Moana is the newest member of the Disney princess tradition. The movie featuring her became one of the highest-grossing films of 2016, which also saw the release of Finding Dory and Zootopia. Disney built up a field of research going into the movie, which helped ground the story in history and Polynesian oral traditions, but it is still fiction. However, Moana contains a hidden truth from a surprising corner: the field of navigation. According to the film, Moana is from the island of Motunui in Polynesia. Although the island is fictional, the culture is not, particularly when it comes to navigation and the origin of the Polynesians themselves.
For hundreds of years, the origins of Polynesian culture have perplexed Western scientists and researchers. In 1788, Captain James Cook, one of the first European explorers of the South Pacific, made the voyage from Tahiti to Hawaii. He brought with him Tupaia, a Tahitian priest, and found that Tupaia was able to communicate with the Hawaiian natives easily. Cook was taken aback and eventually named the scattered islands between Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand, “Polynesia”, since they seemed to share the same ancestry and a common language. But the cause for such a phenomenon was to remain a mystery.
Many Western researchers took it upon themselves to find a connection between these so-called “advanced stone age peoples” and a Caucasian ancestry. However, these attempts had almost no foundation in fact and were unable to garner much support. It was not until 1937 that any probable explanation was found.
Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian naturalist and anthropologist, had taken a trip to Fatu Hiva in Polynesia to document the wildlife of the island. While there, he noticed that the tide seemed to always come from the direction of Peru, over four thousand miles to the east. Heyerdahl, among other anthropologists, had already noticed similarities between the Polynesians and ancient South Americans in their culture and architecture, and he soon formed a theory to explain these findings. Could the ancient South Americans have crossed the Pacific and settled the islands of Polynesia? He returned to Norway to find support and backing to test his theory.
Heyerdahl found many people unwilling to believe him, but he was able to piece together a crew of five other men. They crafted a replica of a pre-Incan raft – 30 by 15 feet, made of nine balsa wood logs lashed together. The crew set sail from Callao, Peru on April 28, 1947. Heyerdahl called the raft Kon-Tiki, after the mythical Peruvian sun god he believed to have discovered and settled the South Pacific islands. After 93 days at sea, drifting where the wind would carry them, the six-man crew spotted distant islands. However, the current would not allow them to land. A week later, the Kon-Tiki crashed into a reef near the island of Raroia, near Tahiti.
The success of Heyerdahl’s voyage rocked the scientific world, especially after the publication of his book, Kon-Tiki, which chronicled the journey. Even though Heyerdahl had demonstrated that a journey from Peru to Polynesia by primitive raft was possible, he had no way to prove such a migration had actually occurred. Many critics of the Kon-Tiki theory continued to search for other possible explanations.
Heyerdahl’s theory of what was termed “drift navigation” rested on the assumption that the ancient Polynesians were a primitive people without the ability to find their bearings at sea. In 1973, computer modelers began to prove conclusively that the Pacific Islands could not feasibly have been settled through drift navigation. Oral traditions and archaeological data, along with statistical probability, were all pointing to Southeast Asia as a likely candidate for the origins of the ancient Polynesians. Heyerdahl’s theory of ancient Peruvians drifting across the Pacific on rafts is intriguing, but ultimately wrong. In fact, most scientists today agree that the opposite is true. Instead of Peruvians settling Polynesia, the Polynesians settled Peru.
David Lewis, a British sailor and scholar, believed the settlers of Polynesia were more advanced than Heyerdahl or other scientists assumed. To prove the effectiveness of ancient navigational techniques, he traveled to the South Pacific to study with traditional navigators. Lewis joined the Polynesian Voyaging Society and set out to test his theory.
Archaeologists had found that ancient Polynesians did not use rafts as their primary method of travel. Instead, they built double-hulled canoes similar in shape to modern catamarans. In 1975, the Polynesian Voyaging Society built a full-scale replica of one of these canoes christened Hokule’a, which is Hawaiian for “friendly star”. It was this ship in which Lewis intended to prove his theory possible. A year after it was built, the Hokule’a set sail from Hawaii with a traditional Polynesian navigator, Mau Piailug, on board – one of only six traditional navigators alive. Using the position of the sun at dawn and dusk, and the positions of the stars, Piailug was able to correctly calculate the Hokule’a’s direction and latitude. He could even use ocean swells to accurately predict where distant islands were. One month after the ship set sail, it landed in Tahiti, after successfully navigating the 2,700-mile stretch.
Although the Hokule’a’s successful maiden voyage proved ancient navigational techniques viable, many scientists still had doubts. Like Heyerdahl, Lewis had failed to provide conclusive evidence for his theory. In 2008, a new study was released that finally dispelled the mystery surrounding the origins of Polynesia. A team of scientists conducting DNA research in Polynesia discovered a genetic link between the islanders and Taiwanese aborigines. Dr. Patrick Kirch, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert in Polynesian cultures, cited the new DNA analysis as “overwhelming biological evidence for a clear population movement out of Southeast Asia and Taiwan to Polynesia.”
Over 60 years have come and gone since Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki landed in Polynesia, but researchers are still working to unveil the many mysteries of the South Pacific. Why did Taiwanese voyagers leave their homes and travel thousands of miles to find a new land? What caused the Polynesians to quit exploring after leaving Peru? Will the lost art of traditional Polynesian navigation disappear forever?