The peoples who lived in the islands of the Pacific Ocean created human communities without the large city-states and empires established in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. With the exception of Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea, these islands are relatively small in size. This part of the world was the last to be inhabited by human beings who migrated from Southeast Asia about 3,500 years ago. In what has been called the “greatest maritime expansion in history,” by 1200 CE, human populations could be found on every inhabitable piece of land.

Given the large distance between the islands, it is not surprising that the societies built by human beings differ greatly. At the same time, they participated in creating a single cultural region. Networks of exchange and communication allowed for interaction and trade. Dependent on the ocean as a major source of food, they used shells as a form of currency and for making tools. Each society also developed agriculture. Taro, a starchy root vegetable, was cultivated throughout the region. Other crops – yams, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, and coconut palms – were grown when the conditions were favorable. Most of the societies were organized as chiefdoms. Higher levels of social stratification developed on the larger islands (which had larger populations). For example, in New Zealand, chiefly families were at the top of the social ladder among the Maori peoples. Below them were commoners and still further down were slaves (former prisoners of war). On the islands of Hawaii and Tonga, powerful rulers were supported by a cadre of warriors who defended their elite status. On the smaller islands, chiefs and priests exercised some authority but were subject (along with the rest of the community) to the decisions of village councils who made decisions by consensus. The role of women in these societies differed greatly. Throughout Polynesia, women were accorded high status and the women of chiefly families exercised considerable power through their male relatives. Melanesian women, however, were more sharply subordinated to men.


This photograph shows the root (called a corm) of the Taro plant (Source: Wikimedia)

At the beginning of the 16th century, the peoples of Pacific Oceania remained largely isolated form the larger world. This was no longer true by the end of the century. The first European, the Spaniard Alvaro de Saavedra, reached the eastern Caroline Islands in Micronesia in January of 1528. Other Spanish explorers followed and brought cattle, goats, corn, and coffee to the small islands. As they did elsewhere, they also brought influenza, measles, and other diseases, which killed thousands of the islands’ original inhabitants. Hearing reports of islands to the west in the Pacific from Inca merchants, Spanish caravels soon set out on two separate voyages which led to the European discovery of the Solomon Islands in Melanesia in 1567 and the Marquesas of Polynesia in 1595.

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Learn more about the cultural significance of tattoos in Polynesian culture by visiting the PBS website: Skin Stories



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