Just look at a map of Remote Oceania – the region of the Pacific that contains Hawaii, New Zealand, Samoa, French Polynesia and Micronesia – and it’s hard not to wonder how people originally settled on these islands. They’re mostly small and located many hundreds to thousands of kilometers away from any large landmass as well as from each other. As our species colonized just about every region of the planet, these islands seem to be the last places our distant ancestors reached.
A comprehensive body of archaeological, linguistic, anthropological and genetic evidence suggests that people started settling there about 3,400 years before present (BP). While we have a relatively clear picture of when many of the major island groups were colonized, there is still considerable debate as to precisely where these settlers originated and the strategies and trajectories they used as they voyaged.
In new experiments, my colleagues and I investigated how environmental variability and Oceania’s geographical setting would have influenced the colonization process. We built computer seafaring simulations and analyzed wind, precipitation and land distribution data over this region of the Pacific. We wanted to understand how seasonal and climate variability in weather and currents might lead to some potential routes being favored over others. How would these factors, including the periodic El Niño and La Niña patterns, affect even the feasibility of different sailing strategies? Did they play a role in the puzzling 2,000-year pause we see in eastward expansion? Could they have provided incentives to migration?
Findings? Yes wind patters played a role:
Overall, our results lend weight to various existing theories. El Niño and La Niña have been proposed as potential migration influences before, but we’ve provided a much more detailed view in both space and time of how this could have taken place. Our simulations strengthen the case for a lack of technology being the cause for the pause in migration, and downwind sailing as a viable strategy for the first colonization pulse 3,400 BP.
In the future, we hope to create new models – turning to time-series of environmental data instead of the statistical descriptions we used this time – to see if they produce similar results. We also want to develop experiments that would evaluate sailing strategies not in the context of discovery and colonization but of exchange networks. Are the islands along “easier” pathways between distant points also places where the archaeology shows a diverse set of artifacts from different regions? There’s still plenty to figure out about how people originally undertook these amazing voyages of exploration and expansion.
As this blog keeps saying. knowing geography is so crucial to understanding much of the world. Even economists are discovering the same as research of recent years has shown. Just that it keeps being ignored in curriculums…