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This article is about the wider region in the Pacific. For the French collectivity, see French Polynesia. For the genus of moth, see Polynesia (moth).
For other uses, see Polynesian (disambiguation).
The three major cultural areas in the Pacific Ocean: Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Polynesia is the largest and generally defined as the islands within the Polynesian triangle.
Geographic definition of Polynesia

Polynesia (UK: /ˌpɒlˈniziə/; US: /ˌpɑːləˈniʒə/, from Greek: πολύς "poly" many + Greek: νῆσος "nēsos" island) is a subregion of Oceania, made up of over 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean. The indigenous people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia are termed Polynesians and they share many similar traits including language family, culture, and beliefs.[1] Historically, they were experienced sailors and used stars to navigate during the night.

The term "Polynesia" was first used in 1756 by French writer Charles de Brosses, and originally applied to all the islands of the Pacific. In 1831, Jules Dumont d'Urville proposed a restriction on its use during a lecture to the Geographical Society of Paris. Historically, these islands have also been referred to as the South Sea Islands.[2]



Polynesia is characterized by a small amount of land spread over a very large portion of the mid and southern Pacific Ocean. Most Polynesian islands and archipelagos, including the Hawaiian Islands and Samoa, are composed of volcanic islands built by hotspots. New Zealand, Norfolk Island, and Ouvéa, the Polynesian outlier near New Caledonia, are the unsubmerged portions of the largely sunken continent of Zealandia. Zealandia is believed to have mostly sunk by 23 million years ago and resurfaced geologically recently due to a change in the movements of the Pacific Plate in relation to the Indo-Australian plate, which served to uplift the New Zealand portion. At first, the Pacific plate was subducted under the Australian plate. The Alpine Fault that traverses the South Island is currently a transform fault while the convergent plate boundary from the North Island northwards is a subduction zone called the Kermadec-Tonga Subduction Zone. The volcanism associated with this subduction zone is the origin of the Kermadec and Tongan island archipelagos.

Out of about 117,000 or 118,000 square miles (300,000 or 310,000 km2) of land, over 103,000 square miles (270,000 km2) are within New Zealand; the Hawaiian archipelago comprises about half the remainder. The Zealandia continent has approximately 1,400,000 square miles (3,600,000 km2) of continental shelf. The oldest rocks in the region are found in New Zealand and are believed to be about 510 million years old. The oldest Polynesian rocks outside of Zealandia are to be found in the Hawaiian Emperor Seamount Chain, and are 80 million years old.

Geographic area

Polynesia is generally defined as the islands within the Polynesian Triangle, although there are some islands that are inhabited by Polynesian people situated outside the Polynesian Triangle. Geographically, the Polynesian Triangle is drawn by connecting the points of Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island. The other main island groups located within the Polynesian Triangle are Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Niue, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia.

There are also small Polynesian settlements in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Caroline Islands, and in Vanuatu. An island group with strong Polynesian cultural traits outside of this great triangle is Rotuma, situated north of Fiji. The people of Rotuma have many common Polynesian traits but speak a non-Polynesian language. Some of the Lau Islands to the southeast of Fiji have strong historic and cultural links with Tonga.

However, in essence, Polynesia is a cultural term referring to one of the three parts of Oceania (the others being Micronesia and Melanesia).

Island groups

Mokoliʻi Isle near Oahu, Hawaii

The following are the islands and island groups, either nations or overseas territories of former colonial powers, that are of native Polynesian culture or where archaeological evidence indicates Polynesian settlement in the past.[3] Some islands of Polynesian origin are outside the general triangle that geographically defines the region.

Main Polynesia

Country or dependency Notes
 American Samoa Unincorporated and unorganized territory of the US; administered by the Office of Insular Affairs, US Department of the Interior.
 Cook Islands Self-governing state in free association with New Zealand
 Easter Island Called Rapa Nui in the Rapa Nui language, politically part of Chile
 French Polynesia Overseas country, a collectivity of France
 Hawaii A state of the United States
 New Zealand Independent nation
 Niue Self-governing state in free association with New Zealand
 Norfolk Island An Australian External Territory
 Pitcairn Islands A British Overseas Territory
 Samoa Independent nation
 Tokelau Overseas dependency of New Zealand
 Tonga Independent nation
 Tuvalu Independent nation
 Wallis and Futuna Collectivity of France
Rotuma Fijian dependency

The Phoenix Islands and Line Islands, most of which are part of Kiribati, are geographically Polynesian islands, but they had no permanent settlements until European colonization.

Polynesian outliers

In Melanesia
In Micronesia
Subantarctic Islands

History of the Polynesian people

Origins and expansion

The Polynesian spread of colonization in the Pacific
Moai at Ahu Tongariki on Rapa Nui

The Polynesian people are considered to be by linguistic, archaeological and human genetic ancestry a subset of the sea-migrating Austronesian people and tracing Polynesian languages places their prehistoric origins in the Malay Archipelago, and ultimately, in Taiwan.

Between about 3000 and 1000 BC speakers of Austronesian languages began spreading from Taiwan into Island Southeast Asia.[8][9][10]

There are three theories regarding the spread of humans across the Pacific to Polynesia. These are outlined well by Kayser et al. (2000)[11] and are as follows:

  • Express Train model: A recent (c. 3000–1000 BC) expansion out of Taiwan, via the Philippines and eastern Indonesia and from the northwest ("Bird's Head") of New Guinea, on to Island Melanesia by roughly 1400 BC, reaching western Polynesian islands right about 900 BC. This theory is supported by the majority of current genetic, linguistic, and archaeological data.
  • Entangled Bank model: Emphasizes the long history of Austronesian speakers' cultural and genetic interactions with indigenous Island Southeast Asians and Melanesians along the way to becoming the first Polynesians.
  • Slow Boat model: Similar to the express-train model but with a longer hiatus in Melanesia along with admixture, both genetically, culturally and linguistically with the local population. This is supported by the Y-chromosome data of Kayser et al. (2000), which shows that all three haplotypes of Polynesian Y chromosomes can be traced back to Melanesia.[9]

In the archaeological record there are well-defined traces of this expansion which allow the path it took to be followed and dated with some certainty. It is thought that by roughly 1400 BC,[12] "Lapita Peoples", so-named after their pottery tradition, appeared in the Bismarck Archipelago of northwest Melanesia. This culture is seen as having adapted and evolved through time and space since its emergence "Out of Taiwan". They had given up rice production, for instance, after encountering and adapting to breadfruit in the Bird's Head area of New Guinea. In the end, the most eastern site for Lapita archaeological remains recovered so far is at Mulifanua on Upolu. The Mulifanua site, where 4,288 pottery shards have been found and studied, has a "true" age of c. 1000 BC based on C14 dating.[13] A 2010 study places the beginning of the human archaeological sequences of Polynesia in Tonga at 900 B.C.[14]

Within a mere three or four centuries between about 1300 and 900 BC, the Lapita archaeological culture spread 6,000 km further to the east from the Bismarck Archipelago, until it reached as far as Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa which were first populated around 3,000 years ago as mentioned previously.[15] A cultural divide began to develop between Fiji to the west, and the distinctive Polynesian language and culture emerging on Tonga and Samoa to the east. Where there was once faint evidence of uniquely shared developments in Fijian and Polynesian speech, most of this is now called "borrowing" and is thought to have occurred in those and later years more than as a result of continuing unity of their earliest dialects on those far-flung lands. Contacts were mediated especially through the eastern Lau Islands of Fiji and this is where most Fijian-Polynesian linguistic interaction occurred.[citation needed]

Grinding stones discovered from archaeology in Samoa

Tiny populations seem to have been involved at first.[14]


The Polynesians were matrilineal and matrilocal societies upon arrival to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, after having been through at least some time in the Bismarck Archipelago. The modern Polynesians still show the human genetic results of a Melanesian culture which allowed indigenous men, but not women, to "marry in" – useful evidence for matrilocality.[8][9][16][17]

Although matrilocality and matrilineality receded at some early time Polynesians, and most other Austronesian speakers in the Pacific Islands, were/are still highly "matricentric" in their traditional jurisprudence.[16] The Lapita pottery for which the general archaeological complex of the earliest "Oceanic" Austronesian speakers in the Pacific Islands are named also went away in Western Polynesia and language, social life and material culture were very distinctly "Polynesian" by the time Eastern Polynesia began to be settled after a "pause" of 1000 years or perhaps well more in Western Polynesia.

The dating of the settlement of Eastern Polynesia including Hawai'i, Easter Island, and New Zealand is not agreed upon in every instance. Most recently a 2010 study using meta-analysis of the most reliable radiocarbon dates available suggested that the colonization of Eastern Polynesia (including Hawaii and New Zealand) proceeded in two short episodes: in the Society Islands from 1025–1120 AD and further afield from 1190–1290 AD,[18] with Easter Island being settled around 1200.[19][20] Other archeological models developed in recent decades, which are challenged by that recent set of radiocarbon dating interpretations, have pointed to dates of between 300 and 500 AD, or alternatively 800 AD (as supported by Jared Diamond) for the settlement of Easter Island, and similarly, a date of 500 AD has been suggested for Hawaii. Linguistically, there is a very distinct "East Polynesian" subgroup with many shared innovations not seen in other Polynesian languages. The Marquesas dialects are perhaps the source of the oldest Hawaiian speech which is overlaid by Tahitian variety speech, as Hawaiian oral histories would suggest. The earliest varieties of New Zealand Maori speech may have had multiple sources from around central Eastern Polynesia as Maori oral histories would suggest.[citation needed]

Political history of Polynesia

Tonga 16th century–present

After a bloody civil war, political power in Tonga eventually fell under the Tu'i Kanokupolu dynasty in the 16th century.

In 1845 the ambitious young warrior, strategist, and orator Tāufaʻāhau united Tonga into a more Western-style kingdom. He held the chiefly title of Tuʻi Kanokupolu, but had been baptised with the name Jiaoji ("George") in 1831. In 1875, with the help of the missionary Shirley Waldemar Baker, he declared Tonga a constitutional monarchy, formally adopted the western royal style, emancipated the "serfs", enshrined a code of law, land tenure, and freedom of the press, and limited the power of the chiefs.

Tonga became a British-protected state under a Treaty of Friendship on 18 May 1900, when European settlers and rival Tongan chiefs tried to oust the second king. Within the British Empire, which posted no higher permanent representative on Tonga than a British Consul (1901–1970), Tonga formed part of the British Western Pacific Territories (under a colonial High Commissioner, residing on Fiji) from 1901 until 1952. Despite being under the protectorate, Tonga retained its monarchy without interruption.

On June 4, 1970 the Kingdom of Tonga received independence from the British protectorate.

Samoa Malietoa–present

Samoa remained under Malietoa chieftains until its East-West division by Tripartite Convention (1899) subsequent annexation by the German Empire and the United States. The German-controlled Western portion of Samoa (the consisting of the bulk of Samoan territory) was occupied by New Zealand in WWI, and administered by it under a Class C League of Nations Mandate until receiving independence on January 1, 1962. The new Independent State of Samoa was not a monarchy, though the Malietoa title-holder remained very influential. It officially ended, however with the death of Malietoa Tanumafili II on May 11, 2007.


Main article: Pomare Dynasty


Polynesians with Outrigger canoes at Waikiki beach, Oahu Island, early 20th century
Main article: Kingdom of Hawaii

New Zealand Maori

On October 28, 1835 members of the Ngāpuhi and surrounding iwi issued a "declaration of independence", as a "confederation of tribes" to resist potential French colonization efforts and to prevent the ships and cargo of Maori merchants from being seized at foreign ports. They received recognition from the British monarch in 1836. (See United Tribes of New Zealand, New Zealand Declaration of Independence, James Busby.)

Using the Treaty of Waitangi and right of discovery as a basis, the United Kingdom annexed New Zealand as a part of New South Wales in 1840.

In response to the actions of the colonial government, Maori looked to form monarchy inclusive of all Maori tribes in order to reduce vulnerability to the British divide-and-conquer strategy. Pōtatau Te Wherowhero high priest and chief of the Ngāti Mahuta tribe of the Waikato iwi was crowned as the Maori king in 1858. The king's territory consisted primarily of the lands in the center of the North Island, and the iwi constituted from the most powerful non-signatories of the Treaty of Waitangi, with Te Wherowhero also never having signed it.[21] (See Kingitanga.)

All tribes were incorporated into rule under the colonial government by the late 19th century. Although Maori were given the privilege of being legally enfranchised subjects of the British Empire under the Treaty, Maori culture and language were actively suppressed by the colonial government and by economic and social pressures from the Pakeha society until efforts were made to preserve indigenous culture starting in the late 1950s and culminating in the Waitangi Tribunal's interpretation of language and culture being included in the treasures set to be preserved under the Treaty of Waitangi. Moving from a low point of 15,000 speakers in the 1970s, there are now over 157,000 people who have some proficiency in the standard Māori language according to the 2006 census[22] in New Zealand, due in large part to government recognition and promotion of the language.

Maori are very much integrated into New Zealand society, and many are of mixed Maori and European, Asian, or Pacific Islander heritage. The New Zealand Defence forces are over half Maori, and the New Zealand Special Forces are ⅔ Maori. Jerry Mateparae, the former chief of the armed forces, now serves as Governor-General of New Zealand. However, despite major achievements towards equality, Maori are still under-represented in many fields.[citation needed]


The Lau islands were subject to periods of Tongan rulership and then Fijian control until their eventual conquest by Seru Epenisa Cakobau of the Kingdom of Fiji by 1871. In around 1855 a Tongan prince, Enele Ma'afu, proclaimed the Lau islands as his kingdom, and took the title Tui Lau.

Fiji itself had been ruled by numerous divided chieftains until Cakobau unified the landmass. The Lapita culture, the ancestors of the Polynesians, existed in Fiji from 3500 BCE until they were displaced by the Melanesians about a thousand years later. (Interestingly, Samoans and subsequent Polynesian cultures adopted Melanesian face painting methods.)

In 1873, Cakobau ceded a Fiji heavily indebted to foreign creditors to the United Kingdom. It became independent on 10 October 1970 and a republic on 28 September 1987.

Cook Islands


Main article: History of Tuvalu
Canoe carving on Nanumea atoll, Tuvalu

The reef islands and atolls of Tuvalu are identified as being part of West Polynesia. During pre-European-contact times there was frequent canoe voyaging between the islands as Polynesian navigation skills are recognised to have allowed deliberate journeys on double-hull sailing canoes or outrigger canoes.[23] Eight of the nine islands of Tuvalu were inhabited; thus the name, Tuvalu, means "eight standing together" in Tuvaluan. The pattern of settlement that is believed to have occurred is that the Polynesians spread out from the Samoa and Tonga into the Tuvaluan atolls, with Tuvalu providing a stepping stone to migration into the Polynesian Outlier communities in Melanesia and Micronesia.[24][25][26]

The stories as to the ancestors of the Tuvaluans vary from island to island. On Niutao,[27] Funafuti and Vaitupu the founding ancestor is described as being from Samoa;[28][29] whereas on Nanumea the founding ancestor is described as being from Tonga.[28]

The extent of influence of the Tuʻi Tonga line of Tongan kings, which originated in the 10th century is understood to have extended to some of the islands of Tuvalu in the 11th to mid-13th century.[29] The oral history of Niutao recalls that in the 15th century Tongan warriors were defeated in a battle on the reef of Niutao, Tongan warriors also invaded Niutao later in the 15th century and again were repelled. A third and fourth Tongan invasion of Niutao occurred in the late 16th century, again with the Tongans being defeated.[27]

Fishing was the primary source of protein, with the cuisine of Tuvalu reflecting the food that could be grown on low-lying atolls. Navigation between the islands of Tuvalu was carried out using outrigger canoes. The population levels of the low-lying islands of Tuvalu had to be managed because of the effects of periodic droughts and the risk of severe famine if the gardens were poisoned by the salt from the storm-surge of a tropical cyclone.

Polynesian links to the Americas

The sweet potato, called kūmara in Māori and kumar in Quechua, is native to the Americas and was widespread in Polynesia when Europeans first reached the Pacific. Remains of the plant in the Cook Islands have been radiocarbon-dated to 1000, and current thinking is that it was brought to central Polynesia c. 700 and spread across Polynesia from there, possibly by Polynesians who had traveled to South America and back.[30]

Thor Heyerdahl proposed in the mid-20th century that the Polynesians had migrated from the northwest coast of Canada by large whale-hunting dugouts, and from South America on balsa-log boats.[31][32] Many anthropologists have criticised Heyerdahl's theory, including Wade Davis in his book The Wayfinders. Davis says that Heyerdahl "ignored the overwhelming body of linguistic, ethnographic, and ethnobotanical evidence, augmented today by genetic and archaeological data, indicating that he was patently wrong."[33]

Another essential Pacific food plant which gives ethno-botanists something to argue about is the origin of the coconut.

Coconut origins

Confusion about the name given to the coconut in the early days, gave problems in tracing its origins, but it also leads to some conclusions. For instance, the language of the Caribbean tribes has no linguistic recording of an indigenous name: from the time of Columbus the Portuguese name 'coco nut' has been used. The idea that the coconut was bought back to the Mediterranean from India by the troops of Alexander the Great around 300 BC can also now be discounted, although there may have been a description of a very similar palm by Cosmos of Alexandria in 545 AD, which is considerably later. Recent suggestions is that it may have reached the Ecuador coast from the Philippines about 250 BC.[34]

The earliest date for undisputed European knowledge of the coconut suggests that it arrived from India between 1000 AD (see possible mention in the legend of Sinbad) … or at the absolute latest, 1280 AD (Marco Polo who named it the Pharaoh nut which suggests it came from Egypt). We now know that Vasco de Gama bought them to Europe from India in the mid-1500s, and we also know that he didn't find any growing along the west coast of Africa which suggests a late arrival in the Atlantic ocean (but perhaps earlier in the Indian ocean at Madagasca). They are supposed to have been mentioned in 4th C BC Sanskrit writings and Hindu epics (a fact, not to be trusted because of multiple rewrites), and in later Tamil literature from the 1st to 4th C AD. But, while the palms were known in south India and Ceylon/Sri Lanka, they remained unknown in the north where Alexander the Great made his first recorded contact.

Following the mutiny on the Bounty in coconut-laden Tahiti, Captain William Bligh, rowed west and up the east coast of Australia to Indonesia, but didn't find any signs of coconut despite this long coast being downwind and along a warm current from the Melanesian islands where coconut grew profusely

The late historical arrival of the plant in Europe raises interesting questions: such a why a valuable, easily-transportable nut palm would not have found its way via the trade-routes from India and Asia across to Egypt and the Levantine coast at any time from 1000 BC on. In medieval times the nut later proved to be a popular cargo on sailing ships (ship-wrecks probably helped spread them in the Caribbean), and once established, palm cultivation proved successful across the Middle East and coastal Mediterranean as well as in the warmer parts of southern Europe.

The habitat of the obviously natural-germinated palms, however, appears to be entirely confined to the coastal regions of the global tropical band. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coconut#/media/File:Coconut_distribution.png So coconut's origin is still in dispute despite the botanical weight focussing on India. Famous botanist Orator F Cook Jr.[35] hypothesised that they originated in the Americas (an idea later followed up by Thor Heyerdah), and it is now well established that, pre-dating European contact, the Pacific type of nut was widely distributed on the northwest-coast South America, while not on the eastern Atlantic side (which later had Indian-type palms, carried by the Portuguese). Early fossils of the ancestral coconut are in Australia and India, and closely related forms have been found in Australia, the Americas and New Zealand.

Theories that the nut originated on coral atolls, and that they evolved the thick fibrous husk to help them to survive and disperse by the sea, are only partly accepted. Some experts maintain that the nut could not have been distributed across the Pacific in pre-historic times (or before Polynesian island settlement) without human intervention: the gaps between island groups are too wide (but not between islands in each group). This is still an arguable point, since human selection has probably modified the shape, size and thickness of the shell during domestication. However such domestication must have happened in a restricted region, since essentially the same two palm species (Cocos nucifera palm: divided into Niu kafa and Niu via fruit-types - with Pacific and Atlantic genetic variations) is now distributed around the world with little of the radical change that you'd expect if there were many isolated pockets of development. Islands create evolutionary conditions which actively promote the development of species diversity.[36]

The idea that the coconut is ideally suited for ocean dispersal is still arguable. Thor Heyerdahl of Kon Tiki fame pointed out that the most vulnerable part of the nut, the soft eye, floats downwards. If floatation was the key achievement of the coconut's evolutionary value, you'd expect the eye to float above the water line. Heyerdahl believes that the fibrous floating coir is an evolutionary adaptation to protect a heavy fluid-filled fragile nut from fragmenting when it drops from height onto stony ground, and points to a possible source in salty desert conditions along the Pacific coast of South America. Their salt resistance and their liking for sandy soil, he believed were also characteristics which provide a matched combination which gave the coconut with an evolutionary advantage for short-distance sea-hopping. They were then able to self-germinate wherever ocean salt spray limits the grown of competitive trees on coastal strips and around the edge of islands.

He suggested that they evolved in the stony deserts of South America and were then domesticated and cried out into the Pacific by voyagers from the coast of Peru. He pointed out that all the nuts stored below waterline on the Kon Tiki balsa-wood raft were non-germinating by the time the raft reached Polynesia, while those above the line were able to germinate. Others have claimed that the coconut can drift for 110 days over 4,800 km and still germinate, and they point out that the coconut seems to require high humidity. It is actively sun-seeking in the direction the palm grows, and neither of these developments are a desert plant feature. Of course, the ability to store large amounts of water is not something you'd expect of coastal fringe evolution, either.

There are now two distinct sub-types of the domestic coconut—which, given the flow of ocean currents, manages to support both the India/New Guinea source theory, as well as the northwestern South America region as possible dispersal points. The most popular scientific view is that they were man-carried (probably by Austronesian proto-Polynesian people) into the Pacific islands after domestication in a region near India, Indonesia and the Philippines. DNA analysis suggests two separate locations for first cultivation, in both the Pacific (Philippines) and the Indian Ocean basin (South India) -- which seems to indicate scientists not able to make up their mind.[37]

Cultures of Polynesia

Main article: Polynesian culture
Painting of Tahitian Women on the Beach by Paul GauguinMusée d'Orsay

Polynesia divides into two distinct cultural groups, East Polynesia and West Polynesia. The culture of West Polynesia is conditioned to high populations. It has strong institutions of marriage and well-developed judicial, monetary and trading traditions. It comprises the groups of Tonga, Niue, Samoa and extended to the atolls of Tuvalu to the north. The pattern of settlement that is believed to have occurred is that the Polynesians spread out from the Samoan Islands into the Tuvaluan atolls, with Tuvalu providing a stepping stone to migration into the Polynesian Outlier communities in Melanesia and Micronesia.[24][25][26]

Eastern Polynesian cultures are highly adapted to smaller islands and atolls, principally the Cook Islands, Tahiti, the Tuamotus, the Marquesas, Hawaii, Rapa Nui and smaller central-pacific groups. The large islands of New Zealand were first settled by Eastern Polynesians who adapted their culture to a non-tropical environment.

Unlike in Melanesia, leaders were chosen in Polynesia based on their hereditary bloodline. Samoa however, had another system of government that combines elements of heredity and real-world skills to choose leaders. This system is called Fa'amatai.[38] According to Ben R. Finney and Eric M. Jones, "On Tahiti, for example, the 35,000 Polynesians living there at the time of European discovery were divided between high-status persons with full access to food and other resources, and low-status persons with limited access."[39]

Carving from the ridgepole of a Māori house, ca 1840

Religion, farming, fishing, weather prediction, out-rigger canoe (similar to modern catamarans) construction and navigation were highly developed skills because the population of an entire island depended on them. Trading of both luxuries and mundane items was important to all groups. Periodic droughts and subsequent famines often led to war.[39] Many low-lying islands could suffer severe famine if their gardens were poisoned by the salt from the storm-surge of a tropical cyclone. In these cases fishing, the primary source of protein, would not ease loss of food energy. Navigators, in particular, were highly respected and each island maintained a house of navigation with a canoe-building area.

Settlements by the Polynesians were of two categories: the hamlet and the village. Size of the island inhabited determined whether or a not a hamlet would be built. The larger volcanic islands usually had hamlets because of the many zones that could be divided across the island. Food and resources were more plentiful and so these settlements of four to five houses (usually with gardens) were established so that there would be no overlap between the zones. Villages, on the other hand, were built on the coasts of smaller islands and consisted of thirty or more houses—in the case of atolls, on only one of the group so that food cultivation was on the others. Usually these villages were fortified with walls and palisades made of stone and wood.[40]

However, New Zealand demonstrates the opposite: large volcanic islands with fortified villages.

As well as being great navigators these people were artists and artisans of great skill. Simple objects, such as fish-hooks would be manufactured to exacting standards for different catches and decorated even when the decoration was not part of the function. Stone and wooden weapons were considered to be more powerful the better they were made and decorated. In some island groups weaving was a strong part of the culture and gifting woven articles an ingrained practice. Dwellings were imbued with character by the skill of their building. Body decoration and jewellery is of international standard to this day.

The religious attributes of Polynesians were common over the whole Pacific region. While there are some differences in their spoken languages they largely have the same explanation for the creation of the earth and sky, for the gods that rule aspects of life and for the religious practices of everyday life. People travelled thousands of miles to celebrations that they all owned communally.

Beginning in the 1820s large numbers of missionaries worked in the islands, converting many groups to Christianity. Polynesia, argues Ian Breward, is now "one of the most strongly Christian regions in the world....Christianity was rapidly and successfully incorporated into Polynesian culture. War and slavery disappeared."[41]

Polynesian languages

Main article: Polynesian languages

Polynesian languages are all members of the family of Oceanic languages, a sub-branch of the Austronesian language family. Polynesian languages show a considerable degree of similarity. The vowels are generally the same—a, e, i, o, and u, pronounced as in Italian, Spanish, and German—and the consonants are always followed by a vowel. The languages of various island groups show changes in consonants. R and v are used in central and eastern Polynesia whereas l and v are used in western Polynesia. The glottal stop is increasingly represented by an inverted comma or ‘okina. In the Society Islands, the original Proto-Polynesian *k and *ng have merged as glottal stop; so the name for the ancestral homeland, deriving from Proto-Nuclear Polynesian *sawaiki,[42] becomes Havai'i. In New Zealand, where the original *w is used instead of v, the ancient home is Hawaiki. In the Cook Islands, where the glottal stop replaces the original *s (with a likely intermediate stage of *h), it is ‘Avaiki. In the Hawaiian islands, where the glottal stop replaces the original k, the largest island of the group is named Hawai‘i. In Samoa, where the original s is used instead of h, v replaces w, and the glottal stop replaces the original k, the largest island is called Savai'i.[1]


With the exception of New Zealand, the majority of independent Polynesian islands derive much of their income from foreign aid and remittances from those who live in other countries. Some encourage their young people to go where they can earn good money to remit to their stay-at-home relatives. Many Polynesian locations, such as Easter Island, supplement this with tourism income. Some have more unusual sources of income, such as Tuvalu which marketed its '.tv' internet top-level domain name or the Cooks that relied on stamp sales.

Inter-Polynesian cooperation

After several years of discussing a potential regional grouping, three sovereign states (Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu) and five self-governing but non-sovereign territories formally launched, in November 2011, the Polynesian Leaders Group, intended to cooperate on a variety of issues including culture and language, education, responses to climate change, and trade and investment. It does not, however, constitute a political or monetary union.[43][44][45]

Polynesian navigation

Main article: Polynesian navigation

Polynesia comprised islands diffused throughout a triangular area with sides of four thousand miles. The area from the Hawaiian Islands in the north, to Easter Island in the east and to New Zealand in the south were all settled by Polynesians.

Navigators traveled to small inhabited islands using only their own senses and knowledge passed by oral tradition from navigator to apprentice. In order to locate directions at various times of day and year, navigators in Eastern Polynesia memorized important facts: the motion of specific stars, and where they would rise on the horizon of the ocean; weather; times of travel; wildlife species (which congregate at particular positions); directions of swells on the ocean, and how the crew would feel their motion; colors of the sea and sky, especially how clouds would cluster at the locations of some islands; and angles for approaching harbors.

Polynesian (Hawaiian) navigators sailing multi-hulled canoe, ca 1781
A common fishing canoe va'a with outrigger in Savai'i island, Samoa, 2009

These wayfinding techniques, along with outrigger canoe construction methods, were kept as guild secrets. Generally each island maintained a guild of navigators who had very high status; in times of famine or difficulty these navigators could trade for aid or evacuate people to neighboring islands. On his first voyage of Pacific exploration Cook had the services of a Polynesian navigator, Tupaia, who drew a hand-drawn Chart of the islands within 2,000 miles (3,200 km) radius (to the north and west) of his home island of Ra'iatea. Tupaia had knowledge of 130 islands and named 74 on his Chart.[46] Tupaia had navigated from Ra'iatea in short voyages to 13 islands. He had not visited western Polynesia, as since his grandfather’s time the extent of voyaging by Raiateans has diminished to the islands of eastern Polynesia. His grandfather and father had passed to Tupaia the knowledge as to the location of the major islands of western Polynesia and the navigation information necessary to voyage to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.[47] As the Admiralty orders directed Cook to search for the “Great Southern Continent”, Cook ignored Tupaia’s Chart and his skills as a navigator. To this day, original traditional methods of Polynesian Navigation are still taught in the Polynesian outlier of Taumako Island in the Solomon Islands.

From a single chicken bone recovered from the archaeological site of El Arenal-1, on the Arauco Peninsula, Chile, a 2007 research report looking at radiocarbon dating and an ancient DNA sequence indicate that Polynesian navigators may have reached the Americas at least 100 years before Columbus (who arrived 1492 AD), introducing chickens to South America.[48][49] A later report looking at the same specimens concluded:

A published, apparently pre-Columbian, Chilean specimen and six pre-European Polynesian specimens also cluster with the same European/Indian subcontinental/Southeast Asian sequences, providing no support for a Polynesian introduction of chickens to South America. In contrast, sequences from two archaeological sites on Easter Island group with an uncommon haplogroup from Indonesia, Japan, and China and may represent a genetic signature of an early Polynesian dispersal. Modeling of the potential marine carbon contribution to the Chilean archaeological specimen casts further doubt on claims for pre-Columbian chickens, and definitive proof will require further analyses of ancient DNA sequences and radiocarbon and stable isotope data from archaeological excavations within both Chile and Polynesia.[50]

Knowledge of the traditional Polynesian methods of navigation were largely lost after contact with and colonization by Europeans. This left the problem of accounting for the presence of the Polynesians in such isolated and scattered parts of the Pacific. By the late 19th century to the early 20th century a more generous view of Polynesian navigation had come into favor, perhaps creating a romantic picture of their canoes, seamanship and navigational expertise.

In the mid to late 1960s, scholars began testing sailing and paddling experiments related to Polynesian navigation: David Lewis sailed his catamaran from Tahiti to New Zealand using stellar navigation without instruments and Ben Finney built a 40-foot replica of a Hawaiian double canoe "Nalehia" and tested it in Hawaii.[51] Meanwhile, Micronesian ethnographic research in the Caroline Islands revealed that traditional stellar navigational methods were still in every day use. Recent re-creations of Polynesian voyaging have used methods based largely on Micronesian methods and the teachings of a Micronesian navigator, Mau Piailug.

It is probable that the Polynesian navigators employed a whole range of techniques including use of the stars, the movement of ocean currents and wave patterns, the air and sea interference patterns caused by islands and atolls, the flight of birds, the winds and the weather. Scientists think that long-distance Polynesian voyaging followed the seasonal paths of birds. There are some references in their oral traditions to the flight of birds and some say that there were range marks onshore pointing to distant islands in line with these flyways. One theory is that they would have taken a frigatebird with them. These birds refuse to land on the water as their feathers will become waterlogged making it impossible to fly. When the voyagers thought they were close to land they may have released the bird, which would either fly towards land or else return to the canoe. It is likely that the Polynesians also used wave and swell formations to navigate. It is thought that the Polynesian navigators may have measured the time it took to sail between islands in "canoe-days’’ or a similar type of expression.

Also, people of the Marshall Islands used special devices called stick charts, showing the places and directions of swells and wave-breaks, with tiny seashells affixed to them to mark the positions of islands along the way. Materials for these maps were readily available on beaches, and their making was simple; however, their effective use needed years and years of study.[52]

See also


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Further reading

  • Gatty, Harold (1999). Finding Your Ways Without Map or Compass. Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-486-40613-X. 

External links