Polynesian Wayfinding in the Eastern Pacific ca 600 A.D.

Polynesian Wayfinding in the Eastern Pacific ca 600 A.D.

18th Annual Maritime Archeology and History of Hawaii and the Pacific, 2007 Victoria S. Creed, Ph.D., Waihona Aina Corp.

Recent scientific technologies lend support to early Hawaiian oral traditions

Modern archaeology, linguistics, astronomy, and organic chemistry increasingly support early Hawaiian oral traditions, and have changed anthropological views concerning contact between the Americas and Polynesia. New evidence shows wayfinding Polynesians brought resources and expertise to peoples in the Americas and were able to return to their Island homes by 600 A.D. Science is now looking to Pacific ethnographies as valid sources for clues to answer scientific questions.

In summarizing Oceanic prehistory, Patrick Kirch cites Chris Gosden, who observed, "... rather than now always moving themselves to new resources, people were beginning to apply voyaging technology to the movement of resources" (Kirch 2000, P. 303). Kirch says new evidence revises earlier beliefs that Polynesians moved east as a response to crowding or social pressures, “This was the vision not of hunter-gatherers always moving on to new resources, but of horticultural people tied to the land, for whom cultivated territory was always the fundamental basis of social life" (Ibid. p. 304). Geoff Irwin sees the Pacific from the Bismarck Archipelago through the main Solomon Islands to be a vast "voyaging nursery", and it may be assumed this proven provision technique proceeded on across the Eastern Pacific, as well (in Kirch, 2000, p. 69)

Hawaiian scholar, Samuel M. Kamakau graduated from Lahainaluna School as a literate, adult student. He was taught the sciences of the day and converted to Christianity, but became disillusioned and fearful that Euro-American impacts were destroying Hawaii’s native autonomy. In 1865 he began a Hawaiian language newspaper series, including Hawaii astronomical science, in support of Hawaiian native wisdom.

In his first astronomy article Kamakau draws on ten years of astronomical training with a family elder, a native astronomer from Kaua'i (Chun, 2005). He described the wayfarer’s navigational gourd, used to “read” the heavens, the alignment of stars and finding direction-bearings, thus establishing a journey’s “celestial map” (Kuokoa, 18965). Since 1500 B.C. in the west Pacific, Polynesians planned for catastrophes encountered in explorations to eastern islands new to them. One of their strategies would have been to establish plant nurseries where appropriate along the routes they traveled.

In Kamakau's second article he speaks of a Hawaiian voyage with an encoded celestial phenomenon. If the Pleiades was seen to have a missing star, it boded disaster and this was followed by another celestial event, perhaps a comet. Devastation followed, with drought, no fish, and only a few subsistence foods. People fled the Kailua settlement at Kawai Nui. Kawai Nui has among Hawaii’s oldest known sites (between 400-800 A.D., Clark & Kelly, 1980), and is today a Ramsar “Site of International Significance”. In the oral tradition five of the goddess Haumea’s chiefs stayed to guard the land. Two sole Kaua’i survivors, seeking people – and food – arrived on O’ahu and the Kailua chiefs taught them how and where to obtain new rootstocks for the archipelago from a refuge in America. They sailed east (not west) to safety and to restock. The seasoned wayfarers had availed the warm, El Niño-type Pacific counter-currents (See my web site <>).

Linguist Kathryn A. Klar and archaeologist Terry L. Jones suggest a Chumash word for "sewn-plank canoe" is derived from a Polynesian word for the wood used to construct a Polynesian canoe (Davidson, 2005). Inspired by Klar and Jones’ hypothesis, John Johnson, an anthropology curator recalibrated unearthed abalone shells. They date from approximately 600 A.D., centuries older than had been thought (Ibid).  Six hundred A.D.  is smack in the middle of the period when Polynesians reportedly sailed to California. Also found was a Polynesian fishhook, verified by Patrick Kirch (Bergman, 2005).  

Archaeology uses an organic chemical process to calibrate carbons found in sites. James Tribble, a geophysicist, calibrated organic carbons in one of many cores in a study of Kawai Nui Marsh (1990: Hammatt et al.). In core 6 he found a dearth of organic compounds in the section dating between 230-570 A.D. whereas earlier and later periods in the core contain much organic material. His finding substantiates a major catastrophe occurred in the Hawaiian Islands prior to 600 A.D., probably resulting from drought conditions as described by Kamakau.

A relative newcomer to Pacific archaeology is archaeo-astronomy.  W. Bruce Massey, a specialist is noted for articles and lectures correlating ethnography with celestial events. With Rubellite Kawena Johnson and H. David Tuggle, he finds celestial events are encoded in royal family genealogies dating the births of the chiefs.  In a 1995 article he says "celestial information played a critical role in the artistic, intellectual, and political development of early civilizations. These data not only provide important insights into the development of civilization, but also provide important details and longitudinal records of astronomical events and phenomena which are otherwise not readily available for scientific scrutiny" (Masse p. 463). In a birth chant for chief Kaulu, there is record of the passage of a long-tailed comet from Cygnus through Orion in A.D. 501, also found in Tuamotan and Samoan oral histories (Ibid. p. 469). In Kaulu’s Hawaiian name chant he is called “a son of Kailua.” Hawaiian wayfarers looked to the constellation Makali’i (the Pleiades) in plotting journeys, as they do today.

Elsewhere, astronomers Benjamin S. Orlove, John C. H. Chiang and Mark A. Cane (Nature 2000) note modern weather forecasts are made by Andean farmers that are correct 95% of the time, based on naked eye observation. Differing numbers of stars are seen in the Pleiades depending on atmospheric events. Andean farmers forecast poor and good crop years on sighting the number of visible stars in the Pleiades’ first rising, as described in the 1500s by Spanish priests. The astronomers also sought other scientific information to corroborate Andean forecasts and found that it is relevant to the entire Pacific Ocean when there is impaired visibility of the Pleaides. This occurs during El Niño years when warm water and air temperatures cause certain cirrus clouds to subtly dim one or more of the Pleiades’ major stars. El Niño conditions cause drought, for which Andean farmers compensate by planting later.

In short, recent astronomy studies show an encoded star event, described in Hawaiian oral tradition, took place about 600 A.D., and that forecasting weather by observation of the Pleaides is an ancient Andean tradition. Quite possibly, this El Niño phenomenon was conveyed by wayfaring Polynesians at some earlier time. Recent linguistic archaeological work, with scientific corroboration, show indications of Polynesian/Hawaiian influences on Chumash Indians of Ventura CA by 600 A.D. Coring work in Kawainui Marsh also confirms an anomaly present, dated just prior to 600 A.D., in which no plant life is discernible. Archaeologist Douglas Oliver, states, “As far as is known, Polynesians were unable to predict particular occurrences of El Niño disturbances, but their year-round calendar systems would have enabled them to count on regular seasonal changes in winds, and their knowledge of weather signs equipped them to make shorter-term forecasts as well” (Oliver, 2002, p. 15). Kamakau suggests Polynesians were able to discern El Niño events, although by what name is yet unknown. Obviously, cultural traditions have much to offer modern researchers, along with a variety of newly equipped scientific approaches.
Scientific technologies should use more early Hawaiian oral traditions to support their work.


Alexander, W.D., translator, “Pupuhuluana” The Hawaiian Annual, 1926, pp. 93-96. (translation of “No ke Ao Hoku”)

Bergman, Barry, “Scholars swim in Choppy Waters,” Berkeley News, 03 August 2005

Chun, Malcolm, personal communication, 2005)

Clark, Jeffery T. and Marion Kelly, Report 80-3, Kawainui Marsh, Oÿahu: Historical and Archaeological Studies, September 1980 (Dep't of Anthropology, Bishop Museum Honolulu, HI)

Davidson, Keay, “Did ancient Polynesians visit California? Maybe so. Scholars revive idea using linguistic ties, Indian headdress,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 20, 2005.

Hammatt, Hallett H., David W. Shideler, Rodney Chiogioji and Randy Scoville, Sediment Coring in Kawainui Marsh, Kailua, HI, Ko`olaupoko, Cultural Surveys Hawai`i, Kailua, HI., 1990, With James S. Tribble, doing Organic Carbon Results.

Kamakau, S.M., “No Ke Ao Hoku,” Kuokoa 08/12/1865 p. 4.

Kirch , Patrick Vinton, On the Road of the Winds, University of California Press, 2000.

Maly, Kepa, Chapter II. “Ka ‘Oihana Kilokilo Hökü (The Practices Associated With Observing Stars), from Ao Hoku (Hawaiian Astronomy and Star Lore), Kumupono, 2005.

Masse, W. B., “The Celestial Basis of Civilization,” Vistas in Astronomy, Vol. 39, pp. 463-477, 1995, and Elsevier Science Ltd., 1997.

Masse, W. Bruce, personal communication, 2007

Nämakaokeahi, Benjamin K., transcriber and Malcolm Naea Chun, translator, The History of Kanalu Mo'oku'auhau 'Elua: A genalogical history of the priesthood of Kanalu (Ka Nupepa Ku'oko'a, 1900-1901), First People's Productions, 2004

Oliver, Douglas, Polynesia in Early Historic Times, Bess Press, 2002

Orlove, Benjamin S. John C.H. Chiang & Mark A. Cane, “Forecasting Andean rainfall and crop yield from the influence of El Niño on Pleiades visibility” Nature, vol. 403, 6 January 2000, pp 69-71

Hawaiian newspapers at nüpepa