Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Of Tupaia and Captain Cook ...

Kudos to the team at National Geographic on their inspiring 125th Anniversary Special Issue.  Featuring an almost issue-length expose on Why We Explore, the maps, photos, stories and glimpses into the future of journeys through stars and space represent a tour de force of migratory history and possibility.  To my great pleasure it also recounted one of my favourite chance encounters following the storied human migration out of Africa.  

In the winter of 1769, the famed Polynesian priest Tupaia met and presented British Captain James Cook with a map - the first that any European had ever observed featuring each of the major island groups in the South Pacific spanning a massive oceanic distance from Fiji to the Marquesas.  What evolved was a friendship and now legendary journey on the ship Endeavour. From island to island and many islands more, Tupaia wowed the sailors by successfully navigating the ship regardless of weather, day or night time conditions, without any of the *fancy* tools and technology Cook and his team found essential.  Perhaps more than his crew, Cook understood the significance of Tupaia's talents, and hypothesized that islanders scattered throughout the Pacific were likely part of the same people who long ago had explored, settled and mapped this part of the Ocean long before Britain was ever, well, Britain.  

It would take another two hundred years before DNA evidence of modern human migration patterns would ratify Cook's hypothesis.  Indeed, Tupaia's ancestors had colonized the Pacific over 2,000 years prior following a long, incrementally eastward march out of Africa another 70,000-50,000 years before that.  Cook's journey, meanwhile, represented a comparable milestone in the opposite direction - that of the continued westward movement of his own ancestors who had left Africa in the opposite direction at about the same time.  Thus, the serendipitous meeting and travels of Cook and Tupaia represented a closing of the migratory circle and completing the journey their ancestors embarked on together so many millennia before. 

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