Early Polynesians Sailed Thousands of Miles for Trade

Dave Hansford
for National Geographic News
September 27, 2007

Early Polynesians sailed thousands of miles for exploration and trade, suggests a new study of early stone woodworking tools.

The analysis confirms traditional tales of vast ocean voyages and hints that a trading network existed between Hawaii and Tahiti as early as a thousand years ago. (See a photo gallery of the artifacts and early voyages.)

The work also bolsters research suggesting that the Polynesians were skillful sailors who rapidly expanded across the Pacific and journeyed as far as South America by the 1400s A.D.

Kenneth Collerson and Marshall Weisler of the University of Queensland in Australia studied 19 adzes—bladed tools used to shape wood—that were collected early last century.

The tools were found on nine islands in the Tuamotu Group, which is located more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) southeast of Tahiti in eastern Polynesia.

The adzes were made from basalt, a volcanic rock not found naturally on the Tuamotus, confirming they must have arrived with pre-European explorers or traders.

By comparing the trace elements and isotopes in the tools with basalt sources throughout the Pacific, the scientists were able to trace the artifacts to islands such as Pitcairn and the Marquesas.

But it was an adze known only as C7727—collected from the tiny atoll of Napuka—that gave the pair their greatest surprise.

C7727 was hewn from a fine-grained basalt known as hawaiite. The stone is unique to the Hawaiian island Kaho'olawe, located some 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) to the northwest of Napuka—a distance roughly the size of Western Europe.

"Until our discovery, there was no object found in southeast Polynesia that we could link back to a source in Hawaii," Collerson said. "That's the real magic of this discovery."

History Confirmed

Collerson said the findings corroborate Hawaiian oral tradition that recounts canoe journeys over the vast southeastern Pacific—the last region on Earth colonized by humans.

Continued on Next Page >>




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