History of Oceanography
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of Ocean Currents
The Polynesian settlement of the Pacific
formed a triangle which covered an area almost twice the size of
the continental United States.
Painting of Hokulea, a traditional Polynesian canoe by artist Greg Taylor
of the Honolulu Advertiser (with permission).
About 30,000 years ago, human cultures along the western
coastline of the Pacific Ocean -- in the area between what is now Australia and China -- started
to migrate eastward across the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
We are not sure exactly why the migrations started, but tribal
wars, disease epidemics, the search for food, or natural disasters
such as large volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, may have been
Over about 25,000 years, these people, called the Polynesians,
eventually colonized the islands of the south and western Pacific,
from New Guinea in the west to Fiji and Samoa in the middle. Then
they moved onward to Tahiti and finally Easter Island in the eastern
south Pacific. The Polynesians colonized the Hawaiian Islands about
500 years ago. The Hawaiian Islands are among the worlds
most remote island groups and were one of the last major island groups to
be colonized by native cultures. How did the Polynesians manage
to travel across thousands of miles of ocean without compasses,
sextants, clocks, or other tools of modern navigation? Their migration
was truly one of the great achievements of early seafaring cultures,
and it marks the start of oceanographic observations by people
who lived in harmony with the ocean.
The Polynesians were very observant. They noted the directions that
waves came from and how they affected or rocked their canoes. They
had a keen sense of ocean currents and variations in bird and sea
life in different places in the Pacific. They also were among the
first people to use astronomical observations of the stars to help
them navigate across the ocean.
They made the earliest form of navigational or oceanographic map, called stick
charts. These were made of pieces of bamboo or other wood that were tied together.
The locations of islands were often marked with shells or knots, and curved pieces
of wood represented the bending of ocean waves around the islands and the way
waves rocked their canoes. Polynesians handed down their lore of the sea in both
the oral and stick map traditions.