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The Island Megafauna: The Polynesians

Updated on September 15, 2013


In the 21st century, the descendants of Taiwanese explorers, better known as the Polynesians live on islands right across the globe, from Madagascar, off the African coast to Easter Island, Hawaii, and New Zealand, all lost in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Of all the great ancient explorers, the Polynesians were undoubtedly the most courageous and skilful of them all, as they were unable to walk to their new homes. Instead, they struck out into the vast open ocean, looking beyond the prows of their canoes to an often uncertain feature. In some ways their explorations were just as ambitious as our modern aspirations of some day exploring the cosmos. For the Polynesians the ocean was like the seemingly endless emptiness of space , with perhaps a tiny speck of land representing a new planet to explore and claim for themselves.

All in all, they managed to discover more than a million islands starting from around 3500 years ago and ending with the discovery of New Zealand in the 13th century. Each one of these previously isolated islands contained their own unique ecosystems, full to the brim with species found nowhere else on the planet; no other group of people ever met such wonderful natural diversity. The flora and fauna were totally isolated, living in their own little world, with evolution seemingly playing surreal tricks on the minds of the first humans to reach them. Animals normally known for their huge size were dwarfed down, while small animals became giants. Indeed the island megafauna would be among the most incredible animals ever to be observed by humans.

The colonisation and conquest of the islands marks the final chapter in the grand story of mankind’s total occupation of the planet. It was a story that began over 100,000 years ago when modern Homo sapiens stepped out of Africa for the first time. The Polynesians colonised the last pristine lands on the planet, and did so, so recently that they occurred within recorded history. The fact that their extraordinary feats of discovery occurred so recently can help gives us an answer to that burning question. ‘What killed the megafauna’ and also ‘what happens to an ecosystem once people arrive and claim it as their own.’ Their stunning exploits were a type of natural experiment that they repeated again, and again across the centuries.

How Did They Navigate Without a Compass?...

...And the Second Part

Tattoos That Came From Pottery

This Maori chief's tattoo's originate from the elaborate designs that adorned Polynesian Lapita pottery.
This Maori chief's tattoo's originate from the elaborate designs that adorned Polynesian Lapita pottery. | Source

The Canoes That Changed History

This is a modern replica of a traditional Polynesian canoe called the Hawai'iloa.
This is a modern replica of a traditional Polynesian canoe called the Hawai'iloa. | Source

Origins of the Polynesians

Scientists were once pretty clueless when it came to explaining the origins of the Polynesians. But in the last 30 years, a collection of scientists from a variety of fields have come to realise that the people of Madagascar and the Pacific islands originated from Southeast Asia. Their research has helped to construct an astounding map which charts the routes these people took as they island hopped around the world.

Once the Polynesians’ origins had been pinned down to Taiwan, scientists could then begin to attach dates to the voyages by examining archaeological evidence. Starting from around 3500 BC, a distinctive set of stone tools began to appear in Taiwan, as well as a type of pottery called tap’en-k’eng. Remains of rice and millet indicate that these people were agriculturalists; plus, the remains of fish hooks, stone net-stinkers and adzes for carving canoes, indicate that they were also accomplished fishermen.

Around two thousand years later, similar artefacts began to appear along the coast of New Guinea. The toolkit was more or less the same, but with the addition of giant clam shells, tattoo needles, shellfish hooks and ornamental rings. But the old tap’en-k’eng pottery had gone, replaced by a new form- Lapita pottery, which is recognisble from its finely patterned horizontal bands. It was now that the culture of ocean explorers established itself, and while the pottery would eventually vanish, the elaborate geometric designs would survive in the form of tattoos.

The Polynesians transported not only themselves but also their Southeast Asian environment. The package included useful plants such as taro, yams, bananas and a variety of tree species including the almond tree. They also transported Malay apple, breadfruit and coconut, while most of these items were bought along for food, some such as the paper mulberry was used for creating tapa cloth. As well as plants, they also transported a host of domesticated Asian animals with them, such as chickens, pigs and dogs and the highly valued Pacific rat

A Map of Conquest

A map recording the expansion of the Polynesian people out of Taiwan and across the Pacific and Indian Ocean.
A map recording the expansion of the Polynesian people out of Taiwan and across the Pacific and Indian Ocean. | Source

Iconic Pottery

A fragment of a Lapita pot found recently in Taiwan dating to around 3000 BC.
A fragment of a Lapita pot found recently in Taiwan dating to around 3000 BC. | Source

Two Highly Recommended Books

Monsters We Met
Monsters We Met
A fascinating book that gives a detailed analysis of the megafauna we encountered as we colonised the world.

Rapid Conquest

The Polynesian mariners accomplished probably the fastest known migration in all of prehistory, averaging 50 miles per generation. Radiocarbon dating helps to reveal more about the speed of the migration through the Polynesian Lapita pottery. We now know that they crossed nearly 3000 miles of ocean in just 300-500 years. Therefore, it’s abundantly clear that these people were actually purposefully seeking out new islands, instead of stumbling across them by accident. As they moved across from island to island, they developed new cultures and evidence seems to suggest that their innovations only ever spread outwards, never coming full circle by returning to their homelands.

So what exactly motivated these people to keep exploring uncharted waters? Some scholars suggest that it was expanding populations that forced people to move on as their fragile islands began to run out of natural resources. But it must be noted that the pioneers often appear to have left their previous home long before they reached a saturation point in terms of resources. The social structure of modern Polynesian can give us a valuable insight into the minds of those prehistoric pioneers. In Pacific societies, great emphasis is placed upon social status, and the highest rank was always accorded to the family of the founding member. Perhaps people wished to strike out and start their own communities, setting themselves up as leader. Or perhaps they yearned for an island paradise with unlimited resources.

Today, the huge scale of this conquest can be demonstrated by certain languages still spoken today in places as far afield as Madagascar and Hawaii. These languages which are still predominantly spoken in Polynesia and parts of Southeast Asia belong to a group known as the Austronesian language family. Before the rise of Indo-European languages such as English and Spanish, these Austronesian languages enjoyed the widest geographical range of any linguistic family in the world. By comparing elements of the languages and dialects within the family, linguistic experts have been able to trace the origins of Austronesian tongues. For instance, the native language of Madagascar, known as Malagasy does contain some East African Bantu words, but for the most part it’s a fully paid up member of the Austronesian family. Amazingly, its closest linguistic relative is a language spoken by the Dayak tribe, a community that lives more than 2800 miles away on the island of Borneo.

More to follow:


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