Considering how exploration over long distances into the unknown has been a part of human nature right at the beginning, it's surprising that some fairly large places have been discovered relatively recently. The island of Madagascar, for example, is large and very close to Africa, yet it was discovered in 500 AD. Even then, it wasn't by nearby Africans, but by faraway Austronesians. New Zealand, which was just as tantalizingly close to Australia, was discovered by Polynesian (Austronesian sub-group) sailors 800 years later.

So why were these large and incredibly close landmasses discovered so late in the history of human existence? What was stopping the settlers from getting there a lot earlier, like before the Common Era?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 22:24
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    Wow, there's been quite an edit war over the capitalization style. Title case is not a universal convention in English, and is more common in the US than in the UK. The convention on SE is not to use title case (the same convention as on Wikipedia).
    – user2848
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 0:52
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    However, as the guidance on editing questions and answers states: trivial edits are discouraged. Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 3:40

4 Answers 4


By and large new uninhabited landmasses were discovered in one of three ways:

  1. By hunter-gatherers, walking there when the sea level was much lower at the end of the last glaciation.
  2. By hunter-gatherers hopping there from nearby islands or landmasses using their small coastal craft.
  3. By farming people with ocean-going vessels (usually Austronesians).

So let's look at #1. Here's what the coastlines looked like at the end of the last glaciation:

enter image description here

Notice that while Australia is still not connected to Eurasia, it comes damn close. Also (if you squint a bit) there are all sorts of convenient island chains in between the two.

Also notice that the distance between Madagascar and Mozambique is almost unchanged, as is the distance from Australia to New Zealand, and those distances are far greater.

The navigation techniques employed by hunter-gatherers are generally not designed to work far out of sight of land. A boat that is good for coastal fishing and/or transport is a far cry from something one could entrust their life to in the open ocean. Ocean navigation itself requires a whole suite of specialized techniques (including math) that really can't be developed in societies lacking the stratification and specialization afforded to farming societies.

So given that the distance to the horizon is about 5KM (3 miles), in the absence of convenient mountains, any body more that about 10KM from the coast is going to take some luck to bump into. The further off, the more luck needed.

Madagascar is 419km across the Mozambique channel at its closest point. Even if Mount Everest happened to be on the other side of that channel, it would not be visible to a sailor within sight of the African side.

New Zealand is ten times that distance from Australia. There's pretty much no way a breeding colony of humans is going to just randomly bump into that.

So this means both landmasses were in wait of a farming society to discover them. Enter the Austronesians. They had a agricultural package of domesticated crops and livestock that allowed for job specialization, and used it to create a specialized class/guild of navigators in their society. These folks developed and passed on the open-ocean sailing techniques that allowed their society to discover and populate a third of the globe.

Of course discoveries of nearby islands brought the opportunity for more discoveries, so this process took some time to finish populating the entire Pacific. New Zealand wasn't hit upon until about the 13th Century.

enter image description here

Native Australians of course were physically closer (but still not close!). However, being hunter-gatherers, they simply did not have the means to bridge that gap.

Now, how about Madagascar, you might ask? After all, there were farmers in Africa pretty much as early as there were farmers anywhere on earth! Shouldn't it have been discovered earlier by African farmers, and not had to wait for Austronesians to find it?

The problem there was the initial farming package in North Africa was temperate climate crops. These don't grow very well south of the Sahara. A different tropical crop package was developed there, relying on millet and sorghum. This didn't happen until about 2000 BC directly south of the Sahara in West Africa, and it took a large amount of time for these farmers to displace the hunter gatherers in their march across the continent, and then south. They didn't reach Mozambique until 1-2,000 years ago, and by then the Austronesians were either already living in Madagascar, or nearly there.

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    You might also want to mention the Indian Ocean Gyre and the South Pacific Gyre. Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 10:17
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    It looks from that diagram, like there was a big push 1500BC-1200BC, then a slower one to 800BC to reach Samoa and Fiji ... then roughly nothing until 700AD (1½ millennia later), with a two century push to Hawaii and Rapa Nui followed by a slower push to NZ. Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 11:58
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    Love the way you've presented the information. Jared Diamond couldn't have done it better! :) Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 15:03
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    @MartinBonner See this documentary -- more seriously, it has been hyothesized that it was getting better at tacking.
    – Yakk
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 17:32
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    @PieterGeerkens - Its been quite a while, but I suspect that number came from the fact that the Pacific Ocean covers 1/3 of the Earth's surface, and that's the geographical body they were exploring.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 2:27

Because New Zealand is an isolated archipelago a long way from anywhere; and everywhere:

enter image description here

Here is the North Atlantic at the same scale:

enter image description here

One might as well ask why it took so long for the Americas or Bermuda to be discovered.

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    No, I might not, because the Americas were discovered very early in human history. MUCH earlier. Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 3:42
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    @JohnWDailey: You confuse populated with discovered. Read about Bering Ice Bridge Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 3:50
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    @JohnWDailey if there's a bridge, you can walk there. If there were a bridge to the moon, we'd have gotten there long before 1969.
    – Allure
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 6:01
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    To quote Terry Pratchett: "It was mostly unexplored, too*. *At least by proper explorers. Just living there doesn’t count."
    – piet.t
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 9:30
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    @JohnWDailey: You can, however, paddle your kayaks along the edge of the "ice bridge", living off the sea. That's in part how the Inuit came to Greenland (about the same time as the Norse did). There's even some fragmentary evidence that people from Europe's Solutrean culture may have come to North America that way: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solutrean_hypothesis
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 16:09

You can't just go sailing to nowhere. You need to know where you're going, what you expect to find, and how long it'll take to get there. Imagine for example you're a native on Australia. You look across the sea and don't see anything. If you set off now, how much food should you bring? What if your food spoils? If you find something, you might meet hostile people or animals, so you can't sail alone. You need people, someone to read star charts, keep the ship afloat if there's a storm, and so on.

You might think this is all fine and you would still make it to New Zealand anyway, but just imagine if you were on the west coast of Australia, with the next major landmass being Antartica to the south. The expedition would not end well! On an atlas it might seem like Madagascar and New Zealand are so close to Africa and Australia, but importantly they're not visible from the coast. You need to infer (based on bird flight, sea currents, etc) that there is something "out there".

You might be interested in Wikipedia's article on Polynesian navigation. Once you know there's something out there, the prospects of an expedition improve dramatically.

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    +1 Imagine leaving Australia in a sailing ship, aiming for New Zealand, missing it, and the next landfall is South America or Antarctica, or bad luck you round Cape Horn and then its Africa. Very worst case, you encounter Australia's west coast.
    – Criggie
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 12:36
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    @Criggie Isn't that essentially what happened to Columbus? He thought the world was smaller than it was and thought he'd end much sooner and it was by dumb luck that the Americas were there? Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 16:37
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    Columbus thought the Atlantic was smaller than it is. He was pretty close to right about the size of the whole world. Further, remember that the Canaries and the Azores had recently been discovered. Columbus expected to find more uncharted land masses along the way a which he could restock his supplies. And in a way, he was right.
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 23:46
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    @Criggie that only works if you know New Zealand exists! The point I'm aiming for is, if you're on Australia and can't see any landmass across the sea, and you start sailing anyway, you could easily be sailing for Antarctica. It depends on what direction you're sailing in, and the sea (superficially) looks the same to the south & west as it does to the east.
    – Allure
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 0:53
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    There's an amusing scene in the story of Shackleton's retreat from Antarctica where they sail in ship's longboats to Elephant Isle. The navigator then plots a course to South Georgia and explains to Shackleton that they have to be accurate or they might miss it. "If we do, what's the next landfall?", asks Shackleton. The navigator consults the chart a bit, then replies, "Ireland." Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 10:07

If you are exploring on blind you have to:

  1. Trust your navigation skills.
  2. Take supplies for the expected breaktrough three times higher.

One need to have resources to go to your targeted distance, expecting you find nothing you have to have resources to return succesfully. The third extra is safety roundup. That is quite expensive for very low probability of success.

  • Have you read the answer by allure? Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 9:03

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