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
Polynesia is generally defined as the islands within the Polynesian triangle
. The term
"Polynesia", meaning many islands, was first used by Charles de Brosses
in 1756, and
originally applied to all the islands of
. Jules Dumont
in an 1831 lecture (talk) to the Geographical Society
of Paris proposed a restriction on its use.
Geographically, and oversimply, Polynesia may
be described as a triangle with its corners at Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter
Island. The other main island groups located within
the Polynesian triangle are Samoa, Tonga, the
Islands, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Niue, Wallis and
Futuna and French Polynesia.
Polynesian island group outside of this great triangle is Rotuma which is the
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
) whose pre-colonial population generally
belongs to one ethno-cultural family as a result of centuries of
History of the Polynesian people
The Polynesian people are considered to be by ancestry a subset of
the sea-migrating Austronesian
and the tracing of Polynesian languages places their
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) 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
- Entangled Bank model: Supposes a long history of cultural and
genetic interactions amongst southeast Asians, Melanesians, and
- 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. , 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
island Southeast Asia. These people, according to linguistic and
archaeological evidence originated from Taiwan, 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
In the archaeological record there are well-defined traces of this
expansion which allow the path it took to be followed and dated
with a degree of certainty. It is thought that roughly 3,000 years BC 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.
eastern site for Lapita archaeological remains recovered so far
through archaeology in Samoa is
at Mulifanua on Upolu.
Mulifanua site, where 4,288 pottery sherds have been found and
studied, has a true age of circa 3,000 BP based on C14
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.
In this region, the distinctive Polynesian culture developed.
spread of pottery and domesticates in Polynesia is connected with
the Lapita culture that started expanding
Guinea to as far east as Fiji, Samoa, and
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
fluorescence sourcing of basalt
artifacts found on both islands.
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. Around AD 500, Hawai'i was settled by the Polynesians and around AD 1000
Zealand was settled as well.
Polynesian links to the Americas
The sweet potato kumara
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 CE, 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.
It is possible, however, that South
Americans brought it to the Pacific or that this plant or its
seed-bearing parts simply floated across the Pacific without human
contact ever occurring. The traditional name for the Haida homeland of Queen Charlotte Island is Haida'gwai'i, very similar linguistically to
Names such as Tonga's Strait
and Hakai'i Channel
appear to also be relic
names suggesting an Austronesian past to this area.
Irving Goldman, author of Ancient Polynesian Society,
this to say on the comparison between Kwakiutl
and the Polynesians. "For reasons that
remain to be discovered, the Indian tribes of this area [NW Coast]
share formal principles of rank, lineage, and kinship with Pacific
islanders. The Kwakiutl, seem very close to what I have designated
as the "traditional" Polynesian society. They share with
Polynesians a status system of graded hereditary ranking of
individuals and of lineages; a social class system of chiefs
("nobles"), commoners, and slaves; concepts of primogeniture and
seniority of descent lines; a concept of abstract supernatural
powers as special attributes of chiefs; and a lineage system that
leans toward patriliny, but acknowledges the maternal lines as
well. Finally, Kwakiutl and eastern Polynesians, especially,
associate ambiguity of lineage membership with "Hawaiian" type
kinship, a fully classificatory system that does not distinguish
between maternal and paternal sides, or between siblings and
proposed in the
mid-twentieth century that the Polynesians had migrated from South
America on balsa
Cultures of Polynesia
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.
comprises the groups of Tonga, Niue, Samoa and the
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.
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 matai
, weather prediction, out-rigger canoe
(similar to modern catamarans
construction and navigation
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
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
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
sub-branch of the Austronesian
Economy of Polynesia
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.
more unusual sources of income, such as Tuvalu which
marketed its '.tv' internet top-level domain
name or the Cooks that relied on stamp
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 was all settled by Polynesians.
traveled to small inhabited
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 and set on the
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.
techniques along with
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
indicatef that Polynesian navigators may have reached the Americas
at least 100 years before Columbus (who arrived 1492 AD),
introducing chickens to South America. 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.
Knowledge of the traditional Polynesian methods of navigation was
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
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
without instruments and Ben
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 everyday
use. Recent re-creations of Polynesian voyaging have used methods
based largely on Micronesian methods and the teachings of a
Micronesian navigator, Mau
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
flight of birds, the winds and the weather. Scientists think that
long-distance Polynesian voyaging followed the seasonal paths of
. 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
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
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.
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.
- 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.
- Hage, P., Marck, J. 2003. Matrilineality and Melanesian Origin
of Polynesian Y Chromosomes. Current Anthropology Vol. 44, No.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- VAN TILBURG, Jo Anne. 1994. Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology
and Culture. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press
- Peoples of the World by National Geographic
- Encyclopedia Britannica, 1995
- First Chickens in Americas Were Brought From
Polynesia, by John Noble Wilford, New York Times, June 5,
- Radiocarbon and DNA evidence for a pre-Columbian
introduction of Polynesian chickens to Chile, by Alice A.
Storey, et al., PNAS, June 19th, 2007.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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