It would be far from an exaggeration to characterize Polynesian voyaging, the dramatic spread of people and culture across the Pacific Ocean, as the single greatest maritime migration in the entirety of human history.
(Collerson and Weisler, 2007) In less than 3,000 years, nearly every inhabitable island in the entirety of the South Pacific region was identified and colonized with the use of highly sophisticated maritime technology. (Finney, 1977) Central to both anthropological and cultural narratives of the voyaging tradition is the “Long Pause”, a period of approximately 1,600 years in which long-distance sea voyaging was all but nonexistent. (Kirch, 2002) Several theories have been suggested to explain this notable stationary period, but many fail to take into account the tremendous impact that climate change has on human behavior.
The resurgence of colonization across Polynesia and the South Pacific following the Long Pause of approximately 1500 BCE to 1500 CE can be attributed to climate change that opened sailing routes, expanding naval access to western Polynesia.Both oral history and the anthropological record clearly indicate a long-held and widespread tradition of sea voyaging and colonization across Oceania, but no consensus exists on the cause of either the Long Pause or the Polynesians’ return to seafaring and colonization. The anthropological record contains extensive evidence that Polynesians acted on advanced maritime technology as well as complex navigation techniques, or “wayfinding”, (Finney, 1994) to travel beyond their home islands and colonize in long-distance, two-way voyages that developed a complex trade 3network dependent on exceptional seafaring ability.
(Collerson and Weisler, 2007) Radiocarbon dating of tools and other items of daily life suggest a branching network that eventually spread to reach every inhabitable island in the Pacific. (Rolett, 2002; Hurles, 2003)Despite the significance of a complete halt in navigation for a culture dependent upon and focused on sea voyaging, little research exists on the sudden transition from nearly two millennia without significant exploration to a sudden resurgence in maritime voyaging. Instead, focus has primarily rested on the duration of the gap and not the environmental or cultural factors that caused such a significant behavioral shift.
(Thomas, 2008) A repeated explanation for the Long Pause is a particularly severe El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, a regular weather pattern that occurs every few years and causes an observable warming in air temperature and changes to wind patterns. (Trenberth, 1997) The primary obstacle in the ENSO theory of the Long Pause is its disregard for the expertise of the wayfinders who specialized in voyaging and ocean navigation. Early theories claimed that extensive geographical spread was accomplished by a combination of random drifting and exile voyaging. (Horvath and Finney, 1969; Sharp, 1957) European explorers to the region as well as 20th century scientists expressed skepticism over the veracity of oral tradition that emphasized the cultural importance of long-distance voyaging and colonization, dismissing community history as “wild exaggerations if not outright fictions.” (Finney, 1994) These are gross underestimations of 4ancient Polynesians’ abilities and technology they specifically developed to expand their reach across the Pacific. (Horvath and Finney, 1969) A growing body of research, however, rejects ENSO weather patterns as an insufficient deterrent to account for the length of the Long Pause. Instead, climate change, specifically the Little Climatic Optimum (LCO), is the much more viable solution to the “problem” of the Long Pause.
(Bridgman, 1983)The theory of extreme ENSO patterns causing the Long Pause fail to account for the constant monitoring of weather patterns and seasonal changes that were necessary in order to successfully develop and maintain colonies at great distances from a community’s home island. El Niño is a measurable, observable, and moderately predictable phenomenon. (Trenberth, 1997) It is unreasonable to assume that an entire culture, spread across thousands of square miles, would be deterred from one of their most essential economic and cultural practices (Richards, 2009) by a standard weather variation. Voyagers were experts of reading and interpreting weather, waves, and stars (Finney 1994) and would surely have been able to comprehend a repeated weather pattern such as El Niño. One of the most severe periods of ENSO in recent history lasted for just 20 months.
(Trenberth, 1997) As a crude thought experiment, one can magnify this to 20 years of continuous ENSO; as this length is unheard of, it would certainly qualify as an extreme ENSO period to satisfy the hypotheses of those scientists that suggest the Long Pause is attributable to El Niño. After continuous exploration for centuries, voyaging in the Pacific ceased for a 5period of approximately 1,000 years. 20 years accounts for just 2% of this time period, and less than one generation of seamen. Meticulous oral recordkeeping that included extensive genealogies and was supported by cultural institutions gave particular weight to seamanship.
(Stimson 1957; Suggs 1960) While a severe period of ENSO may account for a brief break in voyaging due to a loss of sailing routes, it does not in any way account for a 1,000 year gap that suddenly ended in a dramatic expansion of voyaging activity. Therefore, the ENSO hypothesis is unviable.The hypothesis that best fits the existing evidence for the cause of the Long Pause is the onset of the LCO, which began in approximately 750 CE and coincides with the beginning of the Long Pause. (Bridgman 1983) Literature also commonly refers to The Little Climatic Optimum as the Medieval Warm Period (Nunn 2007) or Medieval Climate Anomaly (Mann 2009). The LCO is characterized by conditions that are extremely favorable to eastward sea voyaging, giving communities access to the islands they had not been able to reach in the first wave of Polynesian voyaging. In particular, the seamen enjoyed a remarkable consistency in weather patterns. These patterns consisted of clear skies, which allowed for precise and uninterrupted navigation by stars; dramatically reduced storms, increasing the ease of long-distance voyaging, maximizing speed, and minimizing risk to the lives of the crew; and regularly accessible wind patterns that could easily carry Polynesians from east to west. (Bridgman 1983) Newfound access to western islands may be what makes this period 6in Poynesian voyaging so remarkable.
With this new western gateway available and easier to access than ever in history, Polynesian culture was able to spread to the entirety of this vast region.Ultimately, the sudden end of Polynesian voyaging in the Long Pause can be attributed not to underdeveloped technology or ENSO variations, but rather significant climate change that eliminated existing wind patterns and sailing routes. Other theories make generalized assumptions on the sophistication and development of Polynesian technology that have not changed since European explorer Cook’s first contact with the region. Early attempts to identify the geographic origins and patterns of travel of peoples across Polynesia largely rejected the possibility that local technology allowed for long-distance maritime travel, far beyond the contemporary scope of Mediterranean travel that relied on more “advanced” European technology. (Finney 1991) These assumed limitations based on difference in style and approach are damaging to the scientific community’s understanding of this culture as a whole and minimize the incredible accomplishment that is exploring and colonizing one of the largest areas of the planet using unique and complex seafaring methods.