The Big Pacific


Countless islands can be found around Papua New Guinea. From these islands our ancestors perfected the art of sailing. They honed skills that were of vital importance for the human journey.

The Pacific Ocean is vast. It is the largest feature on the planet.  It is 19,800 km wide from east to west at 5º N.  This is halfway around the world or 5 times the diameter of the moon. It is also 15,500 km long from north to south and covers 1/3 of the earth.

The Pacific Ocean contains the lowest point on the planet—the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest part of the ocean and the deepest location on Earth. It is 11,034 meters (36,201 feet) deep, which is almost 7 miles. If you placed Mount Everest at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the peak would still be 2,133 meters (7,000 feet) below sea level. The average depth of the Pacific ocean is 4,280 metres  putting the total water volume at 710,000,000 cubic kilometres.

Of course the Pacific Ocean was bigger when the Polynesians first crossed it. That is because of plate tectonics, which are causing the Pacific Ocean is to shrink at roughly 2.5 cm (0.98 in) per year on 3 sides roughly averaging 0.52 square km a year. The Atlantic Ocean is increasing in size.

The Pacific Ocean covers more than 30% of the earth’s surface. It is clearly the largest water mass on the planet with a surface area of 60 million sq. miles (155 million sq. km). The Pacific Ocean basin is larger than the landmass of all the continents combined. It has almost twice as much water as the Atlantic Ocean. It holds more than half the Earth’s open water supply. The conclusion is clear: the Pacific Ocean is BIG! It was a very big obstacle for ancient humans to cross, but somehow they did it.

As Niobe Thompson said in his television series, “its islands are like grains of sand scattered across a vast blue void.  They are impossibly remote. Yet eventually, humans reached every one. Yet how we came to settle the islands of our greatest ocean is a mystery that puzzled European sailors for centuries.” After all, they considered themselves the master sailors. How could these people have done it?

Around Papua New Guinea there are countless islands from which our ancestors—our wise ancestors—perfected the art of sailing. Those skills would prove invaluable on some amazing journeys. Journeys that astound us to this day. It is possible that we discovered those islands by accident. For a long time this is what Europeans believed. They could not comprehend the possibility that perhaps some people—well before them—had greater navigational skills than they did. This was another example of the familiar hubris.

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl and his crew set themselves adrift on the Pacific Ocean on their raft Kon-tiki to establish the theory of accidental drift.  Ocean currents pushed them 7,000 miles from South America to Polynesia. He believed that natives gradually peopled the islands across the ocean island by island. On the other hand, Wulf Schiefenhövel said this is nothing but Eurocentric vision.   New research indicates a much different vision.

Geoff Irwin of New Zealand spent a lifetime trying to prove that the first explorers of the Pacific Islands were not drifting aimlessly, but were instead master sailors.

In the South Pacific, the trade winds blow from the east to the west.  Most people, like Thor Heyerdahl, thought that this was also the direction of human migration. It made sense didn’t it?  Well not completely.

Irwin believed people did not come with the prevailing winds. He believed that people set out in a direction that would most likely make it easy for them to return.  After all, who wants to set out with no chance of ever coming home? Sort of like these people who have signed up for space journeys with no hope of returning. Some people are this adventurous, but not many. Most people are too sensible to be that brave.

As a result of this analysis it actually makes more sense for people to migrate to the South Pacific Islands from the west so they can set off against the prevailing winds and come home with those winds. It is not easy to set off into prevailing winds, but sailors know how to do that. They were incredibly smart sailors.

Yet we need some hard evidence for this interesting theory. Where is that evidence?  At a wind tunnel at the University of Auckland they changed sailing in 1995 when New Zealand took the Americas Cup for the first time with a boat designed there. Even at 40º into the wind a canoe can still drive forward. Their experiments showed that upwind exploration was possible. This is still not proof, but it is evidence that it is possible for Irwin’s explanation to be right.

The next question was if people from Papua New Guinea used their boats to sail across the ocean how they did they navigate? Lisa Mattisoo-Smith used genetics to reconstruct the settlement of the South Pacific. She is Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Otago focusing on identifying the origins of Pacific peoples and their plants and animals in order to better understand the settlement, history, and prehistory of the Pacific and New Zealand.

As a result of her investigations she concluded, “the navigational skills and knowledge of course are not preservedarchaeologically, but it is indicated archeologically.” The fact that their exploration was almost instant is good evidence that they possessed the skills and had an exploration strategy. There was almost instantaneous dispersal from Papua New Guinea. Not only that, but they were continually successful at their settlements and that tells us “these people knew what they were doing. These people were prepared. They knew where they were going, and they knew what they needed to survive when they got there.” In other words, their explorations were far from accidental. They knew exactly what they were up to.

These ancient travellers crossed the islands near Oceania to remote Oceania about 3,000 years ago.  That was about 2,500 years before Columbus “discovered” North America or about 1,500 years before Vikings came here. We have to remember how far the Polynesians  traveled over the vast Pacific Ocean. These were astonishing voyages all made without western navigational instruments and with just tiny islands in the vast Pacific to be discovered.  As a result the Eurocentric view has been exploded. Within 300 years they did it.

Lisa Mattisoo-Smith makes it clear: “the whole settlement of the Pacific is under-celebrated and under-valued in terms of representing the capabilities of people thousands of years ago. They did amazing things.” These ancient people demonstrated clearly that ancient people were wise. We have to respect that wisdom.

As Schiefenhövel said, “Homo sapiens is a crazy animal. They do things which you don’t believe are possible and the migration into the Pacific is one of those things.” They traveled against strong prevailing winds, yet that is exactly what they did. It seemed impossible, yet they did it.

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