Revolution at Sea


Episode 01: The Austronesians


Stepping back before recorded history to an amazing saga, we enter the vast open Pacific. This is the world of the Austronesian speakers, specifically the Polynesians.


At Eurasia’s far eastern shores, the ocean provided an initial springboard for a great neolithic oceanic experience.  To three corners of the vast Pacific, people sailed an area as big as North and South America combined.


For years, the accepted wisdom was that these speakers of Austronesian languages sprang from modern day Taiwan and began moving south and east years ago, the evidence being linguistic and archaeological. New genetic study based on DNA sampling indicates a much earlier movement, originating in mainland Southeast Asia, perhaps ten thousand years ago, probably motivated by climate change affecting sea levels.  These people formed a seaborne culture achieving a staggering accomplishment of moving people over enormous distances in the last great expansion of homo sapiens from our presumed African origins.


Speakers of Austronesian languages became the most widely spread language family in the world until the opening of global sea routes

and the first  phase of oceanic revolution in the 16th century. The Austronesian stretch would be from Madagascar, culturally closer to faraway Indonesia than it is to nearby Africa, to Easter Island and Hawai’i.  Madagascar is as unusual for its people as for its animals.

Late to be settled some 1200 years ago: its language, artifacts, and genetics indicate a Southeast Asian origin.


These nomads of the sea took to the salt water to fish, to trade, to ease population pressure, to make war or perhaps simply to check out the girls of another island. Polynesians and their ancestors reached Samoa, Tonga, & eastern Fiji around three thousand years ago. Eastward these people moved southwest to New Zealand; northward to Hawai’i,  southeast  to Easter Island (Rapa Nui)  that dot in eastern Pacific, remote, mysterious, dramatic, with its gigantic enigmatic stone sculptures.


Spanning 225 degrees of longitude these were greatest neolithic seafarers, the true explorers of the Pacific, although Europeans arriving much later would think of themselves as such.


Austronesians probably began with simple bamboo rafts that evolved into the highly seaworthy double-outrigger canoe, some sixty to eighty feet long, with floats on both sides and a broad central platform holding as many as sixty people. These also could carry cuttings of food plants:  coconut, breadfruit, taro, yam, banana  - a suitcase biota.

Animals too: pigs, dogs, chickens  (rat, the inevitable stowaway)

In short, all the sustenance necessary for protracted travel (perhaps  months) and for colonization.


Obviously these people were splendid seafarers, operating with no navigational instruments. For guidance they had only stick charts, intrinsic works of art, but they knew nothing of longitude, latitude, mathematical calculation.  They could sail against winds and currents,    

navigating by naked eye, observing sun, cloud colors and shapes.


They knew that the greenish tint to the underside of clouds coming from reflection of sunlight off shallow waters revealed the presence of a lagoon.

They observed ocean swells, color of the water, distribution of seaweed, bird flight patterns. 


Or they noted certain fish which feed close to shore and whose flesh is sweeter than others.  Even the pitch and roll of the canoe, the feel of the swell against the hull, provided useful information.


At night they watched the arching web of stars, their rising and setting -  knowing by name more than a hundred. The sky became a virtual compass memorized from a patterned circle of coral pebbles laid out in the sand.


They possessed a marvelous and comprehensive sensitivity to their environment, beginning their nautical experience as babies.  Infants  might be trained to the movement of  water by being held in a tidal pool showing how ripples (waves) and wind moved differently from place to place.


The pahu, accomplished navigator, was a figure venerated beyond his seafaring skills.  He acted as a religious leader, the father of his crew, a spiritual guide. His power derived from his achievement.

The Polynesians in this far ranging human migration, taking people to places for the most part uninhabited were true colonizers, touching some five hundred islands, mere dots, an aggregate 2% of the ocean.


They adapted to a variety of island types, both coral and volcanic.

They established isolated island universes , largely unconnected

even within individual islands, often sustaining little contact even between beach and bush.


Wind and current shaped movement between settlements, serendipitous rather than planned. Undoubtedly this was a chronicle of failure as well as success.  Polynesian seafarers often must have missed their way and died at sea. The tides of history have forever swept them away.


Huge distances inhibited creating patterns of regularity or wide patterns of power. These people did not form urban societies; they lacked a metropole or even a cultural core. Theirs was a culture without  a discernible hearth, but they built thriving vibrant, self sufficient communities establishing themselves in places where other people were not.


The sea dictated their rhythms of life.  They had no hinterland, no great lands to till, no vast forests in which to hunt. Land space seemed limited,  insignificant  and dull as compared to the power and moods of the sea.

Their world was watery, the sea their sovereign:

The force that governed every action,

The force with which they lived in harmony.

The force for which they had utmost respect but for which they had no fear.

They viewed the sea as primary:  water interspersed with land, not bodies of land separated by water, seeing salt water space as territory for their use and pleasure, not an adversary, as would so many other cultures.


The reef supplied a salty pasture, a resource-provider for its fish as well as a social space, a place for play. Here is the birthplace of the sport of surfing and swimming. Everyone surfed, old and young.

When the surf was good, the whole village got up and moved to the beach and everybody jumped in the water. Surfing is a great legacy of these people. And yet the rest of the world would not find them  (or they the rest of the world) until relatively modern times.


Austronesians would not open the world ocean. They were never contenders for a global reach.  Others, more technologically advanced, would be the more likely candidates for global pioneering.  The most likely was Imperial China.