Polynesia: Past and Present

Robert Bollt. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

In 1832, Captain Dumont d’Urville basically defined the term Polynesia, which is derived from the Greek words for “many” and “island.” It comprises the islands found within the “Polynesian Triangle,” with Hawai’i in the north Pacific, New Zealand in the southwest, and Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the far southeast. This definition stood in opposition to Micronesia (little islands) and Melanesia (black islands, due to the dark skin color of its inhabitants). Polynesia is further subdivided into two regions, West Polynesia (Tonga, Samoa, Futuna, ‘Uvea, and a few smaller islands) and East Polynesia, which includes the central archipelagoes of the Cooks, Australs, Societies, and Marquesas and the more isolated islands and archipelagos of Hawai’i, Easter Island, and New Zealand (far to the southwest but culturally “East Polynesian.”)

The colonization of the widespread islands of Polynesia stands among the most amazing feats of human exploration ever. They are very diverse, including atolls, high volcanic islands, and temperate continental ones. Polynesians not only reached every one of these but managed to establish a foothold on even the most inhospitable. Polynesia was the last region of the world to be settled by humans, and the Polynesians themselves were arguably the greatest seafarers ever. Expert navigators guided great double-hulled voyaging canoes, well stocked with necessary plants and domesticated animals, over vast distances utilizing the sun, stars, currents, birds, and winds as their guides. The variables of each island demanded different strategies of colonization and settlement. As the centuries passed following initial landfall, these conditions changed, resulting in a dynamic interplay between the islands and their inhabitants.

By the time of European contact in the late 18th century CE, some islands, generally the biggest and most plentiful such as Tahiti, had developed into highly stratified chief-doms. In contrast, other regions such as the atolls of the Tuamotus had retained a much simpler social system. Still other islands, Pitcairn for example, had been altogether abandoned. How and why these processes took place reveal a great deal about the nature of human societies and how humans interact with their environments. Humans transformed these islands from inhospitable forests to productive agricultural landscapes, with significant consequences for local biota; the sociopolitical entity known as the chiefdom developed in response to a complicated web of natural and cultural influences.

Ancient Polynesian Origins: The Austronesians

Polynesian origins begin with the homeland of the Austronesian settlers of the Pacific Islands. Austronesian is a linguistic term for the most widespread language family in the world, stretching from Easter Island in the east all the way to Madagascar in the west. It was colonized by Austronesian speakers about 600-700. Linguistic and archaeological evidence indicates that the original ancestral Austronesian homeland was located in the lower Yangzi region of China, among the Neolithic cultures of the Hemudu (5000-4500 BCE) and the Majiabang (4200-3000 BCE). These cultures apparently adopted the settled mode of life that came with rice agriculture in the area. They spread southward via the rivers, arguing for some kind of transportation technology, which, judging by the house structures, was easily conceivable. Eventually, the spread reached Fujian in southern China and crossed the channel into Taiwan, where it developed into the Dapenkeng, the earliest ceramic-making archaeological culture on the island, dating to around 3500-3000 BCE. Contact with nearby Fujian through maritime transportation may have led the way to the succeeding cultural phases beginning around 2500 BCE. Taiwan’s and Fujian’s pottery and lithics show enough similarities to be considered parts of a single tradition around that time. Influx of the Longshanoid culture into Fujian and Taiwan is also evident in the period around 2500-1500 BCE.

The Austronesian colonization into the Pacific may have begun in part because of a trade network between Taiwan and the small P’eng-hu islands. Essential resources, such as basalt for adze making as well as other, more perishable materials, might have spurred on the advancement of seafaring technology. The P’eng-hu islands, near Taiwan, appear to be the only possible source for the basalt adzes found in Taiwan. The fact that the Austronesians sailed across 45 kilometers of open sea to these islands makes it likely that their seafaring abilities grew enough in Taiwan to make longer voyages possible.

From around 3500-3000 BCE, the Austronesians began their move south into Near Oceania, a process that would take around 1500 years. Linguistic evidence and lexical reconstructions, which try to determine at approximately what time certain words (and hence, their significance) appeared, supports the hypothesis of a Taiwanese origin for the Austronesians. The axiom that the homeland will be where the greatest variety of languages is found is lent weight by the fact that there are around 21 or 22 different indigenous languages of Taiwan. This is backed up by the cultural history of Taiwan as determined linguistically. It appears from archaeological evidence that the Taiwanese mode of life (rice agriculture, pottery, etc.) is similar to that of mainland Chinese culture of around the same time. The hypothesis that major advances in seafaring occurred by this time is supported by the large amount of (reconstructed) seafaring terminology in the vocabulary. Words for different parts of the canoe appear, of particular significance being the word outrigger, as well as do numerous other maritime terms. In addition, there are manifold increases in the number of recognized fish, plants, and avifauna, suggesting the discovery of new terrain and the accompanying new species. The Austronesians were fishermen who brought with them the domesticated pig, dog, and chicken. They were also horticulturalists who, from lexical reconstruction, had essential crops such as taro, breadfruit, coconut, and banana.

As the Austronesians spread to the south and west into Melanesia, a meeting of cultures occurred. The indigenous inhabitants, who had been there for at least 35,000 years, spoke languages completely unrelated to those of the Austronesian family. The mixing of these cultures in Near Oceania, which genetic studies have also confirmed, are thought to have been concentrated in the Bismarck Archipelago and resulted, in the mid-second millennium BCE, in a new entity entirely that historians call the Lapita people.

The Lapita People

The term Lapita refers to a specific site (Site 13) on the Foué Peninsula on the west coast of New Caledonia, where the first examples of a unique and intricate dentate-stamped pottery were found. As their pottery is the virtual hallmark of the Lapita people, a short discussion of it is an appropriate way to begin a discussion of them. The first specimens were found in 1910, but it wasn’t until 1952 that Edward Gifford and Richard Shutler Jr. named the pottery style, and hence the people who made it, “Lapita” after a village close to Site 13. Examples of this specific style of pottery are found from Melanesia to West Polynesia, indicating a migration of vast proportions and impressive speed (around 500 years in total). The earliest examples of the Lapita people’s pottery appeared around 1500-1400 BCE in the Bismarcks and the Santa Cruz islands; thus, it appears that at this time, the Lapita people remained in Near Oceania. They eventually expanded beyond the Solomon Islands and reached Vanuatu, the Loyalty Islands, and New Caledonia around the mid to late second millennium BCE and thereafter West Polynesia (Fiji, Tonga, Samoa) in the late second millennium and early first millennium BCE.

Lapita pottery comes in a wide variety of forms, such as jars, bows, stands, and globular pots with outturned rims. Incised designs often occur. The pottery was made without wheels, using a paddle and anvil technique. Because there is no evidence of pottery kilns, it is thought that the vessels were probably fired in open air blazes, often leading to incomplete oxidization. The designs could be in imitation of tattoo motifs (or vice versa), often including representations of human faces. (Tattooing needles have been found in Lapita sites.) These decorated vessels were likely nonutilitarian ritual and prestige objects; practical everyday use was probably restricted to plainware vessels. The faces could well be associated with ancestor cults. Few Lapita skeletons have been found, but in 2004, in Vanuatu, archaeologists found 13 headless examples, one of which was buried with three skulls. The absence of the heads is likely associated with a form of ancestor worship involving the reverence of the departed’s skull. To extend this tradition to the decorative arts is but a small stretch.

The most highly decorated vessels appear in the earliest sites, such as those in the Bismarcks. There was an increasing trend toward simplification as the centuries passed, and the decorations gradually vanished from pottery in West Polynesia not long after colonization. This suggests a change in the sociopolitical structure in West Polynesia, while in Melanesia the tradition lived on for centuries after. Archaeology has increasingly revealed that these islands and archipelagoes were exchanging pottery, obsidian, chert, stone tools, oven stones, ornaments, and other necessary materials, over hundreds of kilometers, for centuries. Chemical analysis of the pottery and obsidian furnish empirical evidence for long-distance exchange. This exchange in materials gradually dwindled over time, as island populations became increasingly self-sufficient, something that would occur in West and East Polynesia as well.

The Lapita people were above all seafarers whose sailing and navigational skills were unprecedented for the region, and the two to three centuries it took them to move the 4500-kilometer distance from the Bismarcks to West Polynesia is a blink of the eye in archaeological terms. The reason for these rapid colonization events is a matter of speculation, for given the necessarily small populations of Lapita people at that time and the sufficient size of the islands they were colonizing, factors such as population pressure are simply not enough to explain these adventurous voyages of intentional settlement. Among several factors, the sociopolitical system probably was a very large factor, yet this was a phenomenon that we will see again in the colonization of East Polynesia.

The Lapita people’s colonization voyages were well-stocked with all the necessities that such ventures required. The Polynesians colonized their islands with a very specific cultigen inventory, which was for the most part derived from Southeast Asia. This inventory consisted of five main groups of starch staples: aroids, yams, bananas, and breadfruit, in addition to other foods such as the Tahitian chestnut and others that originated in Melanesia and were picked up during the Austronesian expansion. They also brought with them the domesticated pig, dog, and chicken, and perhaps the stowaway rat.

The Pacific islands in their natural state contained no edible plants, consisting of forested and, for human purposes, useless, land. The only sources of terrestrial protein were birds and, in some cases, reptiles. Consequentially, the Lapita people, and their Polynesian descendants after them, practiced what archaeologists call the “transported landscape.” Essentially they recreated the environments they came from, which they had also transformed. We may postulate that one of their first actions upon settling an island was to burn the existing vegetation to make room for swidden agriculture, horticulture, and arboriculture.

The consequences upon the natural environments were sudden and irreversible. Indigenous and endemic species of plants were forced to compete, mostly unsuccessfully, with introduced ones. The establishment of agricultural systems also required deforestation. The universal practice of shifting, or slash-and-burn, cultivation had an especially profound impact. As tracts of land were set fire for planting dry land crops such as yams and sweet potato, the relatively thin soils on the hill slopes became denuded of their natural forest cover, thus exposing them to accelerated erosion. After prolonged periods of repeated burning, which could grow out of control, little other than pyrophytic Dicronopteris ferns and Miscanthus grass were able to grow on the hillsides. This had the overall effect of reducing the total amount of an island’s arable land. At the same time, however, as soils washed off the hill slopes, they eventually accumulated on the valley floors and enriched them, making them ideal for wetland taro cultivation. As a population expanded and more land was cleared, the processes of deforestation, erosion, and sedimentation fed upon themselves. Small islands with low elevations were especially vulnerable to advanced deforestation.

Landscape modification also combined with human and animal predation to severely affect native species. The archaeological record has revealed that numerous land and sea bird species went extinct or were extirpated from a variety of islands. Human predation and habitat destruction were probably the two principal factors that led to these events. Recent studies have demonstrated that these extinction events were extremely rapid, occurring within around 200 years. This is significant in terms of correlating initial colonization to the earliest archaeologically visible sites. This trend, like others of island colonization, continued throughout the settlement of West and East Polynesia.

The Lapita people constructed sizable coastal settlements, often consisting of up to 30 to 40 family groups, forming small villages. These settlements were sometimes on stilted platforms over shallow waters. They thus had access to the sea and to their inland gardens, crop fields, and orchards. Although there is no evidence for irrigation, wetland crops such as taro could have easily flourished in naturally occurring swampland. Fish was the main source of protein, as it would be for their Polynesian descendants, with the domesticated animals being increasingly relegated to high-status individuals. Being near reefs was essential, as inshore fishing practices are confirmed by the faunal record of fishbone. They subsisted primarily on inshore, reef-dwelling species such as parrotfish, and less upon benthic or deep-dwelling fish such as groupers, and even less upon pelagic or open-sea species such as tuna. Shellfish were also an important part of the diet. Fishing gear included shell fishhooks and trolling lures, but it is likely that net fishing (with nets made of plant fiber) was of great importance, although such perishable materials are only very rarely recovered in archaeological sites in humid, tropical environments (unless the sites are waterlogged and therefore anaerobic).

The sociopolitical organization of these Lapita societies was likely fairly simple, with households basically competing among one another for prestige through the accumulation of such things as valuable exchange goods. Linguistic evidence provides the reconstruction of basic terms such as chief, mana (power, good grace with the gods and ancestral spirits), and tapu (taboo, forbidden), concepts that became widespread in later Polynesian society. Social relations are nearly impossible to deduce from the archaeological evidence alone, so linguistics is relied upon to gain whatever insight is possible. These were not, however, what we refer to as the chiefdoms that would later arise in West and East Polynesia. With the settlement of West Polynesia, numerous changes began to occur, both sociopolitical and technological, and the Polynesians effectively became what we call Polynesians there.

The Settlement of West Polynesia

West Polynesia comprises the archipelagos of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga as well as the smaller islands of Futuna, ‘Uvea, Niuatoputapu, and Tokelau. When the last of the Lapita people colonized West Polynesia in the late second millennium and early first millennium BCE, significant changes began to take place, and the unique Polynesian culture emerged as an entity unto itself. This conception of the time of the emergence of a unique Polynesian culture is fairly recent; it took hold after archaeological excavations in West Polynesia in the 1950s and 1960s, prior to which many scholars believed that the Polynesian culture emerged more or less “whole” from Asia. However, it is important to keep in mind that this viewpoint preceded the discovery of the Lapita people.

Geographically, Fiji, being the westernmost archipelago in West Polynesia, was probably the first to be settled, followed by the Lau Islands, then Tonga and Samoa, including the smaller, more isolated islands in the region. Again, we see a very rapid colonization event of significantly sizeable islands within a couple of centuries, a phenomenon that was a direct continuation of the earlier Lapita migrations. Once again, there is evidence for interaction networks between these archipelagos in the early phases of occupation, as they were exchanging pottery, chert, basalt adzes, and perishable materials as well as marriage partners and other things that cannot be recovered archaeologically. While artifacts such as fishhooks and ornaments remained consistent with the earlier Lapita examples, new distinct adze forms developed. Once again these interaction spheres gradually diminished over the centuries following colonization, as the islands became increasingly self-sufficient, although contact between them was never entirely broken off.

Again, it must be noted that the finely decorated dentate-stamped and incised Lapita ware was gradually replaced by plainware utilitarian vessels. It was during these centuries that what we call “ancestral Polynesian” culture emerged. We can thus say that West Polynesia was in fact the Polynesian homeland that earlier scholars assumed was to be found in Asia or even South America. The name “Havaiki,” later used by East Polynesians to describe where they ultimately came from, most likely refers to West Polynesia, in which the unique ancestral Polynesian society developed. The lexically reconstructed language that was spoken is referred to as proto-Polynesian.

Like their Lapita predecessors, the West Polynesians relied on horticulture, arboriculture, and swidden agriculture, and there is no evidence for irrigation canals for wet-land taro. The transported landscape concept is equally applicable in West Polynesia as well, as they remade their islands to suit their needs. The accompanying devastation of endemic species of flora and fauna also occurred, and birds were hunted and their environment destroyed. The West Polynesians maintained essentially the same groups of crops as their Lapita ancestors, and their domesticated animals (pig, dog, chicken) as well. Again, fish and shellfish were the primary sources of protein. Social organization became more complex, as family groups formed that traced their descent from a common ancestor with a single male leader in charge of both secular and sacred matters, the predecessor to the later chief. Again, this evidence, which cannot be recovered archaeologically, is reconstructed linguistically through cognate terms found throughout West and East Polynesia.

The pottery sequence, so important to our knowledge of the Lapita people, went through three different phases, eventually, perhaps, disappearing altogether in the early first millennium CE throughout West Polynesia except for Fiji. We could explain the lack of pottery in East Polynesia as resulting from its dying out in the west, but this still does not explain why it apparently died out in West Polynesia. Technologically, its absence could be due to the use of earth ovens to cook food and the use of such things as coconuts and wood to make more durable vessels that could survive harsh conditions such as would have been the case in long-distance voyaging.

West Polynesian culture was (and is) distinct from East Polynesia’s in numerous ways. We must keep in mind that, according to the most recent archaeological information, East Polynesia was not settled until around the late first millennium CE. The first and perhaps most mysterious difference is the total lack of pottery making in East Polynesia; only a handful of imported sherds have been found in the earliest strata of the earliest sites there. Morphologically, there is little continuation in the styles of ornaments and fishhooks. However, the fishhooks of East Polynesia were at first primarily made of pearl shell, which is far more abundant there than in West Polynesia and lends itself to the manufacture of a wide variety of forms. Adze types are also dissimilar to a certain degree, although certain aspects allow direct correlations. Simple manufacturing tools, such as shell fruit scrapers, stone flake tools such as scrapers, and coral and sea urchin files for things such as fishhook manufacture, remain virtually identical in both West and East Polynesia.

Other differences between the two regions include reverence for only one major deity in West Polynesia as opposed to multiple deities in East Polynesia. Clearly these are not deduced from archaeology, but rather from linguistic and ethnographic studies. Another difference is in ceremonial architecture. Whereas the marae in East Polynesia was a constructed stone platform with varying degrees of elaboration and reserved for ceremonies, the malae of West Polynesia was simply an open-air area for public gatherings. We may deduce from this that, as the chiefdoms became increasingly more complex, so did the religious systems.

Aside from the obvious differentiation of languages that occurred, these are but a few examples of the differences, but they serve to suffice as a basic introduction. It is important to note that, to date, no site has been found in West Polynesia, which would presumably date from the late first millennium CE, that would serve as a direct link to the earliest sites in East Polynesia, leaving us with an important gap in the overall colonization sequence. We may now turn to the subsequent colonization of East Polynesia; followed by a discussion of the later development in both West and East Polynesia.

The Settlement of East Polynesia

East Polynesia was colonized, according to our best archaeological information to date, in the late first millennium and early second millennium CE. This leaves us with a mysterious gap of around 2,000 years between the Lapita colonization of West Polynesia and the West Polynesian colonization of East Polynesia. In the 1980s and 1990s, a “pause” debate was a serious concern in Polynesian archaeology. It revolved around the question of whether or not Lapita settlers, once having reached West Polynesia, abruptly stopped their eastern migration for approximately 2,000 years before they colonized East Polynesia. (That they had the sailing technology to do so is beyond doubt.) The “long pause” advocates maintained that the archaeological and linguistic evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of this pause. The “short pause” advocates acknowledged that while solid evidence might be missing, reason and theory suggested that no such significant pause could have logically occurred. They believed that it was only a matter of time before tangible proof surfaced that there was only a short pause, that is, that East Polynesian sites dating from the late first millennium BCE would eventually be discovered.

Pivotal to this controversy were the subsistence and exploitation strategies of the colonizers, which are differentially viewed by the two viewpoints. Long pause or late settlement advocates appealed to economic efficiency in arguing that horticultural prominence, substantial landscape degradation, and perhaps a slower rate of population growth ought to follow, not precede, a colonization phase that emphasized pristine indigenous resources. Consequentially, early-phase sites (although likely not the very first) were expected to contain large deposits of animal remains, especially those of wild foods such as birds. Short pause or early settlement advocates believed that, in part, population growth caused the expansion of economic activities and that the greater abundance and variety of remains eventually moved archaeological evidence into visibility. The short pause chronologists emphasized the horticultural aspect of colonization, while the long pause advocates highlighted the hunting-gathering facet. The short pause school assumed that once a new island is colonized, the settlers will almost immediately begin to clear forest for horticulture. The long pause school, conversely, believed that new islands were settled primarily because they were rich, untapped sources of animal protein that would permit a leisurely existence for generations.

Archaeology, as of now, has still not yielded any evidence of East Polynesian settlement earlier than about 900 CE, so the question of why the eastern Lapita people stopped their migration in West Polynesia remains a mystery, although hypotheses abound. The differences in material culture between early East Polynesian sites and first-millennium CE West Polynesian sites are clearly recognizable, suggesting a period of change between the two regions that we have no archaeological links to at present. Now, most of the short pause advocates have yielded in the face of the increasing number of Archaic period (ca. 1000-1450 CE) East Polynesian sites, whose dates remain consistent, mainly grouping within the early second millennium CE. However, let us turn to what the facts themselves tell us.

Just as ethnographers in the early 20th century argued for an Asian homeland for the West Polynesian culture, they also suggested that a different East Polynesian homeland existed, from which the people emerged to settle every archipelago from New Zealand to Hawai’i to Easter Island. The first and most obvious candidate for this homeland was Tahiti, being the biggest island in central East Polynesia (meaning that this excludes New Zealand and Hawai’i). This model held sway for decades before serious archaeological work began to be done, first in the Marquesas in the late 1950s and 1960s. Prior to these excavations, the time depth of East Polynesia was thought to be only around a few centuries, and many believed that nothing of value could be unearthed by archaeology. When serious archaeological work began, radiocarbon dating of artifacts revealed many dates of origin that were as early as 100 BCE. However, radiocarbon dating was then in its infancy; now these sites have been redated and are known to be far younger, from the early first millennium CE.

However, the inaccurate early dating prompted archaeologists to turn their attention away from Tahiti and the Societies to the Marquesas as a homeland, especially since some (imported) sherds of plainware pottery had been found in the earliest deposits. Now, however, with the excavation of many more Archaic period sites throughout East Polynesia, we see a very different pattern emerge: The dates from one end of East Polynesia to the other all fall within the early first millennium CE, indicating that, like the colonization of West Polynesia, the colonization of this vast region was accomplished with almost unbelievable speed. In addition, the Archaic artifact assemblages are virtually identical throughout East Polynesia at that time. Consequentially, archaeologists have now turned away from the concept of a single archipelago as an East Polynesian homeland to a model of a regional homeland, composed of interaction networks much like those that existed during the early phases of Lapita colonization of West Polynesia.

Central to the idea of a regional homeland is the fact that important resources are unevenly distributed from island to island throughout East Polynesia. Two of the most important raw materials are fine-grained basalt for adze making and pearl shell for fishhook manufacture. Islands that did not have one or the other may have had to import it from an island that did. Following the colonization of an island, multiple trips back to the home island or to neighboring ones might have been necessary to supply the new population. Geochemical fluorescence analysis of volcanic basalt has traced adzes to geological sources hundreds of kilometers from where they were found. Most of these tools are found in Archaic period deposits, indicating that communication did take place until about 1450 CE, after which evidence of imported artifacts gradually diminishes.

Afterward, by the time of European contact in the late 18th century, long-distance voyaging had virtually vanished from most of East Polynesia; only the resource-poor (especially because they are without basalt) atolls of the Tuamotus maintained trade out of necessity. Again, we have seen this decline in interaction in the Lapita sequence and the West Polynesian one as well. Postulated reasons for the decline in interaction include increasing self-sufficiency and therefore the economic impracticality of building and outfitting canoes for long-distance voyages; climatic change; resource depletion, especially of timber; and sociopolitical change. Some islands had lost all touch with others, even their nearest neighbors, and may have given up the construction of voyaging canoes altogether.

This regional homeland model has important implications for how researchers now view the initial colonization process and has also changed how archaeologists now view artifacts associated with Archaic deposits (pre-1450 CE). The number of shared characteristics can be attributed to the exchange and diffusion of ideas and technology in the centuries following colonization, when long-distance interaction was taking place, rather than simple diffusion from a single homeland. As archaeological work progressed in the decades after the 1950s and more early sites were studied, the regional homeland model developed. This view suggests that the archipelagos of East Polynesia were colonized very rapidly, almost simultaneously (confirmed by radiocarbon dates), and then maintained a degree of contact among themselves for some centuries after, for trade and other reasons. During this period of interaction, the sharing of ideas allowed for the development of a uniquely East Polynesian culture throughout the archipelagos.

The way researchers have regarded long-distance voyaging has contributed a great deal to these changing models of colonization. For much of the 20th century, it was thought that voyaging was a very difficult and dangerous endeavor. Indeed, some researchers believed that the islands must have been settled accidentally. Beginning in the 1970s, however, experimental voyaging demonstrated that two-way journeys were completely possible even between the farthest islands of East Polynesia. Voyages were certainly long and required a well-equipped canoe, a skilled crew, and expert navigators, but they were manageable and perhaps not quite as hazardous as previously thought. In addition, studies using computer simulations that took numerous factors into account, such as distance, sailing difficulty, and wind direction, have launched hundreds of “voyages” between islands in order to calculate success rates. The statistics of safe arrivals are high enough to suggest that intentional voyaging might have been a very active element in the colonization of East Polynesia. Two-way voyages would have allowed colonizers to make return journeys home for supplies, marriage partners, and to meet other needs, and only rarely could an island have been so cut off as to remain in abject isolation.

One of the great feats of East Polynesian voyaging was the reaching of South America, proven by the fact that the sweet potato, which originated there, was taken back by the Polynesians and spread throughout Polynesia to the farthest corners, including Hawai’i and New Zealand, the latter of which emphasized its cultivation over all other staples. Despite two-way voyaging, however, some islands and archipelagos remained in relative isolation, namely Hawai’i, Easter Island, and New Zealand, the three corners of the Polynesian Triangle. Not all the introduced animal species, namely the pig, dog, and chicken, made it to these marginal areas, perhaps because of the impracticality of return voyaging, The pig and chicken were absent in New Zealand, and the pig and the dog were absent in Easter Island.

Early East Polynesia: The Archaic Period (ca. 1000-1450 CE)

The Archaic East Polynesian artifact assemblage is quite unique and lacks immediate parallels in the West Polynesian material culture of the mid-first millennium CE. We are therefore probably missing the hypothetical “first landfall” sites that would ideally contain typical West Polynesian artifacts and perhaps pottery. As Archaic East Polynesian material culture is already distinct from its West Polynesian ancestor, it can be inferred that this culture had some time to develop on its own. Therefore the Archaic represents an early period in East Polynesian prehistory, but not the earliest, suggesting a period of time, perhaps of around one to two centuries, in which the culture was developing its own distinctive style. Diagnostic artifacts include perforated tooth pendants (whale, human, dog, seal, porpoise) that were strung together to form necklaces and bracelets, bone reel units that could be combined with tooth pendants to form a necklace, pearl shell pendants, tattooing needles, coconut graters, a variety of one-piece pearl shell fishhooks, pearl shell harpoon tips, and a wide array of adze types.

However, West Polynesia lacks abundant pearl shell; one-piece fishhooks of this material are exceedingly rare, and those that have been found may have been imported. Most West Polynesian fishhooks were made of turban shell, which is far more brittle than pearl shell and lends itself to the manufacture of only a very few forms. Ornaments of the Archaic East Polynesian type are also unknown in West Polynesia. Other items common, but not restricted, to Archaic assemblages are shell chisels, files and abraders of sea urchin spine and coral, and octopus lures made from cowrie shells, which are not unique to East Polynesia. The few sherds of pottery that have been found in East Polynesia come from Archaic strata and probably represent imports. The Archaic kit occurs with little variation throughout East Polynesia. Habitation sites appear often to have had round-ended huts, and there was no distinctive religious architecture. This is not surprising, since, as noted above, in West Polynesia the open-air malae have little or no resemblance to the ceremonial structures of the later, post-Archaic period, East Polynesian marae.

The colonists of East Polynesia also brought with them the social framework that had developed subsequent to the Lapita colonization of West Polynesia. The social classes in ancestral Polynesian society (the chief, the warrior, the expert/craftsman/specialist, and the sea expert/navigator) continued to exist in East Polynesia. The following short discussion applies to sociopolitical developments in both West and East Polynesia.

With the settlement of the East Polynesian islands, what was probably once a largely egalitarian society began to change in response to varying environmental and social conditions. By the time that European contact occurred in the late 18th century, significant linguistic and sociopolitical variation had taken place from region to region. The number of classes or ranks differed greatly between chiefdoms, from two at the lowest extreme (basically chiefs and nonchiefs) to many gradations of chiefly and nonchiefly status with very specific rights and privileges relegated to each. The processes that led to such cultural differentiation were fundamentally bound up in the ongoing dialectic between human society and the island environments. Both social and environmental factors, among others we can only hypothesize about, caused such changes to occur. For example, chieftainship was an ascribed, inherited office that carried both sacred and secular power. The dialectic between achieved and ascribed status was a crucial element of the Polynesian sociopolitical system. Although the chief was so by birthright, other social classes, namely warriors and priests, were a source of competition for power. People born outside the chiefly class were thus able to escape the confines of the class system and actually compete with the chief himself. Ecological factors also played an important part in the differential development of island chiefdom. In the late 18th century, highly stratified societies were found on large, productive islands (Tahiti, Hawai’i, Tonga), whereas far more egalitarian ones were found in impoverished environments such as the Tuamotu atolls. Middle-range societies existed where conditions that can be described as marginal existed, where land was circumscribed and natural disasters such as drought were a threat to the society.

The Later Periods of West and East Polynesia

We can now turn to the developments that occurred in West and East Polynesia up until European contact in the late 19th century, when their traditional societies came to an abrupt end. In addition to archaeological evidence, we also possess invaluable ethnographic accounts, which mariners and missionaries wrote during their sojourns in the islands. If the long pause debate is a mystery in and of itself, so are the facts surrounding the first millennium CE in West Polynesia. The paucity of sites that date from that period contributes to the gap in our knowledge, both of that era of West Polynesia and of how it impacted the subsequent colonization of East Polynesia. One of the few facts (unless proven otherwise in the future) is the disappearance of pottery (except for in Fiji), as mentioned above. Changes in the adze kit might also have developed, but on the whole, in archaeological terms, not much else seems to have changed, although certainly the sociopolitical systems evolved, the chiefdoms became more complex, and the languages continued to differentiate. In terms of complexity, Tonga surpassed both Samoa and Fiji. As populations grew, agricultural intensification did also, although which caused which is academic. Systems of irrigated pond-field agriculture contributed to the efflorescence of wetland taro. Far more is known about the period after the first millennium CE and before European contact. The most visible change is the development of monumental architecture in East Polynesia.

Forming a relatively tightly knit group of archipelagoes and islands, contact was maintained throughout West Polynesia throughout the second millennium CE, which is well documented archaeologically and ethnohistorically. As we shall see again in East Polynesia, West Polynesian population centers drifted away from the coast and moved inland where their crops were. Stone house platforms compose much of the visible archaeological landscape. The malae, or ceremonial and public gathering places, were marked by stone walls.

In the latter part of the second millennium CE, Tonga, the most complex of the West Polynesian chiefdoms, went on to conquer and annex several small surrounding islands. Reflecting its great power, Tonga featured large burial mounds for the upper classes; these mounds were covered with cut and dressed limestone slabs. James Cook and his crew were eyewitnesses to a ceremony of offerings presented to the mounds of former great chiefs, called Tu’i Tonga. In Samoa, unique star-shaped mounds were used for chiefly and religious functions, as were mounds of less elaborate shapes. The development of fortifications in Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa strongly suggests increased warfare as settlements and valleys became increasingly competitive.

Fiji (also considered part of Melanesia), like its Lapita ancestors, continued its pottery tradition, which also became increasingly simplified, becoming mostly plain-ware. This reflects that some degree of contact was maintained with Melanesian islands such as Vanuatu, whose obsidian is found in Fijian archaeological sites from that period, is certain, as is its contact with its West Polynesian neighbors, Tonga and Samoa, where artifacts of Fijian origin have been found. Fiji possessed both lowland raised fortified settlements surrounded by ditches and more extensive hilltop terraced ones, both designed to protect valuable cropland, such as irrigated terraced taro plantations. Fiji is, more than any other island group in Polynesia, known for its cannibalistic practices, documented both archaeologically and ethnohistorically.

The Later period (post-1450 CE) of East Polynesia, often referred to as the Classic period (ca. 17th to early 19th centuries CE), emerged as the endpoint of centuries of adaptation to divergent environments and the sociopolitical development that ensued. Many changes accompanied this transition from the Archaic period. As interisland and interarchipelago voyaging lessened after around 1450 CE, languages differentiated at a greater pace, and islands developed along more individual lines. Overall East Polynesian trends do occur, however. These include a demographic shift away from the coast and into the valleys, the efflorescence of monumental architecture, and a reduction in the variety of forms of utilitarian items, most notably fishhooks and adzes. As in West Polynesia, while agriculture intensified and populations grew, habitation shifted away from the coast, becoming more and more concentrated in the backs of valleys near the crops. It is also likely that during this time, intervalley competition over resources intensified, making the coastal habitation more dangerous due to the possibility of raids from the sea.

Competition was evident not only in increased warfare but also in the monumental architecture of the era. This correlated directly to the ability of chiefs to command the surplus necessary to mobilize a labor force. All reliable radiocarbon samples from marae in the Societies date to within the last centuries prior to European contact. Ceremonial architecture such as the marae of the Societies, Cooks, Australs, and Marquesas and the heiau of Hawai’i were built during this period. This monumental architecture developed in a context of competitive, possibly hostile interaction. Some of these structures were directly related to conflict, dedicated to gods of war. Furthermore, the fortified settlements of New Zealand and Rapa Nui were also constructed during the Classic period.

Another trend is apparent in the material culture of the Classic period, which changed distinctly from its Archaic predecessor. Variety among utilitarian objects such as fish-hooks and adzes decreased dramatically, some changing entirely while some forms remained the same. Archipelagoes increasingly favored fewer adze and fishhook forms. These changes in adze form may also be linked to different lifestyles; perhaps prominent Archaic forms were designed largely for canoe-making, while later forms were made for tree chopping to clear land. These changes in the tool kit agree well with the overall environmental and social trends here explored and merit further attention.

In addition, pearl shell was used less and less as a material for making utilitarian items (fishhooks, coconut scrapers, tattoo needles), presumably because it was harder to obtain. Instead, where it was not abundant, it tended to be restricted to ornamental use. Local substitute materials became preferable for manufacturing fishhooks, such as turban shell or bone. In terms of morphology, small jabbing hooks, most suitable for inshore fishing, become predominant in Classic assemblages; such hooks are comparatively less prominent in Archaic ones. This decision regarding fishhook styles appears to have been linked to an emphasis on inshore fishing, which can be correlated with the diminished use of canoes and, consequentially, diminished long-distance voyaging that characterized the Archaic period.

The Endpoint Culture, European Contact, and Evangelization

The first Europeans to happen upon Polynesia were the Spanish in 1595 under the command of Alvaro de Mendaña de Nehra. Further European discoveries, such as that of Easter Island, were made in the 17th century, but the majority were made in the 18th. These renowned voyages of Pacific exploration will forever be associated with the names of such famous navigators as Louis de Bougainville, James Cook, George Vancouver, and Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse. The great age of European exploration involved tremendous feats of navigational skill (albeit with the use of sophisticated instruments that the Polynesians never had), with the voyages taking years to complete as the islands were charted and mapped. It is due to the meticulous journals of men such as Cook that we possess much of ethnohistoric information that we do.

Trade between the Europeans and the Polynesians began simply, with metal objects such as nails (which could be fashioned into fishhooks) being prized, as well as trade beads, pipes, glass, and other exotic things. In return, ships would acquire fresh meat, fruit, and water. Unfortunately, European contact brought European diseases, such as influenza and venereal diseases, which had decimated the local populations by the end of the 19th century. As a result of these diseases, an island that might previously have had a population estimated at around 3,000 would have only 200 or 300 inhabitants afterward. Fortunately, the populations have grown back substantially in the past 100 years, although probably not to the extent of the prehistoric ones.

While American and European economic interests such as whaling depended upon many of the Polynesian islands for resupplying, the missionaries of all Christian religions accompanied them for other purposes. Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons were the first to arrive, and further sects and branches followed closely behind. Conversion was a different process from one area to another. Hawai’i’s paramount chief, later known as King Kamehameha, embraced Christianity in the late 18th century so that he could acquire Western arms and ships in order to conquer the entire archipelago. On the other hand, residents of the Marquesas, which had a far less stratified chiefdom, clung tenaciously to their traditional religion and independence from France until well into the 19th century. Evangelization of course marked an end to the traditional religions and imposed many restrictions on dress, marriage, sexual relationships, and so forth. However, it is thanks to some of these missionaries, such as William Ellis, that we have detailed ethnohistoric accounts of traditional life and dictionaries and word lists of languages that are no longer spoken as they were in their pristine condition. These help greatly to fill in the gaps in the archaeological record and flesh out what we know about prehistoric life.

What the Europeans witnessed from one point of the Polynesian Triangle to the others were societies with very similar social structures and languages. For over a century, hypotheses abounded as to how these islands, separated by vast stretches of empty ocean, could exist with such homogeneity; the most extravagant of these proposed that the islands were mountains, once part of a giant continent that subsided beneath the ocean, leaving the peaks in isolation. The social structure, as stated above, ranged between two extremes. At one end were the highly stratified chiefdoms such as those on Hawai’i, Tahiti, and Tonga, with high chiefs and numerous levels of subordinate chiefs, and commoners forming the greater part of the population. These high chiefs were considered semidivine, and they fought amongst themselves for absolute power. At the other end were the simplest societies, such as those on the Tuamotu atolls, where the chief acted more as a headman than an absolute ruler.

Two of the most important concepts to the Polynesian social system were mana and tapu, mana being a form of positive force that people and objects could possess depending on their success, and tapu (from which we derive the word taboo) being an absolute restriction on certain things. For example, a chief could place a tapu on eating pigs for a given period of time, or certain sacred areas could be tapu to certain of the lower social classes. Tapu foods, such as turtle, pig, and varieties of fish, were forbidden to all but members of the highest social orders, and these foods were forbidden to all women and children as well.

Religion was generally polytheistic, with priests and shamans often responsible for communication between the real and divine worlds. In the most stratified societies, the high chief would also take on the function of intermediary between people and gods and revered ancestors. Most of the population subsisted on farming individual family-managed (sometimes technically belonging to the chief) plots of land and fishing. The first fruits would typically be given to the chief as his hereditary due. Other classes, in existence since the time of ancestral Polynesian society, were specialists such as navigators, artists, performers, and toolmakers, whose labors would be paid for with food and other goods. Warfare was endemic practically everywhere in Polynesia. Sometimes it consisted of sportlike battles in which there would be few causalities, but at other times killing played a far more crucial role. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were probably universal, the latter being so secretive and restricted that few European accounts can be relied upon. Contrary to many popular depictions of the inhabitants as living in a state of half or complete nakedness, tapa (barkcloth) robes were often worn by both sexes. Children were given almost complete liberty and adoption was common (as it still is).

In sum, Polynesian islands were both very diverse and very homogenous, with a descent from a common ancestry. Societies that took centuries to develop were completely overturned by the clashing of worlds, and truly traditional Polynesian life had vanished forever by the late 19th century. Its remnants provided subjects for Western artists such as Paul Gauguin (who died in the Marquesas, his adopted home), and Herman Melville, whose novel Typee (a fictionalized account of his stay in Taipi valley on Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas) launched his writing career and introduced the romance of Polynesia to the rest of the world.


Today, the islands and archipelagoes of West and East Polynesia are independent nations, self-governing states, or overseas territories. For example, in West Polynesia, Fiji and Tonga are independent nations, as is half of Samoa, but the other half, American Samoa, is a U.S. territory. In East Polynesia, the Cook Islands are an independent nation in free association with New Zealand (also an independent nation). The rest of central East Polynesia (Tahiti, the Australs, the Tuamotus, and the Gambiers) is French Polynesia, an overseas territory of France; Easter Island is part of Chile; and Hawai’i is the 50th state in the United States of America.

These varying government systems have important implications for the economies of the different regions. French Polynesia, for example, no longer exports enough copra to support itself and depends mainly on tourism for income; the rest of the economy is supported by France. Also, the archipelagoes of French Polynesia have French as the primary language; whereas English is the primary language in the closely related but politically separate Cooks, as it is in West Polynesia, New Zealand, and Hawai’i, of course; while Spanish is the primary language on Easter Island. Most of the islands throughout Polynesia are no longer subsistence economies and depend largely on imported (and therefore expensive) goods and foods.

Fortunately, the implications of archaeological discoveries and long-distance voyaging are becoming increasingly relevant to Polynesians in the modern world. Experimental voyages have helped to restore a tremendous sense of cultural pride among Polynesians from all over West and East Polynesia. These voyages have shown that such undertakings were feats of tremendous skill and bravery. Importantly, they have managed to traverse the modern political boundaries that separate East Polynesians from one another. For example, while the closely related Cooks and Australs compose the same archipelago (the Cook-Austral chain) they currently represent the interests of two different nations, and yet it is becoming increasingly clear to the Polynesians who live there that such boundaries are entirely artificial. In the past, they faced and surmounted considerable difficulties by working together to colonize untouched islands, remake them, and then help each other in the precarious centuries following landfall. These accomplishments are equally applicable to future issues, when today’s overseas territories may well become tomorrow’s independent nations that will no longer be able to rely on welfare. Fortunately, this sense of cultural pride through the revival of tradition has already taken root in many areas.