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Polynesian Expansion and Settlement: Explorers Who Peopled The Pacific

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Geographical Location:

Polynesia is located in the Pacific, an area of islands and ocean between New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The name itself Polynesia is derived from Greek words meaning many islands. A fitting name for an area containing over 1,000 individual islands, though only a handful of islands are currently inhabited. Hawaii, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, Rapa Nui, French Polynesia, Tuvalu and the Cook Islands are the most notable of those inhabited islands. Located in the southern corner of the Polynesian triangle is Polynesia’s largest islands Aotearoa, better known as New Zealand. Spanning 268,000km2 of lush forests and high mountain ranges, Aotearoa also contains the highest population of Polynesian people. 260,000 of the 681,000 global Polynesian call Aotearoa home.

Polynesian Expansion and Settlement:

Two modern theories currently exist surrounding the origin of Austronesians, the peoples that modern-day Polynesians are derived from. Theory One suggests Austronesians came from what is today Taiwan. These ‘Lapita’ people are believed to have honed their seafaring skills between the islands of the nearby Philippines before making their first voyage to Polynesia circa 4000 years ago. Evidence for this theory includes DNA relations of the Polynesian rat, a food commodity transported via Voyaging Canoes and DNA similarities between modern Polynesian and Taiwanese people. Austronesian languages were also found to be spoken by some Taiwanese peoples.

Theory Two was first proposed in the 1940s by explorer Thor Heyerdahl. His hypothesis suggested Polynesia was settled by South American explorers. His evidence for this claim included similarities between the Stone Statues on Rapa Nui and the style of stone statues found in Incan societies of South America. More evidence of this theory is in the agriculture of Polynesia. The sweet potato has been found in Polynesia, not a crop that is native to the area; but the sweet potato is native to South America, suggesting South American adventurers must have introduced the crop to Polynesia.

Reviewing the evidence for both theories, I believe in the origin of Polynesians from South East Asia. Thor’s evidence of Sweet Potatoes arriving with South American seafarers can be seen from a different perspective; Polynesians sailed to South America for trade. This explains the new discovery of Chickens bones in South America, predating any Chicken introduced by Spaniards to South America. Polynesian explorers made contact with South Americans, introducing the Chicken and bringing the sweet potato back with them. Thor himself showed the relative ease of the 4,300-mile journey between Peru and Polynesia in a replica double-hulled canoe of the era.

Polynesian Navigation:

Sea Navigation may have been the most valuable skill to the Polynesian people and their ancestors. From the beginning Austronesians arrived in Polynesia using Canoe Outriggers, these crafts used a smaller enclosed hull extending from the main hull to aid in stability, crucial across open seas. The Austronesian and Polynesian sailors used the stars for direction at night, swells and currents could be used during the day for direction as well. Beside mental navigation aids, Polynesian navigators also used a tool we call today a ‘Stick Map’. Constructed of either bamboo or coconut frond to show currents and wind patterns and shells to show island locations within a chain. These maps were used for centuries by master navigators to help sail between their islands. With this knowledge, the voyages saw the ocean not as an obstacle like so many other cultures did, but as a path to the world. As navigation and sailing became more advanced, Polynesians began using Wa’a Kaulua, larger double-hulled canoes that allowed even more exploration and expansion of the Pacific because of their load capacity and sea capabilities. Onboard one of these vessels would of course, be a Captain, the most experienced sailor of the crew steering the vessel. A separate Navigator would also be on board, highly skilled in using the stars, wind and currents for direction. Other positions such as Carpenter and Quarterman would maintain the vessel during voyages.

Impact of Polynesian Migration on Environment:

When Polynesian settlers first arrived in the western islands of Samoa and Tonga, they weren’t exactly met with fertile lands perfect for crops and animals. So Polynesians began transporting their own crops and livestock to the islands as resources. Clearing of native trees and plants to make room for new foreign agriculture and settlements took place all throughout the rapidly expanding Pacific. Examples of this negative environmental impact come from Rapa Nui, looking at modern images of Rapa Nui something seems to be missing on a Pacific island; Trees. On the arrival of Polynesian settlers in Rapa Nui immediately began cutting down the native Easter Island Palm, combined with the introduction of rats that ate the plant and its seeds needed for growing, the Palm went extinct. Consequently, a lack of wood to make sea vessels came with the isolation of the people of Rapa Nui, the local environment suffered from the following overhunting of native animals. By the time European explorers had discovered the island, it was a barren land with rats being the only wildlife remaining.

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With growing populations in Polynesia came a new demand for food and resources. Polynesian hunters had a new appetite for the Moa, a large flightless bird similar to a modern Emu. The constant overhunting of the bird throughout the South Pacific caused a significant decline in their population and eventual extinction of the species. As this food source diminished Polynesians had to find other ways to survive, fishing became an essential part of their lives. Outriggers voyaged daily to fish for their village, hooks made of bone were used to catch fish at sea, while traps could be used in bodies of water on the islands.

Polynesian Culture:

As with many cultures, Polynesia was heavily involved in its art. Carvings, Paintings and Tattoos the most prevalent. Tattoos in Polynesia are a display of maturity, social status and one’s unique family and tribe’s stories. Intricate geometric designs would be tediously printed into the skin using an ‘Au’, A traditional tattooing comb with sharp points that was tapped into the skin with ink. The tattoo or ‘Tatau’ would then be blessed to give mana and protection to the bearer. Overtime tattooing became more prominent throughout Polynesia with different islands developing unique styles, designs and patterns.

With the arrival of European explorers in Polynesia, came with their discovery of whole villages covered with tattoos. The explorers liked them so much some even opted to get their own, displaying them as an accomplishment back home.

Come the 19th century, Christian missionaries arrive in Polynesia converting the local peoples to Christianity, even today islands like Samoa are up to 98% of Christian belief. With this came the Old Testament, books specifying the right way to live by the Bible, outlawing traditional tattooing all throughout the Christian islands of the South Pacific.

In recent years the lost art of traditional Tatau has come back, artists using the same methods used 2,000 years ago. As more knowledge is passed down the number of artists rises, making it easier for anyone to be tattooed. With the widespread availability of Polynesian style tattooing; traditional or not, comes with the fact that the tattoos aren’t as meaningful or spiritual as they once were. Tatau was once a whole village ceremony, but today anyone of any background can get one.

Impact of European Colonisation:

Captain James Cook, the English explorer most famous for his voyages and discoveries in Polynesia and the discovery of Australia. 1779, Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii Captain Cook is stabbed to death by Hawaiian locals, his body then boiled for its bones, where Hawaiians believed the body held its power. Before this, Captain Cook had successful contact of welcomed return with the Hawaiian people. They observed him and his crewmen as deities sent from god, when Captain Cook learned of this, he and his men exploited the people of their kindness. Relations started to go south during Captain Cooks 3rd visit it 1779. With the death of one of the Captain’s crew, the locals were shocked to see what they thought were deities, die. The Captain and his crew were met with outrage and violence being forced off the island, bad weather conditions forced his two vessels to return to Hawaii only a week later. The ships were met with a showering of rocks on return and the theft of a smaller vessel from the Discovery, one of Cook’s two vessels. Battle was declared between the two parties ending in a mob overwhelming Captain Cooks crew and killing them with only a few English escaping with their lives.

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Polynesian Expansion and Settlement: Explorers Who Peopled The Pacific. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from
“Polynesian Expansion and Settlement: Explorers Who Peopled The Pacific.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
Polynesian Expansion and Settlement: Explorers Who Peopled The Pacific. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].
Polynesian Expansion and Settlement: Explorers Who Peopled The Pacific [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 2]. Available from:
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