Science writer Andrew Crowe’s new book reflects on the engineering and navigational skill of Pacific voyagers. (Image supplied)

When his research into Pacific voyaging began, the feats of Pacific navigators were news to Pākehā science writer Andrew Crowe — as they seem to be to those who like to dismiss Indigenous knowledge as unscientific myth. But his new book, Those Magnificent Voyagers of the Pacific, specifically created with younger readers in mind, will help to ensure that ignorance doesn’t persist among our children.


The upcoming inclusion of mātauranga Māori in the school curriculum saw several scientists dismiss Indigenous knowledge as unscientific “myth”. As North & South’s history columnist Scott Hamilton points out, this kind of response “often succumbs to its own criticism — failure to gather accurate supporting evidence”.

That evidence might well include a great many examples of Indigenous knowledge that can fairly be defined as a science — that is, “knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation”.

To take a few examples, one could mention the carving, transport and erection of the great mo`ai (statues) on Rapa Nui (Easter Island); the use of canoe portage routes to take a shortcut from one coast of Aotearoa to the other; walled fishponds for aquaculture on the Hawaiian Islands; excavation of a massive 100-hectare network of wetland agricultural ditches by the Rangaunu Harbour, near Kaitāia; a complex of over 19 kilometres of canals navigable by small canoes at the mouth of the Wairau River in the South Island; and astronomically aligned stone structures on Ra`ivavae, Mangareva and the Hawaiian Islands.

The list could go on, but none of these, nor the engineering skill behind them, can be dismissed as myth, for remnants of all remain archaeologically visible today.

With the passing of time, the remains of other examples have long since decayed — enormous Māori fishing nets, for example, such as one made at Maketū in 1885 by a team of hundreds with fibre extracted from the leaves of harakeke and tī kōuka that extended for up to 1.9 km.

One could also mention the acquisition of a working knowledge of geology, the “mapping” of geological resources, and botanical observation that led to the naming of more than 460 plants in Aotearoa alone.

What surely stands out, though, is the voyaging achievements of Polynesians — achievements that Te Rangi Hīroa likened in his enduring classic Vikings of the Sunrise (1938) to those of the Phoenicians and Vikings. From his extensive anthropological study, he rightly claimed that, by surpassing the achievements of the Phoenicians and Vikings, Polynesians are “worthy of being called the supreme navigators of history”.

He could well have added that neither the Phoenicians nor the Vikings were out of sight of land over such immense distances, nor searching out, and repeatedly finding, minuscule target islands so widely scattered across the world’s largest ocean. Rapa Nui, for example, is about half the size of New Zealand’s Aotea (Great Barrier Island) and as distant from its nearest inhabited neighbour as Mexico is from Canada.

By comparison, the longest shortcut by Phoenicians across the Mediterranean was around 350 kilometres, and the longest leg of Viking voyages to reach North America in around AD 1000, via Iceland and Greenland, was around 580 kilometres.

By this time, the extent of Polynesian exploration was expanding over a new region of the Pacific (East Polynesia) the size of all of Africa. It’s fair to say that those responsible for this remarkable expansion of territory had been global leaders in the arts of landfinding and navigation for most of the last 5,000 years.

Locating targets without instruments is surely an art but it is also every bit a science. “Everything you need to navigate is in nature,” explains Hawaiian master navigator Nainoa Thompson. “The question is, can you see it?”

This kind of careful observation includes that of the stars, in order to appreciate that any star can serve as a reliable indicator of direction so long as it remains low in the sky. As it lifts from the horizon, its compass direction changes, obliging the navigator to switch attention to a new star lower in the sky.

As each star tracks across the sky through the night, holding course through a single night generally requires a minimum sequence of about 10 horizon stars. As the nights proceed, each star will rise about four minutes earlier than it did the night before, so the set of stars relevant to steering any particular course is also slowly changing through the year.

Thus, an experienced navigator is required to recognise, and commit to memory, many stars. This is no conjecture. When James Cook’s botanist Joseph Banks reached Tahiti in 1769, he marvelled at the extent of local star knowledge:

Of these [stars, the Tahitians] know a very large part by their Names and the clever ones among them will tell in what part of the heavens they are to be seen in any month when they are above the horizon; they know also the time of their annual appearing and disappearing to a great nicety, far greater than would be easily believed by an European astronomer.

All this constitutes “science” (from scire “to know”), that is, practical knowledge of the natural world derived through observation.

By the time of Cook’s arrival, Tahitians had evidently lost contact with more distant destinations, including the Hawaiian Islands and Aotearoa, yet clearly retained their long-distance, two-way voyaging skills. How else could Tahitian navigator Tupaia supply Cook with accurate sailing directions from the Society Islands to destinations as far afield as Rotumā to the west, east to the Marquesas and south to the Austral Islands — a region of the Pacific some 4,800 kilometres wide?

Tupaia was also able to point out the true direction of Tahiti nearly a year after leaving it, a feat that left such a deep impression on the Europeans that their onboard naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster took the trouble to elaborate on the intervening twists and turns in the course they had sailed in the meantime:

The Endeavour, in which ship Tupaya sailed to [Jakarta], sailed first from Taheitee into forty Degrees South Latitude, then she came by a North West course into twenty-eight Degrees, after this she came by a South West course to about thirty-eight Degrees, and by a Western run to New Zeeland, which islands were circumnavigated in runs of various directions to forty-eight Degrees South Latitude, till by another Westerly course the coasts of [Australia] were reached, along which she sailed North and North West, up to about four Degrees North Latitude, and then West to Savu [in Indonesia], and lastly by the Streights of Sunda to Batavia. However, Tupaya was never at a loss to point to Taheitee, at whatever place he came, even at Batavia at more than 2000 Leagues distance [or over 11,000 km].

As far as I’m aware, this is the most remarkable instance recorded anywhere in the world of what is known as “dead reckoning”. To this day, science cannot adequately explain how Tupaia achieved this, and this serves as one more plank in the evidence to show that the settlement of the Pacific cannot be dismissed as a natural outcome of Polynesians repeatedly setting off into the unknown on one-way voyages in fully laden canoes, effectively into exile — as one critic has suggested. Without two-way voyaging, where is the call for Tupaia to develop and refine this skill?

This art of effectively “seeing over the horizon” has roots reaching back some 5,000 years to the South China Sea. With this island region as their voyaging nursery, the ancestors of Māori continued to explore step-by-step eastward across the Pacific until they reached South America, where they acquired the kūmara and distributed it to all three corners of the “Polynesian Triangle”.

Powered by pandanus sails, they achieved this aboard sophisticated seaworthy craft by reading not only the stars, but wave patterns, currents and wind changes. They determined which birds made daily foraging flights from local islands, and those that would return in spring to nest on more distant islands.

Much of this we can glean from traditional poetry, archaeology, linguistics and DNA, but also from a few Indigenous navigators from islands near Papua New Guinea, who have actually maintained their original lineage of wayfinding skills.

Polynesian master navigator, Te Aliki Koloso Kahia Kaveia, from the island of Taumako in the Duff Islands, is one. Another is Mau Piailug of Satawal in the Caroline Islands, known to many for the key role he played in the current renaissance of Polynesian navigation, including his training of Hawaiian sailors to navigate the Hōkūle`a without any instruments of navigation from the Hawaiian Islands to Tahiti in 1976.

Perhaps none of this is news to readers of E-Tangata but, as a Pākehā science writer, it was certainly news to me, and presumably also to those who would dismiss Indigenous knowledge as unscientific. Their concern is presumably centred on confusion as to what constitutes science, but this foible is not the prerogative of any one culture, as North & South’s history columnist Scott Hamilton rightly pointed out.

In my own opinion, inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in school is a solution and not the problem. I see it helping to ignite in many a lifelong love of learning and a richer appreciation of the country’s original founding history and of the Pacific as a whole.

Andrew Crowe is a science writer and author of more than 40 books, including Pathway of the Birds: The Voyaging Achievements of Māori and their Polynesian Ancestors and a recent collaboration with Rick Fisher, a Rarotongan, Tahitian and Māori (Ngāti Maru) artist.

Those Magnificent Voyagers of the Pacific by Andrew Crowe with Rick Fisher was published this month by Bateman Books, RRP $34.99.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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