Macquarie researchers find wind patterns facilitated the Polynesian migration

8 October 2014

New research shows that the expansion of the tropics and associated changes in Pacific Ocean wind patterns facilitated the Polynesian migration to the far eastern and southern ends of the Pacific including Easter Island, New Zealand and Subantarctic Auckland Islands.
Macquarie University’s Associate Professor Ian Goodwin of the Department of Environment and Geography and colleagues reconstructed wind-field patterns from modeled Pacific sea level pressure at 20-year intervals spanning the period 800 AD to 1600 AD.

Macquarie University
Macquarie researchers determine changes in Pacific Ocean wind patterns facilitated the Polynesian migration

Voyaging to Easter Island was possible as early as 800 to 910 AD, and voyaging to New Zealand as early as 940 to 970 AD. However, they revealed climate windows where the most favourable sailing conditions for travel between central East Polynesia and New Zealand occurred between 1140 and 1260 AD, and for travel to Easter Island between 1250 and 1280 AD.
The paleoclimate changes accords well with the archaeological evidence that suggests a rapid colonisation of Polynesian islands by sea-faring peoples, including the colonisation of New Zealand between 1100 and 1300 AD.
Off-wind or down-wind sailing between central East Polynesia and New Zealand was unusually possible during this period, when intensification and poleward expansion of the Pacific subtropical anticyclone strengthened tradewinds toward New Zealand.
The paleo-wind patterns revealed that New Zealand was potentially colonised by voyaging from the Tonga/Fiji Islands, the Southern Cook Islands, and the Austral Islands further east. Similarly, the wind patterns revealed that Easter Island might have been colonised from both Central East Polynesia and from Chile.
“This research fits in the Polynesian folklore, which refers to multiple migrations—our mapping of the climate conditions at that time they were travelling confirms the possibility,” said Macquarie University Professor Goodwin.
It also indicates that Polynesian sailing-canoes did not need a capability to sail to windward, and that all passages could have been made downwind over the immense ocean tracts.
“These are fantastic new insights into prehistoric maritime migration, and opens doors for marine climatologists to work with anthropologists and archaeologists, to piece together the evolution of maritime societies.”

About Anthropology

Anthropology is the comparative study of societies and cultural diversity. It asks interpretative questions about behaviour, meaning, and value between different societies and cultures. Why do people do what they do? Why do people in different societies do different things? Anthropologists generally obtain their understanding through participating in and observing the lives of the people they work among. Through this method, known as fieldwork, anthropologists gain a detailed knowledge of the cultural world of other peoples by living and working beside them.

Macquarie University Department of Environment and Geography

The department of Environment and Geography is committed to excellence in research, learning and teaching, and community engagement. In 2011, the Times Higher Education ranked Macquarie University the top institution in Australia and New Zealand for research in environmental sciences and ecology, and 14th in the world. More recently, environmental sciences was one of three disciplines at Macquarie to have again achieved the maximum rating (well above world standard) in the Australian Government’s 2012 Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) analysis.

Learn more about studying anthropology or environmental sciences at Macquarie University and at other Australian universities! Contact OzTREKK Admissions Officer Rachel Brady at or call toll free in Canada at 1-866-698-7355 for more information.