Story: Pacific migrations

Page 2. Ancient voyaging in Near Oceania

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The earliest humans

More than a million years ago an ancient type of human, known as Homo erectus, moved from Africa as far as the coast of mainland South-East Asia. Stone tools dated to around 800,000 years ago have been found on the island of Flores, midway between Java and Australia. This suggests that this ancient human might have been able to cross a couple of very short water gaps in the Lesser Sumba chain of islands in order to reach Flores.

In 2004 the discovery of a new human-like species, Homo floresiensis, which stood little more than a metre tall, was reported from Flores. Some bones were found together with stone tools, and the bones of the Komodo dragon and an extinct dwarf elephant known as stegodon. This new humanoid was present on the island until about 50,000 years ago, about the same time as modern humans, Homo sapiens, began to spread through the area. It seems that Homo floresiensis was descended from an early dispersal of Homo erectus and survived in isolation on this refuge island. It is thought that these humans were small in stature because of the limited food supply available in rainforest, and also because they did not have to contend with predators. They lacked the cultural skills to go any further, and so made no contribution to the settlement of the Pacific.

Water crossing by modern humans

People living in Near Oceania had highly developed artistic and linguistic abilities, as did those living in Europe at that time. In the western Pacific they also had boats. The technological ability and motivation to cross expanses of water, land and space are characteristic of modern humans.

If only a single water crossing had been necessary to get from mainland Asia to Near Oceania, then surely during thousands of generations, a few groups would have made it across somehow. In fact, a minimum of 10 water crossings were required, the longest being 100 kilometres. To make such a journey indicates intent rather than accident.

How they crossed is unclear, as no boats have been found. Adzes suitable for hollowing out logs were not yet invented. But giant bamboo, ideal for rafts, grows in the region and people at this time had good knives. Rafts would have had to be big enough to carry a viable breeding population of at least six women and their mates.

Island hopping

Large islands, many visible from one to the next, created a ‘voyaging corridor’ from mainland Asia to the end of the Solomons in Near Oceania. The alternating north-west monsoon and south-east trade winds assisted travel back and forth along the corridor.

After 20,000 BC, people traded in valuable stone, hunted terrestrial animals, and found the same seafood and edible plants as they migrated from island to island. But to the east, especially beyond New Guinea, there were fewer land animals available for hunting. There is evidence that some marsupials were taken from New Guinea to smaller neighbouring islands, where they were subsequently hunted. Trade in stone and the movement of marsupial animals mark an increasing sophistication – people were bringing resources with them rather than travelling to the resources.

By 25,000 years ago this first episode of human settlement in the Pacific was complete. The western Pacific then became a training ground for seafarers and navigators. After the climate began to warm some 10,000 years ago, the population grew, methods of plant cultivation were developed, and settlement patterns changed. Settlement of Remote Oceania was about to begin.

How to cite this page:

Geoff Irwin, 'Pacific migrations - Ancient voyaging in Near Oceania', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

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