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Published: March 2008

Pioneers of the Pacific

People Of Pacific

Beyond the Blue Horizon

How ancient voyagers settled the far-flung islands of the Pacific

By Roff Smith
Photograph by Stephen Alvarez
Much of the thrill of venturing to the far side of the world rests on the romance of difference. So one feels a certain sympathy for Captain James Cook on the day in 1778 that he "discovered" Hawaii. Then on his third expedition to the Pacific, the British navigator had explored scores of islands across the breadth of the sea, from lush New Zealand to the lonely wastes of Easter Island. This latest voyage had taken him thousands of miles north from the Society Islands to an archipelago so remote that even the old Polynesians back on Tahiti knew nothing about it. Imagine Cook's surprise, then, when the natives of Hawaii came paddling out in their canoes and greeted him in a familiar tongue, one he had heard on virtually every mote of inhabited land he had visited. Marveling at the ubiquity of this Pacific language and culture, he later wondered in his journal: "How shall we account for this Nation spreading it self so far over this Vast ocean?"

That question, and others that flow from it, has tantalized inquiring minds for centuries: Who were these amazing seafarers? Where did they come from, starting more than 3,000 years ago? And how could a Neolithic people with simple canoes and no navigation gear manage to find, let alone colonize, hundreds of far-flung island specks scattered across an ocean that spans nearly a third of the globe?

Answers have been slow in coming. But now a startling archaeological find on the island of Éfaté, in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, has revealed an ancient seafaring people, the distant ancestors of today's Polynesians, taking their first steps into the unknown. The discoveries there have also opened a window into the shadowy world of those early voyagers.

At the same time, other pieces of this human puzzle are turning up in unlikely places. Climate data gleaned from slow-growing corals around the Pacific and from sediments in alpine lakes in South America may help explain how, more than a thousand years later, a second wave of seafarers beat their way across the entire Pacific.
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