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Abstract The famous Polynesian voyages characterized an intensive network of cultural exchange and colonization that was particularly active fromad1000 to 1450. But, why would large groups of people leave their homelands to voyage into the unknown? Oceanic voyages are risky, albeit less so today than in the past. Landfalls were not guaranteed improvements over ports of departure. Taking the Cook Islands as an example, we ask whether harmful algal blooms that result in ciguatera fish poisoning in humans prompted past and present emigration pulses of peoples from within Polynesia. We take a multipronged approach to examine our hypothesis, involving: (1) archaeological evidence, (2) ciguatera fish poisoning reports since the 1940s, and (3) climate and temperature oscillations using palaeodatasets. The archaeological records of fish bones and hooks show abrupt changes in fishing practices in post-ad1450 records. Sudden dietary shifts are not linked to overfishing, but may be a sign of ciguatera fish poisoning and adjustment of fishing preference. While fishes form the staple diet of Polynesians, such poisoning renders fishes unusable. We show that ciguatera fish poisoning events coincide with Pacific Decadal Oscillations and suggest that the celebrated Polynesian voyages across the Pacific Ocean may not have been random episodes of discovery to colonize new lands, but rather voyages of necessity. A modern analogue (in the 1990s) was the shift towards processed foods in the Cook Islands during ciguatera fish poisoning events, and mass emigration of islanders to New Zealand and Australia.