The Origins of Polynesia

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Tikopia offshore Rabaul (PNG)Photo:
”Tikopia” of the Lapita Voyage Project / Rabaul (Papua New Guinea)
Photo – Lapita Voyage Project

Earliest Polynesian People / Lapita Culture Moves East

Polynesian history has fascinated the western world since Pacific cultures were first contacted by European explorers in the late 18th century. Where did this extraordinary culture originate, and how did it travel the vast Pacific Ocean to establish settlements on nearly every island that could support a self sufficient community? These are ‘big’ historical questions and only recently have some answers emerged. Let us travel thousands of miles, from island to island in Oceania, all the while looking down on the ground for unusual pottery fragments with human faces.

Polynesians peoples are united by common language, culture and distinctive genetics. Polynesians emerged from an ancient Austronesian culture that took to seafaring by 3,000 B.C. Austronesians in turn, are descended from indigenous peoples on Taiwan who derive from Chinese mainland tribals who first crossed to Taiwan by ~5,000 B.C. These indigenous tribes of Taiwain were immediately on the move and traveled to the western islands of Oceania and Melanesia. Mitochondrial DNA studies have recently confirmed the ancestral relationship between aboriginal peoples on Taiwan and Polynesians.

Lapita / Fiji - earliest pot shardsPhoto:
Lapita / Fiji – earliest pot shards > c.1900 B.C.
Photo – Fiji Museum

The Lapita Culture is sometimes identified as the earliest ancestral Polynesian culture. Lapita is believed to have originated on the islands of South East Asia, perhaps in the Moluccas and Indonesia as some archeology indicates. One of the earliest, securely dated sites with Lapita Pottery is dated to 1650 B.C and is on Nissan in the Bismark Archipelago. The earliest detectable migrations of the Lapita are on the islands of the Bismark Archipelago in Near Oceania which were settled c. 1500 B.C.

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Remote_Oceania / Anuta, TikopiaPhoto:
Remote_Oceania Map
Map – Lapita Voyage Project

Moving rapidly in small groups, the Lapita people penetrated Remote Oceania, then traveled to Fiji and West Polynesia from Melanesia between 1200 and 1,000 B.C. Their ocean voyaging traversed remarkable mileage. In no more than 10 generations, they reached Tonga and Samoa by 1,000 B.C.

This is the ‘express train’ model for Polynesian origins and their first expansion into Western Polynesia. There is no evidence that overcrowding was the motivation for these voyages and the establishment of new settlements. Communities on different islands remained in contact. Lapita lived in villages on islands larger than 1,000 sq km or on the coasts of larger islands. There is evidence throughout Polynesian history that clans might be forced into exile if a) they lost a regional war and the victors were inclined to be magnanimous; or b) the chiefs ruling the island made a harsh decision to balance population with food supply derived from agriculture, hunting and fishing. In this circumstance, a clan might voluntarily agree to leave the island or be forced into exile.

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