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The real Moana: How ancient Polynesian navigators discovered the South Pacific

Pacific Islanders had a high seafaring age that puts European explorers to shame

The new Disney musical Moana is set in a real ancient civilization with an incredible tradition of maritime navigation

Disney

The new Disney musical Moana is set in a real ancient civilization with an incredible tradition of maritime navigation

We set a course to find
A brand new island everywhere we roam
Aue, aue
We keep our island in our mind
And when it's time to find home
We know the way

Those words, from “We Know the Way,” a soaring number in the new Disney musical Moana, describe a real-life society even more magical than the usual setting of enchanted forests and talking teapots.

Moana takes place in the ancient Pacific Islands, a still-surviving Polynesian civilization with a tradition of high seafaring that puts European explorers to shame.

Yet their achievements are not well known in North America, nor taught in many schools, said Patrick Kirch, director of the Oceanic Archaeology Laboratory at the UC Berkley.

Polynesians are descendants of Austronesians, a group of agricultural peoples who fanned out from near modern-day New Guinea starting five or six thousand years ago. (At least, researchers think so. It’s still a matter of debate).

Travelling in outrigger canoes — like a North American canoe, but less tippy and faster, thanks to stabilizing beams and, later, sails — the Polynesians landed in Tonga and Samoa, 5,000 kilometres from their starting place, by about 900 BC.

Around AD 900 came their second great age of exploration. They sailed thousands of kilometres of open ocean to islands where humans hadn’t yet tread, from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the west and Easter Island in the southeast.

It was all because somebody got the bright idea to stick two canoes together and connect them with a deck, creating a proto-catamaran that could carry enough food, including live pigs, dogs and chickens, to sustain 50-60 people for months.

“They really opened up the whole Pacific world, and we're quite certain they got to South America and back because the sweet potato is one of the plants they were cultivating,” Kirch said. “Europeans didn't venture very far until the late 1400s. This is 500 years before that.”

In Disney's Moana, the titular heroine and the demigod Maui journey on a traditional Polynesian outrigger canoe.

Disney

In Disney's Moana, the titular heroine and the demigod Maui journey on a traditional Polynesian outrigger canoe.

The wooden boats were sewn together with coconut fibre rope. These people didn’t have nails. They didn’t even have the wheel. And yet they found their way. As the song says, they kept their island in their mind.

“Navigation in our western sense implies they're using various instruments,” Kirch said. “They didn't have sextants or even maps. They had memorized, incredibly, star rising and setting positions. If you memorized that and followed it, you knew how to do a voyage that would go days and nights.”

Though the film takes some liberties, quite a bit is drawn from real Polynesian history and folklore.

Maui, voiced by Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson, a demi-god who pulls islands from the sea, lassoes the sun and controls the tides, is a legendary cultural figure in the whole region. (The teenage heroine Moana, a chief’s daughter whose name means “ocean,” seems to be Disney’s invention.)

Maui, a trickster and a demi-god who lassos the sun and pulls islands from the sea, appears in traditional stories from Taihiti to New Zealand to Hawaii.

Aloha Valley

Maui, a trickster and a demi-god who lassos the sun and pulls islands from the sea, appears in traditional stories from Taihiti to New Zealand to Hawaii.

In the movie, the resources of Moana’s island home are nearly depleted, and, finding herself overwhelmed with wanderlust, she sets sail to discover someplace new.   

That’s realistic enough — though in a strict patriarchal society, it would never have been a girl who saved the day, Kirch said.  

“There are push factors; on smaller islands populations built up, there was competition and warfare. But there was also a kind of a pull. These people had a conception that there were always more islands out there. They had stories and traditions about it.

“It was much like medieval European society. The older son inherits the land and the title. So if you're a junior sibling and you go out and find a new island, you become the chief.

“There's a certain drive: ‘Let's take this big canoe. You know grandpa found this island. Maybe there's another one out there.’"

The tradition continues

The Hōkūleʻa, a historically accurate replica of an ancient double-hulled Polynesian canoe, has been sailed around the South Pacific and the whole world since the 1970s, entirely using traditional celestial navigation techniques: no radar, no GPS, no compasses or even maps. The skills had been preserved in the oral tradition by a handful of master navigators despite centuries of upheaval and colonial rule.

The Hōkūle‘ (above), a replica of an ancient double-hulled Polynesian canoe,  owes much of its success to the late master navigator Mau Piailug, from Micronesia, one of the few people in the entire South Pacific who, after the advent of European colonialism, carried on the oral tradition of wayfinding by the stars. He found his way from Hawaii to Tahiti with no instruments, despite never having done it before, by visiting the Honolulu planetarium in advance and memorizing the stars he would see.

Phil Uhl/Wikimedia commons

The Hōkūle‘ (above), a replica of an ancient double-hulled Polynesian canoe, owes much of its success to the late master navigator Mau Piailug, from Micronesia, one of the few people in the entire South Pacific who, after the advent of European colonialism, carried on the oral tradition of wayfinding by the stars. He found his way from Hawaii to Tahiti with no instruments, despite never having done it before, by visiting the Honolulu planetarium in advance and memorizing the stars he would see.

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