Migrants Without Descendents
[© Brian Hooker 2006. The text that follows is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, no part may be reproduced without prior permission.]
The present interest in early Pacific navigation and evidence recently
publicised by Dr Richard Holdaway a Christchurch scientist, concerning kiore
(Polynesian rats), has rekindled the debate about the time Polynesians first
settled in New Zealand and whether they arrived by accident or on deliberate
colonising voyages. Dr Holdaway has produced data based on carbon dating of
kiore bones, which suggests that Polynesian rats arrived in New Zealand nearly
2000 years ago.
According to Janet Davidson, in her book The prehistory of New Zealand,
the present orthodox view among archaeologists is that New Zealand was inhabited
for not more than 1000 years before its rediscovery by James Cook in 1769.
Professor Geoff Irwin of Auckland University has recently been reported as
saying 'all the archaeological evidence suggested New Zealand was first settled
by the east Polynesian ancestors about 800 years ago.'
Part of the present view is that successful introduction of plants and animals
proves that the settlement of New Zealand was a planned colonisation. Since it
was highly unlikely that kiore arrived without human accompaniment, Dr
Holdaway's research adds weight to the argument that people settled in New
Zealand through accidental voyaging, 1200 or more years previous to the date
generally accepted by scholars. No doubt, the kiore sailed as stowaways on the
large Polynesian sailing-vessels when they departed from islands in east
The idea of accidental voyages is unconnected with a theory of drift voyaging
which suggests that ancient Pacific sailors were at the mercy of the wind and
ocean currents. A computer simulation study of Polynesian voyaging finalised in
1973, concluded that uncontrolled voyages had a low chance of success when
applied to the problem of reaching New Zealand from any part of eastern
A noted New Zealand scholar Dr Andrew Sharp, is often credited as the author of
a theory on drift voyages but Sharp opposed the idea and promoted the concept
that Polynesians maintained control over their vessels at all times. The nub of
Sharp's theory is that Polynesians reached New Zealand by accident after long
un-navigated voyages. Since all the islands of Polynesia were discovered by
chance whether by Polynesians or Europeans any argument about whether New
Zealand was discovered by accident is nonsensical. In addition, Sharp did not
believe New Zealand was settled once and subsequently isolated as some recent
writers have declared.
Polynesians were skilled and fearless seafarers; they were capable of detecting
land from a considerable distance and no doubt they steered towards New Zealand
long before land was sighted. It is difficult to understand why some scholars
believe it was necessary for Polynesians to return to their homeland to collect
plants and animals. There are no reasons why plants and animals could not have
been introduced through numerous one-way voyages from east Polynesia to New
In recent years a number of eminent scholars have commented on the long-distance
navigational skills of Polynesians. In her book Two worlds, Anne Salmond
endorses the view expressed by other authors that early Polynesian voyagers did
not settle New Zealand by accident but they migrated through planned voyages.
Not only have a large number of books and articles been written on the subject
of long-distance Polynesian voyaging but replica voyages have been carried out
to try and prove that ancient Pacific mariners were capable of deliberately
navigating long distances without instruments. However, the experimenters and
writers have failed to produce evidence of an ancient system of position finding
that enabled Polynesian migrants to return to their homeland and then relocate
their remote discovery. There is no proof that any vessel returned to east
Polynesia and then sailed back to New Zealand.
In any case the claims concerning navigated two-way voyages are a red herring in
the argument concerning early settlement. That people were found living in New
Zealand at the time of European discovery proves that ancestors of the Maori
arrived and settled in this country.
In the context of the long history of oceanic exploration it is a romantic and
unrealistic notion to think that males and females arrived together on the first
and many of the subsequent long voyages that reached New Zealand. Observations
made by Europeans in historic times indicate that families including women and
children sometimes sailed on ocean-going vessels. But facts recorded by early
Europeans in the Pacific over an extended period suggest that generally few
Polynesian vessels carried women.
If small groups of males survived after long voyages and landed at
widely-separated localities in New Zealand, at intervals from the time of the
first landing to the start of continuing settlement, some evidence relating to
these lonely settlers undoubtedly exists. Pa and villages built during the
period of continuing settlement were not necessarily constructed on the same
sites as settlements created by original colonists.
There is a considerable amount of evidence supporting a theory that Polynesians
settled on a number of other Pacific islands and were unable to leave
descendants. When Europeans first landed on Caroline, Necker, Palmerston,
Norfolk, Pitcairn, Henderson, and islands in the Kermadec group, they found them
deserted but Polynesian-type relics were unearthed. Some scholars, who regard
these islands as 'mystery' islands, believe the settlers moved on or in the case
of the Kermadecs used the land as a staging post for migrants en route to New
Zealand. But a more logical explanation for the absence of people when Europeans
arrived is that Polynesians reached these islands through un-navigated voyages
and lived out their lives in celibacy.
It is likely that continuing settlement commenced considerably earlier than 800
years ago if male-only colonists started to arrive around 2,000 years ago. The
laws of probability indicate that 1200 years is too long for the period during
which females failed to arrive.
The ratio between the survivors who reached New Zealand and the number lost at
sea on long voyages over a considerable time is impossible to estimate. A sad
fact often mentioned by writers is that over hundreds of years countless numbers
of people perished in the Pacific during long voyages. Perhaps for every
survivor a thousand people were lost. Janet Davidson repeats the statement that
over 2000 years of Polynesian voyaging the cost in lives was 'half a million
souls lost at sea.'
The accepted view on Polynesian settlement, which is no more than a theory,
becomes weaker as new archaeological findings are made. At the same time the
notion that Polynesians first settled in New Zealand 2000 or more years ago must
remain no more than an hypothesis unless or until evidence of human occupation
turns up which matches the age of kiore bones. □
A Polynesian ocean-going vessel observed by the Dutch
explorers Le Maire and Schouten during their traverse of
the Pacific Ocean in 1616. Similar vessels no doubt carried
first migrants to New Zealand. - Illustration from an early Dutch account of Le Maire's voyage.