How did ancient Polynesians first find all the remote Pacific islands? Did they just sail in random directions hoping to find land?



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In: Other



Couldn’t they follow birds? (Asking not telling)

So, as others have mentioned, waves bounce off of islands, so that’s one method.

Another is that clouds tend to accumulate over islands (different air patterns over land than water), and *birds* were a big help.

They figured that if they spotted a bird at sea, it was either headed *from* or *toward* land, or food, since it had to have nests somewhere. They could easily use other methods to determine if the birds were leaving land, though time of day was a big factor. (If it was morning, they were leaving the nest to hunt. If it was evening, they were returning to the nest to sleep.)

Combine this with eventual familiarity with local currents, and likely *generations* of experience passed down through oral tradition and recordkeeping (they didn’t do it overnight, after all.), and there you have it.

I am by no means an expert on this topic, so I likely missed some things, but I did look into it at some point in the past year or two.

Edit: As some people pointed out, *yes*, at night, they could navigate using the stars and night sky. This could be as simple as following the correct stars for a direction, to as advanced as measuring how high a constellation has risen over the horizon relative to global position and time of night to track progress, using nothing more than your hand, the star and the horizon as a measuring stick and points of reference, and the positioning of the moon to track time of night.



I was listening to some podcasts on the subject. In addition to what other people said, they sent out active explorers looking for new islands and even had a standard way of organizing a new colonial fleet. It was very purposeful. The explorers did in some cases set off in random directions, but they had ways of looking for land as other people had already explaining, and knew now to reliably return.


The ancestors of Polynesians came from what is now Taiwan, apparently. Indigenous Taiwanese, that is, not the Han latecomers who followed Chiang Kai Shek off mainland China.

They went south and some populated SE Asia (becoming Indonesians, Malaysians and Filipinos), and others went on all over the Pacific as Polynesians. Southeast Asians learned ironworking, while Polynesians never found useable metal deposits on the islands and were stone-tech until European contact.

Curiously the Polynesians also had no tradition of pottery. They had gourds but no clay pots.

No they, they used a wide variety of wayfinding techniques that others have mentioned – wave patterns, currents, maps, birds. Also you can tell if there are islands over the horizon based on cloud formations that gather over the land. They were incredibly skilled navigators – the sea was basically the core of their lifestyle.



This will probably get buried (and maybe was already mentioned, but…

It’s not just the clouds, but the color on the underside of clouds. Lots of green reflects differently than blue or gray.

Also, I have see the current maps made by the Polynesians, which matches the description of what the Marshallese use. The only difference on the one I saw included sewed on little cowrie shells indicating the position of known islands.


Surprised none of the top comments mentioned this, but they didnt just pay attention to birds migrating to orient themselves, they also actually caged and brought some sea birds with them. They were periodically released so they could get their bearing. Source: saw it on the new cosmos with ol’ Niel Degrasse Tyson

I believe in New Zealand’s case, it was likely to be the birds. Migrating birds flew over a land mass yearly (forget which), and someone noticed them flying in our direction and figured out there had to be a more land down there.



As many have pointed out, various techniques involving the use of the sun/stars, wave patterns, wind patterns, etc. Polynesians were highly skilled navigators and they passed down these skills for generations. They did not find the islands accidentally as many would have you believe. If you are interested in further reading, I suggest researching people such as Nainoa Thompson, Mau Piailug, and Herb Kāne.

If you are interested in the cultural significance of your question, I recommend the book Hawaiki Rising by Sam Low. Navigation was/is a critical aspect of Polynesian culture, and the identities of the Polynesian people is very closely tied with the ocean. With the successful voyages of the Hōkūle’a beginning in the mid-to-late-70s there was a Polynesian cultural revival (specifically Hawaiian) that provided a renewed perspective on how these people navigated and how remarkably brilliant they were.

There’s a lot of good information here, but I haven’t seen anyone directly answer the original question. The navigation methods people are discussing are all correct, but to answer, yes, they did pick a direction and just sail off.

When they were heading to a familiar location, they would sail north or south to the precise latitude, then head east or west. There’s no way to measure longitude without a precise chronometer, which wasn’t developed until pretty late in history by the Europeans. However, they could estimate with a sufficient accuracy. Their latitude measurements were incredibly precise. Over the course of hundreds of miles, they could come within a few miles of the exact spot they wanted by the use of a type of [astrolabe]( literally made from a coconut shell.

If, instead, they were exploring in search of new lands, they would choose a compass heading and go off for 10 days. If they didn’t find any evidence of land, using the methods others have already described as well as some additional ones, like types of fish encountered, they would reverse course.

This brings up a very interesting historical mystery. Hawai’i is much farther away from the rest of Polynesia than the other island groups. It was settled from the Marquesas Islands, which are 20 days sail away. The voyagers would carry 24 days worth of supplies on exploration missions: 10 out, 10 back, 4 days reserve for storms and such. How did they discover an island chain twice as far away as they normally explored?

The conventional explanation for decades was that they simply got lost, a ridiculous theory as soon as you learn anything about Polynesian wayfinding. [Thor Heyerdal]( proposed that ancient people could have crossed the Pacific and even proved it with in a ship made from traditional materials. He got the direction wrong, going east to west, but he at least laid the groundwork for believability.

Polynesians have insisted for all the time they have been in contact with others that their ancestors settled the Pacific deliberately. In 1973 the [Polynesian Voyaging Society]( was founded to prove that the oral history was accurate. The [Hōkūleʻa]( was built as a replica of traditional Polynesian ships for that purpose. In 1976, she completed a journey to Tahiti using only traditional Polynesian Voyaging techniques. She has completed several other journeys since then. A sister ship, the Hikianalia was built along the same design, but using only traditional materials. This ship is equally capable of voyaging, but isn’t used as much because of the vastly increased maintenance needed. Both ships completed a three-year circumnavigation of the entire globe on a goodwill mission, visiting indigenous communities around the world. There’s no evidence that the Polynesians ever left the Pacific, but we know know they could have if they wanted to.

So, back to the mystery of Hawai’i’s discovery. The oral history says that a legendary navigator named Hawai’i Loa was given a vision from God to sail on a certain heading in order to find paradise. He set out on a trip that would be one-way if he didn’t find his destination. There are many ways to rationalize the discovery with reasonable explanations, but if you ask nearly any Hawaiian, they will insist the story is true. The one thing we know know for sure is that the Polynesians were fully capable of settling the Pacific using the technology they had at the time.