Polynesia


Polynesia
/pol'euh nee"zheuh, -sheuh/, n.
one of the three principal divisions of Oceania, comprising those island groups in the Pacific lying E of Melanesia and Micronesia and extending from the Hawaiian Islands S to New Zealand.

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Island group, scattered across a huge triangular area of the east-central Pacific Ocean.

A subdivision of Oceania, Polynesia includes New Zealand, Hawaii, Samoa, the Line Islands, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, the Phoenix Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga, and Easter Island. Fiji is sometimes included because of its Polynesian population. The islands are mostly small coral atolls; some are of volcanic origin. Most of the inhabitants are Polynesians, some of whom might be related to the Malay. Their languages belong to a subfamily of the Austronesian languages. Contact with European culture began in the late 1700s with the arrival of Spanish explorers and radically altered life in Polynesia. Colonizers, imposing Western belief systems and cultural ways, effectively wiped out local traditions and customs. Samoa and Tonga retain more of the traditional culture than the other islands.

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      ethnogeographic grouping of islands scattered across a huge triangular area of the east-central Pacific Ocean. The triangle has its apex at the Hawaiian Islands in the north and its base angles at New Zealand in the west and Easter Island in the east. Polynesia (from Greek poly, “many,” and nēsoi, “islands”) comprises the island groups of Samoa (American Samoa and Samoa), the Cook Islands, French Polynesia (Tahiti and the other Society Islands, the Marquesas Islands, the Austral Islands, and the Tuamotu Archipelago), the island of Niue, the islands of Tokelau, Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands), the islands of Tonga and of Wallis and Futuna, the Hawaiian Islands, and Pitcairn Island. New Zealand's original inhabitants, the Maori, are also Polynesian; Fiji is sometimes included in Polynesia because of the proportion of its population that is Polynesian.

      On the basis of both archaeological evidence and relative linguistic homogeneity, authorities believe that central Polynesia was settled by migration from Melanesia beginning some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Secondary migrations then occurred from the central island groups to the more remote areas of Polynesia. Samoan peoples are believed to have settled the Marquesas perhaps as early as AD 300, and Easter Island may have been settled from the Marquesas as early as AD 400. Hawaii also was settled by voyagers from the Marquesas some time in the second half of the 1st millennium AD; centuries later explorers from the Society Islands arrived. The Societies were probably the point of origin for the Polynesians who later settled the Cook Islands. Either the Marquesas or the Societies were the point of origin for the people who settled New Zealand sometime before AD 1000. The closely related Polynesian languages, which are spread over a vast area of the Pacific Ocean, tend to support the archaeological indication of relatively recent dispersal of Polynesian culture.

      Prior to European contact, settlement in the Polynesian islands was either in hamlets or villages. The larger volcanic islands in general were settled in hamlets, because food resources were diversified and spread over many environmental zones. Houses were clustered in groups of four or five, with gardens, taro patches, coconut trees, and breadfruit growing in the immediate vicinity. Village-type settlements of 30 or more houses were found, especially along the coasts, in Samoa and New Zealand. Such settlements were often fortified by walls of stone or wooden palisades.

      Both hamlet and village settlement depended upon kinship patterns and family descent for organization. The usual Polynesian kinship pattern is based on an extended patrilineal, patrilocal family. Adoption, however, was common, and social custom was flexible. In certain societies (e.g., those of Tahiti and Hawaii), kinship could be traced through the female line if it conferred greater advantage; though male descent lines were preferred, in practice descent was bilateral.

      The most common type of kinship-based descent group in Polynesian society was the “ramage” type, in which descent passed from firstborn son to firstborn son and was traceable back to the mythological past. The ruling chief of an independent district or island was supposed to be the most direct descendant in the senior line from the head of the family that had established itself on the land by virtue of first occupancy or conquest. Another major type of kinship-based organization, the “descent line,” seems to be the result of a breakdown in the lower levels of “ramage” organization. Descent line is unconcerned with ranking based on relative position to a particular male line of descent and with genealogical relationship of one descent line to another.

      In ancient Polynesian societies, the chief, though highest in social status and clearly the repository of sacred power for the group, was regarded as the first among equals. In some Polynesian societies—such as those of Hawaii, Tahiti, and Tonga—this system gave way to a new order in which the families of the chiefs (sometimes determined by prestige or greater force) established themselves as a class apart from commoners and their position became hereditarily fixed. Their genealogies provided connections with creator gods from whom they derived their mana (superior and supernatural power). Rigid taboos, the infringement of which often involved the death penalty, were laid down to protect the chief from being familiarly approached by those not of his blood or rank and to uphold the religious system that supported him. In these societies social stratification was clear-cut, and warfare was frequent. It is also notable that in societies of this type, Christian missionaries succeeded in overthrowing ancient religious practices only after they had converted the chiefs. Because chiefly powers were deeply rooted in religious belief and made effective through religious taboos, the chiefs lost much of their hold on the people through this change.

      Religion and magic played an important role in traditional Polynesian culture. The gods of Polynesia were a complex assortment, including malevolent as well as benevolent beings, and they varied in rank and importance from those of the pantheon (who had a part in the cosmogony) to strictly local gods. Each of these beings had its own ritual requirements, and often schools of priests were required to carry them out. Among the religious practices were sacrifice (sometimes human sacrifice), chanting, great feasting, and fertility rites.

      One of the key beliefs of the culture was that all things animate and inanimate possess mana. This mana was dynamic and could be damaged, sapped, or nullified by improper actions. Women especially were considered powerful (though unclean) creatures, capable of defiling the sacredness of certain tracts of land or groves and any number of inanimate objects with which they came into contact. An elaborate system of social rules was established on the principle of mana, both to protect mana and to avoid violations of taboo (tapu). Magic was also pervasive, and countless rituals regarding love, war, revenge, agriculture, and fishing were practiced.

      Polynesian culture had a largely marine-based way of life supplemented by horticulture and arboriculture. In addition to fish, mollusks and crustaceans were an important source of food. Fishing was often a group activity, with a line of men driving fish toward shore or spreading and drawing enormous nets. Polynesian fishermen explored vast expanses of ocean around their island homes, taking grouper, schools of tuna, and sometimes sharks and rays, which were a delicacy.

      Other dietary staples were generally provided by gardens and groves in which crops of sweet potatoes, taro, breadfruit, bananas, sugarcane, and coconuts were cultivated. Kava, a nonalcoholic, euphoria-producing beverage made from the root of the pepper plant, was a favourite drink of the elders and was used ceremonially.

      Food plants also provided raw material for much of Polynesian material culture. Breadfruit wood was used in canoe-making, and its sap served as caulking; the inner bark, or bast, of the breadfruit tree (as well as that of the paper mulberry plant) was soaked and beaten into cloth called tapa. Leaves of some plants were used in weaving mats, clothing, sails, and other household goods. The outrigger canoe, which could negotiate shallow lagoons, land over reefs, and be easily hauled ashore, was essential to island life. When a second canoe was substituted for the outrigger float, the craft became a double canoe. Both the single canoe and the double canoe were often equipped with mat sails. Very large double canoes for interisland communication or for settlement expeditions were vessels 100–150 feet (30–45 metres) long, decked over and supporting a thatched house. These were capable of transporting families, domesticated animals, and plants over great stretches of ocean.

      Over the course of time, each island group developed distinctive artistic skills. The ruined stone temples of the Society Islands, Easter Island, and the Marquesas indicate a fine grasp of masonry and architecture. Functional goods—canoes, war clubs, dance shields, fish hooks—were elegantly designed and meticulously decorated. Feather cloaks represented a phenomenal amount of effort in the gathering of thousands of small, rare feathers, arranging them in tufts, and tying them in overlapping rows onto a fabric of extremely fine netting.

      The exchange of goods and services among Polynesian societies was characterized by redistribution and reciprocity. This system, evident even in the late 20th century, is exemplified in early land-holding practices. In traditional Polynesian societies, land was corporately held, and sections were apportioned to various family groups. As social organization evolved, however, each island group began to develop its own methods of land distribution, some of which were determined by social class.

      Contact with European culture that began in the late 1700s radically altered life in Polynesia. Spanish explorers searching for riches and eager to spread Christianity were the first Europeans to explore Polynesia. Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira landed on the Marquesas in 1595, and in 1606 Pedro Fernández de Quirós sighted the Tuamotu Archipelago and the northern Cook Islands. The Dutch arrived soon thereafter. In 1642 Abel Tasman sighted New Zealand and later Tonga. British and French exploration in Polynesia began in 1767 with the British navigator Samuel Wallis, who explored Tahiti; in the same year, the French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville reached Tahiti and later the Samoan islands. The British naval officer and explorer Captain James Cook circumnavigated and charted the two major islands of New Zealand in 1769 and 1770 and later reached Tahiti. In 1778 Cook landed on the Hawaiian Islands, which he named the Sandwich Islands in honour of the earl of Sandwich. Resistance to European intervention occurred in almost all of the Polynesian islands, but such movements were brief.

      Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898; France annexed the Marquesas and Society Islands in 1880; Chile claimed Easter Island in 1888; the British annexed New Zealand in 1840 and the Cook Islands in 1901; and Tonga remained an independent kingdom but came under British protection from 1900. By the end of the 19th century, all of Polynesia was under the control of European powers and the United States.

      During the 20th century, Western Samoa (now Samoa) achieved its independence (1962); American Samoa became a U.S. territory (1929); Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States (1959); New Zealand achieved independence (1947) within the Commonwealth; the Cook Islands became politically dependent on New Zealand; and the Marquesas Islands, Society Islands, and Tuamotu Archipelago were made the French overseas territory of French Polynesia.

      Colonizers and, especially, Christian missionaries, in imposing Western belief systems and cultural ways, effectively wiped out Polynesian local traditions and customs. Most of the traditional ways were lost or amalgamated with Western ways. Of the Polynesian islands, Samoa and Tonga retain more of traditional culture than the others. Elsewhere, Western influence is evident nearly everywhere, particularly in the conspicuous presence of consumer goods.

      The Polynesian way of life had considerable romantic appeal for many Western artists and writers because it represented to them a simple, natural way of life, free of “civilization” and bourgeois attitudes. The French painter Paul Gauguin lived and worked for several years toward the end of his life in Tahiti and the Marquesas, taking Polynesian people and culture as subjects for his paintings. Another example of this phenomenon is Herman Melville, who as a young man worked aboard a number of Pacific-bound whaling ships and wrote about his experiences in the South Seas in Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847).

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Universalium. 2010.

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