll explore Pacific migration across ancient history.

The Peopling of Polynesia

Today the region known as Polynesia is one of the premier tourist destinations in the world, drawing people with the allure of white sands and warm waters. Turns out, people have been trying to find the best way to get into Polynesia for millennia. Starting thousands of years ago, prehistoric people began exploring the then-uninhabited islands of the Pacific Ocean. Along the way they developed some incredibly sophisticated sailing and navigational techniques and discovered that Polynesia has some pretty nice places to live.

Crystal clear blue waters and white sand greeted explorers
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The Lapita People

So, who were these first people to start really exploring and settling on the islands of the Pacific Ocean? The earliest solid archaeological evidence dates back to around 1600-1500 BCE and is identifiable by not just the indication of human settlements but a very distinct style of stamped pottery. Archaeologists call this the Lapita culture, and they seem to be the first inhabitants of these islands and the ancestors of most modern Micronesian, Polynesian and some Melanesian peoples.

So, where did the Lapita culture come from? The oldest major Lapita sites are located around New Guinea, and ethno-linguistic evidence suggests their ancestors were from Taiwan. From New Guinea, the Lapita people started sailing east, hopping from island to island. As they moved, they set up permanent settlements on many islands. For a long time, archaeologists assumed that the process of settling all of these islands would up taken upwards of a millennium to accomplish. Recently however, archaeological evidence has suggested something interesting; that the Lapita people may have made it from New Guinea all the way to the islands around Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa by around 800 BCE. Given that they seem to have started spreading out from New Guinea around 1300 BCE, this would mean that the Lapita people traveled roughly 3,500 miles in only about 400 years, importing their culture, permanent settlements, and that distinctive pottery along the way.

The general range of the Lapita culture
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After around 500 BCE, the Lapita culture faded away, and was replaced by the direct ancestors of modern Polynesian and Micronesian people. These people pushed further and further out, reaching the Marquesas Islands, smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, by roughly 200 CE, Hawaii and Easter Island by 400-500 CE, and finally New Zealand by roughly 800 CE.

How They Got There

So, let's do the math on this. The journey from New Guinea to Samoa is a journey of thousands of miles, hopping from island to island. From the Marquesas to New Zealand was a journey of thousands of miles over open ocean. How did the Lapita and later Polynesian peoples manage to cross vast amounts of harsh, dangerous ocean without either getting lost, drowned, or both? It would have been impossible with the development of extremely impressive sailing and navigational techniques. Let's start with their boats. Europeans wouldn't develop ships that could sail across open ocean until the 15th century CE, and required the use of massive ships to do so. The Lapita and Polynesians developed something much more efficient millennia earlier. Called outrigger canoes by modern people, these deep-water sailing canoes were built with supports coming off the sides that increased buoyancy and stability. The canoes were long, thin, and generally could hold a great many people. Many had sails to catch the wind, and contained double hulls, the main watertight body of a ship. They were sophisticated enough to transport entire societies across thousands of miles of ocean, yet light and relatively affordable to construct.

Etching of a Polynesian sailing canoe
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