The Settlement of Hawaii and the Surprising El Nino Effect

May 15, 2014 by


In 1778, his third voyage (shown on the map in blue) took Captain James Cook thousands of miles north from the Society Islands to an archipelago so remote that even the old Polynesians on Tahiti knew nothing about it. Imagine his surprise when the natives of Hawaii came paddling out in their canoes and greeted him in a tongue familiar from his explorations of scores of islands across the breadth of the Pacific, from the lush New Zealand to the lonely wastes of Easter Island. Marveling at the similarity of Polynesian languages, he wrote in his journal: “How shall we account for this Nation spreading it self so far over this Vast ocean?” That question has perplexed many inquiring minds for centuries. Indeed, who were these inhabitants of the Hawaiian islands? Where did they come from? And when? How did these Neolithic people manage to cross the huge expanses of the Pacific, to find and to colonize the seven islands of the Hawaiian archipelago, much as their ancestors did with hundreds of other far-flung, and often tiny islands scattered across an ocean that spans nearly a third of the globe?

The history of Ancient Hawaii, which refers to the period before the unification of the Kingdom of Hawai’i by Kamehameha the Great in 1810, is shrouded in mystery that is only gradually being solved by comparing evidence from oral Hawaiian legends, archeology, linguistics, and, most recently, genetic studies. Most scholars agree that the first humans arrived to Hawaii from the Marquesas Islands no later than 800 CE, and possibly as early as 300–500 CE, though the more precise dates remain subject to a great deal of debate. But a more significant dispute concerns the issue of whether Hawaii was settled only once, in that early period, or whether a later group of settlers arrived from elsewhere in French Polynesia, such as Tahiti, Raiatea, or Bora Bora. This second wave of settlement is said to have occurred in the 11th-12th century CE. Some of the proponents of this “multiple-migration theory” believe that the Tahitians conquered the earlier inhabitants of the islands, who became known in Hawaiian legends as Menehune, a people, sometimes described as dwarfs, who live in the deep forests and hidden valleys of the islands, far from the eyes of other humans. Hawaiian legends also speak of Hawai’iloa (after whom Hawaii was named) and his sons Kaua’i, O’ahu, and Maui (after whom three of the seven Hawaiian islands are named), as well as of the navigator-priest Pa’ao. Some Hawaiians believe that Pa’ao was a real historical figure, while others consider him purely mythical. According to the legends, Pa’ao arrived from a land called Kahiki, which in Hawaiian lore applies to any land outside of Hawaii. However, linguistic consideration allow us to associate this legendary land with Tahiti; the /t/ sound in most other Polynesian languages corresponds to /k/ in Hawaiian.

Early historians, such as Abraham Fornander and Martha Beckwith, subscribed to this Tahitian invasion theory, but later historians, such as Patrick Vinton Kirch in his 2001 Hawaiki, abandoned the idea of an invasion and argued instead for an extended period of more peaceful contact. Evidence for such a prolonged contact comes from a number of diverse sources, including linguistic borrowings from Tahitic languages, uniquely shared mtDNA sequences in rats (who must have traveled with humans), and some archaeological style changes. Contrary to the Tahitian invasion theory, more recent approaches hypothesize a slow but steady growth in population and the size of the chiefdoms that led to a creation of a complex social system with a ruling class and religious leaders, associated with elaborate temples called heiau, constructed from lava rocks. Diversified agroforestry and aquaculture provided sustenance for the early Hawaiians, and tropical materials were adopted for housing. Contemporary research also indicates that Tahitians were not the only late arrivals to Hawaii, and that waves of settlers from Samoa and Tonga also seem to have arrived on Hawaiian shores, contributing to the cultural, linguistic, and genetic composition of the islanders.


Whether the Hawaiian Islands were settled in one or many waves, such long-distance voyaging from “the central Eastern Polynesian core became less frequent after about 1200 CE, and was little more than a memory encoded in Hawaiian oral traditions by the time of European contact” (Kirch 2001, p. 80). Nonetheless, Hawaiian history is inextricably tied to that of the Polynesian Triangle, a region in the Pacific Ocean with three island groups at its corners: Hawaii as the northern apex, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the southwest. The other major Polynesian cultures within this great triangle include those of the the Marquesas, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, and the Cook Islands. Peoples across the Polynesian Triangle share similar languages derived from a common ancestral tongue, as well as cultural traditions, such as religion, social organization, myths, and aspects of material culture. These similarities led to the belief that all Polynesians have descended from a common ancestral group whose homeland is in Southeast Asia.


However, controversy was stirred in the mid-twentieth century by the Norwegian ethnographer and explorer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002), who put forward the Kon-Tiki hypothesis, according to which previously uninhabited Polynesian islands had been colonized by the people from Peru. Heyerdahl’s evidence came from a number of different sources. Incan legends speak of “white men from Lake Titikaka” migrating to the Pacific coast and then disappearing into the sea; Heyerdahl proposed that these mysterious people voyaged to Polynesia. Archeologists have long pondered the similarity of the enormous stone statues and platforms of Polynesia with those in Peru; though archeologists find strong support for the Southeast Asian origin of Polynesians in the development of Lapita pottery. Botanical evidence also goes both ways: some plants—taro, yams, breadfruit, coconuts and sugarcane—arrived to Polynesia from Southeast Asia, yet sweet potatoes (distinct from yams) clearly came from South America.*


Yet, the strongest card in Heyerdahl’s deck of evidence was—or so he thought!—the fact that it is relatively easy to sail from Peru to Polynesia by using the major westward currents and winds of the South Pacific. Because of the Coriolis effect, the major winds and currents in the northern hemisphere spin clockwise (think, for example, about the Gulf Stream) and in the southern hemisphere – counterclockwise. As a result, the future Polynesians sailing from one archipelago to the next, deeper and deeper into the Pacific had to face both the major currents and the predominant (trade) winds, as can be seen in the following maps:



To support his hypothesis, Thor Heyerdahl mounted a veritable scientific experiment: if the Neolithic inhabitants of Peru could have sailed to the Polynesian islands, so could he and his team. To show how this could be done, Heyerdahl and his men build a raft from balsa logs cut in Ecuador, and on April 28, 1947 they sailed from Callao (Peru) propelled by the major oceanic currents and winds. On August 7 of the same year, they made landfall at the Raroia Reef in Eastern Polynesia. Heyerdahl then wenton to argue that sailing to Polynesia in the opposite direction (i.e. coming from Southeast Asia and going in the west-to-east direction) would have been far more complicated, if not impossible. Finding tiny motes of land in the great blue void of the Pacific was harder still. Consider this: when Magellan’s fleet armed with top-notch navigation gear of the day crossed the Pacific in 1520-21 CE, they went nearly four months without setting foot on land, missing the Society


Islands, the Tuamotus, the Marquesas, and several other archipelagoes. Many of Magellan’s sailors died of thirst, malnutrition, and scurvy before their fleet reached the Philippines. The early Polynesians, on the other hand, found nearly every piece of land there was to find, although it took them centuries to do so.

Polynesian seafarers were undoubtedly very skilled ocean navigators, able to travel long distances at a time when Western boats rarely went out of sight of land. The Pacific adventure began long before the Austronesian people reached Polynesia, since the end of the Solomon island chain was then the edge of the inhabited world. The nearest landfall, the Santa Cruz Islands, lies almost 230 miles further out to sea, and for more than half of this way the Austronesian sailors would have been out of sight of land, with empty horizons all around them. And yet that passage, which they completed around 1200 BCE, was just the warm-up. Reaching Fiji, as they did a century or so later, meant crossing more than 500 miles of oceanic expanse. But these brave seafarers pushed on, sailing out beyond Melanesia and western Polynesia and hence into the central Pacific, where distances are reckoned in thousands of miles, and tiny specks of land are few and far between.


The early generations of Austronesian mariners who worked their way through the archipelagoes of the western Pacific making short crossings to islands within sight of each other must have developed some amazing navigation skills that were passed from generation to generation by oral tradition, often in the form of song. In order to locate directions at various times of day year-round, Polynesian navigators had to memorize such important facts as the position and motion of specific stars, and where they would rise and set on the horizon. They needed to be aware of the directions of swells on the ocean, and how the crew would feel their motion. They kept track of weather patterns. While voyaging through the 65-million-square-mile expanse of the Pacific, Austronesian seafarers would look for subtle clues to find land. Volcanic eruptions, especially common in Melanesia, would sent plumes of smoke billowing into the stratosphere and rain ash for hundreds of miles around. Wave patterns would be disturbed by distant, invisible atolls. An afternoon formation of clouds on the horizon could point toward an island in the distance, not visible over the horizon (illustrated with the photo on the left, taken by me on approach to Maui, showing a different cloud formation over land). Turtles, coconut shells, and twigs carried out to sea by the tides could also indicate proximity to land. It appears that ancient Polynesians were even able to taste the ocean water and tell slight changes in the water salinity that land was nearby (this is made easier by the fact that fresh water is less dense and thus collects on the surface of saltwater). Birds were especially helpful to the ancient Polynesian navigators. Smaller birds in the sky usually indicated the proximity of land. The migratory paths of larger birds “connected the dots” between various island archipelagoes, allowing ancient mariners to follow those flyways. And as in the story of Noah’s Ark and the dove, ancient Polynesians would sometimes take a frigate bird (Fregata) with them: these birds refuse to land on the water as their feathers will become waterlogged making it impossible for them to fly, so when the voyagers thought they were close to land, they would release the bird, which would either fly towards land or return to the canoe. Unsurprisingly, these amazing way-finding techniques, along with outrigger canoe construction methods, were kept as guild secrets; skilled navigators had a very high status in Polynesian society because in times of famine or other difficulties they were indispensable for acquiring aid or evacuating people to neighboring islands.


Yet, while ancient Polynesians had unsurpassed navigational abilities, they faced certain limitations imposed by oceanic currents and winds, as well as by the kind of sea craft that they used (see Pawley and Pawley 1998). For a while, such problems cast doubt on all the previously collected evidence in support of the Southeast Asian homeland hypothesis. Although nobody has ever found one of the ancient Polynesian double-hulled canoes whole or any rigging, even later canoe models would not allow their users to sail too close to the direction facing the wind (or as sailors call it, “close hauled”). Probably, the best these ancient Polynesian could do was to sail at 60 degrees to the wind (“close reach”), but that would lengthen the distance they would have to traverse by as much as three-fold. However, an ancient Polynesian canoe simply could not accommodate enough supplies for a trip of that length; yet, we know that they did manage to bring along everything they would need to build new lives: their families and livestock, taro seedlings and stone tools—but how?


The solution becomes apparent if we consider climatic patterns in the Pacific. From time to time, El Niño—the same climate disruption that still affects the Pacific Ocean today—would reverse the regular east-to-west flow of currents and trade winds for weeks at a time, allowing the Polynesian mariners to sail from one archipelago to the next, if they were lucky enough to find small specks of land in the vast expanse of the ocean, of course. Recent discoveries in climate studies provided support for this El Niño theory: data obtained from slow-growing corals around the Pacific and from lake-bed sediments in the Andes of South America points to two series of unusually frequent El Niños coinciding with the timing of the two waves of Austronesian expansion, as proposed by archeologists. These discoveries had the effect of turning the tables on Heyerdahl’s strongest argument: in effect, it is too easy to sail from Peru to Polynesia, while a possible return trip, in case no land was discovered, would be nearly impossible. But if the settlers of the Polynesian islands came in the eastward direction, sailing during short periods of favorable winds and currents caused by El Niño, they could always catch a ride home when the trade winds returned simply by turning their sails around. Thus, by watching wind and current patterns, by developing navigational abilities and just by sheer luck and perseverance, generations of Polynesian seafarers were able to spread through the vast triangle formed by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island).





* Sweet potatoes were later shown to have been brought in by Polynesians returning from exploratory voyages to the shores of South America.






Kirch, Patrick (2001). Hawaiki. Cambridge University Press.


Pawley, Andrew and Medina Pawley (1998) Canoes and seafaring. In: Ross, Malcolm; Andrew Pawley and Meredith Osmond (eds.) The Lexicon of Proto Oceanic. The culture and environment of ancestral Oceanic society. Volume 1: Material Culture. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. The Australian National University. Pp. 173-209.


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