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The Polynesians

Updated on May 3, 2014
Easter Islanders erected 600 giant carved statues across their small island between AD 1000 and 1600. No one knows what these statues were for, or how the islanders managed to move and stand up the huge stones.
Easter Islanders erected 600 giant carved statues across their small island between AD 1000 and 1600. No one knows what these statues were for, or how the islanders managed to move and stand up the huge stones.

The islands of the South Pacific were uninhabited until about 3,000 years ago. Then, the first Polynesians arrived to live there. We do not know much about these people but historians think that they originally came from Asia or America.

Over the next 2,000 years the Polynesians slowly spread out across the vast South Pacific Ocean. They sailed north to Hawaii, east to Easter Island and finally to New Zealand. They were probably the greatest explorers and navigators in history, and when the Europeans first visited the region in the 1500s, they could not believe that the Polynesians (who they thought were a very primitive people) could have developed such advanced skills.

There are about 20,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean. Most are either high volcanic peaks or low coral reefs. Apart from New Zealand, the vast majority are small, some only a few kilometers across.
There are about 20,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean. Most are either high volcanic peaks or low coral reefs. Apart from New Zealand, the vast majority are small, some only a few kilometers across.

The vast Pacific Ocean is dotted with islands, but these make up only a minute part of its total area and lie hundreds of kilometers apart from each other. The rest is open sea, and it is easy to sail for days without sighting any land. The Polynesians did not have any maps or modern navigation equipment but they successfully explored the entire ocean in their sturdy canoes.

They settled on almost every island, finding them by following migrating birds and by watching changes in wind direction and wave pattern.

Polynesian canoes were up to 30m long. They were built with two hulls or a single hull and an outrigger. The sails were made from coconut-palm lead matting stitched together.
Polynesian canoes were up to 30m long. They were built with two hulls or a single hull and an outrigger. The sails were made from coconut-palm lead matting stitched together.

The Polynesians gradually built up a detailed knowledge of where each island was and how they could find it again in the future using the Sun, Moon and stars as navigation aids. They gave each island its own "on top" star. Sailors knew that when this was directly over their boat, they were on the same latitude as the island.

Using the position of the Sun, they sailed due east or west until they reached land. Sirius, for example, was the "on top" star for Tahiti.

All this information was passed down through the generations and recorded on a chart made of palm sticks tied together with coconut fibre. The framework of sticks represented distance, and shells threaded on the sticks showed where the islands were.

The Polynesians used these simple but effective charts to make accurate voyages across vast expanses of ocean. They took colonists and supplies to newly discovered islands and brought back fish and other goods.

Key Dates

1000 BC: Polynesians begin to settle in Tonga and Samoa.

150 BC: Settlers leave Samoa for Marquesas Islands.

AD 400: Polynesians reach Easter Island in the east and the Hawaiian Islands in the north.

1000: Polynesian Maoris settle in New Zealand.

1000 - 1600: Statues built on Easter Island.

1947: Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition from Peru to the South Pacific.

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    • Danida profile image
      Author

      Danida 3 years ago from London

      @Eiddwen: thank you! Have a great weekend too :)

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      A very interesting hub; well informed and enhanced by great photos also.

      Voting up and wishing you a great weekend.

      Eddy.