Thursday, October 8, 2015

Long Before Columbus, Polynesian Navigators Achieved Feats of Exploration and Discovery

By Sam Low, Author of Hawaiki Rising - Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson and the Hawaiian Renaissance

On October 12, we celebrate the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus who we regard as perhaps the world’s greatest explorer. But was he? Compared to Polynesian sailors and navigators who set out to explore and settle the vast Pacific Ocean a thousand years earlier, his discovery of the New World seems easy.

“Columbus sailed in large ships held together with metal fastenings and powered by sails stitched from canvas,” says Sam Low, anthropologist and author of Hawaiki Rising. “He used a magnetic compass to find direction and recorded his route on charts and in written logbooks. To locate his position, he observed the stars with instruments and knowledge provided by the combined research of Greeks, Arabs and hundreds of years of European science.”

But long before Columbus set out, the Polynesians - a “stone age people” without metal, writing, instruments or charts - had already explored and settled the entire Pacific Ocean, one third of Earth’s surface.

“Using only their intimate knowledge of the natural world and its resources, they created rope from coconut fiber, wove pandanus leaves into sails and used stone tools to carve planks to build ocean-going craft that could journey 2,500 miles to distant islands and back again,” says Doug Herman, Senior Geographer at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. “They also developed a complex indigenous science of star and sea knowledge that enabled them to track their journeys, find tiny islands beyond the horizon and voyage home again across great distances. Columbus sailed across a relatively narrow Atlantic Ocean. His target was, by comparison, easy; he could have hardly missed the Americas, with 10,000 miles of coastline stretching nearly from pole to pole.”

Today, a replica of the kind of vessels the Polynesians used on their great voyages of antiquity is sailing around the world from her homeport in Honolulu. Hōkūleʻa is her name, Hawaiian for “star of joy.”

In 1976, Hōkūleʻa first sailed from Hawai‘i to the ancestral homeland of Tahiti, navigated by a traditional master navigator from Micronesia, Pius Mau Piailug, one of a handful who still practiced the ancient art of finding his way without charts or instruments. Piailug employed a star compass to find direction at night and used signs in the patterns of ocean swells to steer by day. The flight of birds and reflections from distant lagoons on clouds allowed him to pinpoint land. During the 2400 mile journey from Hawaii to Tahiti, he stayed alert, sleeping in half hour “catnaps” in order to discern the course and speed of his canoe and plot his position on a mental map. He predicted landfall with an accuracy of about thirty nautical miles. Since that first voyage, Hokule’a has sailed more than 140,000 miles throughout the Pacific to demonstrate that these Oceanic peoples were perhaps the world’s greatest navigators and sailors.

Pius Mau Piailug was honored by the Smithsonian Institution in 2000. He passed away on July 10, 2010, but not before he passed on his knowledge to Hokule’a’s navigators who, as you read this, are approaching the coast of South Africa on a voyage around the world.

After a winter stop in Cape Town, Hōkūleʻa will cross the Atlantic and arrive in Miami in March of 2016. She will continue up the coast to visit Cape Canaveral, Savannah, Charleston, Beaufort, Newport News, Washington DC, Annapolis, New York City, Mystic, Newport, Martha’s Vineyard and Boston – before setting out across the Atlantic to Lisbon and ports in the Mediterranean.

To see the kind of vessel that was used to explore and settle ten million square miles of ocean long before Columbus set out on his voyage, and to learn more about her voyage and her schedule of port visits see Hokule’a’s web page at 

For Additional information please contact:

Douglas Herman
Senior Geographer, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC 20013, 410-537-0699,

Sam Low
Author of Hawaiki Rising - Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson and the Hawaiian Renaissance, 508 693 0509,

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