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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Map of Polynesian islands in the Pacific Ocean. Polynesia is generally defined as the islands within the Polynesian triangle.

Polynesia (from Greek: πολύς "polus" many + νῆσος "nēsos" island) is a subregion of Oceania, comprising a large grouping of over 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean. The people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia are termed Polynesians and they share many similar traits including language, culture and beliefs.[1]

The term "Polynesia" was first used by Charles de Brosses in 1756, 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.


Geographic area

Polynesia is generally defined as the islands within the Polynesian Triangle although this does not cover the geographic spread and settlement of Polynesian people across a greater area. Geographically, and oversimply, the Polynesian Triangle may be seen with its corners at 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.

A Polynesian island group outside of this great triangle is Rotuma situated north of the Fijian islands. There are also small outlier Polynesian enclaves in Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, The Caroline Islands, some of the Lau group to Fiji's southeast and in Vanuatu.

However, in essence, Polynesia is an anthropological term referring to one of the three parts of Oceania (the others being Micronesia and Melanesia) whose pre-colonial population generally belongs to one ethno-cultural family as a result of centuries of maritime migrations.

History of the Polynesian people

Mainstream theories

Face on Lapita pottery sherd from Nenumbo site in the Solomon Islands in the 1970's. Researcher was Roger C Green while at the University of Auckland. The fragment which measures 3 inches across is thought to date back to 1000 BC.[2]

The Polynesian people are considered to be by ancestry a subset of the sea-migrating Austronesian people and the tracing of Polynesian languages places their prehistoric origins in the Malay archipelago.

There are three theories regarding the spread of humans across the Pacific to Polynesia. These are outlined well by Kayser et al., (2000)[3] and are as follows:

  • Express Train model: A recent (c. 3,000 years ago) expansion out of Southeast Asia, predominantly Taiwan, via Melanesia but with little genetic admixture between those migrating and the existing native population, reaching western Polynesian islands around 2,000 years ago. This theory is supported by the majority of current genetic, linguistic, and archaeological data.
  • Entangled Bank model: Supposes a long history of cultural and genetic interactions amongst southeast Asians, Melanesians, and already-established 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

Between about 3000 and 1000 BC speakers of Austronesian languages spread throughout the islands of Southeast Asia. These people, according to linguistic and archaeological evidence originated from Taiwan,[4][5][6] as tribes whose natives were thought to have arrived from mainland South China about 8,000 years ago into the edges of western Micronesia and on into Melanesia.

In the archaeological record there are well-defined traces of this expansion which allow the path it took to be followed and dated

Grinding stones discovered from Archaeology in Samoa

with a degree of certainty. It is thought that roughly 3,500 years BP[7] the Lapita culture appeared in the Bismarck Archipelago, northwest Melanesia. This culture is argued to have either been developed there or, more likely, to have spread from China/Taiwan. The most eastern site for Lapita archaeological remains recovered so far through archaeology in Samoa is at Mulifanua on Upolu. The Mulifanua site, where 4,288 pottery sherds have been found and studied, has a true age of circa 3,000 BP based on C14 dating.[8]

Within a mere three or four centuries between about 1300 and 900 BC, the Lapita 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 populated around 2,000 years ago.[5] In this region, the distinctive Polynesian culture developed.

The spread of pottery and domesticates in Polynesia are connected with the Lapita culture that started expanding from New Guinea to as far east as Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. During this time the aspects of the Polynesian culture developed. Around 300 BC this new Polynesian people spread eastward from Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga to the Cook Islands, Tahiti, the Tuamotus, and the Marquesas Islands. This was supported by Patrick Kirch and Marshall Weisler when they performed X-ray fluorescence sourcing of basalt artifacts found on both islands.[9]

Between AD 300 and 500, the Polynesians discovered and settled Easter Island. This is supported by archaeological evidence as well as the introduction of flora and fauna consistent with the Polynesian culture and characteristic of the tropics to this subtropical island. However, more recently, Jared Diamond and others have proposed the date of arrival to be closer to 800 AD, as scientific uncertainly clouded the evidence of an earlier arrival. Furthermore, Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii has proposed that the arrival did not take place until approximately 1200 AD. Around AD 500, Hawai'i was settled by the Polynesians and around AD 1000 New Zealand was settled as well.

Polynesian links to the Americas

Haida house pole which once belonged to an Indian clan named 'Those Born at Qadasgo Creek.'

The sweet potato kumara, which is native to the Americas, was widespread in Polynesia when Europeans first reached the Pacific. Kumara has been radiocarbon-dated in the Cook Islands to 1000 AD, and current thinking is that it was brought to central Polynesia circa 700 CE and spread across Polynesia from there, possibly by Polynesians who had traveled to South America and back.[10]

Thor Heyerdahl proposed in the mid-twentieth century that the Polynesians had migrated from South America on balsa-log boats.[11][12]

Cultures of Polynesia

Painting of Tahitian Women on the Beach by Paul Gauguin - Musée 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 the northwestern Polynesian outliers.

Carving from the ridgepole of a Māori house, ca 1840

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.[13]

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. Many low-lying islands could suffer severe famine if their gardens were poisoned by the salt from the storm-surge of a hurricane. 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.[14]

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. In some island groups weaving was a strong part of the culture and gifting woven articles an ingrained practice. Stone and wooden weapons were considered to be more powerful the better they were made and decorated. 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.

Due to relatively large numbers of competitive sects of Christian missionaries in the islands, many Polynesian groups have been converted to Christianity. Polynesian languages are all members of the family of Oceanic languages, a sub-branch of the Austronesian language family.

Polynesian languages

One basic language prevails throughout Polynesia. The vowels are consistently the same - a, e, i, o, and u, pronounced as in French or German - and the consonants are always followed by a vowel. Dialects have developed in various island groups by changes in consonant sounds. R and v are used in central and eastern Polynesia whereas l and v are used in western Polynesia. In some dialects certain consonants are not fully sounded but are represented by an inverted comma (or 'okina) over its place in the word. In the Society Islands, k and ng were dropped; so the name for the ancestral homeland, common throughout Polynesia and pronounced Havaiki in other dialects of central Polynesia, is here pronounced Havai‘i. In New Zealand, where w is used instead of v, the ancient home is Hawaiki. In the Cook Islands, where h is dropped, it is ‘Avaiki. In the Hawaiian islands, where w is used and k is dropped, the largest island of the group is named Hawai‘i. In Samoa, where s replaces h, v is preferred to w, and k is dropped in formal Samoan, 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.[15] Some have more unusual sources of income, such as Tuvalu which marketed its '.tv' internet top-level domain name[16] or the Cooks that relied on stamp sales.

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

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.

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. 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.[17][18] 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.[19]

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. 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.[20]

Island groups

The following are the islands and island groups, either nations or subnational territories, that are of native Polynesian culture. Some islands of Polynesian origin are outside the general triangle that geographically defines the region.

Main Polynesia

Polynesian Outliers

In Melanesia

In Micronesia

See also


  1. ^ a b Hiroa, Te Rangi (Sir Peter Henry Buck) (reprinted 1964). Vikings of the Sunrise. Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd. p. 67. http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-BucViki-t1-body-d1-d7.html. Retrieved 2 March, 2010. 
  2. ^ "Anthropology Photographic Archive". Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland. http://magic.lbr.auckland.ac.nz/dbtw-wpd/exec/dbtwpub.dll?BU=http://magic.lbr.auckland.ac.nz/dbtw-wpd/anthpd/basic.htm&QF0=Record-ID&QI0=5957&TN=anthpd&MR=50&RF=full&NP=3&AC=QBE_QUERY. Retrieved 8 March, 2010. 
  3. ^ Kayser, M., Brauer, S., Weiss, G., Underhill, P. A., Roewer, L., Schiefenhövel, W., Stoneking, M. 2000. Melanesian origin of Polynesian Y chromosomes. Current Biology. Vol. 10. No. 20. Pp.1237-1246
  4. ^ Hage, P., Marck, J. 2003. Matrilineality and Melanesian Origin of Polynesian Y Chromosomes. Current Anthropology Vol. 44, No. S5
  5. ^ a b Kayser, M., Brauer, S., Cordaux, R., Casto, A., Lao, O., Zhivotovsky, L. A., Moyse-Faurie, C., Rutledge, R. B., Schiefenhoevel, W., Gil, D., Lin, A. A., Underhill, P. A., Oefner, P. J., Trent, R. J., Stoneking, M. 2006. Melanesian and Asian origins of Polynesians: mtDNA and Y chromosome gradients across the Pacific. Molecular Biology and Evolution. Vol. 23. No. 11. Pp. 2234-2244.
  6. ^ Su, B., Underhill, P., Martinson, J., Saha, N., McGarvey, S. T., Shriver, M. D., Chu, J., Oefner, P., Chakraborty, R., Deka, R. 2000. Polynesian origins: Insights from the Y chromosome. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 97. No. 15
  7. ^ Kirch PV. 2000. On the road of the wings: an archaeological history of the Pacific Islands before European contact. London: University of California Press. Quoted in Kayser, M., Brauer, S., Cordaux, R., Casto, A., Lao, O., Zhivotovsky, L. A., Moyse-Faurie, C., Rutledge, R. B., Schiefenhoevel, W., Gil, D., Lin, A. A., Underhill, P. A., Oefner, P. J., Trent, R. J., Stoneking, M. 2006. "Melanesian and Asian origins of Polynesians: mtDNA and Y chromosome gradients across the Pacific." Molecular Biology and Evolution. Vol. 23. No. 11. Pp. 2234-2244.
  8. ^ [1]New Information for the Ferry Berth Site, Mulifanua, Western Samoa by Roger C. Green and Helen M. Leach, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 98, 1989, No. 3. Retrieved 1 November, 2009
  9. ^ "History of Polynesian Archaeology". http://sscl.berkeley.edu/~oal/background/polyhist.htm. Retrieved November 18, 2005. 
  10. ^ VAN TILBURG, Jo Anne. 1994. Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology and Culture. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press
  11. ^ Sharp 1963, p. 122-128.
  12. ^ Finney 1963, p. 5
  13. ^ Peoples of the World by National Geographic
  14. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, 1995
  15. ^ "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Island". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Island. Retrieved November 18, 2005. 
  16. ^ "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Tuvalu". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Tuvalu. Retrieved November 18, 2005. 
  17. ^ First Chickens in Americas Were Brought From Polynesia, by John Noble Wilford, New York Times, June 5, 2007.
  18. ^ Radiocarbon and DNA evidence for a pre-Columbian introduction of Polynesian chickens to Chile, by Alice A. Storey, et al., PNAS, June 19th, 2007.
  19. ^ Indo-European and Asian origins for Chilean and Pacific chickens revealed by mtDNA. Jaime Gongora, Nicolas J. Rawlence, Victor A. Mobegi, Han Jianlin, Jose A. Alcalde, Jose T. Matus, Olivier Hanotte, Chris Moran, J. Austin, Sean Ulm, Atholl J. Anderson, Greger Larson and Alan Cooper, "Indo-European and Asian origins for Chilean and Pacific chickens revealed by mtDNA" PNAS July 29, 2008 vol. 105 no 30[2]
  20. ^ Bryan, E.H. (1938). "Marshall Islands Stick Chart". Paradise of the Pacific 50 (7): 12–13. http://www.ethnomath.org/resources/bryan1938.pdf. 


  • Finney, Ben R (1976). New, Non-Armchair Research. In Ben R. Finney (1963), Pacific Navigation and Voyaging, The Polynesian Society Inc.
  • Finney, Ben R (1976) (editor). Pacific Navigation and Voyaging, The Polynesian Society Inc.
  • Gatty, Harold (1999). Finding Your Ways Without Map or Compass. Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-486-40613-X. 
  • Lewis, David (1976), A Return Voyage Between Puluwat and Saipan Using Micronesian Navigational Techniques. In Ben R. Finney (1963), Pacific Navigation and Voyaging, The Polynesian Society Inc.
  • Sharp, Andrew (1963). Ancient Voyagers in Polynesia, Longman Paul Ltd.
  • Kayser, M., Brauer, S., Weiss, G., Underhill, P. A., Roewer, L., Schiefenhšfel, W., and Stoneking, M. (2000). Melanesian Origin of Polynesian Y Chromosomes Current Biology, 2000, volume 10, pages 1237-1246
  • Kayser, M., Brauer, S., Weiss, G., Underhill, P. A., Roewer, L., Schiefenhšfel, W., and Stoneking, M. (2000). Melanesian Origin of Polynesian Y Chromosomes (correction Current Biology, 2000, volume 11, pages 1–2

External links

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

Polynesia includes the following destinations in Oceania:

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

POLYNESIA, (Gr. rroXvs, many, and vCjvos, island), a term sometimes used to cover the whole of the oceanic islands in the central and western Pacific, but properly for the eastern of the three great divisions of these islands. The chief groups thus included are Hawaii, the Ellice, Phoenix, Union, Manihiki and Marquesas groups, Samoa and Tonga, the Cook, Society, Tubuai and Tuamotu groups, and many other lesser islands. (See Pacific Ocean, section on Island, and separate articles on the principal groups, &c.) The Polynesian Race.-For the ethnological problems offered by Polynesia no thoroughly satisfactory solutions have yet been found. By ,some the term Polynesian has been treated as a synonym for Malayo-Polynesian, and has been made to include all the brown races of Malaysia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. Linguistically, physically and mentally this view is untenable. Whatever be the origin of the Polynesians, they are not Malays, though, themselves of mixed blood, they have probably certain racial elements in common with the latter, who are undoubtedly hybrids. There is every reason to believe that the Polynesians are ethnologically a far older race than the Malays, who, as they now exist, are a comparatively modern people; and thus Friedrich Miller's and D. G. Brinton's theory, that they form a branch of the Malays, fails. Joseph Deniker declares the Polynesians a separate ethnic group of the Indo-Pacific area, and in this view he is followed by A. H. Keane, who suggests that they are a branch of the Caucasic division of mankind who possibly migrated in the Neolithic period from the Asiatic mainland. Of the migration itself no doubt is now felt, but the first entrance of the Polynesians into the Pacific must have been an event so remote that neither by tradition nor otherwise can it be even approximately fixed. The journey of these Caucasians would naturally be in stages. Their earliest halting place was probably the Malay Archipelago, where a few of their kin linger in the Mentawi Islands on the west coast of Sumatra. Thence at a date within historic times a migration eastward took place. The absence of San skrit roots in the Polynesian languages appears to indicate that this migration was in pre-Sanskritic times. Whether anything like a definite date can be fixed for it may well be questioned. Abraham Fornander i has, however, with great probability, traced back the history of the Hawaiians to the 5th century. He has studied the folk-lore of those islands exhaustively, and from this source comes to the conclusion that the Polynesian migration from the Indian Archipelago may be approximately assigned to the close of the 1st or to the 2nd century. The traditions of many of the Polynesian peoples tend to make Savaii, the largest of the Samoan Islands, their ancestral home in the East Pacific, and linguistic and other evidence goes to i Account of the Polynesian Race (1878), i. 168.

support the theory that the first Polynesian settlement in the East Pacific was in Samoa, and that thence the various branches of the race made their way in all directions. Most likely Samoa was the first group permanently occupied by them. Owing to the admixture of the Polynesians with the Papuans in Fiji some authorities have thought the first settlement was in those islands, and that the settlers were eventually driven thence by the Papuan occupiers. We can, however, account for the presence of Polynesian blood in Fiji in another way, viz. by the intercourse that has been kept up between the people of Tonga and Fiji. If the first resting-place of the Polynesians was in that group, there is good reason to believe that Samoa was the first permanent home of the race.

It used to be doubted whether these people could have gone from the Indian archipelago so far eastward, because the prevailing winds and currents are from the east. But it is now well known that at times there are westerly winds in the region over which they would have to travel, and that there would be no insuperable difficulties in the way of such a voyage. The Polynesians are invariably navigators. There is ample evidence that in early times they were much better seamen than they are at present. Indeed their skill in navigation has greatly declined since they have become known to Europeans. They used to construct decked vessels capable of carrying one or two hundred persons, with water and stores sufficient for a voyage of some weeks duration. These vessels were made of planks well fitted and sewn together, the joints being caulked and pitched.' It is only in recent times that the construction of such vessels has ceased. The people had a knowledge of the stars, of the rising and setting of the constellations at different seasons of the year; by this means they determined the favourable season for making a voyage and directed their course.

The Polynesians were by no means a savage people when they entered the Pacific. Indeed their elaborate historical legends show that they possessed a considerable amount of civilization. Those who are familiar with these legends, and have studied native manners and customs, see many unmistakable proofs that the Polynesians had, at their migration, considerable knowledge and culture, and that the race has greatly deteriorated.

The Polynesians are physically a very fine race. On some islands they average 5 ft. io in. in height. De Quatrefages, in a table giving the stature of different races of men,' puts the natives of Samoa and Tonga as the tallest people in the world. He gives 5 ft. 9.92 in. as their average height. They are well developed in proportion to their height. Their colour is a brown, lighter or darker generally according to the amount of their exposure to the sun - being darker on some of the atolls where the people spend much time in fishing, and among fishermen on the volcanic islands, and lighter among women, chiefs and others less exposed than the bulk of the people. Their hair is dark brown or black; smooth and curly, very different from the frizzly mop of the Papuan or the lank straight locks of the Malay. They have very little beard. Their features are generally fairly regular and often beautiful; eyes invariably black, and in some persons oblique; jaws not projecting, except in a few instances; lips of medium thickness; the noses are naturally long, well shaped and arched, but many are artificially flattened at the bridge in infancy. Their foreheads are fairly high, but rather narrow. The young of both sexes are good-looking. The men often have more regular features than the women. Formerly the men paid more attention to personal appearance than the women. Polynesians generally are of singularly cleanly habits, love bathing, and have a taste for neatness and order. Their clothing is simple: a loin cloth for the men and for the women a girdle or petticoat of leaves. Sometimes women cover the shoulders, and on great occasions the men robe themselves in tape, bark-cloth. The men are usually ' Coco-nut fibre and the gum which exudes from the bread-fruit tree are generally used for " caulking " and " pitching " canoes. 2 The Human Species (International Scientific Series), pp. 57-60.

tattooed in elaborate designs from the navel to the thigh, and often around mouth and eyes.

As a race the Polynesians are somewhat apathetic. An enervating climate and lavish natural resources incline them to lead easy lives. On the more barren islands, and on those more distant from the equator, they show more energy. Under certain circumstances they become excitable, and manifest a kind of care-for-nothing spirit. As savages they were strict in their religious observances and religion came into almost every action of life, and they have been, in most instances, easily led to accept Christianity. Their essential trait is their perennial cheerfulness, and their fondness for dance and song and every sort of amusement. 3 They are shrewd, intelligent and possess much common sense. Where they have from early years enjoyed the advantages of a good education, Polynesian youths have proved themselves to possess intellectual powers of no mean order. They are almost invariably fluent speakers; with many of them oratory seems to be a natural gift; it is also carefully cultivated. An orator will hold the interest of his hearers for hours together at a political gathering, and in his speech he will bring in historical allusions and precedents, and will make apt quotations from ancient legends in a manner which would do credit to the best parliamentary orators. Many of them are very brave, and think little of self-sacrifice for others where duty or family honour is concerned.

Polynesian society is divided into the family and the clan. Each clan has a name which is usually borne by one of the oldest members, who is the chief or head for the time being. This clan system no doubt generally prevailed in early times, and was the origin of the principal chieftainships. But changes have been made in most of the islands. In some the head of one clan has become king over several. In many cases large clans have been divided into sections under secondary heads, and have even been subdivided.

As a rule near relations do not intermarry. In some islands this rule is rigidly adhered to. There have been exceptions, however, especially in the case of high chiefs; but usually great care is taken to prevent the union of those within the prescribed limits of consanguinity. Children generally dwell with their kin on the father's side, but they have equal rights on the mother's side, and sometimes they take up their abode with their mother's family. The only names used to express particular relationships are father and mother, son and daughter, brother and sister. There is usually no distinction between brothers (or sisters) and cousins, all the children of brothers and sisters speak of each other as brothers and sisters, and they call uncles and aunts fathers and mothers. Above the relationship of parents all are simply ancestors, no term being used for grandfather which would not equally apply to any more remote male ancestor. In the sane way there is no distinctive term for grandchild. A man speaks of his grandchild as his son or daughter, or simply as his child. 4 Polygamy was often practised, especially by chiefs, and also concubinage. In some places a widow was taken by the brother of her deceased husband, or, failing the brother, by some other relative of the deceased, as an additional wife. Divorce was an easy matter, and of frequent occurrence; but, as a rule, a divorced wife would not marry again without the consent of her former husband. An adulterer was always liable to be killed by the aggrieved husband, or by some member of his clan. If the culprit himself could not be reached, any member of the clan was liable to suffer in his stead. In some islands female virtue was highly regarded. Perhaps of all the groups Samoa stood highest in this respect. There was a special ordeal through which a bride passed to prove her virginity, and a proof of her immorality brought disgrace upon all her relatives. But in other islands there was much freedom in the relations of the sexes. Owing to the almost promiscuous intercourse which prevailed among a portion of the race, in some groups titles descended through the mother and not through the father. In Hawaii there was a peculiar system of marriage Wrestling and boxing, a kind of hockey and football, canoe and foot races, walking-matches, swimming, archery, cockfighting, fishing-matches and pigeon-catching are among their pastimes. Of indoor games they have a number, many being of a gambling nature. Much time is spent, especially after the evening meal, in asking riddles, in rhyming, &c. The recital of songs and myths. is a common amusement, and on special occasions there is dancing. The night-dances were generally accompanied by much indecency and immorality.

Dr Lewis H. Morgan, in Ancient Society, pp. 439-423, makes the Polynesians to have distinctive terms for grandfather, grandmother, grandson and granddaughter. In this he is mistaken. It is evident from his own lists that the Hawaiian kupuna means simply an ancestor. In like manner moo puna simply means a descendant of any generation after the first.

relationship," brothers with their wives, and sisters with their husbands, possessing each other in common." There also, especially in the case of chiefs and chieftainesses, brothers and sisters sometimes intermarried. But these customs did not prevail in other groups. It is almost certain that they did not prevail in Hawaii in early times, but that they were the result of that deterioration in the race which their traditions and many of their customs indicate.' Women have always occupied a relatively high position among the Polynesians. In most groups they have great influence and are treated with much respect. In some cases they take hereditary titles and hold high offices. As among their congeners in Madagascar, so also in parts of Polynesia, there may be a queen or a chieftainess in her own right; and a woman in high position will command as much respect, and will exercise as great authority, as a man would in the same position. Everywhere infanticide prevailed; in some of the smaller islands it was regulated by law in order to prevent over-population. It was also a very common practice to destroy the foetus, but parents were affectionate towards their children. The practice of adopting children was, and still is, common. Often there is an exchange made between members of the same clan; but sometimes there is adoption from without. Tattooing generally prevailed among the men, different patterns being followed in different groups of islands. In some a larger portion of the body is tattooed than in others. A youth was considered to be in his minority until he was tattooed, and in former times be would have no chance of marrying until he had, by submitting to this process, proved himself to be a man. Puberty in the other sex was generally marked by feasting, or some other demonstration, among the female friends. Old age is generally honoured. Often an inferior chief will give up his title to a younger man, yet he himself will lose but little by so doing. The neglect of aged persons is extremely rare.

Property belonging to a clan is held in common. Each clan usually possesses land, and over this no one member has an exclusive right, but all have an equal right to use it. The chief or recognized head of the clan or section alone can properly dispose of it or assign its use for a time to an outsider; and even he is expected to obtain the consent of the heads of families before he alienates the property. Thus land is handed down through successive generations under the nominal control of the recognized head of the clan. Changes have been made in many islands in this respect; but there can be little reason to doubt that the joint ownership of property in clans was common among the entire race in former times.

In early times the head of each clan was supreme among his own people, but in all matters he had associated with him the principal men or heads of families in the clan. Their united authority extended over all the members and the possessions of the - p lan, and they were independent of every other clan. There are in some places vestiges of this primitive state of society still remaining; the transition to a limited or to a despotic monarchy may be traced by means of the ancient legends in some islands, and in others it is a matter of recent history. One clan being more numerous and stronger than another, and its chief being ambitious, it is easy to see how by conquering a neighbouring clan he increased the importance of his clan and extended his own power. In some of the islands this transition process has hardly yet developed into an absolute monarchy. We may even see two or three stages of the progress. In one instance a certain clan has the right to nominate the principal chief over an entire district; though it is known as the ruling clan, its rule is mainly confined to this nomination, and to decision for or against war. In all other respects the district enjoys the privilege of self-government. In another case the nominal king over a district, or over an entire island, can, be elected only from among the members of a certain clan, the monarchy being elective within that alone; but this king has little authority. In other cases a more despotic monarchy has grown up - the prowess of one man leading to the subjugation of other clans. Even in this case the chiefs or ' Morgan has founded one of his forms of family - the consanguine - on the supposed existence in former times among the Malays and Polynesians of the custom of " intermarriage of brothers and sisters, own and collateral, in a group." All the evidence he finds in support of this is (I) the existence of the custom above mentioned in Hawaii; and (2) the absence of special terms for the relationship of uncle, aunt and cousin, this indicating, he thinks, that these were regarded as fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. He admits that " the usages with respect to marriage which prevailed when the system was formed may not prevail at the present time." But he adds, " To sustain the deduction it is not necessary that they should " (Ancient Society, p. 408). Morgan has given special terms for grandfather and grandmother, because it would prove too much to show that the people had no grandfathers, &c. But these terms are used for ancestors of any generation. The terms used for grandchildren, in like manner, are used for any generation of descendants. He says (p. 406) the terms of husband and wife are used in common by a group of sisters or brothers, but the fact is that the words used for husband and wife in Hawaii simply mean male and female. In some islands there are terms used for wife in the most strict sense. The word wife is not used more exclusively among us than among some Polynesian people.

heads of clans sometimes still hold their property and rule over their own people, only rendering a kind of feudal service and paying tribute to the king.

The Polynesians are exceedingly fond of rank and of titles. Much deference is paid to chiefs and to persons of rank; and special terms are generally employed in addressing these. Every part of a chief's body and all his belongings have names different from those employed for common people. The grade of rank which a person occupies will often be indicated by the language in which he is addressed. Thus, in Samoa there are four different terms for to come: sau is for a common man; maliu mai is a respectful term for a person without a title; susu mai for a titled chief; and afro mai for a member of the royal family. In addressing chiefs, or others to whom one wishes to be respectful, the singular number of the personal pronoun is rarely used; the dual is employed instead, - the dual of dignity or of respect.

Offices and titles are seldom hereditary in our sense of the term, as descending from father to son. They are rather elective within the limits of the clan, or the division of a clan. A common practice is for the holder of a high title to nominate a successor; and his nomination is generally confirmed by the chiefs, or heads of households, with whom the right of election rests. In ancient times the authority of a high chief or king did not usually extend to any details of government. But in Hawaii there are traditions'of a wise king who interested himself in promoting the social well-being of the people, and made good laws for their guidance.' Usually all matters affecting a district or an island were settled by the chiefs of the district, while those of a single village were settled by a council consisting of the chiefs and heads of households in the village. In some islands each clan, or each village, would feel itself at liberty to make war on another clan or village without consulting the views of any higher authority. Indeed the rule was for each clan or district to settle its own affairs. In the case of offences against individuals, either the person injured, or another member of his clan, would avenge the injury done. For most offences there was some generally recognized punishment - such as death for murder or adultery; but often vengeance would fall upon another person instead of the wrongdoer. In avenging wrong, a member of the village or of the clan to which the offender belonged would serve equally well to satisfy their ideas of justice if the culprit himself could not be easily reached. Sometimes all the members of the family, or of a village, to which a culprit belonged would flee from their homes and take refuge in another village, or seek the protection of a powerful chief. In some places, in cases of crime, the members of the family or village would convey the culprit bound - sometimes even carrying him like a pig that is to be killed - and place him with apologies before those against whom he had transgressed. The ignominy of such a proceeding was generally "considered sufficient atonement for the gravest offences. There were slaves in many islands, either persons conquered in war, or those who had Lecn condemned to lose their personal liberty on account of evil conduct. Pottery was not manufactured by the Polynesians: a fact which, it has been argued, goes far to prove the remoteness of the Polynesian migration from the Malay Archipelago, where there is not a single tribe which does not possess the art. It may, however, be that, moving among small coral islands for scores of generations and thus without materials, they lost the art. Those of them who possessed pottery obtained it from the Papuans. In most of their manufactures they were, however, in advance of the Papuans. They made use of the vegetable fibres abounding in the islands, the women manufacturing cloth, chiefly from the bark of the paper mulberry (Morus papyrifera), but also in some islands from the bark of the bread-fruit tree and the hibiscus. This in former times furnished them with most of their clothing. They also made various kinds of mats, baskets and fans from the leaves of the pandanus, the bark of the hibiscus, from species of bohmeria or other Urticaceous plants. Some of their mats are very beautifully made, and in some islands they are the most valuable property the people possess. The people also use the various fibre-producing plants for the manufacture of ropes, coarse string and fine cord, and for making fishing nets. The nets are often very large, and are netted with a needle and mesh as in hand-netting among ourselves.

The Polynesians, who have always been entirely without metals, are clever workers in wood. Canoe and house building are trades usually confined to certain families. The large canoes in which they formerly made long voyages are no longer built, but various kinds of smaller canoes are made, from the commonest, which is simply a hollowed-out tree cut into form, to the finely shaped one built upon a keel, the joints of the various pieces being nicely fitted, and the whole stitched together with cord made from the husk of coconuts. Some of the larger canoes are ornamented with rude carving; and in some islands they are somewhat elaborately decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl. The houses are generally well and elaborately made, but nearly all the ornamentation is put on the inside of the roof.

They manufacture several wooden utensils for household use, See a remarkable example in Fornander's Account of the Polynesian Race, ii. 89.

such as dishes or deep bowls, head-rests and stools. Having no metal or other vessels in which to boil water, all cooking is done by baking, generally in holes in the ground. They also make wooden gongs, or drums. They used to make wooden fishhooks, clubs, spears and bows. They still make wooden fishspears and carved and inlaid combs. They employ the bamboo for making drums and flutes. Formerly knives were made of bamboo, which is still sometimes used for that purpose. In the manufacture of these things they employed adzes made of stone, shell or hard wood, and a wooden drill pointed with stone, shell or bone. They made mother-of-pearl fishhooks, and they still use a part of those old hooks - or artificial bait - in combination with steel hooks, the native-made portion being generally shaped like a small fish. For water-vessels, &c., they employ gourds and large coco-nut shells, in preparing which they pour in water and allow the pulp or the kernel to decay, so that it may be removed without breaking the rind or shell. Their drinking cups are made of half a coco-nut shell. Sharks' teeth, shells and bamboo were formerly generally used as cutting instruments for shaving and surgical operations. They employ vegetable dyes for painting their bark-cloth, calabashes, &c. In some islands they also use a red earth for this purpose. Their cloth is generally ornamented with geometrical patterns. Any drawings of animals, &c., which they make are exceedingly inartistic, and no attempt is made at perspective. Their musical instruments are few and rude - consisting of the drums and flutes already mentioned, and shell trumpets.

The Polynesians were all polytheists. Without doubt many of their gods are deified men; but it is clear that some are the forces of Nature personified, while others appear to represent human passions which have become identified with particular persons who have an existence in their historical myths." But the conception which they had of Tangaloa (Taaroa and Kanaloa in some islands) is of a higher order. Among the Tahitians he was regarded as " the first and principal god, uncreated and existing from the beginning, or from the time he emerged from po, or the world of darkness. ' 2 " He was said to be the father of all the gods, and creator of all things, yet was scarcely reckoned an object of worship."' Dr Turner says, " the unrestricted, or unconditioned, may fairly be regarded as the name of this Samoan Jupiter."4 The worship of certain of the great gods was common to all the people in a group of islands. Others were gods of villages or of families, while others were gods of individuals. The gods of clans were probably the spirits of the ancestors in their own line. In some islands, when the birth of a child was expected, the aid of the gods of the family was invoked, beginning with the god of the father. The god prayed to at the instant of birth became the god of the child. In other places the name of the child's god was declared when the umbilical cord was severed. The gods were supposed to dwell in various animals, in trees, or even in inanimate objects, as a stone, a shell, &c. In some islands idols bearing more or less resemblance to the human shape were made. But in all cases the material objects were regarded simply as the abodes of the immaterial spirits of the gods.

Their temples were either national, for a single village, or for the god of a family. They were sometimes large stone enclosures (marae), sometimes a grove, or a house. The principal priests were a particular order, the priesthood being hereditary. In some cases, however, the father of a family was priest in his own household and presented offerings and prayers to the family god.

In some islands human sacrifices were of frequent occurrence; in others they were offered only on very rare and exceptional occasions, when the demand was made by the priests for something specially valuable. The usual offerings to the gods were food. The system of taboo was connected with their religious rites. There were two ways by which things might become taboo: (I) by contact with anything belonging to the god, as his visible representation or his priest. Probably it was thought that a portion of the sacred essence of the god, or of a sacred person, was directly communicable to objects which they touched. (2) Things were made taboo by being dedicated to the god; and it is this form of taboo which is still kept up. If, e.g., any one wishes to preserve his coco-nuts from being taken, he will put something upon the trees to indicate that they are sacred or dedicated. They cannot then be used until the taboo is removed. Disease and death were often connected with the violation of taboo, the offended gods thus punishing the offenders. Disease was generally attributed to the anger of the gods. Hence offerings, &c., were made to appease their anger. The first-fruits of a crop were usually dedicated to the gods to prevent them from being angry; and new canoes, fishing-nets, &c., were dedicated by prayers and offerings, in order that the gods might be propitious to their owners in their use.

The following books may be consulted on this subject: Rev. W. W. Gill's Myths and Songs from the South Pacific; Dr Turner's Samoa; and Mr Shortland's Maori Religion and Mythology; Sir George Grey, Polynesian Mythology. 2 Polynesian Researches i. 323.

Tahitian Dictionary. 4 Samoa, p. 52.

The Polynesians invariably believe in the existence of the spirit of man after the death of the body. Their traditions on the condition of the dead vary considerably in different groups; yet there is a general agreement upon main points. Death is caused by the departure of the spirit from the body. The region of the dead is subterranean. When the spirit leaves the body it is conveyed by waiting spirits to the abode of spirits. In most islands the place of descent is known. It is generally towards the west. In some traditions there is a distinction between chief and common people in the spirit world. In others all are much alike in condition. Some traditions indicate a marked distinction between the spirits of warriors and those of others: the former go to a place where they are happy and are immortal, while the latter are devoured by the gods and are annihilated. In some, however, the spirits are said to live again after being eaten. Some speak of the abode of spirits as being in darkness; but usually the condition of things is similar to that which exists upon earth. Amongst all the people it is believed that the spirits of the dead are able to revisit the scenes of their earthly life. The visits are generally made in the night, and are often greatly dreaded, especially when there may be any supposed reason for spite on the part of the dead towards living relatives. Some writers have connected Polynesian cannibalism with religion. In the Cook and Society Islands, when a human being was offered as a sacrifice, the priest presented an eye of the victim to the king, who either ate it or pretended to do so. Probably the earliest human sacrifices were the bodies of enemies slain in battle. As it was supposed by some that the spirits of the dead were eaten by the gods, the bodies of those slain in battle may have been eaten by their victors in triumph. Mr Shortland appears to think that cannibalism among the Maories of New Zealand may have thus originated. 5 Among the Polynesians generally it appears to have been the practice at times to eat a portion of a slain enemy to make his degradation the greater. But where cannibalism was practised as a means of subsistence, it probably originated in times of actual want, such as may have occurred during the long voyages of the people.

The Polynesian race has been continuously, and in some places rapidly, decreasing since their first contact with Europeans. Doubts have been thrown on the current statements regarding the rate of decrease, which some good authorities believe to be not so great as is commonly represented. They hold that former estimates of the number of inhabitants in the various insular groups were mere guesswork. Thus it is pointed out that Cook's estimate of 240,000 for the Society Archipelago (Tahiti) was at the time reduced by his associate, Forster, to 150,000, so that the 300,000 credited by him to the Sandwich Islands should also be heavily discounted. That is probably true, and it may be admitted that, as a rule, the early calculations erred on the side of excess. But when full allowance is made for all such exaggerations, the following facts will show that the decrease has been excessive. The Tahitians, 150,000 in 1774, fell from 17,000 in 1880 to 10,300 in 1899; and in this group, while the pure stock appears to be dying out, there is a small increase amongst the half-breeds. When New Zealand was occupied (1840) the Maori were said to number 120,000, and were doubtfully stated to be still 56,000 in 1857; since then the returns of the 1881 and 1891 censuses gave 44,000 and 40,000 respectively. During the last two decades of the 19th century the decrease has been from 30,000 to 17,500 in Tonga; from 11,500 to 8400 in the Cook group; from 8000 to 3600 in Wallis;. from 1600 to ioo in Manahiki; from 1400 to 1000 in Tubuai; and from 600 to ioo in Easter Island. A general decline seems thus to be placed beyond doubt, though it may be questioned whether it is to be attributed to a decayed vitality, as some hold, or to external causes, as is the more general opinion. The prevalence of elephantiasis and the occurrence of leprosy, for instance, in Hawaii, would seem to point at least in some places to a racial taint, due perhaps to the unbridled licentiousness of past generations. On the other hand, such a decrease as has occurred in Tahiti and Tonga, can be accounted for only by an accumulation of outward causes, such as wars, massacres, and raidings for the Australian and South American labour markets before this traffic was suppressed or regulated. Other destructive agencies were epidemics, such especially as measles and small-pox, which swept away 30,000 Fijians in 1875; the introduction of strong drinks, including, besides vile spirits, a most pernicious concoction brewed in Tahiti from oranges; Maori Religion and Mythology, p. 26.

the too sudden adoption of European clothing, rendering the body supersensitive to changes of temperature; lastly, the action of over-zealous missionaries in suppressing the dances, merrymaking and free joyous life of pagan times, and the preaching of a sombre type of Christianity, with deadening effects on the buoyant temperament of these children of Nature. Most of these abuses have been checked or removed, and the results may perhaps be detected in a less accelerated rate of decline, which no longer proceeds in geometric proportion, and seems even almost arrested in some places, as in Samoa and New Zealand. If such be indeed the case, perhaps the noblest of all primitive races may yet be saved from what at one time seemed inevitable extinction; and the Maori, the Samoans, and Tahitians may, like the Hawaiians, take their place beside the Europeans as free citizens of the various states of which they are now subjects.


Jean L. A. de Quatrefages, Les Polynesiens et leur migrations (Paris, 1866); G. Turner, Nineteen Years in Polynesia (London, 1861); Pierre Adolphe Lesson, Les Polynesiens, leur origine, &c. (Paris, 1880-1884); Henri Mager, Le Monde polynesien (Paris, 1902); Maximilien Albert H. A. Le Grand, Au pays des Canaques (Paris, 1893); Sir George Grey, Polynesian Mythology (London, 1855); T. A. Moerenhout, Voyages aux Iles du Grand Ocean, &c. (Paris, 1837); Abraham Fornander, An Account of the Polynesian Race (1878). The account given above reproduces the main descriptive passages in the Rev. S. J. Whitmee's article in the 9th ed. of the Ency. Brit.

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From Ancient Greek πολύς (polus), many) + νήσος (nēsos), island); according to Moon Handbooks Tahiti, "the term Polynesia was coined by Charles de Brosses in 1756 and applied to all the Pacific islands. The present restricted use was proposed by Dumont d'Urville during a famous lecture at the Geographical Society in Paris in 1831."


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  1. Part of Oceania including Easter Island, Hawaii, New Zealand, Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga.

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Polynesia is a group of over 1,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean.


Polynesia is the islands in a triangle in the Pacific Ocean. The top of the triangle is Hawai'i, the bottom left is New Zealand and the bottom right is Easter Island. All the islands inside the triangle are Polynesia.


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