Polynesia (Lessons 8-11)

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The term Polynesia comes from Greek, meaning “many islands,” and while this is an accurate description–there are about 1,000 islands, which is definitely “many”–there are archipelagos in the world that make that number seem like a joke. For example, there are 17,508 islands in Indonesia. The reason the islands of Polynesia may seem like “many” is that going from one to one in the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean takes substantial diligence, navigational skill and time. As mentioned above, Polynesian islands are mainly of volcanic origin and just above the water at irregular intervals over 70 million square miles of ocean. All told the Polynesian islands themselves cover a land mass of about 117,000 square miles. Yes, 117,000 square miles out of 70 million. And of that land, over 103,000 of them are within New Zealand.

Geographically, “Polynesia” is a triangle that has its corners at Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island (Rapa Nui). Culturally, “Polynesians” are people who have a similar history, culture, language and even DNA that is distinct from people in the other main Pacific island groupings of Melanesia and Micronesia. Wikipedia’s entry on Polynesia outlines the three main theories of the human migration to Polynesia, which occurred from about 3,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C.:

Express Train model:

About 3,000 years ago people left Southeast Asia, mostly Taiwan, and traveled via Melanesia without mixing much with anyone who already lived there, ending in the western Polynesian islands about 2,000 years ago. Most of the current DNA, linguistic and archaeological information supports this model.

Entangled Bank model:

There were many thousands of years of interaction, culture and genetic, between southeast Asians, Melanesians, people who already lived in Polynesia.

Slow Boat model:

Like the express train model but suggesting a longer stay in Melanesia and more mixing with the local population. DNA evidence that traces markers on Polynesian people’s chromosomes back to Melanesia supports this model.

However people spread about Polynesia, by at least 2,000 years B.C. people were there. These people shared similar languages (Austronesian languages, if you’re curious), similar culture and, as geneticists have discovered over just the last decades, similar genes. Most historians agree that the Lapita people had much to do with populating the islands. The Lapita appeared in about 1600 B.C. in what we now know as the Bismarck Islands, which are part of Papua New Guinea in Melanesia. They produced a distinct kind of pottery and then traveled with it eastward for about 500 to 800 years; archaeologists map their migration across the Pacific and into Polynesia, which they reached in about 800 BC, by literally unearthing shards of pottery on Polynesian islands and determining the general date of their earliest arrival.

Ancient Polynesians were adept seafarers–adept enough to travel successfully between these incredibly isolated islands on out-rigger canoes–and, when they planted themselves in particular locations they developed societies that rested political decision-making power in the hands of chiefs. Larger nations like Tahiti and Tonga even developed kingdom which passed power through kinship from one generation to the next.

Before Western missionaries arrived Polynesian religions varied, featuring a variety of gods and goddesses who wielded different kinds of sacred powers. The concept of “tapu” (in English, “taboo”), which refers to something that is sacred and therefore forbidden, was important in most ancient Polynesian religions as a way of isolating and deterring bad behavior. Now most Polynesians are either Protestant or Catholic Christians, depending primarily on whether the British or French colonized.

Most Polynesian nations met Western explorers in spurts over the 17th and 18th centuries, with Britain and France doing most of their colonizing throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Whatever benefits one may argue colonization brought Polynesians, Europeans also introduced “tapu” vices, like alcohol, as well as diseases that devastated Polynesian populations. Today some Polynesian nations are politically independent, others are a formal part of the Western powers that colonized them–for example, New Zealand is independent but still a British Commonwealth, French Polynesia is a French “overseas collectivity,” Hawaii is one of the United States. No matter what their level of technical independence, to some degree all Polynesian island nations solicit tourists from abroad
to boost their local economies. Polynesia wants you to visit. You want to visit. When you finally do go there, you’ll be very happy you did.

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