Polynesian Voyaging Traditions Exploring the Pacific from west to east
The story of Pacific exploration shows we are all migrants to this land.
We explored. We returned. We settled … in this land the first inhabitants called Aotearoa, and on this coast, Tairāwhiti, upon which the sun shines across the water.
According to Western science, the Pacific was the first ocean to be explored; eastward migration occurring over thousands of years. But the isolated islands of what was to become New Zealand, in the ocean’s cold, south-west corner, were the last to be settled.
Well before Polynesian voyagers came here, ancient voyagers from Asia sailed simple rafts from island to island, reaching Near Oceania (Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands) from 50,000 to 25,000 BC. They traded in stone, hunted animals and gathered seafood and local plants.
In about 2000 BC, the Lapita people – the prehistoric ancestors of Polynesians and Māori – ventured south and east from around Taiwan. From 1200 BC, they were the first to reach Remote Oceania, sailing waka further east into Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. These islands were much further apart and more difficult to find.
The Lapita mixed with other Melanesian peoples already living in Near Oceania. Voyaging on single-hulled outrigger waka and bringing pigs, dogs, chickens, yams and bananas, they eventually settled in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga in West Polynesia, where the Polynesian culture emerged from around 1000 BC.
The Great Migration
During the first millennium AD, their Polynesian descendants in double-hulled waka gradually discovered remote islands to the east, to populate islands from Hawaii to Easter Island. These skilled navigators used the stars, sun, subtropical weather systems, ocean swells and currents, and bird migration to navigate their way to New Zealand and return home safely.
Groups then set off to start new settlements.
They used and distributed obsidian, spread Oceanic languages and invented a new style of pottery, characteristically decorated with faces and geometric shapes. This pottery and radiocarbon dating evidence helped trace their migration – as far east as Samoa and ending in about 650 BC. The Lapita were possibly the most advanced people of their day in seamanship and navigation, reaching out and finding islands separated from each other by hundreds of miles of empty ocean.
By 1000 AD, they had reached South America, and returned.
New Zealand was the last major land mass to be settled, around 1250–1300 AD. These migrants were the ancestors of New Zealand’s Māori people. They came from a region in East Polynesia that Māori later called Hawaiki. They brought dogs and rats, taro and kūmara and found plenty of wildlife, including birds now extinct: the moa, a swan and the giant Haast’s eagle.