Sunday, August 2, 2009


We thoroughly enjoyed watching the State Outrigger Canoe Paddling Championship Regatta in Hilo Bay this weekend. Before moving to Hawaii we hadn’t heard about outrigger canoe races and had no idea how popular, competitive and colorful the island sport was. The Regatta was well attended by paddling teams from all over the State of Hawaii. The winning teams had an amazing cohesiveness, with six paddlers acting in perfect unison.

Outrigger canoes are deeply connected to the seafaring Polynesians in the Pacific that settled in Hawaii a thousand years ago. Early Polynesians were the most skilled navigators in history with the knowledge of how to travel huge distances across the Pacific Ocean by canoe using only the stars, clouds and seabirds as navigational aids. Studying the history of the Polynesians and their migrations have become a popular research subject by anthropologists, archeologists, linguists and geneticists, and the research has resulted in proof of the Polynesians navigational feats.

Two years ago scientists proved that a stone tool carved from volcanic rock, found by an archaeologist in the 1930s on a coral island near Tahiti, came from Hawaii. This was the first Hawaiian object found in east Polynesia, over 4000 kilometers away from Hawaii. More recently archaeologists found over 50 ancient rock engravings in Tonga with stylized images of people and animals close in form to engravings in Hawaii dated between 1200 and 1500AD. Similar petroglyphs have been found throughout eastern Polynesia, especially in the Marquesas, Tahiti and Hawaii. These findings are part of the growing evidence that early Polynesians navigated incredible distances across the Pacific Ocean.

A year ago a genetic study of almost 1,000 people revealed that Polynesians and Micronesians have the closest genetic relationship with Asians, specifically Taiwan Aborigines and East Asians. The first settlers of Australia, New Guinea, and the large Pacific islands just to the east arrived between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago. These small groups were isolated and became extremely diverse during the following tens of thousands of years. Then, a little more than 3,000 years ago, the ancestors of the Polynesians and Micronesians, with their outrigger canoes, appeared in the islands of Melanesia, and during the following centuries settled the islands throughout central and eastern Pacific. Some of the islands that are considered part of Melanesia are Fiji, New Caledonia, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

The research team analyzed more than 800 genetic markers of people from 41 Pacific populations and found evidence different from previous Y-chromosome research. The hypothesis from the study, supported by the mitochondrial evidence, is that ancestors of the Polynesians originated in Taiwan, moved through Indonesia to Island Melanesia, and then spread out to all islands of the Pacific without having any significant contact with the Island Melanesians along the way. Though the natives of Island Melanesians speak languages related to Polynesian, called Austronesian, they show a very minor genetic contribution to the Polynesians.

Recently scientists analyzed the Austronesian language family, which is one of the largest in the world with 1200 languages spread across the Pacific, to gain insight into Polynesian migration. By studying the basic vocabulary from 400 languages, such as words for animals, simple verbs, colors and numbers, researchers traced how the languages evolved to create a history of settlement in Pacific.

According to their language research, the Austronesians arose in Taiwan around 5,200 years ago. Before entering the Philippines, the Austronesians paused for around a thousand years, and then spread rapidly across from the Philippines to Polynesia in less than one thousand years. After settling Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, the Austronesians paused again for another thousand years, before finally spreading further into Polynesia eventually reaching as far as New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Islands. Expansions were linked to the development of new technologies, such as better canoes and techniques to deal with the great distances between islands in Polynesia. Using these new technologies, the Austronesians and Polynesians were able to rapidly spread through the Pacific in one of the greatest human migrations ever.

Racing and navigating long distances with outrigger canoes remains a popular activity in Hawaii and many other Pacific islands. Observing the unity and strength required to paddle outrigger canoes across Hilo Bay, we have incredible respect for the accomplishments of the early Polynesians.


Linda Ballou said...

Good info an beautiful pix.
Thank you
Wai-nani, High Chiefess of Hawaii.
p.s. my book will be in Basically Books soon!

Keahi Pelayo said...

I had friends from Oahu racing and they said it was a great day.