Stone Age GPS and the Discovery of Hawaii
Polynesians settled Hawaii during the 400’s C.E. They came by double-hulled sailing canoe from the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. The trip probably took months, and survival required substantial supplies of food and fresh water. Even then death loomed for any canoe the gods didn’t favor with rain, fish, and good winds. It’s hard enough to imagine making the trip when you know the destination. But how did the Polynesians ever discover Hawaii in the first place?
Hawaii isn’t on the way to or from anywhere else the ancient Polynesians traveled. In fact, it’s arguably the most isolated spot on Earth and lies more than 2,000 miles north of the Marquesas and the rest of the ancient Polynesian homeland in the South Pacific. Nor is it likely currents carried lost fishermen to Hawaii. Pacific currents wouldn’t have done the job. And the canoe would’ve carried a crew of skeletons by the time it washed up on Hawaii’s beaches, since fishermen don’t tend to carry months of food and fresh water.
That means Hawaii’s discovers probably sailed into the unknown north on purpose, on a planned expedition. That sounds like madness if you’re simply relying on luck and your eyes to find new islands. It would have been madness for any of the more technologically advanced peoples of the 400’s, or of the next ten centuries. But the ancient Polynesians—despite living in a Stone Age society without writing, maps, or instruments—had a suite of island-finding techniques that let them see beyond the horizon.
- Birds: Migrating birds probably revealed that northern exploration might be worthwhile. The Bristle-thighed Curlew and the Pacific Golden Plover fly north from the South Pacific every year, suggesting land beyond the northern horizon. (And in fact both stop in Hawaii on their way to Alaska.) And birds probably served as radar once a voyage of discovery had begun. Shorebirds fly away from land in the morning and back in the afternoon, so sightings suggest the direction of land less than a day’s flight away. It’s even likely the explorers brought shorebirds with them and set them loose now and again. Like Noah’s dove, a bird that had found land nearby would not return.
- Wave Patterns & Debris: To most sailors on the open sea, a wave is a wave and says nothing about land beyond the horizon. But islands do impact wave patterns, and researchers think the Polynesian navigators could detect subtle changes in the waves and guess the direction of distant land. Floating debris suggests land too, particularly vegetation.
- Clouds: Clouds often catch a reflection of islands beneath them, and an expert navigator might see a telltale hue in distant clouds. The red glow of Hawaii’s fresh lava might have enhanced that effect, allowing sightings from even further off. Plus, clouds stack up over high mountains, like Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, suggesting an island to a sharp-eyed navigator, from more than a hundred miles away. Clouds may even have traced the pattern of warm and cold currents that form around Hawaii, creating another clue for sharp-eyed navigators.
Other techniques probably played a role. We don’t know. We do know that the Polynesians saw more in the sea and sky than we do. In an age when the rest of humanity rarely sailed beyond sight of shore, the Stone Age Polynesian navigators had a global positioning system stored in their brains.
- Notes on the Discovery and Settlement of Polynesia, from Mālamalama / The Light of Knowledge: The Magazine of the University of Hawai’i, April 2011 — republished online by the The Polynesian Navigation Society.
- A Concise History of the Hawaiian Islands, by Dr. Phil Barnes (1999).
© 2011 by David Carthage. All rights reserved.