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Rogue Winds Put Humans on Earth's Remote Islands

Oct 01, 2014 03:13 PM EDT

It has long been suspected that some of the world most remote islands, like the iconic Easter Island, were first colonized by wayward sailors at the start of the Middle Ages. However, modern understanding of the ocean's wind patterns disputes this claim. Now a new study is arguing that these seemingly impossible colonizations could have been possible with the help of rogue winds.

According to Ian Goodwin of the Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, most experts agree that Easter Island remained uninhabited by humans until back in the Middle Ages, when Polynesian sailors spread from the central Pacific Islands. However, to reach the south-eastern Pacific, where Easter Island is located, they would have had to fought against tropical winds blowing from east to west the whole way.

Modern understanding of climate and wind patterns says that such travel simply couldn't have been done without fixed masts - a technology that all evidence says the Polynesians didn't have at the time.

So how was it done? According to Goodwin, the colonization likely occurred thanks to impeccable timing and a lot of dumb luck.

The researcher, who teamed up with anthropologist Atholl Anderson from the Australian National University, argues in a new study that between 1080 and 1160, two dramatic but temporary shifts in wind patterns occurred that made for ideal colonization conditions across the Pacific. (Scroll to read on...)

Not only were these patterns convenient, but they happened to correspond perfectly with archaeological and oral history records, suggesting that they orchestrated the spread of the Polynesian people in the first place.

"All previous research that's been done trying to understand this very rapid colonization of the Pacific tried to grapple with the migration in terms of modern climate," Goodwin told New Scientist.

However, wind records indicated by evidence from tree rings, lake sediments, and ice cores that between 1080 and 1100 the tropics contracted, moving the westerly winds farther north to the Easter Islands. Later, from 1140 to 1160, the opposite occurred, with the tropics expanding and easterly winds moving further south, allowing migration to New Zealand.

Strangely, these wind changes stopped soon after the year 1300, explaining why there are no historical records of any more major Pacific voyages for quite some time.

The theory and evidence is detailed in full in the journal Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

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