A pair of new studies, including the discovery a sophisticated 600-year-old canoe in New Zealand, are finally helping to explain how people of East Polynesia made their way to New Zealand during the 13th century.
Scientists know Polynesian seafarers made their way across vast swaths of rough Pacific seas, colonizing a variety of faraway islands -- Samoa to the west, New Zealand to the southwest, Hawaii to the north, and others in between. But experts have never been exactly sure how these isolated people managed such long and dangerous voyages.
One of two new studies -- both published in the journal PNAS this week -- demonstrates canoe-building techniques were maybe more sophisticated than previously thought. A 600-year-old canoe, pulled from the sand dunes of the Anaweka estuary on New Zealand's South Island, showed evidence of a combination of building strategies -- part Polynesian multi-hull planking, part Maori single-log dugout canoe carving.
"It was one of those situations where it sort of took your breath away," lead author Dilys Amanda Johns, a researcher at the University of Auckland, told the Los Angeles Times. "I'd never seen anything like it."
Perhaps more significant for understanding the migration from Polynesia to New Zealand is the second of the two studies, which suggests trade winds were especially favorable for voyages between 1100 and 1300 CE.
By modeling atmospheric pressure patterns and climate conditions between 800 and 1600 CE, researchers at Australia's Macquarie University were able to show that downwind sailing would have made sailing from central East Polynesia to New Zealand "unusually possible" between 1140 and 1260 CE. The data also showed there were favorable climate conditions for travel to Easter Island as early as 900 CE, as well as the possibility for migration from Chile to many of the Polynesian islands.
"This research fits in the Polynesian folklore, which refers to multiple migrations -- our mapping of the climate conditions at that time they were traveling confirms the possibility," study author Ian Goodwin said in a press release.
"These are fantastic new insights into prehistoric maritime migration, and opens doors for marine climatologists to work with anthropologists and archaeologists, to piece together the evolution of maritime societies."