The Polynesian Golden Age Of Sail
There were two great ages of sail in the history of the world: one is the well-known one of the Western nations during the 18th and 19th centuries, which ended more or less around the middle of the 19th century with the widespread adoption of steam propulsion for ocean travel. This is often referred to as “The Golden Age Of Sail”.
The other age of sail is not as well known. It is no less well-documented, but instead of being recorded in books and Western-style writings, it is recorded in the genetics and languages of the different people spread across the many islands of the Pacific Ocean in the area known as Polynesia.
(Below) Made with Stone Age technology and materials: there’s no metal at all in this vessel. However, Polynesians just like these people were sailing this kind of vessel thousands of miles across open ocean while our Western ancestors were still hugging the European coastline because they were worried about Falling Off The Edge Of The World.
This other age of sail we refer to covers the migration of the Pacific peoples from Malaysia eastward over thousands of miles of ocean through hundreds of islands, over a period of thousands of years, beginning approximately 2,000 BC and ending around 1,200 AD. We will refer to it as the Polynesian Age of Sail, and the other the Western Age of Sail to keep things simple.
What is amazing about the Polynesian Age Of Sail is that, according to the latest data from anthropologists, it began four thousand years ago, and the vessels used didn’t have a scrap of metal anywhere in them; the technology used to build them with was all Stone Age. And they were BIG!
(Below) A 100-foot long voyaging “baurua” of Kiribati (Gilbert Islands), under construction in 1939.
The Micronesians, Hawaiians, Tahitians, Marquesans, Tuamotuans, Solomon Islanders, Fijians, Samoans, and Maori of New Zealand all came from this original migration starting in 2,000 BC. They all developed their own particular variations of whatever the original vessels were that left Malaysia so long ago, so that when European explorers entered the Pacific, they encountered many distinctly different shapes and styles of vessels, from double-ended proas to double catamarans, in all the different Polynesian island nations.
This migration and diaspora was only possible because of the incredibly sophisticated construction methods use to build these vessels, and even more sophisticated sailing and navigation techniques they developed to sail these vessels.
David Lewis, author of East Is A Big Bird, and We The Navigators, both books about Micronesian wayfinding and instrumentless navigation, describes how Polynesian peoples navigated without printed charts, without magnetic compasses, without sextants or chronometers, or any of the “necessities” that Western navigation is lost without.
The Polynesian Golden Age of Sail was just amazing, and Western cultures could learn an incredible amount from it. And have: where do you think the inspiration for this boat came from?