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The Polynesian expansion across the Pacific: Home

Polynesia - Introduction

Polynesia is part of what is more broadly classified as Oceania. Oceania includes all the islands in the central and south Pacific Ocean. Polynesia includes all the islands within what is generally called the Polynesian Triangle. The three corners of the triangle are Hawaii in the north, Easter Island (also called Papa Nui) in the east and New Zealand in the south. Samoa, Tuvalu and Tonga mark the triangle's western edge. Read more...

Polynesia means "many islands" in Greek. The cultures of the region share many traits with each other. Their differences are often subtle and not readily perceived by outsiders. Read more ...

Location and natural features

There are many different natural environments in Polynesia - from tiny islands with tropical climates to the heavily forested South Island of New Zealand with its snow-capped peaks. There is no much vegetation on the hundreds of coral reefs that have formed islands (which are called 'atolls')...Hawaii, New Zealand and remote Easter Island are volcanic islands, not coral islands. Read more...

In the Pacific region, there is an important distinction between "high" islands and "low" islands. Tahiti, a typical high island, is relatively large with steep slopes, rich plant life, and many waterfalls and rushing streams. Coastal plains are absent or extremely limited on high islands. Atolls (ring-shaped islands made of coral) are the most common low islands in Polynesia. These are typically "desert islands" that are low-lying, narrow, and sandy with few, if any, surface streams. Low islands have less biodiversity (variety of plant and animal species) than do high islands. Read more ...

Lapita Pottery

The term Lapita refers to an ancient Pacific culture that archaeologists believe to be the common ancestor of the contemporary cultures of Polynesia, Micronesia, and some areas of Melanesia. The culture takes its name from the site of Lapita in New Caledonia, one of the first places in which its distinctive pottery was discovered. While archaeologists debate the precise region where Lapita culture itself developed, the ancestors of the Lapita people came originally from Southeast Asia. Beginning around 1500 B.C., Lapita peoples began to spread eastward through the islands of Melanesia and into the remote archipelagos of the central and eastern Pacific, reaching Tonga and Samoa by roughly 1000 B.C. The Lapita were a seafaring people who settled primarily on the coast rather than inland and their skilled navigators traversed the ocean with ease. Read more...

The Navigators

Polynesian Discovery part 1

Polynesian Expansion

Between c.700 and 1756, Polynesian people settled thousands of islands across a wide area of the Pacific Ocean. This region is now known as the Polynesian Triangle. As they spread throughout the region, Polynesians formed unique societies on each of the islands they settled. Each Polynesian society had its own traditions, spiritual beliefs and ways of life, but they also shared some common features. Read more...

Expansion Timeline

2000 BC - 1500 BC First travellers begin to move from Asia through the islands, moving east towards what becomes the Polynesian Triangle. Tonga is settled.
1000 BC Samoa is settled.
500 BC

Polynesians move further east and settle the islands of Hawaii and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The Rapa Nui people make huge stone statues called moai.

950 AD Maori myth suggests Chief Kupe sails to New Zealand and names it 'Aotearoa'.
1000 AD Rapa Nui's environment suffers from overuse. Deforestation starts.
1100 AD Maori myth suggests the Polynesian explorers Toi and Whatonga arrive in Aotearoa (New Zealand).
1350 AD

According the myth, the 'Great Fleet' arrives and Maori people begin to settle in Aotearoa.

1400 AD

Most species of the moa, a flightless bird of New Zealand are extinct after being hunted as a source of food.

1500 AD Food begins to run out on Rapa Nui. Fighting starts. The last moai is erected. A new religion begins, called the Birdman cult.
1600 AD As resources run out on Rapa Nui, there is warring between clans and the people practice cannibalism.
1642 AD The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman claims Aotearoa, or New Zealand, for Holland.
1722 AD First European contact with the Rapa Nui people. Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen names Rapa Nui 'Easter Island'.
1744 AD The British explorer James Cook visits Rapa Nui.
1769 AD Cook claims New Zealand for Great Britain.


The Polynesian Expansion Across the Pacific - (c.700-1756)

Syllabus bites - Polynesian Expansion

The Polynesian world

The Pacific Ocean is easily the largest body of water on Earth. It is bigger than the whole of the world’s landmass. Even a country as large as Australia could fit into the Pacific 22 times over!

Polynesia’ is a Greek word meaning many islands and occupies a large area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The ‘Polynesian Triangle’ is cornered by Hawaii to the north, New Zealand in the south-west and Easter Island in the south-east. Other important countries are Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands. Read more ...

Migration History

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