Polynesia (“many islands”) is one of the three major cultural areas or regions in the Pacific Ocean, the others being Micronesia (“small islands”) and Melanesia (dark or “black islands”). It was Dumont d’Urville who first subdivided Oceanic peoples into these groups based primarily on cultural traits, but these regions also have geographical boundaries, some of which overlap culturally, biologically, and linguistically.
Polynesian societies are generally found within the “Polynesian Triangle” whose points are New Zealand, Hawai’i, and Easter Island (Rapa Nui); however, this is not a clear distinction: Numerous societies that speak Polynesian languages or have similar cultural traits are found west of the triangle in Melanesia and Micronesia and are known as Polynesian Outliers. These outliers include Tikopia, Anuta, Nukuoro, and Kapingamarangi, among others.
Lapita, the First Polynesians
Scholars generally agree now that the ancestors of Polynesian people, who made a distinctive type of pottery called Lapita, migrated from insular Melanesia around 3500-3400 B. C. eastward into New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. This ancestral Polynesian society seems to have begun in the latter three of the archipelagoes and eventually moved further eastward into the far corners of the triangle, occupying many of the islands in between.
Archaeologists still debate, however, whether Lapita derives from an indigenous population in Melanesia or represents a completely new group of seafarers who moved southward from Taiwan through the Philippines on their way into Near Oceania around 2500 B.C. Some archaeologists, such as Patrick Vinton Kirch at the University of California-Berkeley, have been strong proponents of the view that Lapita represented an intrusive development deriving from an expansion of peoples who spoke languages related to the Austronesian family. The earliest pottery from Lapita deposits in the Bismarck Archipelago appears to be related to sites found on islands such as Sulawesi and the Philippines, but the Lapita style of pottery decoration seems to be something unique that may represent a melding of both Austronesian-speaking and Papuan cultures in Near Oceania. Nonetheless, it is clear that Lapita disperses southward and eastward, bringing along a host of new plants and animals as well as a distinctive cultural kit with which to exploit these new island environments.
Archaeology in Polynesia
As archaeological research in Polynesia increased in the 1950s and 1960s, it became clearer to archaeologists such as Jack Golson (Australian National University) and Roger Green (University of Auckland), that Lapita pottery-producing peoples successfully crossed the nearly 900-kilometer ocean gap between Vanuatu and/or the Solomons into Fiji by 1200-1000 B.C. Other nearby island groups, such as Samoa, were colonized by around 1000 B.C. as evidenced by the spread of early Lapita pottery as well as artifacts made from chert, obsidian, basalt, and other stone. The introduction and cultivation of various plants (including taro) and animals (like the dog, pig, and chicken) also testifies to a new human (and Lapita) presence on these islands.
The continuing social and economic interaction of human groups living in the newer environments of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, along with their relative isolation from the Near Oceanic homeland, led to the development of this unique Polynesian culture. Over the course of the first millenium B. C, these cultural traits changed as the highly decorated, dentate-designed pottery characteristic of early Lapita became plainer and thicker. Some tool forms changed in response to the discovery of new stone resources (for example, the adz), while others remained fairly consistent over time (for example, fishing gear). The cultural characteristics that evolved from the first Lapita settlers into ancestral Polynesian cultures included not only plain ware, but adzes made from Tridacna (giant clam) shell and basalt; Conus shell beads and rings; one-piece Turbo shell fishhooks; abraders made from sea urchin spine, coral, or pumice; and a myriad of other tools produced from basalt, obsidian, and various stone types. One can assume that an even wider range of artifacts and other cultural remains made from perishable materials were not preserved in the archaeological record.
Polynesian Seafaring and Colonization
Determining the origin of Polynesians and the method by which they settled islands in the Pacific has been the focus of much research and debate. When Europeans arrived in the Pacific and encountered a mosaic of different cultures, it was evident that many Polynesian groups were fully capable of traveling both long and short distances across the ocean using double-hulled and outrigger canoes, and that they did so freely. Many early explorers commented on how the highly skilled Polynesian seafarers traveled easily over the ocean, and they noted that long-distance round trips between islands were more an exercise in endurance than an exceptionally difficult navigational exercise. Native groups used the stars for navigation; fixed their location using mental maps of the sea; effectively harnessed the wind; and paid close attention to cloud formations, sea bird behavior, currents, and winds that would reveal an island’s location.
Despite these early observations, many of the seafaring and boat-building skills were lost over time, and some scholars began to suggest that Polynesians could have only settled the islands accidentally by going with the prevailing winds and currents from east to west. In the 1930s, Sir Peter Buck (also known as Te Rangi Hiroa) proposed that Polynesians had originated from somewhere in Asia, passing through Micronesia on their way to Samoa and eventually the Society Islands. An alternative and controversial hypothesis was proposed by Thor Heyerdahl in the early 1950s; Heyerdahl suggested that Polynesians had Native American roots, and had instead migrated from the Americas. Although this theory was not taken seriously by most scholars, his famous Kon-Tiki voyage from South America into the Pacific using an indigenous form of a Peruvian reed boat indicated that a drift voyage like this could be done. A contrasting theory, but one also based on the idea of drifting, was proposed (also in the 1950s) by Andrew Sharp, who suggested that Polynesians were incapable of purposefully reaching islands by sailing, and that drift voyaging was the norm; in other words, the islands were settled by chance encounter.
These possibilities have been disproven by many lines of evidence. Archaeological, linguistic, and ethno-graphic research conducted during the last 50 years definitely points to a western migration route. Not only do similarities in artifacts, language, and cultural traits within Polynesia indicate that people purposefully sailed to these islands by going against, across, and down the wind in a general easterly direction, but sophisticated computer models (using historical and modern oceanographic data and experimental voyages) also indicate this to be the case. In 1976 a replica of a Polynesian canoe called Hokule’a successfully made the trip between Hawai’i and Tahiti; in 1999 it traveled to Easter Island. Other, similar voyages using experimental craft—many without the help of modern navigation technologies—have crossed the ocean gaps between islands hundreds of kilometers apart.
The ability of Polynesians to settle some of the most remote places on earth is undisputed, and archaeology is now providing evidence of increased interaction between island groups. Polynesian peoples referred to Havaiki, a place called the “immediate Polynesian homeland,” in the archipelagoes of Tonga and Samoa. Beginning perhaps as early as 200 B.C., but with more credible evidence dating to ca. A. D. 600, Polynesians began venturing out of Tonga-Samoa and migrating eastward into the more remote fringes of the Polynesian triangle. When these migrations occurred is debatable largely because of a lack of reliable radiocarbon chronologies in places like the Marquesas, and lack of field research in the Society and Austral Islands. If the settlement of Fiji-Tonga-Samoa was fairly contemporaneous, but proceeded no further until the first millenium A. D., there would have been what Pacific archaeologists call a long pause of human expansion. Some archaeologists, including Atholl Anderson (Australian National University), have argued that, in order to prove human existence on these islands, artifactual evidence and reliable radiocarbon dates must be found together at primary occupation sites. Others, including Patrick Kirch, instead argue that environmental or “proxy” evidence (such as pollen from plants introduced by humans, increased charcoal counts from forest clearance, or the appearance of non-native animals like the rat or garden snails) are proof enough that humans occupied the landscape without needing to have the artifacts themselves.
If proxy evidence is accepted, the Cook Islands, for example, may have been occupied somewhere between 500 B. C. and A. D. 0. Several archaeological sites in the Marquesas (for example, Hane, Hanatekua) suggest a human presence from 200 B. C. to A. D. 300, but dates from the same stratigraphic layers have been inconsistent, which leaves questions as to the validity of the archipelago’s chronology at this time. Good evidence points to islands such as the Australs, Cooks, Rapa Nui, and Pitcairn as being settled by at least A. D. 900-or 1000; Hawai’i by A. D. 800 (and perhaps earlier ca. A. D. 300); and New Zealand, shortly thereafter, around A. D. 1000.
Despite these chronological issues, some early sites have been excavated in East Polynesia that lend great insight into human movement across the seascape, traditional navigation and seafaring strategies, human adaptation in increasingly remote (and sometimes partially or completely isolated) environments, settlement patterns, and the rise of sociopolitical complexity.
Polynesian Settlement and Lifeways
Early Polynesian settlements are characterized by smaller villages located on or near coastal areas. Many communities on these islands, not unlike peoples living in other tropical or subtropical island regions, chose to settle along coastlines that were close to freshwater, lagoonal, and/or reef resources. In East Polynesia, dune or beach terrace sites are common during the earlier periods of settlement. Archaeological evidence suggests that some residential structures were placed on stone pavement, while others had gravel floors. It is thought that the prototypical marae temple may have started at or close to this same time.
Early Polynesians were horticulturalists whose Lapita ancestors brought with them over two dozen species of plants, fifteen of which are known from archaeobotanical remains and the remaining from linguistic or other lines of evidence. These cultigens include two major staples for Pacific peoples—taro and yams—as well as coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, tree fruits, and nuts which were transported into the Pacific Islands by Austronesian speakers. Settlers probably had small garden plots and actively implemented a slash-and-burn or swidden strategy of cultivating plants, in which small sections of forest are cut down and burned, thereby clearing the area and providing essential nutrients to the soil. Perennial tree crops were likely scattered in or around the villages, while root and tuber crops like taro were annually cultivated in the forest.
One domestic plant that was extremely important to many islands in East Polynesia (especially Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Easter Island) was the sweet potato, which is indigenous to South America. The issue of whether the sweet potato, as well as the non-native Lagneria gourd, was introduced by Polynesians or Europeans was debated for years until research indicated that both were introduced prior to European contact. The fact that the sweet potato was found in places like Easter Island had seemed to support Thor Heyerdahl’s westward migration hypothesis; however, it now seems more likely that, given the advanced seafaring capabilities of Polynesians, the Polynesians instead reached South America and brought the sweet potato into the Pacific Islands. As these societies became more technologically proficient at growing these and other crops, intensive forms of agriculture were developed that used large-scale valleys and implemented hillside irrigation systems, sometimes with dire environmental consequences as erosion increased and habitats for native plant and animal populations decreased. One of the largest impacts was to native birds—dozens of which became extinct in Hawai’i and other Pacific Islands after Polynesian arrival.
Although the cultivation of plants was central to Polynesian society, the basic diet was supplemented with foods from the sea. Polynesians exploited a wide range of marine resources including mollusks, crabs and other shellfish, birds, turtles, and both nearshore and offshore fish. Based on the presence of fish bones found in archaeological sites, it is apparent that the resource-rich, nearshore fisheries were more heavily exploited, although offshore fishing was practiced using watercraft and trolling lure technology, as shown by the artifacts and the fish bones from tuna and other offshore species. Many of these marine resources were used for making tools as well as for food. A plethora of artifacts made from mollusk shell, sea urchin, and bone attest to the importance of rich lagoonal and reef habitats.
The introduction of domesticated animals— namely the pig, the dog, and the chicken—was also a trademark of Polynesians and their ancestors. All three animals originate from Southeast Asia and were brought to the farthest reaches of the Pacific (though not all are found on every island or thought to be equally important within every Polynesian society) as part of the “transported landscape,” representing a major effort by Pacific Islanders to adapt to and transform their environment to suit their needs.
Although marine and introduced foods were critical components in the diets of Polynesians, terrestrial resources were also plentiful. Sea and land bird remains are often found in archaeological sites, as are various species of land crabs. On some islands like Fiji and Tonga, lizards were also exploited for food.
Polynesian Exchange and Social Complexity
Another characteristic of Polynesian societies was the interisland movement and exchange of prized goods and resources that effectively linked communities together. The transport of shell and stone, and the artifacts made from these materials, are a testament to the importance they had to native Pacific Islanders and the prehistoric linkages that long-distance overseas voyaging provided. Through techniques that test the chemical composition of artifacts, it is known, for example, that basalt found at archaeological sites in Mangaia (Cook Islands) originated from the island of Tutuila in American Samoa over 1,600 kilometers away; another study showed that stone for adze-making found in Mo’orea (Society Islands) came from the Marquesas. The remarkable distances covered provide further evidence that sailing was indeed an important skill that was harnessed to purposefully voyage between islands in Polynesia.
As each of the major island groups in Polynesia was settled, the societies developing within became increasingly complex. At the time of European contact, social structure was typified by what has come to be known as chiefdoms, in which societies are hierarchically ranked and led by a chief who inherits the position through kin affiliations (i.e., determined by genealogy). There was great variation in how these chiefdoms were organized, as well as in the size of their populations. Some simpler forms of the chiefdom were found on smaller atolls and had only minor distinctions between social classes, while others, like Hawai’i, were rigidly stratified. Over time these chiefdoms grew in population, became increasingly complex in social and religious behaviors, and made a concentrated shift to agriculture and animal domestication, thereby becoming less focused on smaller game and some marine animals; fishing, however, generally remained an important part of the subsistence.
As populations increased and social hierarchies developed, greater levels of conflict also developed, as is evident from fortifications such as the hilltop villages, or pa, in New Zealand, which enclosed residences, storage pits, and other domestic-activity areas in highly defensible positions. The emergence of stratified chiefdoms in Polynesia and the rise of what many have even called an “archaic state” in Hawai’i demonstrate that these island societies and their economies intensified, became more specialized, and transformed their environments to suit the changing needs of a growing population. Continued research will surely lend greater insight into the movement of Polynesians across the vast Pacific Ocean and their magnificent cultural traditions.
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