In 1976, University of Hawaii professor Ben Finney set out in a traditional Polynesian, twin-hulled canoe on the 2,700-mile-long voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. His goal: to prove that ancient island seafarers—who, by 1200AD, had ventured across the vast Polynesian Triangle that stretched to Easter Island and New Zealand, and even into southeast Asia—were skilled navigators who used an elaborate nautical system based on the stars, wind, migrating birds, and sea swells.
Early European explorers, unfortunately, were not nearly so complimentary to their Polynesian counterparts. Unable to fathom that the “stone age” people they encountered across the Pacific could have knowledgeably sailed the region, let alone purposely settled it, these Western adventurers of the 15th and 16th centuries concocted a variety of theories. The most widely held hypothesis was that of a massive, yet-to-be-discovered continent called Terra Australis, which allowed ancient Polynesians to walk across land from Asia to the Marquesas and beyond.
It was in search of this “Great Southern Continent” that British naval officer James Cook set out on his first voyage aboard HMS Endeavour in 1768. King George III commissioned then-Lieutenant Cook, a skilled cartographer and mathematician, to lead a scientific expedition following the transit of Venus while seeking proof of the posited Terra Australis. During a four-month-long stay in Tahiti, Cook befriended a local, Tupa’ia, who shared his people’s navigational know-how.
Cook concluded that the Tahitians’ ancestors were indeed able to sail great distances in their double canoes—the first European to do so. A comparison of vocabulary words gathered from earlier sailings showed similarities between the Tahitian language and those used on islands as far away as the “East Indies,” or modern-day Indonesia. Yet one issue still perplexed him: how could the Polynesian migration move eastward against the prevailing easterly trade winds?
“How shall we account for this Nation spreading itself so far over this Vast ocean?” the now Captain Cook journaled in 1778 during his third expedition. It was during this last voyage that he landed in Hawaii (which he named the “Sandwich Islands,” after the Earl of Sandwich), and realized the extent of the Polynesians’ seafaring realm. Yet while the tropical winds made it relatively easy to sail westward from the Americas, they rendered it nearly impossible to venture eastward into the Pacific from Asia.
The answer: Between November and January, the typical trade winds lessen, replaced by westerly gusts. Early Polynesians used these seasonal wind reversals to steadily move from one island group to another. Two hundred years after Cook’s query, professor Finney followed this ancient wisdom and helped secure the Polynesians place among the world’s greatest explorers.