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Voyage to/from Ancient New Zealand

By JW Dowey - 30 Sep 2014 9:15:0 GMT
Voyage to/from Ancient New Zealand

Whether this Maori double-hull or a mere outrigger design, the recently discovered ancient canoe connects New Zealand with the Cook Island double-hulled vaka or Tahitian (Society Islands) designs; image; Credit: © Shutterstock

In 2012, near the Anaweka River in South Island, New Zealand, a unique piece of exploration history was revealed. 6 metres long, with a beautiful turtle engraved above the water line on its side, the artefact made a voyage in 1400 as part of one of the ocean-going Polynesian outrigger canoes. These vessels were 20m long and this one may have been catamaran in style or with the traditional minihull or outrigger that gave stability in high seas.

The wood was native to New Zealand but was very close to the craft manufactured in the Society Islands, 4000km away. The ribs carved on the inner side and the turtle point to that origin. Another paper claims the favourable winds before 1300AD allowed these lengthy voyages across the Pacific. The University of Auckland authors of “An early sophisticated East Polynesian voyaging canoe discovered on New Zealand's coast” are Dilys A. Johns, Geoffrey J. Irwin, and Yun K. Sung. Their paper in PNAS is published here as - Ancient Polynesian canoe found in New Zealand.

They studied the preserved wood, dated the materials and reconstructed the possible structure. Bark wads were found to be last used to waterproof the boat around 1400AD.The significance of the date of the find is that, followed much later by James Cook, the Polynesians explored and discovered much of the Pacific islands. New Zealand had just been settled and many seafarers set out in these canoes to populate much of Oceania. The puzzle is that islands had been occupied long before the big sea-canoes. The answer is in those wind changes before and after 1300AD. It is possible the big vessels were to enable return journeys by explorers toward the tropical Central Pacific. The big question still is how and if the early explorers cold sail into the wind. The answer so far is that the climate changes enabled their colonisation. Maybe they failed to return to their ancestral islands?

The truth may be possible to find in further work or discoveries. It is still fascinating to speculate on the movement of peoples and many associated species around the world. Marine exploration seems at the root of many ancient movements in populations, while pigs, plants and parrots are likely to have benefitted by unthinking as well as carefully planned transport. The colonisation of Madagascar by distant Indonesians is an interesting comparison in this paper: Colonising Madagascar.