A Chapter of Human Migration: Polynesian Seafaring

By Zhaoyang Liu

Hokule’a, a modern recreation of the traditional Polynesian boat — Wikimedia Commons

Humans migrated across the globe in a variety of ways, one of which was sea navigation. Sometime between 3000 B.C.E. and 1000 B.C.E., the progenitors of Polynesian people spread from Southeast Asia throughout the Pacific. On their vast seafaring journeys, they developed intuitive navigation methods. Their primary vessel of choice was a double-hulled canoe, on which they traveled without sailing conventions such as the compass. The Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), founded in Hawaii, created a modern iteration of the aforementioned canoe, called the Hokule’a. In 1976, she completed a voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti with her sailors only using traditional Polynesian techniques. These such procedures are described in the video embedded below:

On May 18, 2014, the Polynesian Voyaging Society embarked upon a three year journey across the globe, again employing only their traditional ships and techniques. However, this time the Hokule’a was accompanied by a sister ship, the Hikianalia. Together, the two ships and their crews set sail from the Hawaiian island of Oahu, completing a worldwide journey called the Malama Honua by June 17, 2017. Embedded below is an NPR report about the undertaking. It was published in 2014, when the vessels first began their journey.

Reflection Questions:

1. Nainoa Thompson, president of the PVS, stated in the NPR feature above that “for me [Polynesian Voyaging is] ancestral… It’s a science, and it’s an art that’s traditional, that’s about 3,000 years old. It’s part of human migration throughout the Pacific. It allows me to be here and be who I am as a Native Hawaiian — because without it, we couldn’t make it to Hawaii.” Based on Thompson’s reflection, why is the history of migration important to Polynesians? What role does their seafaring tradition play in their identity? In a broader sense, what might cause individuals to develop a keen interest in their origins and the journeys of their ancestors?

2. What can the legacy of Polynesian sailing teach us about the process of human migration? Why are these modern-day recreations of bygone journeys valuable for exploring how humans have moved throughout the world?

3. How might the PVS voyages teach both outsiders and younger people of Polynesian descent about the culture of ancient seafaring Polynesians? In what ways could knowledge of their traditions be important?