Saturday, July 2, 2022

Austronesian Voyages

Aloha and Welcome to this chapter segment in the LEGENDARY SURFERS series on Austronesian Voyages.

As noted in Austronesians, there is a gap commonly referred to as the “Long Pause” between the first populating of Western Polynesia including Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa among others and the settlement of the rest of the region. In general this gap is considered to have lasted roughly 1,000 years. The cause of this gap in voyaging is contentious among archaeologists with a number of competing theories presented including climate shifts, the need for the development of new voyaging techniques, and cultural shifts.

After the Long Pause, dispersion of populations into central and eastern Polynesia began. Although the exact timing of when each island group was settled is debated, it is widely accepted that the island groups in the geographic center of the region (i.e. the Cook Islands, Society Islands, Marquesas Islands, etc.) were settled initially between 1,000 and 1,150 CE, and ending with more far flung island groups such as Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island settled between 1,200 and 1,300 CE.

As surfers, we can’t help but wonder: where along this migration did riding on wooden surfboards begin? Or, did it not begin until Polynesians settled Hawaii? Or, did Austronesian board riding exist even before the migrations?

Although Polynesia is usually credited with being the birthplace of stand-up surfboard riding, University of Hawai‘i anthropology professor and early surf historian Ben Finney noted that surfing was not limited to Polynesia. In his Surfboarding in Oceania: Its Pre-European Distribution, Finney wrote that an “extensive examination of the available sources has shown that surfboarding was known in Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. In fact, surfboarding was practiced in Oceania from New Guinea in the West, to Easter Island in the East, and from Hawai‘i in the North to New Zealand in the South.” Finney cited sightings of various forms of primitive surfing in places as diverse as Owa Raha in the Solomon Islands (observed in 1949); to Yap in the Western Carolines (observed by a colleague); and south in the New Hebrides and Fiji. “With reservations,” Finney concluded, this “wide distribution would seem to indicate that surfboarding is a general Oceanic sport, rather than a specifically Polynesian sport.”3

Decades after writing that, however, Finney further clarified that – lest one be easily tempted to look elsewhere than Polynesia for wave riding standing up on wooden boards – “Indigenous board-surfing in the Pacific was most highly developed on islands within the Polynesian Triangle bounded by Hawai’i, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and Aotearoa (New Zealand). Early reports of surfing along the shores of islands from New Guinea to Polynesia indicate that this sport, at least in its rudimentary form, was part of the common heritage of the seafaring people who spread across the Pacific thousands of years ago.”4

Undeniably, surfing grew in a culture that called the ocean its home. It was practiced by a people who were humankind’s first true ocean traversing seafarers. The Polynesian ancestral migration via ocean-going canoes was the greatest dispersal of any nautically-based culture the world has ever seen.5

The Polynesians are a race of people that I.C. Campbell, author of A History of the Pacific Islands noted, grew from “a small population of mixed origins, developing distinctive racial and cultural characteristics” around 1500 B.C.7 This was about the same time that advanced ship-building was taking place in the Mediterranean and Scandinavia.8

The ancestors of the Polynesians developed the knowledge of sea craft using a single outrigger canoe, becoming a seafaring people in that way. By making voyages between the large islands of Indonesia, they developed the basic sailing knowledge that was ultimately to lead their larger canoes to the farthest lands in the Pacific Ocean.9

A key to the long voyages of the Polynesians across the Pacific Ocean was trigonometry. “It is the conclusion of British, German, and U.S.A. navies’ experts,'' writer and visionary Buckminister Fuller wrote in his book Critical Path, “that celestial – offshore – navigation began with the South Pacific’s island peoples. Much has been published on this subject. What is not as well published is the fact that the navigators on all those islands live entirely apart from the other humans in their native groups.”10

“Offshore,” Fuller continued, “with no familiar landmarks to guide them, early water-peoples learned through necessity and invention how to sail their ships on courses running between any two well-recognized stars co-occurring diametrically opposite one another above the sky’s circular horizon at various given times of the night and reliably reappearing in the same pattern in any geographical area on any given day of the year. Any two prominent, easy-to-recognize stars in the sky gave the unique course for the ship to follow. The point on the mast, B, at which the bright star in the sky toward which they sailed occurred at any given time of observation, and the point C, at which the boom of their sail contacted the mast, and the point A, at which the stern-standing or sitting helmsman’s eye occurs, gave the three corner points of the right triangle whose three angles, A, B, and C, always sum-totaled 180 degrees. This 180-degree sum-total angular constancy of any plane triangle formed the basis of all plane trigonometry.”11

“If one of the three angles of a triangle is a right angle,” Buckminister Fuller went on, “then all the variation takes place only between the two other angles, whose angular sum will always equal that of the constant right angle (ninety degrees).

“With their ship’s (or raft’s) masts mounted perpendicularly (at right angles, vertically) to their ship’s or hull’s waterline, they steered the ship at night by keeping the mast always lined on the approaching star – as long as the Earth’s rotation allowed the sight of that star to remain in a usable line of sight. The angle of elevation of the approached star could be sightingly measured by the helmsman observing, from the stern, the star’s ever-changing height on the mast as sightingly identified, for instance, by the mast’s sail-luff rings, which elevation altered at the Earth revolved during the night within the spheric array of Universe stars. With days, months, years, and lifetimes of such observing, measuring, and calculating, the sea-people gradually evolved trigonometry.”12

1st Migration

As previously mentioned in Polynesian Beginnings, there are three general theories on the timeframe of the Austronesian migrations across the Pacific. I subscribe to the “Slow Boat” model and use it here. No matter what model you think most likely, the first migration of the ancestors of the Polynesians eastwards involved neither large numbers nor one time period. Rather, “small groups, owing to pressure from behind, moved out and effected landings” on islands east of the Malay Archipelago, separately.13

Further anthropological “work in Melanesia and along the western frontier of Polynesia has confirmed,” wrote Ben Finney in 1994, “that Polynesia was first settled from islands to the west. Through a type of pottery, decorated with distinctively stamped patterns and called Lapita after a site in New Caledonia where it was found in abundance, archaeologists have been able to trace the migration of seafaring peoples who were directly ancestral to the Polynesians from islands of the Bismarck Archipelago off the northeast coast of New Guinea eastward through Melanesia to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa at the western edge of what was to become Polynesia, where they appear to have arrived between 1500 B.C. and 1000 B.C.”14 about the time the Phoenicians were developing phonetic spelling.15

“In islands already occupied,” speculated Pearl S. Buck, “the immigrants exercised diplomacy or force to maintain their occupation. The first pioneers were followed up by other groups.... Thus there were movements of small groups or expeditions seeking new homes and such movements probably extended over a fair period of time. When the opposition encountered in the various islands was strong, the [migrant] ... group was forced to move on after periods of armed rest. So the movements to the east continued until unoccupied islands were discovered that could be converted into permanent homes.”16

I.C. Campbell wrote that the “island groups of Tonga, Samoa and Fiji were... settled at about the same time, by a highly mobile population which ranged widely over the western Pacific. Having reached the Fiji-Tonga-Samoa area, the settlers then lost contact with the islands to the west. For perhaps a thousand years, these people developed a distinctive culture based on the resources available close at hand...”17

The seafaring migrants who left a trail of Lapita pottery along their route were the immediate ancestors of the Polynesians. They were not, themselves, identifiably Polynesian. Present indications are that ancestral Polynesian culture, the proto-Polynesian language, and the characteristic Polynesian physical type developed in and around the archipelagos of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, not on any other distant archipelago or adjacent continental shores. “Strictly speaking,” wrote Ben Finney, “there was no migration of Polynesians to Polynesia... although their immediate ancestors came from the Western Pacific, the Polynesians came from Polynesia.”18

“Archaeologists cannot yet specify the exact seaway by which these Lapita voyagers entered the Pacific,” Finney also noted, adding “the most likely route was from the island region of northeast Indonesia and the southern Philippines eastward along the northern coast of New Guinea to the Bismarck Archipelago. Beyond this, however, the trail of people speaking Austronesian languages ancestral to these seafarers is still subject to much speculation...”19

2nd Migration

From Melanesia, a second phase of migration began around 300 B.C. and lasted to about 300 A.D.20 with Polynesians landing at Hiva – known also as the Marquesas Islands.

“Expeditions well equipped with food plants, domesticated animals, craft specialists, and, of course, both women and men,” wrote Campbell, “arrived almost certainly from Samoa, at the Marquesas, a distance of over 3000 kilometers, against the prevailing winds and ocean currents, certainly by the fourth century A.D., probably earlier.”21

If we are to imagine what it must have been like for a Polynesian pioneer group to sail the open ocean of the Pacific – a as did James Michener who wrote of one such fictitious journey in the opening chapters of his novel Hawaii22 and Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck) in his 1938 classic Vikings of the Sunrise23 – we can see that by stages and numbers of generations, Polynesians developed into seamen of marked ability and courage.24

“The canoes were navigated,” wrote Dennis Kawaharada of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, “without instruments by expert seafarers who depended on their observations of the ocean and sky and traditional knowledge of the patterns of nature for clues to the direction and location of islands. The canoe hulls were dug out from tree trunks with adzes or made from planks sewn together with a cordage of coconut fiber twisted into strands and braided for strength. Cracks and seams were sealed with coconut fibers and sap from breadfruit or other trees. An outrigger was attached to a single hull for greater stability on the ocean; two hulls were lashed together with crossbeams and a deck added between the hulls to create double canoes capable of voyaging long distances.”25

“They used the single canoe for ordinary purposes,” wrote Buck, “but for voyages of any extent they used a second canoe in place of the ama or outrigger float. If they were acquainted with metals when they left Asia, their metal tools had long ago worn out and could not be replaced... They fell back upon stone to hew down trees and shape the wood into the seacraft required. In coral atolls where there was no stone they shaped the shells of the Tridacna into adzes. To supplement the paddles, they used triangular sails plaited from the leaves of the Pandanus. They had studied the signs of the skies and the vagaries of the ocean. They had named the stars that gave them direction and they were acquainted with the winds which blew from various points.”26

“The voyaging was by no means easy,” Kawaharada continued. “There was always a danger of swamping or capsizing in heavy seas, of having sails ripped apart or masts and booms broken by fierce winds, of smashing the hulls against unseen rocks or reefs; and while there were grass or leaf shelters on the decks of voyaging canoes, the voyagers were often exposed to the wind, rain, and sun, with only capes of leaves or bark-cloth wrappings for protection. A stormy night at sea, even in the tropics, can be brutally chilling. If supplies ran short during a long voyage, and no fish or rainwater replenished them, then starvation became a possibility. As a tradition about a voyage from Hiva to Rarotonga puts it: ‘The voyage was so long; food and water ran out. One hundred of the paddlers died; forty men remained.’“27

As navigation aids, “They had a calendar based on the stages of the monthly moons [mahina],” wrote Peter Buck, “and an annual cycle that counted from certain positions of the Pleiades [huihui or makali’i].28 They knew the seasons of the westerly winds and the run of the constant trades. They knew the hurricane season and so could divide the year into a period when it was unsafe to brave the sea, and when good fortune might sit in the belly of their sails.

“Above all they had leaders who had a supreme confidence in themselves and an intelligent priesthood who could not only placate the gods, but, more important still, read the signs of the heavens from the stars, the moon, the Milky Way [ka’u – something stretching overhead],29 and even the Magellan clouds as guiding signs across the trackless ocean. They gazed east at the ‘hanging skies’ where heaven and earth met, and there grew up the urge to pierce through to the lands which they were convinced lay on the trail of a guiding star. Perhaps some push from behind sent an early wave in small and detached groups voyaging east into the unknown. That the push or the urge was great we may assume from the fact that they took their women folk with them. Thus by stages the islands of western Polynesia were discovered and settled. Perhaps quarrels as to chieftainship and prestige led small groups, perhaps even in single canoes, to make further expeditions to the east. So intervening islands and the central region of the Society Islands became occupied.”30

From “traditional narratives,” continued Buck, and “the distribution of certain cultural elements,” it is known that these “earlier people were the pioneers who reached various islands and settled down without thought of returning whence they came... the early people had a simpler form of social organization in which the blood kinship of all members of the tribe was stressed. They deserve admiration for their achievements in peopling Polynesia. Unfortunately, the records of their voyages have been submerged by the traditional narratives of those who came later...”31

“The ethno botanical evidence reflects this progression of settlement from the Western Pacific islands,” wrote Dennis Kawaharada, “through central Polynesia (the Cook Islands, Society Islands, and Hiva), and then to Hawai’i. Of the 72 plants identified as having been transported to Polynesia by people, 41-45 are found in the Cook Islands, the Society Islands, and Hiva; 29 are found in Hawai’i, including taro, breadfruit, sugar cane, bamboo, ti, yam, banana, ‘awa, paper mulberry, kukui, coconut, gourd, sweet potato, and mountain apple. The settlers also brought the pig, dog, chicken, and rat along with them. The transport of plants and domesticated animals on voyaging canoes suggests that the early settlers planned to colonize Hawai’i, after having discovered its location.”32

3rd Migration

Those who came after the second migration became known as the Polynesians of The Long Voyages – foremost of those in the oral traditions of Polynesia. The Long Voyages were voyages “made from central Polynesia in organized expeditions under the leadership of ali’i or chiefs, with learned priests as navigators. They discovered unoccupied islands and also rediscovered islands already occupied by earlier people of the same stock.

“The voyages were actuated in the first instance by the spirit of pure adventure, the desire to break through the ‘hanging skies.’ In many instances, the voyagers returned to central Polynesia and not only related their discoveries but gave the directions by which the new lands might be reached. The crews consisted of picked men whose shoulders could bear the strain of the deep sea paddle. They were trained to endurance and to self-control with regard to food and water. They were brave men who feared neither adverse elements nor hostile forces. If they weathered the storm and emerged to a fair haven, all was well. If they were engulfed in the waters of the great ocean, they went down as men. Such were the terms applied to the early voyagers in the native narratives and today they give a thrill of pride to those of us who come of such stock.”33

The earlier voyagers of the Long Voyages took no women or food plants with them. The later voyagers took not only women, but also “cultivable food plants,” wrote Te Rangi Hiroa, “and so the coconut, taro, yam, and sweet potato were spread through Polynesia. Where people of the early period were in occupation, conflict sooner or later occurred but in the end the ali’i chiefs of the later wave acquired dominance and rule. Though traditional narratives state that the earlier wave was conquered and practically exterminated, it is certain that such accounts have been exaggerated. The two peoples intermarried and fused. The earlier people formed the mass of the common people while the later ali’i families became the leaders and rulers...”34

The third and final trans-Pacific migration began soon after the Polynesians sank their roots into Hiva [Marquesas Islands], around 300 A.D.35 From the Marquesas, the settlement of eastern Polynesia followed over the next few hundred years. Expeditions of migration set out from time to time, and in due course came to major locations like Easter Island, Tahiti, and the Hawaiian Islands.36

The first canoes reached Hawai‘i by at least A.D. 400.37

The people who first settled Hawai‘i came from Hiva. Evidence of this is both linguistic and biological. “Indeed,” wrote archaeologist Patrick Kirch, “the close relationship between the Hawaiian and Marquesan languages as well as between the physical populations constitutes strong and mutually corroborative evidence that the early Hawaiians came from the Marquesas.”38

“The Marquesan language,” wrote Kawaharada, “has been grouped under the category Proto Central Eastern Polynesian, along with Hawaiian, Tahitian, Tuamotuan, Rarotongan, and Maori. Vocabulary comparisons seem to indicate that the dialect of the Southern Marquesan Islands (Hiva Oa, Tahuata, Fatu Hiva), is the closest relative of Hawaiian language.”39

Hiva is certainly the best departure point for sailing to Hawai‘i from the South Pacific and archaeological evidence connects Hawai‘i’s early settlers with Hiva adzes, fishhooks and pendants found at an early settlement site at Ka Lae on the Big Island.40 However, it is probably too simplistic to attribute the settlement of any island group to a single migration from another single island group.41

From Hawaiian legends recorded by Abraham Fornander in An Account of the Polynesian Race, Its Origin and Migrations, it is postulated that Hawai‘i was first discovered by a Polynesian by the name of Hawai‘i-loa.42 The legend and geneology of Hawai‘iloa is, indeed, the most accepted of those credited for discovering Hawai‘i.43 Two others mentioned in Polynesian legends for the act include a Tahitian and a Maori:

A Tahitian legend is retold in Teuira Henry‘s Ancient Tahiti. It attributes the discovery of Hawai’i to a voyaging hero named Tafa’i (Kaha’i, in Hawaiian). Tafa’i “cut the sinews” of the islands of Tahiti, fished along the islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago, and then “went exploring the trackless ocean northward.”44

“The divergence of a Polynesian ancestor from a general easterly route to a northeast course that would lead to Hawai’i,” noted Buck, “is also recorded in Maori tradition. The date of this voyage has been placed by Percy Smith as the year 450 A.D.,”45 about the time of Attila’s death and the sacking of Rome by the Vandals.46

Whoever was the first, it was in the later part of this third period of migrations, that Tahiti became a base for further expeditions to Hawai‘i, the Cook Islands and New Zealand. “By about 800 A.D., all the habitable land in the eastern Pacific had been found and occupied. Some of these lands were, obviously, extremely small and remote.47 In terms of world history, the only other significant seagoing explorations on the planet at that time had been made by Irish travelers reaching Iceland and Vikings discovering the Faroe Islands between Norway and Iceland – relatively modest discoveries when compared to the Polynesian migrations.48

Early 1900s surfer and first person to write a book about surfing and its history, Tom Blake, marveled, “No more daring and courageous sea journeys are to be found in history.” 49


1 Hopupu, vs. emotionally excited, as with hate, love, lust. See Pukui, Mary Kawena and Elbert, Samuel H. Hawaiian Dictionary, ©1986 by the University of Hawai’i, Honolulu, Hawai’i. See also Lueras, Leonard. Surfing, the Ultimate Pleasure, ©1984, Workman Publishing, New York, p. 31 

2 Finney, Ben R. and Houston, James D. Surfing, The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, © 1966, C.E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont. This work is based on Finney’s 1959 M.A. thesis at the University of Hawai‘i. He was assisted in the writing of the book by Houston, pp. 24-34. At the time, the estimate was 1500 B.C. to 400 A.D. See also Finney, Ben and Houston, James D. Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport, ©1996. Published by Pomegranate Artbooks, Rohnert Park, California, p. 21. Estimate adjusted for 2000 B.C. to before 400 A.D.

3 Finney, Ben Rudolph. Surfboarding in Oceania: Its Pre-European Distribution, ©1959. See also Lueras, p. 34.

4 Finney and Houston,1996, p. 22. See map of the Polynesian Triangle, same page.

5 Stecyk, C.R. “Hot Curl,” The Surfer’s Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 1994, p. 64.

6 Buck, Peter H. “Polynesian Migrations,” chapter two of Ancient Hawaiian Civilization, “A Series of Lectures Delivered at the Kamehameha Schools,” ©1965, C.E. Tuttle Company, Inc., Rutland, Vermont. Te Rangi Hiroa was better known in the outside world by his European name. Ninth Printing, 1981, p. 23.

7 Campbell, I. C. A History of the Pacific Islands, ©1989, University of California Press, Berkeley, California, p. 31-32. See also Man’s Conquest of the Pacific, the Prehistory of South East Asia and Oceana, by Peter Bellwood, ©1979, Oxford University Press, New York. This is the definitive work on the prehistory of the Pacific. It includes a discussion of the various alternative theories on Pacific Islander migrations.

8 Grun, Bernard. The Timetables of History, A Horizontal Likage of People and Events, ©1991. Simon and Schuster, New York, p. 5. Finney and Houston’s (1966) timeframe for Polynesian specific dates.

9 Buck, 1965, p. 23.

10 Fuller, Buckminister. Critical Path, “Humans in Universe,” p. 29.

11 Fuller, pp. 29-30.

12 Fuller, p. 30.

13 Buck, 1965, pp. 23-24.

14 Finney, 1994, p. 28. See sketch of Lapita designs on p. 27.

15 Fuller, p. 348.

16 Buck, 1965, pp. 23-24.

17 Campbell, 1989, p. 31-32.

18 Finney, 1994, p. 29.

19 Finney, 1994, p. 26. See distribution map of Austronesian language groups and oceangoing canoes, Figure 2, p. 16.

20 Begining date taken from Kawaharada, Dennis, “The Polynesian Settlement of the Pacific,” 3.1.2., ©1995 by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

21 Campbell, 1989, p. 32. See migration map on p. 33.

22 Michener, James. Hawaii.

23 Buck, Peter. Vikings of the Sunrise, ©1938, Lippincott, Philadelphia, PA.

24 Bryan, E.H. “Astronomy and the Calendar,” chapter 23 of Ancient Hawaiian Civilization, A Series of Lectures Delivered at the Kamehameha Schools, ©1965, C.E. Tuttle Company, Inc., Ninth Printing, 1981, p. 252.

25 Kawaharada, 1995.

26 Buck, 1965, pp. 26-27.

27 Kawaharada, 1995.

28 Bryan, 1965, p. 252. The “seven little sisters” appearance in November marked the beginning of the Polynesian year and was a season of great festivity.

29 Bryan, 1965, p. 252.

30 Buck, 1965, pp. 26-27.

31 Buck, 1965, p. 27.

32 Kawaharada, 3.1.2, “The Polynesian Settlement of the Pacific.”

33 Buck, 1965, pp. 27-28.

34 Buck, 1965, p. 28.

35 Date taken from Kawaharada, 1995.

36 Campbell, 1989, pp. 32-33. Thor Heyerdahl’s epic raft voyage of the Kon Tiki popularized the possibility of an emigration from South America, but nearly all scientific evidence points in the opposite direction.

37 Finney & Houston, 1996, p. 21.

38 Kirch, Patrick. Quoted in Kawaharada. Kirch has done extensive archaeological work within the Polynesian Triangle. See also Green, Roger, 1966 for linguistic sub-groupings within Polynesia

39 Kawaharada, 1995, 3.1.3, “The Settlement of Hawaii.” See Elbert, Samuel H. “Lexical Diffusion in Polynesia and the Marquesan-Hawaiian Relationship,” Journal of the Polynesian Society, Volume 91, Number 4, December 1982, p. 505.

40 Kawaharada, 1995, points out that archaeology of the Pacific is “still in its infancy” and that more evidence is needed to be conclusive.

41 Kawaharada, 1995.

42 Fornander, Abraham. An Account of the Polynesian Race, Its Origin and Migrations, and the Ancient History of the Hawaiian People to the Times of Kamehameha I,” Vol I-III, ©1969, C.E. Tuttle Company, Inc., Rutland, Vermont. Fornander has Hawai’i-loa coming from the Marshall Islands in Micronesia.

43 See Chapter 4, Ancient Polynesian Legends, “Hawai’iloa.”

44 Kawaharada, 1995, 3.1.1, “Exploration and Discovery.”

45 Buck, 1965, p. 24.

46 Grun, 1991, p. 30.

47 Campbell, 1989, p. 33. Kawaharada has the discovery of Hawai‘i at around 400 A.D.

48 Grun, 1991, circa 800 A.D., p. 87.

49 Blake, Thomas. Hawaiian Surfriders 1935, ©1983, published by Mountain and Sea, Redondo Beach, California. Originally entitled Hawaiian Surfboard, published in 1935, Paradise of the Pacific Press, Honolulu, Hawai‘i, p. 31.

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