The 2016 animated family film Moana brought the long-told story of Polynesian seafarers (along with some incredibly catchy tunes) to a much wider worldwide audience. Now, geochemical analysis is confirming the oral history of ancient Polynesia’s incredible sailors in a new study published April 21 in the journal Science Advances

[Related from PopSci+: Voyagers made it to Hawaiʻi thousands of years ago with no compasses. Here’s how.]

Long before Europeans arrived, Polynesian wayfinders sailed to islands across the central Pacific in canoes, and the stories of their adventures have survived largely through oral history. There has been limited material evidence supporting these accounts of Polynesian societies from distant islands interacting with one another. 

“Pacific islanders were able to travel over very long distances and did so in every region of the Pacific. Polynesian peoples settled hundreds of islands from Papua New Guinea to Easter Island (Rapa Nui),” study co-author and French National Centre for Scientific Research archaeologist Aymeric Hermann tells PopSci. “The extent of long distance voyages in an Ocean as vast as the Pacific, and several centuries before any other society could really master seafaring, is pretty amazing.”

Details of the westward expansions to a group of islands west of Polynesia called the Polynesian Outliers have been even more unclear. Indigenous cultures vary across the Pacific’s islands, but oral traditions and shared cultural items indicate that there could have been contact and exchanging of goods across long distances. 

Archaeology photo
Location of the analyzed samples and their potential sources. CREDIT: Hermann et. al 2023.

In this new study, an international team of scientists analyzed stone artifacts from the Polynesian Outliers where communities are considered more culturally isolated. In seeking to discover how these communities are connected with their Oceanic neighbors, the team’s analysis suggests that the items were carried there from over 1,000 miles away from their source regions in Samoa.

These findings support prevailing theories that societies in western Polynesian societies were incredibly mobile over the last millennium, possibly colonizing the Outliers as a result of their voyages. 

To do so, Hermann and colleagues grabbed geochemical fingerprints from stone tools found on the Polynesian Outliers. According to Hermann, most geochemical sourcing studies in the Pacific have been conducted on the Oceanic islands which have different geochemical signatures from the Outliers. This presented the team with a huge challenge of many possible sources from southeast Asia to the eastern Pacific that have many overlapping geochemical characteristics.

[Related: On board the canoe that proved ancient Polynesians could cross the Pacific.]

To look closer and try to pick apart these characteristics, they took isotopic and geochemical analyses of 14 artifacts on three Outlier Islands (Emae, Taumako, and Kapingamarangi) that were dated to as early as 1258 CE. The team combined these analyses with earlier studies and used a large database of geological signatures from sites across Oceania. They were able to source the artifacts to distant islands and volcanic arcs over 1,000 miles further east of the Outliers. 

“Among all possible sources in the Pacific, all the artifacts that can be distinctively associated with West Polynesian traditions were sourced to the exact same quarry in Samoa, which is also the source of other artifacts found in the eastern Pacific,” said Hermann.

The evidence from the materials supports earlier studies and oral histories of this travel across vast distances in the Pacific. 

According to Hermann, it’s important to remember that remembered that “global history is always local history first.” The team sought permission from the communities of Makatea, Tongamea, Finongi, and Sangava on Emae Island, as well as from  chiefs Ti Makata mata, Ma Ti Tonga, D. Maribu, Sasamake, Ti Nambua mata, Ti Nambua roto, and Ti Makura mata before undertaking the field research needed for this study. 

“It is necessary to use new lenses to look at human history: people always moved around, and societies always changed in contact with neighbors and sometimes through very long distances, long before Christopher Columbus reached the Americas,” said Hermann.