In reviewing the recent Disney movie Moana, Steve Sailor provides a thumbnail sketch of the amazing story of pre-contact Polynesia:
Perhaps the best analogue so far in human history to settling the galaxy has been the Polynesians’ audacious colonization of the far-flung islands of the Pacific. They repeatedly escaped the Malthusian trap by expanding their territories. Unusually for humans, sometimes they didn’t even have to steal their acquisitions from anybody else.
When Mediterranean sea captains began to venture into the Atlantic at the beginning of the Renaissance, they found that most of the small number of islands were uninhabited. The Vikings had settled Iceland, and Stone Age Berbers were living on the Canary Islands, but desirable islands such as the Azores and Madeira were still empty.
Yet when 16th-century Europeans reached the much wider Pacific, it was difficult to find an island that wasn’t already densely populated. Even remote Pitcairn Island, where the mutineers on the Bounty found refuge, appears to have been previously settled by Polynesian mariners.
Over the past half century, Western researchers, such as U. of Hawaii anthropologist and space scientist Ben Finney, have sponsored a revival of traditional islander talents at wayfinding from one known point to another.
But that still leaves the question of how the Polynesians discovered unknown islands. Presumably they followed birds and studied hints in the clouds and ocean swells?
In Moana, the prehistoric Polynesians have pioneered deep into the Pacific to islands such as Tonga and Samoa, only to have then settled down and turned their backs on the sea. Musker explains, “For thousands of years, they were great voyagers; and then there’s a thousand-year pause where they didn’t voyage.”
Suddenly, the Polynesians regained their dynamism and settled a vast triangle of the Pacific almost 5,000 miles per side, from New Zealand to Easter Island to Hawaii, with Tahiti in the middle as the jewel in the crown.