Oliver Balch

One of mankind’s great mysteries

From Captain Cook onwards, the western world has been puzzled by how the vast Pacific could have been navigated relying only on the stars

Later this month, a boat builder from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia will fly to the Russian city of Sochi to begin work on a 40-foot craft made from papyrus reeds. A German-led expedition hopes Fermín Limachi’s construction skills will see them safely across the Black Sea and eventually on to Athens.

It is a mad idea, but not an entirely novel one. Nearly 50 years ago, Limachi’s father was persuaded by the Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl to embark on something very similar. But the route back then was from Morocco to South America, a journey of some 6,100km.

Heyerdahl is one of the dozens of fascinating — and often slightly kooky — characters to fill the pages of this eminently scholarly and ever-surprising book. From Captains Cook and Bligh (of Bounty fame) onwards, all these individuals are linked by a single thread: a collective wonderment as to how the islands of the vast Pacific Ocean came to be inhabited. The question is, by Christina Thompson’s reckoning, ‘one of the great geographical mysteries of mankind’. The Polynesian Triangle, a space bounded by the islands of Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand, spreads over two million square km.

So just how did the Polynesians populate the hundreds of islands and atolls in this ‘not only so vast, but so empty’ oceanic space? The centuries have thrown up a number of theories. Heyerdahl, for example, was convinced that the early settlers were Incas from South America (a belief built almost exclusively on the presence in Polynesia of the sweet potato, a vegetable indigenous to the Americas). Others theorised that Polynesia was settled by the ancient Greeks or seafaring Egyptians or even a lost tribe of wandering Jews. Spoiler: they were, in all probability, migrants from Asia who, after a two-millennium stop-over in Tonga and Samoa, ventured further westward around 1,000 ad.

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