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New study finds evidence of epic long journey undertaken by ancient Polynesia sailors

Emae Island
The team looked at the geochemical signatures of various ancient stone artifacts recovered between 1978 and 2019.
reprinted with permission

Sailors from ancient Polynesia are well-known for their epic journeys to remote islands long before Europeans arrived in America. These prehistoric people are said to have traveled to almost every remote island, from Tonga to Rapa Nui in the east to New Zealand in the south.

But there is not much evidence regarding their journey to the west of the 180th meridian.

A new study led by the Max Planck Institute and a multidisciplinary team of researchers have attempted to trace the journey of Polynesian Outliers. These were native Polynesian societies that spread beyond Polynesia's main region to the western Pacific. 

The team looked at the geochemical signatures of various ancient stone artifacts recovered from two locations between 1978 and 2019: Vanuatu in the Solomon Islands, and the Caroline Islands. And compared the geochemical evidence with the other Polynesian locations.

These artifacts aided in deciphering how Polynesian societies interacted from one isolated community to another on distant islands. They were able to estimate the geological origin of these artifacts using this isotopic technique.

The study revealed that some of these stone items came from Tatagamatau on Tutuila Island (American Samoa), which is located more than 1500 miles away in Polynesia's homeland.

"Tatagamatau adzes were among the most disseminated items across West and East Polynesia, and the sourcing of Taumako and Emae adzes suggest bursts of long-distance mobility towards the Outliers similar to those that led to the settlement of East Polynesia," said Aymeric Hermann, lead author and associate researcher at the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in an official statement.

These inter-island voyages may also indicate that Polynesian sailors played a vital role in the "reappraisal of long-distance mobility."

As per the authors, these long-distance travels were carefully planned by the sailors. During the last millennium A.D., the ancient sailors may have exchanged valuable cultural materials as well as technologies, such as shell adzes, back-strap looms, and obsidian points, with Pacific Island societies in the western Pacific, according to the statement.

The findings back up the oral theories that have been developed around their westward expansion. The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


Although the peopling of Remote Oceania is well-documented as a general process of eastward migrations from Island Southeast Asia and Near Oceania toward the archipelagos of Remote Oceania, the origin and the development of Polynesian societies in the Western Pacific (Polynesian Outliers), far away from the Polynesian triangle, remain unclear.

Here, we present a large-scale geochemical sourcing study of stone artifacts excavated from archeological sites in central Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Caroline Islands and provide unambiguous evidence of multiple long-distance voyages, with exotic stone materials being transported up to 2500 kilometers from their source. Our results emphasize high mobility in the Western Pacific during the last millennium CE and offer insights on the scale and timing of contacts between the Polynesian Outliers, their neighbors in the Western Pacific, and societies of Western Polynesia.

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The author of this story is a science writer based in India. She enjoys writing about space exploration and wildlife. Her work has appeared in publications such as Nature India, Supercluster, and Astronomy magazine.