Thirty million years ago the earth looked much different from what it looked like today. While continents were being tweaked into odd shapes, the Hawaiian Islands were merely bubbling magma beneath the Pacific ocean. The Hot Spot, or area in which magma burst through the continental plate, is what created our island chain. Layer upon layer, year after year, this molten rock has produced over 125 remote islands in the Pacific. Because these newly formed islands rest on the continental plate, which rests on a sea of magma, each year this island chain drifts north-westward a couple of inches, spreading these islands out over 1,600 miles and creating what is known as the Hawaiian Ridge. Although the Hawaiian Ridge is moving, the Hot Spot is not. Once the newly-formed island moves away from the Hot Spot, the island stops growing. Today the Hot Spot rest below the Big Island of Hawaii, causing this (one of the eight Hawaiian Islands) to still be active.
The Hawaiian Islands are unlike any other in the world, because they sit in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they had become essentially the most isolated Islands in the world. For thousands of years Hawaii had been a pristine environment, untouched by the introduction of foreign plants and animals. The arrival of man however changed Hawaii's ecosystem forever. Because Hawaii is so isolated it wasn't easy for species to in inhabit these islands. The only way for plants and animals to reach Hawaii was either by air currents, ocean currents, or hitching a ride within the feathers or guts of birds. Birds, insects, and spiders also took full advantage of this one way travel. Once in Hawaii, these newly-introduced species found little or no competition, not only establishing themselves, but thriving. Because of these species unique circumstances, over the years they have evolved into species found nowhere else in the world, meaning they are endemic to Hawaii.
This Hawaiian paradise had no land mammals, amphibians, reptiles or mosquitoes. Not only were plants and animals able to lose defense mechanisms such as thorns and chemical defenses, but birds were able to lose the power of flight.
It wasn't until the arrival of man about 1,500 years ago that this fragile ecosystem would be changed forever. Almost half of Hawaii's native birds had become extinct between the migration of the Polynesians and the arrival of the western world. Today many of Hawaii's native plants and animals are extinct, and hundreds of others are on the verge of extinction.
But who were the first people to inhabit Hawaii? Where did they come from? How did they get there and when? The story is a interesting one.
Some 30,000 years ago, when the world was in the mist of an ice age, sea levels marked lower then present. During these times land bridges brought islands closer together. Inhabitants from Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Taiwan started to merge into the Pacific. As the Ice Age ended, sea levels rose nearly 300 feet, creating large gaps between existing islands and newly-formed islands, ultimately creating the Pacific's first people. But how did such a people reach the far corners of the Pacific, and how were they able to find their way?
The oceanic people had unique circumstance to deal with. They were forced to acquire skills needed to survive in such isolation. As populations grew and resources were depleted, search for new land became a vivid reality. Other equally important reasons for pushing eastward tempting faith in extreme, a lot of times unpredictable conditions were, raid and conquest, exile, deliberate return after forced drift, trade as well as adventure. These reasons alone were enough to inspire these oceanic people to leave one's homeland and set out to sea and eventually reach all corners of the Pacific, what Captain James Cook eventually called these oceanic people, "The largest nation in the world." The people of the Pacific looked at the ocean as a highway rather than a barrier. Since the sea surrounded them, they found ways to take advantage of such a wild aquatic landscape. Their survival depended on.
In order to travel across the vast ocean, these Pacific people needed to build vessels that would be safe on the sea. They looked to the mountains for their answers. Through highly complicated techniques which were passed down from generation to generation, they were able to construct extremely seaworthy crafts. They looked to the forest, high up on mountain ridges so steep that lives were often lost in the process. They found huge hardwood trees known as Koa, Ulu (Bread fruit tree), Kukui (Candle-nut), and Wili Wili. On occasion, large logs would wash ashore from distant northern lands. Some of these trees used in build their ocean-going vessels grew over 100 feet tall. These giant trees were thought of as a gift from the gods. Once cut down, it took hundreds of men working together to drag the log to shore, where it was constructed. This was an extremely spiritual process which sometimes took many years. These large voyaging canoes would essentially carry entire communities across the Pacific in search for new lands. On board they had everything needed to survive in these unknown distant lands.
Equally impressive as these vessels, which were built from the land but lived in the sea, were the techniques used to guide these vessels thousands of miles away from land. These oceanic people never had navigational tools, charts or any luxuries we have today. All they had was their knowledge in their heads and natural environment surrounding them.
For a long time people did not think it was possible that the Pacific was reach from inhabitants from the west, which meant that one would have to sail against prevailing wind and sea currents. And that the only way the Pacific was settled was through accidental drift by inhabitants from the east, Peru. After all there is about 500 times the amount of water compared to land in the Pacific.
These oceanic people were physically strong and mentally sound. They were also extremely intelligent. They understood that everything on our planet was linked together in some way and that by tuning into one's surrounding, information could be obtain that enabled these them to survive in such extreme isolation. Ancient navigators were able to piece together a mental map of sorts allowing them to find tiny islands literally thousands of miles away. By reading the natural signs within their environment, such as swell patterns, wind direction, celestial paths of stars and planets, ocean currents, different types of cloud formation, as well as animal behaviors, one could not only get a good idea of one's location at all times but also with pin point accuracy successfully navigate. Today with help of weather forecasting using satellite imaging we are able to produce an accurate weather forecast before we even leave the comforts of our homes. Any bit of information we desire is just a click away. In ancient times however, one never had that comfort. They would study their surrounds for days, weeks, months and sometimes even years looking for ideal weather conditions to sail on. By using these indigenous navigational techniques these Pacific people were not able to create a mental map of the entire Pacific ocean, but also produce a accurate weather forecast system, and sail successfully thousands of miles away to distant islands.
Setting out to sea was not always easy nor was it done hastily. The ocean can be very unforgiving and down right fierce. These oceanic people had a lot of respect for the ocean. Everything in the voyaging process had to be done properly. Most importantly the canoe had to in pristine conditioning, a task that wasn't easily accomplished considering their only resources is what was found on that particular island or islands in the immediate area. Once the canoe ready, all the other tasks were tended to. Provisions of food, tools or animals, as well as other crew members, were all accomplished with the utmost care to detail. Weather conditions were looked at continuously in order to choose the proper time to leave. It might have taken days, weeks, even years for the conditions to work in ones favor. And last, but definitely not the least, religious protocol was looked after with precision. Once at sea the canoe became their new home. These ocean travelers used only what was in their heads to find their way. They were not only totally self sufficient but also at home on this vast aquatic landscape. Successful voyaging was never a matter of distance, but rather a matter of lack of provisions, manpower, motivation and the strength of the vessel, none of which has to do with navigational skills.
One of these navigational technique's used to find one's way is called "expanded landfall". By using clues around him, a navigator would expand his target. Instead of finding a tiny speck of land in a large Pacific Ocean, because of the clues gathered, the target has expanded and now easily found. By using this technique, an early navigator felt that he could bring the target to them, rather then them bringing the canoe to the target. Without publications of such indigenous navigational techniques and with the introduction of modern navigational tools, this ancient art form was all but extinct.
The original Polynesians people began arriving in New Guinea around 2,500 B.C from south-east Asia. From there they were thought to move south-eastward through the Solomon's, Santa Cruz, New Hebrides and eventually arrived in fiji, regarded as the "cradle of the Polynesian culture", around 1500 B.C. Then some 3,000 years later eventually arriving in Tonga and Samoa, which later became western Polynesia. Due to radiocarbon dating and archaeologist studies, science was able to clearly mark distance settlement routes.
With the people of Samoa wondering of distant lands, the Polynesian people ventured once again away from their homeland and into the vast Pacific Ocean. Some went northward, while others went against the prevailing winds towards the east. It's known that soon after that the Marqueses, Tahiti and then the Society Islands were all inhabited. Then around 600 A.D Hawaii had finally been reached. It's said that some time around 1200 A.D all of the Pacific Islands had been reached, almost 400 years before any European ship had ever thought about leaving the sight of land.
The achievements of these oceanic people should be compared to some of man's greatest accomplishments. In so many ways their achievements were far ahead of the rest of the world. But because there was no written history there was no record of these tremendous feats, it still had to be proven.
On April 28th, 1947, a group of six Norwegian explorers and a parrot set out from Peru aboard their famous balsa wood raft known as "Kon-Tiki". Their goal was to prove that the original Polynesians came from South America by way of accidental drift, using only wind and sea currents. They didn't believe that the original Polynesians could have purposefully sailed against prevailing winds and currents to reach the far corners of the Pacific. Well, unbelievably our Norwegian explores made there incredible journey. Unfortunately all they really proved is that one could drift on a raft from South America across the Pacific to Polynesia. They landed in the Tuamotu's, east of Tahiti.
Despite their effort to prove the Pacific was settled by accidental drift, science started to point in another direction. By the late 1960s increasing scientific evidence started to show that the Polynesian homeland lay to the West.
What needed to be done in order to prove such a theory, as was done in 1947 aboard the "Kon-Tiki", was to think outside the classroom and take it to the field. Three men by the name of Ben Finney an anthropologist, Herb Kane an artist of Hawaiian descent, and a waterman and community leader Tommy Holmes set out to test the theories of how Polynesia was settled.
After years of design and construction the they came up with the 62 foot double hull canoe "Hokule'a" (Star of Gladness), after the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, which at it's zenith lay directly over Hawaii.
Because the builders of the Hokule'a weren't able to learn the art of traditional weaves to make sails using Lauhala, the lost art of using stone adzes to carve huge logs, and making traditional braids for lashings, construction was of plywood and fiberglass, the sails were canvas, and the lashing were of synthetic cord. Although modern materials used instead of traditional ones, Hokule'a's creators did keep a traditional weight and shape to allow the canoe to perform accurately.
On March 8th, 1975, Hokule'a was launched on the east side of Oahu. The goal was to test ancient methods of navigation, and to prove that the ancient Polynesians were intelligent seafarers who intentionally explored the Pacific.
But without the use of charts and modern navigational instruments, how was the Hokule'a going to be able to reach its goals? No one knew this vanishing art of indigenous navigation.
It wasn't easy finding such a navigator. Almost everywhere in Polynesia have these skills faded out . This wasn't the case in Micronesia, where seafarers still find their way across miles of vastly remote islands using only their natural surroundings to guide them. With the help of master navigator Mau Piailug from the tiny island of Satawal, Hokule'a's destiny was about to be fulfilled.
On May 1st, 1976, Hokule'a set out on her maiden voyage for Tahiti. Thirty three days later she arrived in Pape'ete. Thousands of people lined the beaches, along with a wide variety of canoes. The completion of their voyage, for the first time in over a thousand years, put the everlasting discussion of how the Pacific was settled to a rest once and for all. Since then Hokule'a has reached all corners of the Polynesian triangle, including Hawaii to Tahiti five times, Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands since she was launched almost 30 years earlier. By the end of 1995 Hokule'a had sailed almost 85,000 nautical miles using only traditional means of navigation and today near 100,000 nautical miles.
The sailing canoe, Hokule'a is one of the most powerful symbols of the culture for Hawaii as well as the entire Pacific. It connects millions of oceanic people and Polynesia as a whole. It also reminded everyone of Hawaii's greatness, culture, and a people.
The people of the Pacific are a unique set of people unlike anywhere else on earth. Their culture reflects their circumstance, and their circumstance defines a people. The people in part, are what make Hawaii the beautiful place it is. We must not forget the history of Polynesia and Hawaii.
***In appreciation of many authors who's works I read in order to write this brief summary, thank you. Among the most helpful were ;
-We the Navigators, The Ancient Art of Land-finding in the Pacific. Author, David Lewis.
-the Hawaiian Canoe. Author, Tommy Holmes.