National Geographic : 2008 Mar
POINT OF DEPARTURE, the island ofRaiatea in FrenchPolynesia was a stagingareafor ancientvoyagers who discovered Hawaiiand New Zealand. After provisioningtheir canoes, sailors embarkedfrom the temple of Taputapu tea, the spiritualcenter of their world. about and catch a swift ride home on the trade winds. It's what made the whole thing work." Once out there, skilled seafarers would detect abundant leads to follow to land: seabirds and turtles, coconuts and twigs carried out to sea by the tides, and the afternoon pileup of clouds on the horizon that often betokens an island in the distance. Some islands may have broadcast their pres ence with far less subtlety than a cloud bank. Some of the most violent eruptions anywhere on the planet during the past 10,000 years occurred in Melanesia, which sits nervously in one of the most explosive volcanic regions on Earth. Even less spectacular eruptions would have sent plumes of smoke billowing into the stratosphere and rained ash for hundreds of 118 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MARCH 2008 miles. It's possible that the Lapita saw these signs of distant islands and later sailed off in their direction, knowing they would find land. For returning explorers, successful or not, the geography of their own archipelagoes provided a safety net to keep them from overshooting their home ports and sailing off into eternity. Vanuatu, for example, stretches more than 500 miles in a northwest-southeast trend, its scores of intervisible islands forming a backstop for mariners riding the trade winds home. All this presupposes one essential detail, says Atholl Anderson, professor of prehistory at the Australian National University and, like Irwin, a keen yachtsman: that the Lapita had mastered the advanced art of tacking into the wind. "And there's no proof that they could do any such thing," Anderson says. "There has been this assumption that they must have done so, and people have built canoes to re-create those early voyages based on that assumption. But nobody has any idea what their canoes looked like or how they were rigged." However they did it, the Lapita spread them selves a third of the way across the Pacific, then called it quits for reasons known only to them.