This website is a free e-resource, from the book entitled 'Music, Lapita, and the Problem of Polynesian Origins' by Mervyn McLean. The complete text may be read either online or in paginated form as a downloadable pdf here.


Chapter 9



The two most enduring views of Pacific voyaging are arguably those of Sir Peter Buck on the one hand and of Thor Heyerdahl on the other. In 1938, with his evocatively titled book Vikings of the Sunrise Buck created the image of intrepid Polynesians roaming the Pacific in their mighty double canoes, consistent with Percy Smith's still entrenched idea of a Maori fleet which colonised New Zealand. Less than ten years later, in 1947, Thor Heyerdahl captured world attention with his voyage on the raft Kon Tiki, with which he sought to prove the possibility of Polynesian settlement from South America.

Although winning popular support, Heyerdahl's ideas provoked a storm of academic criticism at the time and, as will be seen in Chapter 11, food plant and other evidence has shown these criticisms to be justified.  

Next among nay-sayers of Buck's widely accepted view of Polynesian settlement was the New Zealand historian Andrew Sharp, with a 1956 book, Ancient Voyagers of the Pacific, in which he proposed a radical new theory of accidental rather than deliberate voyaging. Although accidental voyages could be shown to have taken place, and may even have been frequent, the idea was not tenable as a sole mechanism for settlement, prompting Sharp to modify his stance a few years later in a second book with the similar title of Ancient Voyagers in Polynesia (1963). This time Sharp put the case for one-way rather than two-way voyages, maintaining the concept of no return except for short distances. Academic debate over Sharp's ideas was intense and lasted for well over a decade with much of the argument enshrined in a volume on Polynesian Navigation edited by Jack Golson which ran for three editions (Golson 1962, 1963, 1972), with content focussing on topics still relevant today such as Polynesian navigational method, and sailing characteristics of Oceanic canoes. At the same time attention was turning to the practicalities of putting such matters to test by trying out traditional methods of navigation, and by building replica canoes and learning how to sail them as Heyerdahl had done for his Kon Tiki raft. The two persons most involved were David Lewis and Ben R. Finney. In 1965 Lewis sailed a catamaran from Tahiti to New Zealand using traditional navigational methods, and in 1972 published a book, We the Navigators, in which he reported the results of practical sailing experiments. Meanwhile, in 1966, Finney began sailing-trials of a replica he had commissioned of a traditional Hawaiian double canoe, and continued such experiments for the next ten years. The culmination of his efforts was in 1976 in association with Lewis, when a similar canoe was sailed from Hawai'i to Tahiti and back, using traditional navigational techniques on the outward leg of the journey. An account of these methods, along with details of the canoe's construction (which inevitably had to make use of modern materials), its sailing characteristics, and difficulties encountered along the way, are set out by Finney in an article, (Finney 1979). 

Limited as they were to both double canoes and Eastern Polynesia, Finney's experiments provide no answers to questions arising from Lapita studies or the problems of first settlement of Remote Oceania. In particular, what is the explanation for the initial swift expansion of Lapita potters out of the Bismarcks? Was the same true of the almost equally rapid settlement phase of Eastern Polynesia? And why was there a pause of a thousand or more years between the two events? A reasonable supposition might have been that Lapita potters already had the double canoe. But there is no other reason to suppose so. And if this were true, why didn't the Lapita people continue their explorations immediately after reaching Western Polynesia? Moreover, linguistic reconstruction of canoe terms reveals nothing relating to double canoes during the critical period, and it would seem that Lapita potters were in possession of craft with features no more sophisticated than simple single outriggers and sprit sails.

The next question to be asked is whether Lapita canoes were able to sail into the wind. As has been seen in Chapter 8, Oceanic canoes fall ethnographically into two categories of lateen rigged and sprit rigged of which the former were late on the scene in Polynesia and made use of a sailing technique called "shunting", and the latter used the more familiar technique of "tacking" to sail into the wind. Until recently, it has been taken for granted that tacking was the method used by sprit-rigged vessels in Oceania, if only because the direction of colonisation has universally been from west to east against the prevailing wind, which for most of the year blows from the east.

In a 1992 book, Geoffrey Irwin (Irwin 1992:Chapter 4,) has provided an answer to most of the above questions by proposing a settlement strategy of initial exploration and return by Lapita potters. Rather than risk their lives by setting out with no reliable means of return, Irwin has suggested they began their journeys by sailing against the wind and then simply cruised back home downwind with news of the outcome, whether or not it proved successful. In this way knowledge would accrue of suitable islands, and properly prepared colonising voyages could follow the initial ones. The alternative for vessels incapable of tacking would be not to travel at all unless the wind happened to be blowing in the right direction. But this could not have been the method used because obsidian finds at numerous Lapita sites have shown that trading of obsidian was common throughout the Near Oceania area, requiring journeys to and fro that would not have been dependant on occasional wind changes.

Reversals of the trade winds do, however, take place from time to time and are the subject of an alternative to Irwin's theory which has recently been proposed by Anderson et al. (2006). These changes of wind direction are especially prevalent during periods known as El Nino, when such winds are less sporadic and blow for longer. In their paper, Anderson et al. have used results from climate-change research to correlate historical incidence of El Nino weather conditions in the tropics with revised radiocarbon dates for Pacific settlement, showing apparent bursts of settlement activity at such times, when opportunities for downwind exploration would have been greater. If, as these authors argue, early Polynesian vessels were incapable of tacking, the infrequency of such episodes would account for the periodic nature of settlement. But problems with the idea are not limited to known Lapita movements in Near Oceania. They become an order of magnitude greater when applied to the huge sea gap between Western and Eastern Polynesia, where, because of subsequent separate development of the two areas, the journey must have been one-way. Rather than a suicide El Nino mission, it is more likely to have been an expedition of the kind proposed by Irwin that happened to extend beyond the point of no return. Nor does the El Nino idea account convincingly  for the extremely long duration of the "pause" in Western Polynesia before settlement of Eastern Polynesia took place. A more credible explanation for the pause is that it was indeed a product of the primitive nature of the earliest canoes, but not necessarily because they were unable to tack. The greater likelihood is that they were barely capable of transcending the 850 km sea gap which was the final barrier on the way to Fiji, but could not manage the much greater distance to Eastern Polynesia and this was finally overcome as a result of development of the double canoe.

A plausible sequence of events, from pre-Lapita times through to the colonisation of Eastern Polynesia, taking all chapters of the present book into account, will be presented in Chapter 15.