Everyone is familiar with the Age of European Discovery where they "discovered" the New World, Australia, and more while circumnavigating the globe. This was an age marked by famous explorers like Captain Cook, Christopher Columbus, and Magellan. Most people are familiar with the age of the Vikings when they roamed the seas discovering lands like the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and what is today Newfoundland of Canada. But how many people are familiar with the great age of Polynesian expansion? It is arguably one of the greatest discovery and travel stories rarely told. Today there are many countries and territories of Polynesia. Many of these have developed independently for hundreds of years - one can learn about the New Zealand Maori while there and see the unique culture that they developed.


The Incredible Tale of Polynesian Expansion

The Pacific is big, really big - It's just plain huge. The Pacific Ocean alone is around a third of the world's surface area and more than all the land in the world combined. To put things into perspective, the United States is "only" around 10 million square kilometers while the Pacific is some 165 million square kilometers in total. The Polynesians in relatively recent history explored vast amounts of the region.

  • Size: The Pacific Ocean is around 165 Million Square Kilometers or 60 Million Square Miles
  • Disbelief: The Early European Explorers Couldn't Believe That The Stone-Age Polynesians Discovered The Pacific Before they Did

Early European explorers who first encountered the Polynesians were left dumbfounded that stone-age people could discover the vast swathes of the world's biggest ocean. All they had were simple sailing canoes and no navigational instruments - instruments that were vital to European navigation. Early Europeans sought bizarre explanations for how they could have navigated the oceans - like suggestions of sunken continents and being transported around by the first Spanish explorers.

The Polynesian culture is believed to have first developed in Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga and spread out from there. It was formed from a mixing of the Melanesian peoples of the Near Oceania with migrants from in and around Taiwan.

Related: France's Bikini Atoll of Moruroa: The Paradise France Nuked

Timeline Of Polynesian Expansion

Now it is known that the Polynesian expansion was one of the greatest in history. The exact dates of the Polynesian expansion remains debated by archeologists but it is thought that the initial settlement of Cook Islands were before 1000 AD (around the time of the Viking Age). After that they branched out in all directions of Eastern Polynesia.

  • New Zealand: The Last Significant Land Mass (Other Than In The Arctic and Antarctic) To Be Settled

In a few hundred years they colonized remote regions and islands like Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand.

The Polynesians were extraordinarily skilled navigators and used things like the sun, winds, and ocean swells as guides.

According to New Zealand History, New Zealand was the largest significant and hospitable landmass to be settled by mankind. A broad range of evidence – including radiocarbon dating, analysis of pollen, and volcanic ash, and DNA evidence – suggests that New Zealand's first permanent settlements were established between 1250 and 1300.

  • 1000 BC: Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga Were Settled
  • 1000 AD: Central Polynesia (e.g. French Polynesia) Settled
  • 1200 AD: Easter Island Settled
  • 1200 AD: Hawaii Was Settled
  • 1250-1300: New Zealand Was Settled

Not that one may find different dates with different sources, but these are mostly as per Nzhistory.govt.nz.

Related: You Can Learn About Hawaii's Native History At The The Polynesian Cultural Center In Oahu

Reaching South America and The Kumara - Aka Sweet Potato

It is believed that they even crossed the Pacific entirely and reached South America. This stems from the fact the sweet potato is found in Polynesian countries - a plant that is native to South America (or that South Americans traveled into Polynesia). It is thought that the sweet potato was brought into central Polynesia around 700 AD and then spread around from there.

  • Sweet Potato: Native to South America
  • Spread to Polynesia: Thought To Have Arrived In Around 700 AD

While it hasn't been ruled out that the seeds of the sweet potato could have spread around naturally by floating across the Pacific, linguistic evidence adds to the idea that they were taken by people. The general Quechua word for the sweet potato in Peru and Bolivia is "apichu". Other variants in Ayacucho Quechua are "khumara" and "kumar" while it is "kumara" in Bolivian Quechua.

  • Name: The Polynesian Name For The Sweet Potato Is Strikingly Similar To Some Quechua Names

These words are very similar to the Polynesian name "kumara" as it is called by the New Zealand Maori. If this is true, then the Polynesians "discovered" the Americas from across the Pacific before the Europeans did.