Wednesday, October 31, 2007

 

Ancient sea travellers had heads in the clouds

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Telegraph
By Nick Squires
October 31, 2007


A stone tool found on a remote Pacific island has provided evidence that early Polynesians travelled 2,500 miles by canoe using only the stars, clouds and seabirds as navigational aids.

Scientists have found that the stone adze, found on a coral atoll in what is now French Polynesia, was quarried from volcanic rock in Hawaii, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

It was transported about 1,000 years ago by Polynesian voyagers in wooden canoes, either as a chunk of uncut rock used for ballast, or as a gift or memento.

Its Hawaiian provenance confirms what Pacific peoples have long been told through folklore - that their ancestors were among the most skilled navigators in history.

Archaeologists and historians have likened their ability to find new islands in the vastness of the Pacific as akin to sending a rocket into space and hoping it will hit a planet.

Dr Marshall Weisler, of the University of Queensland, said the journey between Hawaii and Tahiti "now stands as the longest uninterrupted maritime voyage in human prehistory".

He said it was "mind-boggling" how Polynesian settlers found their way from one speck of land to another and back again, colonising the last uninhabited parts of the planet.

They are believed to have used signs such as tides, the presence of driftwood and the flight of seabirds, which return to roost on land at night.

They also closely observed the underside of clouds, which reflect whatever lies beneath them - a darker tinge indicates the presence of land.

Proving that such a feat was possible, in 1976 a reconstructed ocean-going canoe, the Hokule'a, successfully sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti.

The adze was found by an archeologist in the 1930s on a coral island in the Tuamotu archipelago in French Polynesia, but has only recently been subjected to chemical testing.

It started its journey on Kaho'olawe island in Hawaii. "Before beginning their voyage south from Hawaii, the ancient voyagers most likely stopped at the westernmost tip of the island, traditionally named Lae o Kealaikahiki, which literally means 'the cape or headland on the way to Tahiti'," Dr Weisler said.

"Here they apparently collected rocks, like that from which the adze was subsequently made, to take on their voyage, either as ballast or as a gift."


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