Hawaii History - Polynesian Migration

Archaeological discoveries provide this general sequence for the settlement of Polynesia:

300 B.C. or earlier - seafarers from Samoa and Tonga discovered and settled the Marquesas, and Tahiti.

200 A.D. or earlier - voyagers from central or eastern Polynesia discovered and settled Easter Island.

200 A.D. or earlier - voyagers from the Cook Islands, Tahiti, and Marquesas settled Hawaii.

The Polynesian voyagers in this last group loaded up their canoe with some people, some animals, some plants, some food and water, and headed out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They had more than 2,000 miles to go before they would reach Kauai.  But they didn’t know that.  They didn’t know what lay ahead of them, or whether there was an island at all.  These people had always sailed West to East, and now they were headed North.  Were they thinking exploration, conquest, and colonization.  Or was it escape from famine, drought, and over population.

Surely, they knew the voyage was going to be tough.  There was danger of swamping or capsizing in heavy seas, of sails ripping apart, or masts breaking by fierce winds. There was danger from exposure to the wind, rain, and sun, with only leaves or bark cloth for protection.  A stormy night at sea would certainly be demoralizing with all the pitching and rolling, and rolling and pitching.

Then, they would run straight into the Doldrums.  But they didn’t know that. This is an area near the equator where North and South trade winds converge and move upward instead of along the surface, leaving a canoe becalmed in an eerie stillness.  If supplies were running short on a long voyage, or fresh fish were not easily caught, or rainwater was not collected, starvation was a real possibility.

But these people believed in family ('ohana). The 'ohana of old made it possible for the Polynesian voyagers to venture forth to unknown lands. This seafaring 'ohana was able to travel thousands of miles in double-hulled canoes because they were in touch with themselves, nature, and their gods. They felt safe because they were never separated from their makers and ancestors because the gods showed themselves everywhere; in the sky, in the earth, and in the sea.

Their voyaging was all the more remarkable in that it was done in canoes built with tools of stone, bone, and coral. Done in canoes navigated without instruments, by seafarers who depended on their observations of the ocean, sky, and patterns of nature for clues to the direction and location of new islands.

But first, before the ocean voyage, they had to build the canoe. And before building the canoe, and before going up to the mountain forests to find the right tree, they needed to prepare a pig, a red fish, a black fish, and various other things as offerings to appease the forest deities. When these things were ready they would hope for dreams in their sleep. If they were blessed with good dreams they would go on an expedition up to the mountain forests to find a tree.

When they arrived in the woods they sat and waited for the bird which is the guardian spirit of canoe makers to help them select the right tree. For several days they followed the bird from tree to tree, taking note of its actions and behavior, for they knew that if the bird perched on a tree and started pecking at the bark, the wood of that tree was not solid. If it perched and did not peck at a tree, the tree would be inspected and passed over because the trunk was short, or twisted, or too large in diameter, or growing where it could not be felled properly. When the bird finally perched on a beautiful, straight tree, they would dig an imu (underground oven) and start a fire with a chip from the chosen tree to cook the offerings. When all the offerings were cooked, and prayers were offered to the various canoe-building gods, they would eat some of the food, and throw some to the gods. When all these rituals were attended to, the tree was ready to be cut.

It would take one man almost a week to fell a tree. After felling came cutting off the tree top, hewing, hauling, curing, smoothing, painting, assembling, consecration, and launching, all performed with much attention paid to the numerous canoe gods. There was the god of canoe builders, and the god who steadies the canoe while being carried down steep slopes, and later the god who aides in righting and bailing of capsized canoes.

The tool used for cutting was a stone adze, ground until sharp and lashed to a handle. These people knew nothing of metal tools. A strong, flexible cordage was made from twisted rolled coconuts fibers and used to lash canoe parts together to withstand the phenomenal stress of an ocean voyage. Coconut cordages proved quite durable and could not be damaged by the sun or the sea. In anticipation of voyaging long distances, two hulls would be lashed together with crossbeams and a deck added between the hulls to create a double canoe.

They also added sails, or mats woven from coconut, pandanus, or hala leaves. Paddling was an auxiliary power used when there was no wind, and to launch or land canoes. The amount of food and water required to sustain energy for paddling what ended up being two thousand miles may have exceeded the carrying capacity of the canoe.

For the beginning of the voyage there would have been a number of fresh food items - sweet potatoes, yams, taro, breadfruit, drinking coconuts, bananas, and sugar cane. The Polynesians preserved the rest of the meals needed for a long canoe voyage by drying or fermenting either raw or cooked food. Compact, light, nutritious and almost spoilage free, the voyagers’ diet would have consisted of fish and other marine organisms, bananas, sweet potatoes, yams, breadfruit, taro, pandanus, and other favorites. These were kept in bamboo sections, gourds, or coconut containers. The transportation of plants, as well as pigs, chickens, and dogs on voyaging canoes suggests that they planned to colonize, after discovering whatever it was they were going to discover.

A long voyage was a physical and mental challenge, particularly for the navigator. To navigate miles of open ocean without a compass or chart required an extensive and intimate knowledge of the ocean and sky. Polynesian navigators used the rising and setting points of celestial bodies for directions. At sunrise they would look at the character of the ocean and memorize where the wind was coming from. They would analyze the shape of the waves, and when the sun got too high, they would steer by the waves. When the sun went down they would look at the shape of the waves again.

At night they used the stars. They knew about 150 by name, where they came up, where they went down, and they continued listening to what the ocean was telling them. Signs of approaching land included clouds piled up over islands; reflections from white sand or green water of a lagoon; distinctive patterns of ocean swells created around islands; the behavior of sea-life like dolphins; and seabirds such as the manu-o-Ku (fairy tern) and the noio (noddy tern), which go out to sea in the morning to feed on fish and return to land at night to rest. They go about 130 miles out in the morning and come back at night. Their wings flutter when these birds are fishing, but when the sun goes down, they will rise up from the water so it can see, and go straight back to land. The diurnal flights of such birds are the most useful signs since their flights to and from an island gives a fairly specific direction to the wayfinder.

The ethnobotanical evidence reflects this progression of settlement from the Western Pacific islands, through central Polynesia, and then to Hawaii.  Experience had taught the Polynesian that very few edible plants grew on previously uninhabited islands, so they brought along a traveling garden.  To Hawaii they brought about two dozen varieties of plants.  Seeds, slips, cuttings, tubers and young plants were swathed in fresh water-moistened moss, then swaddled in dry ti-leaf, kapa (bark cloth), or skin from the banana tree.  Finally, these bundles were put in lauhala (pandanus leaf) casings and hung from the roof of the canoe’s hut.  Here they would best be protected from lethal salt water and spray.  Some of their canoe plants included...

  • Hau - wood for canoe outriggers, bark for cordage and kapa, flowers for medicine.
  • Olona - fibers used for cordage.
  • Kukui - (candlenut) - wood for canoes, nuts used for lighting and food and lei, roots for black dye.
  • 'Awa - (kava) - roots used as a beverage & ceremonial drink.
  • Niu - (coconut) - nuts used for food, drink, and oil, fibers for cordage, leaves for thatch and baskets, wood for spears and house construction.
  • Ki - (ti) - leaves for clothing, food wrappers, and thatch, roots baked for food and medicine.
  • Noni - (indian mulberry) - used for medicine.
  • Kalo - (taro) - roots and leaves a staple food.
  • Ko - (sugarcane) - stem used for food and medicine.
  • Mai'a - (banana) - fruits used for food, leaves for food preparation.
  • Uhi - (yam) - tubers a food staple.
  • Ipu - (gourd) - gourds used for containers and musical instruments.
  • 'Uala - (sweet potato) - tubers and leaves used for food.

These Polynesians developed seafaring expertise, navigation skills, and canoe technology that enabled them to voyage back and forth among the islands of the Pacific.  From their natural surroundings they assembled koa trees for hulls, coconut husks for lashings, and vegetable fibers for sails.

Their motivation for the exploration was probably a universal one: the search for new lands for settlement and new resources for survival.  With their expertise in fishing, farming, and Malama'aina (caring for the land) they were able to develop healthy, stable communities on islands with limited resources.  These extended families, or 'ohana, worked the land and sea and stayed on the new island until their canoe was filled with food and fish, and some could return the same way they came.

These Polynesians discovered and settled remote, widely scattered islands in an ocean of over 10 million square miles.  This migration began at a time when Europeans, with more resources at their disposal, were sailing close to the coastlines of continents.  At a time before the Europeans developed navigational instruments that would allow them to venture out into the open ocean.  At a time more than a thousand years before Captain Cook was born.  At a time when migration involved finding and fixing in their mind the position of islands, sometimes less than a mile in diameter on which the highest landmark was a coconut tree.

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Comments 4 comments

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Hawaiian Scribe 18 months ago from Hawai'i

Mahalo nui for this great hub. I pinned your hub to my pinterest boards: "Native Hawaiians" and "Polynesians in Oceania". https://www.pinterest.com/hawaiianmania/

Aloha, Stephanie

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