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Disney’s "Moana" Depicts an Actual Event in Polynesian History

Historical Facts | September 10, 2018

A floatilla of 'vaka' or traditional canoes take part in a ceremonial departure ahead of their cross-Pacific voyage powered by sun and wind only, sailing 15,000 nautical miles to Hawaii via French Polynesia. (Getty Images)

There was much hype and anticipation when Disney announced that it would release a Polynesian-based feature-length animated movie, called Moana, in 2016. The film, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the mischievous demi-god Maui, was a box office smash and garnered much praise for finally depicting a Disney “princess” as a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need to marry her prince at the end of the story. But what casual fans of Moana don’t know is that the impetus of the lead character’s adventures is an actual historical event in Polynesian history known as “The Long Pause.” 

First, a Moana Plot Recap

In Disney’s Moana, the title character, a feisty, determined daughter of the village chief, voiced by Hawaiian-born actress, Auli’i Cravalho, believes that the only way to save her island from an environmental disaster is for her to sail across the great ocean to return a magical, stolen artifact. Her father, the chief, forbids such a journey, explaining that no one is allowed to sail beyond the reef encircling the island. Moana, whose name means ‘ocean’, discovers a storehouse full of ancient sea-worthy canoes and learns that her people once sailed great distances across the unknown ocean, but abruptly stopped, blaming the demi-god, Maui, for making the seas too dangerous to sail. 

Now, the Real History of Polynesian Voyaging

Seafaring people first colonized the islands of Western Polynesia…the ones closest to New Guinea, New Zealand, and Australia…approximately 3,500 years ago. These include the islands of Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa, where Moana is set. There is evidence that the Polynesian people were expert wayfarers and they constructed large, sound boats that were capable of crossing the vast ocean. However, once the spread of colonization reached Samoa and Fiji, it seems that all ocean exploration suddenly ceased for about 2,000 years. Anthropologist call this period “The Long Pause.” Between 1,500 and 500 years ago, the Polynesians took up their oars again and re-started their colonization of the Central and Eastern Polynesian islands, including Hawaii and Tahiti. In fact, in a relatively short time, they colonized nearly every island in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. 

“We Were Voyagers! Why’d We Stop?”

Moana asked her grandmother this question in the Disney movie, right after she discovers the cache of old boats and learns about her people’s wayfaring past. Her wise old grandmother explains that when the demi-god, Maui, stole the heart of Ta Fiti, a variation of the Polynesian word Tahiti, which means “far away land”, it caused monsters to arise from the ocean and the voyagers who left, never returned. This is a neat and tidy Disney version of The Long Pause that helps to set up Moana’s big voyage across the great ocean. But it doesn’t explain the historical reasons for The Great Pause. 

What Caused the Long Pause?

While there is clear evidence that The Long Pause occurred, there is no written record of why. This has been a puzzle that has perplexed archaeologists and anthropologists for some time. The ancient Polynesians had a proven track record of ocean-faring excellence, after all. They were able to construct impressive boats, and navigate the ocean using only stars and ocean currents to guide them. Yet they suddenly stopped sailing. Some of the theories put forth by researchers to explain the cause of The Long Pause include sustained El Nino winds and ocean disasters, such as tidal waves. 

Researchers Now Think They Have the Answer

Researchers studying The Long Pause ran computer weather simulations, factoring in a sustained El Nino set up. They determined that the El Nino pattern would have created very strong winds around Tonga and Samoa that would have been extremely difficult to maneuver around in the ancient sail vessels used by the Polynesians. Prior to reaching Samoa, the voyagers would have enjoyed a helpful wind that pushed them toward Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa. Their sailing techniques and equipment was set up for voyaging with the wind. However, these techniques were no longer effective at sailing against the strong El Nino winds. Unable to go any further, the Polynesians stopped voyaging. 

“We Were Voyagers! We Can Voyage Again!”

In the movie, Moana is eager for her people to resume their voyaging activities. Indeed, after she sails across the ocean to complete her mission, she proves to her people that it is once again safe to sail. Historically, we know that the Polynesian people did go back to seafaring after an almost two thousand year hiatus. The reason why they returned to sailing…and with a vengeance…is just as intriguing to anthropologists. 

Was it Curiosity, Changing Weather Patterns, or an Impending Natural Disaster?

No one is certain why the Polynesians ended The Long Pause and resumed their wayfaring ways, but there are a few plausible theories. One states that bright supernovas or other celestial events in the eastern sky drew curious stargazing voyagers away from their very safe islands. Other theories note that the strong sustained El Nino winds had begun to shift and weaken, removing the obstacle to sailing. Another theory is that an algae bloom caused a decline in the fish population near the islands and the Polynesians were forced to find food further away from their island. 

The Polynesians Learned New Sailing Techniques

No matter what the reason for wanting to voyage again, there is evidence that the Polynesian sailors developed new sailing methods that enabled them to sail against strong winds. It may have taken two thousand years, but the Polynesian wayfarers were finally able to completely harness the winds and complete their conquest of the Pacific islands. 

Moana Serves as a History Lesson

While the memorable characters and catchy tunes in Disney’s Moana have helped to establish the film as one of the great animated movies of recent times, it also serves as a bit of a history lesson. Most fans of the movie are unaware of The Long Pause and of the advanced sailing prowess of the Polynesian people. Although the Disney film has incurred its share of criticism about its portrayal of the Pacific Islanders, it does give viewers a look into the long-forgotten history of the wayfaring explorers. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.