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One Very Old Canoe Could Help Explain How Polynesian Sailors Colonized New Zealand

New climate analysis and a very old canoe help researchers understand how the Polynesians got around

Part of a 600-year-old canoe was found in New Zealand, featuring this rare carving of a sea turtle. (Tim Mackrell, Conservation Laboratory, The University of Auckland.)
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The incredible colonization of Pacific islands by the Polynesians presents a fascinating conundrum for scholars. How, exactly, did anyone manage to cross thousands of miles of open ocean to land on tiny islands? Researchers have tried to answer the question for decades,  by analyzing the lore passed down through generations and, occasionally, attempting the journey themselves.   

Now, two new studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provide additional insight into how this ancient people managed to navigate such long distances. 

The first study focused on the 2012 discovery of a nearly 20-foot-long section of a sailing canoe, carved from a single timber. To find such a large section of a canoe preserved is rare in and of itself. But what made the find more extraordinary was that it shared features with Polynesian artifacts not normally found in New Zealand, including the carved sea turtle (pictured above). The study authors dated the canoe to around the year 1400. The Los Angeles Times reports: 

A few features, including four transverse ribs carved into the hull, haven’t been known historically in New Zealand, but have been featured in canoes in the Southern Cook Islands, described in 1913. The New Zealand canoe also shares some design elements with a canoe found about 30 years ago on Huahine in the Society Islands. It's thought to be from around the same time period as the New Zealand canoe, even though it was discovered roughly 2,500 miles away. The canoes “could have come from the same design tradition,” the authors wrote. Clearly, the Polynesians knew how to get around. 

Finding similar cultural artifacts indicates that there was a connection between the early Polynesians and New Zealand. But how would they have made it there? The South Pacific's current wind patterns would have made sailing between Polynesia and New Zealand difficult with the canoe technology in use at the time New Zealand was colonized. In the second paper,  a different group of researchers found that the Polynesian colonists actually had the weather on their side. Science:

Because of shifting climate conditions, there were several decades-long windows of opportunity in which Polynesian seafarers could have sailed with the wind at their backs to travel east and other times when winds favored travel between the Central Pacific islands and New Zealand. "Our reconstructed sailing conditions during the period of East Polynesian colonization would have enabled all of the known colonizing routes, and others,” to have been successfully navigated by canoes that couldn’t sail into the wind 

So, the Polynesians came to New Zealand in canoes during periods of good climate conditions, and everything gets tied up with a neat little bow, right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. While the canoe found in the first paper was dated to 1400, the friendly weather anomaly shut down nearly 100 years earlier, around 1300. The researchers interviewed in Science suggested one possible explanation: people who settled in New Zealand just kept on building the same kinds of canoes for a while. Another possibility: the dates found by researchers in the first paper might be off by a bit. 

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