Science proves the legends are true: Hawai’i navigators pioneered trade routes across the Pacific

11 08 2009

Thanks to the Hilo Living Blog, I’ve discovered some additional documentation of the feats of Polynesian and Hawaiian navigators. Mahalo!

I had been searching the Internet for information on Hawaiian navigators for two recent posts:

  • Star-gazing in Hawai’i — encouraging visitors to see Hilo’s Imiloa Center to learn about modern astronomy and ancient way-finding
  • The top five reasons to visit Mauna Kea ( besides the Thirty Meter Telescope) — for example, the Mauna Kea Keanakāko‘i Adze Quarry was a source of unique raw material for trans-Pacific trade.

To document these posts, I had Googled every permutation and combination of Hawaiian navigation. I got so many strange search results that I felt like I was in one of those zany Microsoft Bing! commercials. But I was not able to find a definitive proof point regarding canoes voyaging back and forth in trans-Pacific trade.

A few days later, I learned on Twitter about a post on The Hilo Living Blog that cited some key documentation on the accomplishments of Polynesian and Hawaiian navigators. As far as I can tell from looking at Google, this story was not covered in the Hawai’i newspapers. If I’m wrong about this, let me know!

The original source of the information London’s Daily Telegraph, in the October 31, 2007 story, “Ancient Sea Travellers had heads in the clouds.” Here is the story:

A stone tool found on a remote Pacific island has provided evidence that early Polynesians travelled 2,500 miles by canoe using only the stars, clouds and seabirds as navigational aids.

Scientists have found that the stone adze, found on a coral atoll in what is now French Polynesia, was quarried from volcanic rock in Hawaii, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

It was transported about 1,000 years ago by Polynesian voyagers in wooden canoes, either as a chunk of uncut rock used for ballast, or as a gift or memento.

Its Hawaiian provenance confirms what Pacific peoples have long been told through folklore – that their ancestors were among the most skilled navigators in history.

Archaeologists and historians have likened their ability to find new islands in the vastness of the Pacific as akin to sending a rocket into space and hoping it will hit a planet.

Dr Marshall Weisler, of the University of Queensland, said the journey between Hawaii and Tahiti “now stands as the longest uninterrupted maritime voyage in human prehistory”.

He said it was “mind-boggling” how Polynesian settlers found their way from one speck of land to another and back again, colonising the last uninhabited parts of the planet.

They are believed to have used signs such as tides, the presence of driftwood and the flight of seabirds, which return to roost on land at night.

They also closely observed the underside of clouds, which reflect whatever lies beneath them – a darker tinge indicates the presence of land.

Proving that such a feat was possible, in 1976 a reconstructed ocean-going canoe, the Hokule’a, successfully sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti.

The adze was found by an archeologist in the 1930s on a coral island in the Tuamotu archipelago in French Polynesia, but has only recently been subjected to chemical testing.

It started its journey on Kaho’olawe island in Hawaii. “Before beginning their voyage south from Hawaii, the ancient voyagers most likely stopped at the westernmost tip of the island, traditionally named Lae o Kealaikahiki, which literally means ‘the cape or headland on the way to Tahiti’,” Dr Weisler said.

“Here they apparently collected rocks, like that from which the adze was subsequently made, to take on their voyage, either as ballast or as a gift.”

Dr Weisler believes the stone was collected on Kaho’olawe. Even if Kaho’olawe was the collection point, I believe it is most likely that the adze material originated in the Mauna Kea Keanakāko‘i Adze Quarry.

Why? Here is an excerpt from our recent post on Mauna Kea:

Mauna Kea is home to country’s highest National Historic Landmark, the Mauna Kea Keanakāko‘i Adze Quarry. The archeological complex contains religious shrines, trails, rockshelters and petroglyphs. Concentrated between 11,000 and 12,500 feet within the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve is an area of very fine-grained, dense basalt rock, formed when lava erupted and flowed beneath the glacial ice caps. With its huge complex of quarries, work sites, shelters and shrines, extending over an area of approximately seven and a half square miles from the 8,600 to the 13,000 foot elevation, the Mauna Kea quarry is one of the largest, highest and most complex stone tool quarries in the world.

These unique rock outcrops were discovered by Hawaiians and, beginning about AD 1100, quarried for use in the manufacture of adzes (ko‘i), traditional stone implements used for chopping and carving wood. Adz production started with a multi-day excursion up the mountain, braving freezing temperatures at night, to secure the blanks from which adzes could be perfected in the warmth and comfort of home. Few made this journey. The making of adzes was considered a sacred activity.

Keanakāko‘i is the single largest basalt quarry area in all of Polynesia. Few places in the Pacific have the kind of hard rock needed for tools. Besides Mauna Kea, other major adze quarries are found in the Society and Austral islands and in the Marquesas. They all were important production centers for exchange of tools between islands

Raise a toast to the folks behind the Hilo Living Blog. They clearly know how to search and navigate the Internet!

I look forward to hearing any and all corrections and expansions on this theme.

–Nina Lytton




2 responses

12 08 2009
Nina Lytton

This comment came in via Twitter from @BullyOSullivan of

@HawaiiNuiBrew great post. don’t know if you’ve come across this, but i first read a story on it a few years ago

The link points to a story on June 4, 2007 on MSNBC titled: “Why did the chicken cross the ocean? Fowl report says poultry from Polynesia beat Columbus to America”

Here’s an excerpt:
“…researchers led by Alice Storey at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, report finding evidence that may ruffle some scholarly feathers. They found chicken bones of Polynesian origin at a site in what is now Chile.

Radiocarbon dating of chicken bones at the site on the Arauco Peninsula in south central Chile indicated a range of A.D. 1321 to 1407, well before the Spanish arrival in the Americas.”

24 09 2012

Greetings! I’ve been following your website for some time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Huffman Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic work!

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