Sailing through the Ages Part 1: Voyages of the Polynesians

Humans have been traversing the ocean for millennia. For numerous ancient civilizations the ocean occupies an important role in society, culture, and religion. One of the cultures most directly linked to the ocean is the Polynesians. Thousands of years ago, ancestors of the Polynesians, the Lapita, explored and colonized the islands of the Pacific Ocean in simple canoes known as waka. The Lapita culture originated in Taiwan around 3000 BCE. It was these people who, over the course of about 2000 years, established thriving civilizations on many islands in Oceania, the collective name for the islands scattered through most of the Pacific Ocean. By 1000 BCE the Lapita had spread to all but the most remote islands in Oceania, including Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Vanuatu, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The voyages of the Lapita peoples were central to the development of Polynesian culture. Without them, Polynesians as we know them today would not exist.

Oceania political map with countries. English labeling. Region, comprising Australia and the Pacific islands with the regions Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
Oceania political map with countries

Within Polynesian culture the practice of voyaging is central to the social identity and cultural development of its peoples. One such example is the Maori. Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand who are descended from the Polynesians who first sailed to there. Many of the traditions that define social groups in Maori culture are based on the voyages Polynesians took to New Zealand and the canoes that carried them.

Polynesian canoe carving, Rarotonga Cook Islands.
Polynesian canoe carving

The early migration of Polynesians into western Oceania was aided by the relatively small distances between islands. The close proximity of islands enabled these civilizations to island-hop using primitive ocean-going vessels. Single and double haul canoes that were several meters long were the most common vessels used at the time. Canoes were carved from a single tree during a process that could take several weeks. While the colonization of western Oceania was relatively rapid, the migration to more remote areas of the Pacific, such as Fiji, the Cook Islands, and Easter Island, required the development of more advanced canoes and did not occur until between 700–1200 CE.

Image of Polynesian voyaging canoe, 40c New Zealand.
Polynesian voyaging canoe

As early as 1000 BCE the Lapita, already expert seafarers, began building more advanced canoes and outriggers, which made long sea voyages possible. While long ocean voyages were possible at this time it was not until 900 CE when the remote areas of Eastern Polynesia began to be settled. Settlement of these areas was aided by the development of large double-hulled canoes known as catamarans. Historical evidence has shown some of the largest voyaging canoes measured 100 feet or more in length and could carry up to 100 people. Two-hulled vessels were the most common voyaging ship throughout Oceania. However, the shape of the hull and the shape and number of sails varied depending on culture and location. For long voyages, boats would often have two masts with either triangular or rectangular sails woven from leaves.

Traversing remote sections of the Pacific Ocean brought with it many challenges; one of the most significant was navigation. Unlike other civilizations at the time, such as the Chinese or Europeans, the Polynesians did not have access to any type of compass. While the Polynesians may have lacked this tool they still had a highly developed navigation system based on observing the natural world.

Within a navigator family, navigational knowledge was passed down to each generation and was a closely guarded secret. From a young age men were taught how to navigate no matter the time of day. During the day, or when clouds blocked the stars, canoes were kept on course using a variety of techniques. Navigators would read the swell and movement of the ocean to determine whether or not they were near land. Wave formation was also used to estimate the speed and direction of currents. Furthermore, the shape and color of clouds and the migration of birds were sometimes used to predict the presence of an island.

Beautiful starry night sky and milky way over the lake.
Beautiful starry night sky and milky way

The most accurate navigation technique could only be utilized during a clear night. During these times navigators would guide vessels using stars and the path they take through the sky. As young men, navigators would spend years memorizing the paths of stars and learning how to read the night sky. Using this knowledge, navigators were able to hold a consistent heading in the vast open ocean during the day and night. While the Polynesians may not have been as technologically advanced as some of their contemporaries in different parts of the world, they were some of the most gifted navigators to ever sail the oceans.


  • Di Piazza, A. (2015). Words for canoes: continuity and change in oceanic sailing craft. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 124(4), 445-460.

  • Irwin, G., Flay, R. (2015). Pacific colonisation and canoe performance: experiments in the science of sailing. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 124(4), 419-443.

  • Martins, K. (2020). Polynesian navigation and settlement of the Pacific. Ancient History Encyclopedia.

  • Richards, C. (2008). The Substance of Polynesian Voyaging. World Archaeology, 40(2), 206-223

  • Wayfinders a Pacific odyssey: Polynesian history & origin. PBS.

Photo Credits:

Photo 1 © Peter Hermes Furian,

Photo 2 © Rafael Ben-Ari,

Photo 3 © rook76,

Photo 4 © Kateryna,

Author: Andrew Pressly, Education and Engagement Coordinator at FMM