Polynesian islands: Wikis


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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

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