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Pacific migrations

by  Geoff Irwin

The world’s first seafarers set off from South-East Asia, sailing into the Pacific on simple rafts. Thousands of years later their Polynesian descendants began exploring further east, guided by the stars and the winds. How did they survive these journeys into the unknown? And when did they discover New Zealand, the final major land mass to be settled? Radiocarbon dating and computer voyaging have provided a wealth of insights.

The world’s first seafarers

The Pacific was the first ocean to be explored and settled, and its history is one of voyages. New Zealand, isolated far to the south, was the last substantial land mass to be reached.

There were two distinct voyaging periods.

Ancient voyaging: from Asia to Near Oceania

The origins of the Pacific’s diverse peoples can be traced back along seaways to mainland Asia. The people of the ancient period (50,000–25,000 BCE) had a palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) technology and a hunting and foraging economy. Setting off in simple rafts, they gradually dispersed through the large islands of South-East Asia. Eventually they reached Australia and New Guinea, which were then connected by a land bridge.

These ancient people ultimately travelled as far into Melanesia as the southern end of the main chain of the Solomon Islands. They made a remarkable series of adaptations to diverse environments, which ranged from tropical islands in the north to chilly Tasmania in the south, from coastline to interior, and from rainforest to near-desert.

This wider region is known as Near Oceania. It consists of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Admiralty Islands and the Solomon Islands.

From Malay to Māori: language links

All Polynesian languages belong to the Austronesian language family, now the most widely dispersed in the world – from Madagascar to Easter Island. Words for outrigger canoes with sails and paddles can be traced from Near Oceania back through the ancestral languages of island South-East Asia. The Māori words waka (canoe) and ra (sail) have the same origin as the Malay words – wangka and layar.

Recent voyaging: into Remote Oceania

Around 1100 BCE migration into Remote Oceania began. Remote Oceania lies to the east and south of Near Oceania, and consists of Melanesia south-east of the Solomons, Micronesia and Polynesia. The islands are generally smaller, with fewer food resources, and were beyond the reach of simple water craft.

However, the migrating people had neolithic (New Stone Age) technologies, and food-producing economies. Known as Lapita, they had learned to explore the open sea and survive. After millennia of developments in boat building, and accumulated experience of seafaring in Near Oceania, skilled navigators began to explore in sophisticated canoes.

Migrants voyaged east across the tropical Pacific into Remote Oceania, carrying with them domesticated plants and animals, to sustain settlement in their new island homes.

Reaching South America

Ultimately explorers arrived at South America, and then returned to their home islands in Remote Oceania with the kūmara (sweet potato) and a species of gourd. Radiocarbon dates for kūmara found on Mangaia in the southern Cook Islands show that Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000 CE.

Vikings and Polynesians

According to Icelandic sagas, Vikings from Greenland found Labrador and briefly settled in Newfoundland around the same time. The circumstances in both North and South America were similar for Vikings and Polynesians. Both travelled in small parties to the extreme limits of their range, encountering populated continents. There is little archaeological evidence of these contacts.

To New Zealand and the Chatham Islands

Around 1300 CE Polynesian settlers used subtropical weather systems to navigate their way to New Zealand. These migrants were the ancestors of New Zealand’s Māori people. At about the same time, they reached the northern satellite islands of Norfolk and the Kermadecs.

Later still, early Māori exploring eastward from New Zealand discovered the Chatham Islands, just a few centuries before the first European expeditions reached the Pacific.

Ancient voyaging in Near Oceania

The earliest humans

More than a million years ago an ancient type of human, known as Homo erectus, moved from Africa as far as the coast of mainland South-East Asia. Stone tools dated to around 800,000 years ago have been found on the island of Flores, midway between Java and Australia. This suggests that this ancient human might have been able to cross a couple of very short water gaps in the Lesser Sumba chain of islands in order to reach Flores.

In 2004 the discovery of a new human-like species, Homo floresiensis, which stood little more than a metre tall, was reported from Flores. Some bones were found together with stone tools, and the bones of the Komodo dragon and an extinct dwarf elephant known as stegodon. This new humanoid was present on the island until about 50,000 years ago, about the same time as modern humans, Homo sapiens, began to spread through the area. It seems that Homo floresiensis was descended from an early dispersal of Homo erectus and survived in isolation on this refuge island. It is thought that these humans were small in stature because of the limited food supply available in rainforest, and also because they did not have to contend with predators. They lacked the cultural skills to go any further, and so made no contribution to the settlement of the Pacific.

Water crossing by modern humans

People living in Near Oceania had highly developed artistic and linguistic abilities, as did those living in Europe at that time. In the western Pacific they also had boats. The technological ability and motivation to cross expanses of water, land and space are characteristic of modern humans.

If only a single water crossing had been necessary to get from mainland Asia to Near Oceania, then surely during thousands of generations, a few groups would have made it across somehow. In fact, a minimum of 10 water crossings were required, the longest being 100 kilometres. To make such a journey indicates intent rather than accident.

How they crossed is unclear, as no boats have been found. Adzes suitable for hollowing out logs were not yet invented. But giant bamboo, ideal for rafts, grows in the region and people at this time had good knives. Rafts would have had to be big enough to carry a viable breeding population of at least six women and their mates.

Island hopping

Large islands, many visible from one to the next, created a ‘voyaging corridor’ from mainland Asia to the end of the Solomons in Near Oceania. The alternating north-west monsoon and south-east trade winds assisted travel back and forth along the corridor.

After 20,000 BC, people traded in valuable stone, hunted terrestrial animals, and found the same seafood and edible plants as they migrated from island to island. But to the east, especially beyond New Guinea, there were fewer land animals available for hunting. There is evidence that some marsupials were taken from New Guinea to smaller neighbouring islands, where they were subsequently hunted. Trade in stone and the movement of marsupial animals mark an increasing sophistication – people were bringing resources with them rather than travelling to the resources.

By 25,000 years ago this first episode of human settlement in the Pacific was complete. The western Pacific then became a training ground for seafarers and navigators. After the climate began to warm some 10,000 years ago, the population grew, methods of plant cultivation were developed, and settlement patterns changed. Settlement of Remote Oceania was about to begin.

Into Remote Oceania: Lapita people

Around 1500 BCE a culture known as Lapita (ancestors of the Polynesians, including Māori) appeared in the Bismarck Archipelago in Near Oceania. Recent DNA analysis suggests that they originally came from Island South-East Asia, and that there was some interbreeding with people already living in the Bismarcks. Archaeological sites in the Moluccas in Indonesia are the closest forerunners to Lapita sites.

The pottery of the Lapita people was similar in form to that of their forebears, but their decorative style was an innovation that emerged in the Bismarcks. The design included stylised faces, which were most elaborate during the early years of the migration and clearly carried cultural significance. This unique style was one of several traits referred to as the ‘Lapita cultural complex’.

Lapita in Remote Oceania

The Lapita were the first people to penetrate Remote Oceania. Between 1100 and 800 BCE they spread rapidly from Melanesia to Fiji and West Polynesia, including Tonga and Samoa. Explorers and settlers travelled across an expanse of the western Pacific in only 10–15 generations. The picture we have is of a fairly small population travelling at speed.

When Lapita people migrated from Near Oceania they left behind the disease of malaria. As a result the population increased, providing extra migrants for the voyaging frontier. They established a few permanent villages in each major island group. Some settled, while others journeyed on, but contact continued between communities on different islands. This migration was not driven by overcrowding, as there was land to spare. Rather, it is likely that social factors such as prestige or curiosity were an incentive to find new islands.

Lapita people lived in villages on small islands near large ones, or on the coast of larger islands. Some had houses that were built on poles over the water. They did not colonise island groups smaller than about 1,000 square kilometres – probably for environmental and cultural reasons.

As they travelled from island to island they transported plants for cultivation, including taro, yam, breadfruit, banana and coconut. They also took domesticated pigs, dogs and fowls. The Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) was either brought or came as a stowaway on the canoes. As bones of domesticated animals have proved hard to find in the Lapita sites of Fiji and West Polynesia, some researchers think that the earliest Lapita people to reach these eastern islands were foragers rather than gardeners, and that the food plants arrived later.

The migrants caught diverse seafoods with nets, spears and hooks. The large numbers of native birds and animals on the new islands provided a reliable food supply in the early years, as the people established their economies. But many species, including large flightless birds, a land crocodile and giant iguana lizards, were defenceless against this new human predator, and soon became extinct.

The Lapita moved into West Polynesia. It was a long time before people migrated to the smaller islands further east.

From West to East Polynesia

Emergence of West Polynesian culture

Some 3,000 years ago (around 1000 BCE) the distinctive Polynesian culture and language began to emerge in West Polynesia. Decorated Lapita pottery evolved into Polynesian plainware, and there were other changes in technology and settlement.

Island geology and migration

There are two main types of island in the Pacific: continental and oceanic. Continental islands lie in the western Pacific, and oceanic islands in the eastern Pacific. On maps a geological division called the Andesite Line runs between the two regions; oceanic islands lie to the east of the line.

Continental islands are partly submerged continents. They have diverse rock types, better soils and more resources, making long-term settlement easier.

Oceanic islands sit on top of volcanic seamounts that rise from the ocean floor. They may be high, low, or atolls just above sea level. With more restricted rock types, soils and resources, they may have been more difficult to colonise successfully.

As voyagers began to migrate eastward they settled the continental islands first. These islands include all of Island South-East Asia; Australia; Melanesia; and the westernmost islands of Micronesia (Palau, Yap and the Marianas) and Polynesia (Tonga, Futuna and Uvea).

West Micronesia was settled by 1300 BCE – about the time the Lapita communities were established in the Bismarck Archipelago. Migrants spread through island Melanesia and West Polynesia during 1100–800 BCE. Samoa, which is close to Fiji and Tonga, was also settled then.

The oceanic islands of East Micronesia were not settled until perhaps 1,000 years later. Another millennium passed before East Polynesia was settled.

Migration to East Polynesia

Radiocarbon dating reveals that there were no human settlements in East Polynesia for 2,000 years after the Lapita arrived in West Polynesia. Some time after 1000 CE people began to spread through East Polynesian archipelagos, settling the closest first. There is debate about when the Southern Cook and Society Islands were first settled. 

Settlement stages

As well as the geological drawbacks of the eastern oceanic islands, there are other possible reasons for the long period that elapsed before migration to East Polynesia began.

Better canoe technology might have been necessary before further ocean crossings could be made. This is unlikely, however, as there are no marked changes in wind or weather between West and East Polynesia. There may in fact have been settlement further east during this time, as there is evidence of forest clearance and increased erosion on some islands. However, it is unclear whether humans caused this.

The oceanic islands are more isolated than the continental islands – eastward, there is proportionately more sea than land. Although closer oceanic islands, such as the Cooks, remained feasible targets, such islands may have proved harder to live on rather than harder to find. It is possible that exploration and discovery continued, but actual migration slowed.

The Polynesians, descendants of the Lapita, developed the ability to survive on more remote islands, and to reduce their isolation by voyaging between colonies.

East Polynesia was settled from West Polynesia, and in turn New Zealand was settled by seafarers whose most likely origin was somewhere in East Polynesia. These people developed their own culture and came to be known as Māori. Today, Māori regard East Polynesia as their homeland, which they call Hawaiki.

Pacific navigation and exploration

Early theories

The first explorers had no maps or navigational instruments, and there has been spirited debate among sailors and scholars as to how they settled the region. Early theories ranged from mythical hero navigators who discovered new lands and returned home with sailing directions, to accidental voyagers who drifted away from islands to which they could not return. Complicating the argument was the myth of a South American origin, advocated by some 19th-century scholars and popularised in the 20th century by the archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl.

Recent understanding

We now know that migrations were deliberate, because they involved taking the people, plants and animals needed to establish sustainable colonies. There have been many experimental voyages in replica canoes and rafts, as well as other ‘computer voyages’. Computer experiments using data for winds and currents show that the major voyages could not have occurred by drift.

Search and return

Lapita navigators explored in only one direction – south-east, against the prevailing trade winds. All island groups in island Melanesia and West Polynesia that lie in a south-east direction have Lapita settlements. None of these settlements have been found on other islands.

At predictable times each year the trade winds would reverse from south-easterly to westerly. At these times canoes could set off with the wind behind them, and explore to the east. When the winds reverted to south-easterly, a safe return could be made.

The exploration strategy was to search and return. All the occupied island groups acted as broad safety nets for returning canoes.

Survival, not speed

The human instinct for survival meant that exploration almost certainly occurred in stages, using different sailing strategies:

  • Against the wind – this was the initial search-and-return voyage, to find out whether there were islands on the exposed side of the home island.
  • Across the wind – once navigators had found new islands, they could then begin to sail safely across prevailing winds. They would know that on their return they could stop at these islands if they could not make it all the way home.
  • Downwind – this happened at a later stage. Sailing downwind usually requires returning by a different route, and it took time for explorers to discover the intermediate islands that made these routes possible. Sailing downwind also indicated that navigators understood how to use the various weather systems.

The possible role of El Niño in Polynesian migration

During the last 5,000 years there have been periods when El Niño weather patterns became more frequent. The patterns occur when waters of the tropical eastern Pacific warm up. This causes the prevailing south-easterly trade winds to weaken, while the frequency of westerly winds increases. It is possible that El Niño made some long Polynesian canoe voyages into the east easier than they might have been during normal Pacific weather patterns. Some researchers think El Niño winds played an important part in the settling of the Pacific. They argue that more frequent westerly winds would have been indispensable, as they think that canoes lacked the ability to sail in any direction other than downwind. But this view is not supported by the very first European explorers’ descriptions of canoes – they witnessed Polynesians sailing their vessels across the wind and even slightly upwind.

East to the empty Pacific

The last migrations were to the distant points of Polynesia – Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand – and to South America.

The eastern Pacific is virtually empty, and huge areas of ocean had to be crossed to find remaining islands. The chance of any voyage resulting in a new discovery was low. It would have been pointless to send migratory canoes carrying people, plants and animals. Probably, exploring voyagers made discoveries and then returned home; migrating voyagers could then set off, sailing directly to known destinations.

The further east you sail in the Pacific the more difficult it is to navigate. Over time, voyagers had learnt how to navigate this part of the ocean. Computer-simulated voyages suggest that homecoming canoes must have been increasingly reliant upon latitude sailing: returning navigators would use zenith stars (which at their highest point shine directly over a known island) to reach the latitude of their destination while still upwind of it. They would then run downwind to reach the island.

In prehistoric voyages from central East Polynesia to islands at its distant margins, canoes generally made round trips – the prevailing winds did not normally allow voyagers to return directly. They had to stop at islands along the way, or use different weather systems.

Southward to New Zealand

Lying in a band of prevailing westerly winds far south of the tropics, New Zealand presented a severe challenge to Polynesian navigators. A good way to reach the country was to sail with easterly tail winds across the top of an anti-clockwise rotating high-pressure system. Early summer, before the cyclone season, is an ideal time to make the journey. Two replica canoes, Hōkūle‘a and Hawaiki nui, did just this in November 1985.

Another approach is to use northerly winds behind a high-pressure system or on the leading edge of an advancing frontal system, a cycle which recurs about once a week.

Exploring canoes may have followed migrating birds, as told in Māori tradition. The long-tailed cuckoo comes to New Zealand from tropical Polynesia in October, and shearwaters would have been observed flying south in September. People would have known that land lay in that direction, but not how far away it was. The first landfalls were probably on the northern North Island, with the rest of the country being explored later.

The Chatham Islands

The Chatham Islands were settled from New Zealand by Māori. The islands were the extreme destination in prehistoric migration, because they lie in a belt of westerly winds that would have been very difficult to return against. Not surprisingly, they were the last Pacific islands to be reached, some time after 1300.

The influence of sea-level changes on Pacific migrations

Around 10,000 years ago, warming global temperatures caused polar ice to melt and the world’s sea levels to rise. Some 6,000 years ago sea levels reached a high point of a few metres above present levels, and over several thousand years they slowly dropped. It probably took many hundreds of years for habitable dry islets to form on coral reefs. In the case of high islands the falling sea levels allowed the formation of extensive coastal flats favourable for settlement. Recent geological research across many Pacific archipelagos suggests that the timing of falling sea levels influenced the timing of Pacific migrations: as sea levels lowered there were not only more islands to settle, but also better settlement sites on already settled islands.

Māori ancestors

A homeland region

At the time of the settlement of New Zealand, there was a voyaging and trading sphere in East Polynesia within which ideas and cultural traits were shared and spread. All the available evidence of artefacts, language, biology and tradition suggests that this was the Māori homeland. It consists of the Society Islands, the southern Cook Islands and the Austral Islands in French Polynesia.

Even so, specific archaeological evidence is scarce. The shank of a fishing lure of black-lipped pearl shell, found at Tairua in the Coromandel, is one of a very few items from New Zealand archaeological sites that were actually brought from Polynesia.

It is unlikely that the ancestors of Māori came from only one location. DNA from New Zealand’s Pacific rat shows diverse lineages from the Society and Cook Islands. This suggests that several canoes came from a number of sources. They may have come over several generations, or even centuries. A study of human DNA also suggests that there was a minimum of 70–100 women as founding ancestors. Several canoes, possibly coming from several locations, would be needed to bring this number of people.

Return journeys?

For a time, the Kermadec Islands and Norfolk Island were occupied, possibly as stopover points for canoes returning to East Polynesia. However, there is no archaeological evidence of return voyaging. There is evidence of direct New Zealand–Norfolk connections. These ‘mystery islands’ were empty when Europeans arrived. By then, the settlers in New Zealand had been cut off from the outside world for centuries.

A temperate land

Polynesian ancestors of the Māori arrived to a vast, cool archipelago covered in forest, with abundant wildlife. There were moa species (weighing from 20 to 250 kg) and other now extinct native birds including a swan, a goose, and Haast’s eagle (the world’s largest), probably a predator of the moa. Sea mammals, particularly seals, were plentiful on the coast, as were fish and shellfish.

Polynesians introduced the dog and the rat; if pigs and fowl had been on the canoes, they did not survive. The settlers also brought with them taro, yam, paper mulberry and the Pacific cabbage tree (Cordyline fruticosa). The kūmara (sweet potato) and gourd came from South America via East Polynesia. It was too cold for plants such as coconut, breadfruit and banana.

Why explore?

While research suggests how the Pacific was probably settled, it is harder to explain why.

Suggested motives

Among the motives that have been put forward are the need for trade and the desire of junior kinship lines to establish seniority on new islands.

A common reason for seeking new lands is overcrowding. But early Pacific migrations were not forced by the need for more space. In Lapita times population numbers were lower than they would ever be again. Stories of voyages of exile, overpopulation and warfare all belong to the end of Polynesian prehistory, long after the islands were settled. There is also little support for the Pacific being settled by accidental drift voyages – it was clearly intentional.

Sailing away – again

Voyaging in the Pacific had declined by about 1500 AD. In early European times it survived only in three main areas where islands remained very accessible to each other: the Societies and western Tuamotus; Micronesia; and the Fiji/Samoa/Tonga triangle.

In recent decades there has been a huge revival of interest in navigational arts and once again the seaways are being crossed by traditional-style canoes.

Another motive is the need for more resources. On new islands there were huge numbers of seabirds, fish and turtles, as well as other wildlife. As these were used up or brought to extinction, people would once again need to travel on. But this pattern is more typical of people who hunt and gather their supplies than of the sophisticated food cultivators who settled the Pacific Islands.

The questing spirit

It may be that Pacific migration was driven by impulses which were both universal and personal – discovery, prestige, exile, a sense of adventure, wanderlust, curiosity. Technological innovation and exploration have also been essential features of human behaviour for more than a million years.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Geoff Irwin, 'Pacific migrations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2021)

Story by Geoff Irwin, published 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 8 Feb 2017