Story: Pacific migrations

Page 1. The world’s first seafarers

All images & media in this story

The Pacific was the first ocean to be explored and settled, and its history is one of voyages. New Zealand, isolated far to the south, was the last substantial land mass to be reached.

There were two distinct voyaging periods.

Ancient voyaging: from Asia to Near Oceania

The origins of the Pacific’s diverse peoples can be traced back along seaways to mainland Asia. The people of the ancient period (50,000–25,000 BCE) had a palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) technology and a hunting and foraging economy. Setting off in simple rafts, they gradually dispersed through the large islands of South-East Asia. Eventually they reached Australia and New Guinea, which were then connected by a land bridge.

These ancient people ultimately travelled as far into Melanesia as the southern end of the main chain of the Solomon Islands. They made a remarkable series of adaptations to diverse environments, which ranged from tropical islands in the north to chilly Tasmania in the south, from coastline to interior, and from rainforest to near-desert.

This wider region is known as Near Oceania. It consists of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Admiralty Islands and the Solomon Islands.

From Malay to Māori: language links

All Polynesian languages belong to the Austronesian language family, now the most widely dispersed in the world – from Madagascar to Easter Island. Words for outrigger canoes with sails and paddles can be traced from Near Oceania back through the ancestral languages of island South-East Asia. The Māori words waka (canoe) and ra (sail) have the same origin as the Malay words – wangka and layar.

Recent voyaging: into Remote Oceania

Around 1100 BCE migration into Remote Oceania began. Remote Oceania lies to the east and south of Near Oceania, and consists of Melanesia south-east of the Solomons, Micronesia and Polynesia. The islands are generally smaller, with fewer food resources, and were beyond the reach of simple water craft.

However, the migrating people had neolithic (New Stone Age) technologies, and food-producing economies. Known as Lapita, they had learned to explore the open sea and survive. After millennia of developments in boat building, and accumulated experience of seafaring in Near Oceania, skilled navigators began to explore in sophisticated canoes.

Migrants voyaged east across the tropical Pacific into Remote Oceania, carrying with them domesticated plants and animals, to sustain settlement in their new island homes.

Reaching South America

Ultimately explorers arrived at South America, and then returned to their home islands in Remote Oceania with the kūmara (sweet potato) and a species of gourd. Radiocarbon dates for kūmara found on Mangaia in the southern Cook Islands show that Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000 CE.

Vikings and Polynesians

According to Icelandic sagas, Vikings from Greenland found Labrador and briefly settled in Newfoundland around the same time. The circumstances in both North and South America were similar for Vikings and Polynesians. Both travelled in small parties to the extreme limits of their range, encountering populated continents. There is little archaeological evidence of these contacts.

To New Zealand and the Chatham Islands

Around 1300 CE Polynesian settlers used subtropical weather systems to navigate their way to New Zealand. These migrants were the ancestors of New Zealand’s Māori people. At about the same time, they reached the northern satellite islands of Norfolk and the Kermadecs.

Later still, early Māori exploring eastward from New Zealand discovered the Chatham Islands, just a few centuries before the first European expeditions reached the Pacific.

How to cite this page:

Geoff Irwin, 'Pacific migrations - The world’s first seafarers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Geoff Irwin, published 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 8 Feb 2017