Map of Polynesia

Quick facts

Pronunciation: PAHL-uh-nee-zhuns
Location: Pacific Ocean, generally within the Polynesian Triangle, drawn by connecting the points of Hawai`i, New Zealand and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).
Population: 1,139,527
Languages: Native languages of the islands and French, English and Spanish
Religion: Christianity with elements of native religion

Polynesia is a subregion of Oceania, made up of more than 1,000 islands in the central and southern Pacific Ocean. The indigenous people of Polynesia share many similarities including their family of languages, culture, and beliefs. They, like many other Pacific Islanders, are descendants of Austronesian-speaking navigators who first settled western Polynesia as many as 3,000 years ago.

The term “Polynesia” was first used in 1756 by French writer Charles de Brosses. It originally applied to all the islands of the Pacific. However, eventually it came to mean those who generally are from islands in the Polynesian Triangle. There are some islands, though, that are inhabited by Polynesian people who live on islands outside the Polynesian Triangle. Geographically, the Polynesian Triangle is within the points of Hawai`i, New Zealand (Aotearoa) and Easter Island (Rapa Nui). The other island groups within the Polynesian Triangle are Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Niue, Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia.

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

Physical geology

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

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

Populating Polynesia

The Polynesian people are considered to be, by linguistic, archeological and human genetic ancestry, a subset of the sea-migrating Austronesian people. The Polynesian languages places their prehistoric origins in the Malay Archipelago and ultimately Taiwan. Between about 3000 and 1000 BC speakers of Austronesian languages began spreading from Taiwan into Island Southeast Asia.

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

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

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

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

Traditional Polynesia society

Linguistic evidence suggests that western Polynesia was first settled some 3,000 years ago, by people of the Lapita culture. It has proved harder to establish when eastern Polynesia was settled. It is possible that some islands were occupied soon after the arrival of Lapita colonists in western Polynesia. However, while the Lapita are best known for their distinctive pottery, eastern Polynesia’s archeological sites lack ceramics of any kind. Nonetheless, it is clear that the various island groups in Polynesia interacted frequently with one another during the early period of settlement, exchanging luxury goods such as basalt adzes, pearl shell, and red feathers.

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. The groups of Tonga, Niue, Samoa and the atolls of Tuvalu to the north are all considered part of West Polynesia. It is likely the pattern of settlement involved the spread of Polynesians out from the Samoan Islands into the Tuvaluan atolls, with Tuvalu providing a stepping stone to migration into the Polynesian Outlier communities in Melanesia and Micronesia.

Eastern Polynesian cultures are highly adapted to smaller islands and atolls, as seen principally in the Cook Islands, Tahiti, the Tuamotus, the Marquesas, Hawai`i, 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.

All Polynesian societies had chiefs and community members who traced themselves to a common ancestor. Chiefs controlled a fairly stable territory. Unlike in Melanesia, leaders were chosen in Polynesia based on their hereditary bloodline. (Samoa, however, had another system of government that combined elements of heredity and real-world skills to choose leaders. This system is called Fa’amatai.) In Polynesian societies, rank and status depended on inheritance–the standing of both parents was important (in general, political power was inherited from the father’s line, but rank and status were inherited from maternal lines). Chiefs generally had absolute authority, decided all the laws and matters of justice, but their rule was tempered by more pragmatic concerns, such as being good and fair leaders, listening to the advice of peers and considering the interests of their subjects.

Women in general did not wield political power, even though they may be of higher rank than their brothers, husbands or sons. Still, women could be very influential in the political realm by sheer force of their character or personality.

Another feature of Polynesian chiefdoms is their variability in structure in relation to the scale of the community or size of the territory (and resources) they controlled. In small atolls like some of the Cook Islands, for example, a chief may not seem much different than the other men in the group. On the other extreme were more highly stratified societies as found in Tonga and Hawai`i with numerous chiefs and nobles commanding thousands of warriors, and an elaborate system of rituals and prohibitions.

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

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, houses would be built on only one of the group so that food cultivation could be done on the others. Usually these villages were fortified with walls and palisades made of stone and wood. However, New Zealand demonstrates the opposite: large volcanic islands with fortified villages.

One of the principal characteristics of traditional Polynesian cultures is an effective adaptation to and mastery of the ocean environment. The Polynesians were superb mariners—their voyages extended as far as Chile, approximately 2,200 miles (3,500 km) east of Easter Island—but their mastery did not extend merely to the technology involved in shipbuilding and navigation. It also permeated social organization, religion, food production, and most other facets of the culture; they had social mechanisms for coping with the human problems of shipwreck, such as separated families and the sudden loss of large portions of the group. In short, they were well equipped to handle the numerous hazards of the beautiful but challenging Pacific environment.

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

Another important characteristic of traditional culture was a certain amount of conservatism. This is apparent in all Polynesian cultures, even those that are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, and whose populations were separated two or three millennia ago. For instance, a comparison of material goods such as stone adzes and fishhooks from widely separated groups reveals a remarkable similarity. The same is true for kinship terms, plant names, and much of the rest of the technical vocabulary of the cultures, as well as for art motifs and medical preparations. The ornate and voluminous genealogies, chants, legends, songs, and spells that were passed down and elaborated through the generations show a profound reverence for the past.

Polynesian cultures displayed a thoroughly practical exploitation of the environment. Their languages reflect their systematic observations of the natural world, abounding with terminology for stars, currents, winds, landforms, and directions. Polynesian languages also include a large number of grammatical elements, indicating, for example, direction of motion implied by verbs, including movement toward or away from the speaker, relative positions of objects with reference to the speaker, and direction of movement along a seashore-inland axis.

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 traveled thousands of miles to celebrations that they all owned communally.

Polynesians also exhibited a profound interest in the supernatural, which they viewed as part of the continuum of reality rather than as a separate category of experience. As a result, Polynesian cultures placed every person in a well-defined relationship to society and to the universe. Creation traditions told of the origin of the world, setting forth the order of precedence of earth, sky, and sea and their inhabitants, including man and woman. Genealogies fixed the individual tightly into a hierarchical social order. A variety of legends interpreted natural phenomena, while historical accounts often described, with varying amounts of mythological elaboration, the migrations of people before they arrived at the island on which they were located, their adventures on the way, and the development of the culture following settlement.

Religion was important for maintaining political authority and social order. The eastern Polynesians had a pantheon of gods who lived in the sky and sometimes came down to earth, interacting with humans. Gods generally controlled or influenced specific aspects of nature or human affairs. In western Polynesia, there were fewer gods but more spirits attached to persons or families. Power was seen as more important than ethics and religion in general was more pragmatic, with worship more focused on appeasing gods or to avoid misfortune.

The two most important religious concepts were mana and tapu. Mana was the sacred power which a god possessed; humans had mana, too, and the more mana one had, the more power they could wield. Tapu (tabu or kapu, English: taboo) applied to things that were sacred or cursed and, as such, were inaccessible or out of bounds to those who did not have a dispensation. Tapu was a means of social control–to keep a person isolated, or to protect and preserve a certain place or thing. Sometimes tapu could be burdensome–for example, a chief could be so tapu that anything he touched would be tapu as well and no one else could touch it ever again. Another example, people who prepared the dead for burial could be tapu for several months and therefore, was unable to feed himself or handle food, so others had to take care of him. The authorities for religious matters were known as kahunas or tohangas–priests, wise men and skilled experts. These individuals usually led important rituals and ceremonies. Some kahunas did not necessarily have to be experts in the divine, but could be skilled in certain kinds of crafts or activities.

Violence was an ever-present element of Polynesian cultures as well, as reflected in the oral literature and in all aspects of traditional life. Various customs controlled and repressed the direct physical expression of aggression within the kin group and the tribe up to a point, but there were definite boundaries of behavior beyond which only violence could restore status or assuage injured pride. Punishments for transgressing ritual prohibitions and social rules often incorporated ritual sacrifice or even the death of the transgressor. Intertribal warfare was extremely common, particularly when populations began to outgrow available resources.

Perhaps the most publicized and misconceived aspect of Polynesian culture has been its sensuality. As in many other aspects of life, Polynesian peoples generally took a very direct, realistic, and physical approach to gratification of the senses. Notably, while traditional culture placed clear restrictions on sexual behavior, the fact that the range of acceptable behavior was wider among Polynesians than among the Christian explorers and missionaries who reported it has fostered a stereotype of extreme sexual promiscuity. In reality, there was no abnormal focus or concentration on any aspect of sensual gratification, a situation in contrast to that seen in many other cultures where, for example, eating, drinking, or sex has become the focus of great cultural elaboration. In general, Polynesians’ balanced approach to sensual gratification seems just another reflection of a generally straightforward approach to the world.

Of the many cultural traditions in the Pacific, Polynesian tattooing is considered one of the most intricate and skillful tattooing of the ancient world. The Polynesians believed that a person’s mana is displayed through their tattoo. Each Polynesian group had their own designs and motifs. Elaborate geometrical designs which were often added to, renewed, and embellished throughout the life of the individual until they covered the entire body. The Samoan islands probably had one of the more distinctive tattooing traditions, called tatau, applying the designs defined by rank and title and lines of descent, in particular on the thighs and buttocks. Tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs were elaborate but painful affairs, not taken lightly and a symbol of an individual’s strength and maturity. The Hawaiians called their tattooing art kakau, and was used to protect their health and spirituality. Designs resembling woven patterns would be painted on arms, legs, tori and faces on men, while women were tattooed on their hands, fingers and wrists and sometimes tongues.Body modification was taken to another extreme in New Zealand in a style known as ta-moko whereby designs were carved into the skin with chisels, leaving permanent scars. The full-face moko was a sign of distinction of status and tribal affiliations. Women often received moko patterns on their chins and lips.

Dance and traditional music are also important parts of Polynesian culture. Music was generally religious in nature and in the form of chants accompanied by dance motions. The hula in Hawaiian culture is probably one of the most well known dance forms in the world, but has many variations. Movements of hands, feet, hips and arms provide gestures that illustrate the music or chants. Music and rhythms were often provided by gourds, nose flutes or shell rattles. In other cultures, drums and wooden sticks were integral to musical experiences.

As happened throughout the Pacific, the arrival of western missionaries forced many unique art forms of the Polynesians into decline by discouraging or forbidding them outright, such as tattooing and even hula, and anything seen as sexually provocative. Recent decades, however, have seen a great resurgence in most traditional art forms and new elaborations that utilize modern innovations and technologies.

A brief history

Within a mere three or four centuries between about 1300 and 900 BC, the Lapita archeological culture spread 6,000 km further to the east from the Bismarck Archipelago, until it reached as far as Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa which were first populated around 3,000 years ago.

A cultural divide began to develop between Fiji to the west, and the distinctive Polynesian language and culture emerging on Tonga and Samoa to the east. Where there was once faint evidence of uniquely shared developments in Fijian and Polynesian speech, most of this is now called “borrowing” and is thought to have occurred in those and later years more as a result of continuing unity of their earliest dialects on those far-flung lands.

European explorers navigated much of the area in the latter quarter of the 18th century, and the first missionaries arrived in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The sandalwood trade, whaling and the beche-de-mer trade brought more people into the islands, new ideas and new kinds of materials and goods that they traded with the Pacific Islanders. Polynesians also participated in these exchanges, some leaving on whaling or trade ships and traveling to far off lands. Introduced diseases, alcohol, weapons and violence, however, decimated populations in the islands. The establishment of plantations after whaling and sandalwood trades diminished  led to the import of foreign labor from all over the world, including Europe, Asia and other Pacific islands, creating multicultural populations in places like Hawai`i. Great Britain annexed New Zealand through the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), but interethnic tension arose between the indigenous Maori and the British settlers. Other colonial powers that laid claim to various parts of Polynesia included France, Germany, New Zealand, the United States, and Chile.

Missionary influence on Polynesian peoples increased over time, and Christianity eventually became an integral part of the islanders’ lives. In many areas Christianity was also influenced by local traditions and customs. Quite commonly, villages competed to build larger and more elaborate churches, and first-time visitors to Polynesia are often surprised at the intensity of the islanders’ commitment to Christianity. Many Polynesians were recruited to proselytize other parts of the Pacific, particularly Melanesia.

World War II was a faraway affair until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor 7 December 1941. After that, Hawai`i became central to the United States’ war effort in the Pacific. The Hawaiian islands became a changed place, ruled by martial law for the duration of the war and hosting hundreds of thousands of servicemen as they moved through on their way to and from battle. Many Japanese families, settled in Hawai`i for decades and generations, were torn apart by the war. Many younger Japanese men fought for the United States, earning great distinction with the 442nd Regiment.

The modern era in the Pacific indigenous rights movement may be considered to have begun after World War II in 1946 with two major events. The first was the recognition of the right to self-determination for colonized peoples in the newly drafted United Nations Charter under Chapter XI, Article 73. A list of 72 Non-self-governing Territories eligible for decolonization and a process for decolonization were created.

The second major event in 1946 was the onset of a 50-year era of Pacific nuclear testing led by the US in the Marshall Islands, followed by the United Kingdom (UK) in 1952 and France in 1966, heightening Cold War tension. Because of Pacific protests, the US in 1962 concluded its Pacific nuclear testing with missile megaton explosions over Kiribati (Christmas Island) and Kalama (Johnston Atoll).

The cost of the testing to Pacific islanders was long term human suffering and radiation injury, and other extensive environmental degradation and the lasting bitterness of Pacific islanders. Yet, in 1959, the US military established a Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) in the Marshall Islands as the impact site for nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Moreover, in 1966, France conducted the first of 193 Pacific nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls southeast of Tahiti which ended only after another clamor of world-wide protests 30 years later.

Thus, the Pacific indigenous rights movement was a response to the West’s persistent colonial domination in violation of the UN Charter’s call for decolonization at that time and the West’s Cold War pretext for use of the Pacific islands for devastating nuclear testing.

Persistent nuclear detonations by the US and France in 1975 spurred the first Nuclear-Free Pacific Conference held in Suva, Fiji, sponsored by a Pacific-wide network of anti-nuclear groups. A Pacific People’s Action Front (PPAF) was organized. This alliance of indigenous activists and Western liberals was a major factor in shaping awareness and compelling Pacific governments to take stronger anti-nuclear and anti-colonial stands.

Ensuing nuclear free conferences in Pohnpei in 1978, and in 1980 at Kailua, Ka Pae’aina Hawai`i and in 1983 at Port Villa, Vanuatu, produced a People’s Treaty which subsequently became a People’s Charter for a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP). NFIP concluded that a nuclear-free Pacific could be attained only by independence from colonial imperialism.

The 1983 NFIP Conference in Vanuatu proclaimed a united front against Japan nuclear waste dumping, French nuclear testing and US Pacific Rim military exercises. NFIP announced support for Kanaky (New Caledonia) and Tahiti Nui (French Polynesia) independence from France, and issued the Port Villa Declaration for an Oppression-Free Pacific.

In the same year in Geneva, the UN Cobo Report concluded that discrimination against indigenous peoples was due to their lack of self-determination, that imposed assimilation was a form of discrimination, and that the right of indigenous peoples to cultural distinctiveness, political self-determination and secure land resources should be formally declared by the UN. The result was the creation of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) in 1982 and the UNWGIP’s work on a Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DDRIP) completed after 12 years in 1994.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is the anomaly of the region. The aboriginal population was so decimated by European-introduced diseases and by slavers in the 1860s that it almost became extinct. In 1888 the island was annexed by Chile; its people are now the only Pacific islanders controlled by a Latin American power. Little remains of Easter Island’s original culture. The indigenous Polynesian language (also called Rapa Nui) survives, but most people also speak Spanish. About one-third of the island’s small population is from Chile.

20th century economies

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. Others advocate a simple life, as has been traditional in the Pacific for centuries. Many Polynesian locations supplement this with tourism income. Some have more unusual sources of income, such as Tuvalu which marketed its ‘.tv’ internet top-level domain name, or the Cooks that relied on stamp sales. Others grow cash crops for sale in larger markets. The US state of Hawai`i’s economy is also partially sustained by the large US military industry.

Political status

The island groups of Polynesia have the whole spectrum of political statuses with relationships to many larger countries. Hawai`i is a US state and American Samoa is a US territory. Other Polynesian islands are British and French overseas territories. A few of the islands are independent nations, some with free associations with larger countries such as New Zealand, Australia, France, Chile and Great Britain.

For further reading

Campbell, I.C. A History of the Pacific Islands. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

Goldman, Irving. Ancient Polynesian Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Hooper, Antony, and Judith Huntsman. Transformations of Polynesian Culture. Auckland: The Polynesian Society, 1985.

Melville, Herman. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1846.