What Did Ancient Polynesians Take on Their Voyages?

Polynesians carried breadfruit and other staple crops to ensure their agricultural success.
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In 1976, with the help of Micronesian navigator Mau Pialug, the Polynesian Voyaging Society sailed their double-hulled canoe Hokulea from Hawaii to Tahiti. Their successful effort ignited scholarly interest in the seafaring history of Polynesia and inspired the indigenous peoples of other Polynesian nations to launch their own voyages. In the time since, scholars have worked to trace the maritime history of Polynesia, identifying the knowledge and provisions that made these voyages successful.

1 Navigators and Knowledge

Polynesian navigators acquired a deep knowledge of the ocean currents, wind patterns and star constellations, enabling them to set sailing courses without the assistance of compasses or sextets. Ships included farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, priest-scholars and other skilled laborers who could facilitate a successful voyage and settle new lands in an efficient manner.

Due to the aptitude of the navigators and their fellow travelers, the explorations may have been conducted out of intellectual curiosity rather than material necessity. According to the Polynesian Voyaging society, "the tradition of 'imi fenua (Hawaiian: 'imi honua), or 'searching for lands,' . . . supports such a notion of deliberate exploration." Polynesians would continue traveling between island nations to maintain familial ties and forge political connections, though these visits dwindled a few centuries before Western contact.

2 Provisions for the Voyage

As a tropical climate allows for a long growing season and an abundant harvest, the Polynesian voyagers began their travels with generous supplies of fresh food. Depending on where the voyage originated, the fresh provisions may have included sweet potatoes -- which Polynesians may have acquired on a voyage to Peru -- yams, pandanus flour, taro, breadfruit, bananas and sugar cane. They would also catch fish, turtles and other sea creatures to augment their diet with protein whenever possible.

Polynesians preserved food through fermentation and drying. Mashed, fermented starch such as breadfruit or taro were a particularly useful source of carbohydrates. On the Polynesian Voyaging Society website, Tommy Holmes, a scholar and crewmember of the Hokule`a writes, "the preferred aging time for fermented breadfruit in the Marquesas was about 10 years," indicating that this particular provision could sustain travelers until they found land.

3 Breeding Animals for Future Settlement

Polynesians carried pigs, chicken and dogs on all of their voyages to prepare for the eventual settlement of new islands. They would carry enough fermented starch to keep the animals alive for several months. Travelers would only eat these animals during food shortages, as they wished to expand the population to ensure their survival on new islands. When necessary, they would cook the animals in a hearth lined with sand, coral and stone, kindling the fire with coconut husks.

4 Starters and Seedlings

Though they wouldn't transport every edible species at once, the travelers would take great care to protect their starters from salt spray and dehydration. At the minimum, they would bring young specimens of taro, coconuts, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas and breadfruit trees for food. In some cases, they would bring wauke, a mulberry relative whose bark they used to make bark cloth, or kapa. According to Tommy Holmes, these starters were "swathed in fresh water-moistened moss, then swaddled in dry ti-leaf, kapa (bark cloth), or skin from the banana tree. Finally, these bundles were put in lauhala (pandanus leaf) casings and hung from the roof of the canoe's hut." Polynesians only rarely encountered edible plants on their voyages, so they took great care to preserve their starters, eating them only in dire emergencies.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.