The Origins of the Polynesians

Tonga & Samoa, Cuna y Núcleo de la Expansión Polinésica / Crib and Nucleus of Polynesian Expansion

Large migratory waves of Austronesian peoples reached Near Oceania around 3,500 years ago, causing a major cultural impact in the native populations of Papua New Guinea, the Bismarck archipelago and the Solomon Islands. The expansion of these Austronesians into previously uninhabited territories on the islands of Santa Cruz, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa defined the geographical space in which they were later able to develop their distinctive culture. The complex culture that was formed in this region is today called Lapita and is considered by all to be the direct ancestor of the Polynesian peoples.

Cultural dynamics in the Lapita cultural zone were quite complex. The navigational technology of the Austronesians was absorbed over time by the Papuan-speaking people, which then permitted Melanesian groups to arrive at some of the islands where the Lapita culture was developing.

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Therefore, only Samoa and Tonga were able to develop a distinctive Polynesian culture with traits that were preserved and today identify the modern Polynesians. These two archipelagos, Tonga and Samoa, are, thus, the nucleus of the later expansion of Polynesian people into the central and eastern Pacific. Fiji, on the other hand, became a frontier zone. Colonized by Austronesians 3,000 years ago, it was also settled some thousand years later by Melanesians, who imposed their culture, whether it be by assimilation or by domination. Apparently, at least some of the early Polynesians who lived there emigrated, escaping to Tonga y Samoa. Nonetheless, Fiji continues to have important Polynesian influences in its culture to this day.

New Productive Economy


Between 800 BC and 500 AD, the Western Polynesian culture shaped itself within the areas mentioned. Settlement of humans in these distant islands was not without difficulties. The older traditional crops that the new arrivals brought with them took time to adapt to the new ecosystem with volcanic soils and full of native vegetation. Over the first couple of centuries, most food was gathered from marine resources, complemented by hunting the native terrestrial fauna, especially the birds.This led to the extermination of a large number of animal species, although the marine life has shown to be much more resistant in maintaining its abundance to the present day. From approximately 600 BC, the Polynesians began to plant on a larger scale the crops that had adapted (taro, yams, bananas and breadfruit) and raise domestic animals (above all, chickens, but also pigs).

The new productive economy, much less dependent on subsistence hunting and gathering, allowed for a demographic explosion. Population grew and the settlements throughout Tonga and Samoa increased considerably. The people began to adapt to life in villages with greater density. Coastal settlements were no longer the only option for habitation, as enclaves in the interior, many of them highly specialized, flourished.

Decline of Lapita Ceramics


The ceramics of the Tongans and Samoans is notoriously more simple than that of the peoples on islands farther to the west. The motifs became more lineal, with fewer curves and, bit by bit, the design was lost. The movement of the Lapita culture and its serrated ceramics into the zone of modern Polynesian culture is marked by a decrease in the use of this type of craft ware. The intermediate phase, which has been called “Polynesian plainware” (simple clay pots without decoration), is exclusive to Tonga and Samoa. The definite disappearance of ceramics in Western Polynesia occurred around 500 AD, coinciding with he beginning of the expansion of the Polynesians into the Central and Eastern Pacific. The reason behind this disappearance, which included Fiji and other areas of the Lapita zone, is still under intense study and speculation among the specialists.

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Polynesian Expansion to the East


After this period, in the middle of the first millennium AD, there was a tremendous expansive wave of Polynesian settlement. These migratory flows went out in all directions, toward uninhabited lands as well as toward places previously colonized. The first island that was settled beyond Samoa was Niue, as the expansion continued with settlements on Tuvalu and islands that are culturally Polynesian but outside the geographic triangle (Anuta, Tikopia, Ouvea, Kapingamarangi, etc.). From there, almost uninterrupted, the movement continued toward Remote Eastern Polynesia and its extremes in Hawai’i, New Zealand and Rapa Nui, which completed the human colonization of the Pacific around the year 1,200 AD. The expansion toward these far-off lands in large fleets under the command of expert navigators even allowed the Polynesians to reach the South American continent at the beginning of the second millennium AD.

Tu’i Tonga Empire


At the peak of this period of expansion, which was mostly spontaneous and undirected, the closest thing to a true Polynesian empire began to develop in Tonga from the year 950 AD. This was a hegemonic project called “Tu’i Tonga”, with a capital on the island of Tongatapu. Through great military campaigns and cultural domination, the Tu’i Tonga empire was able to establish a political control over a wide swath that went from Tikopia in the Solomon Islands to, possibly, the Marquesas, and encompassed Tuvalu, Tokelau, Niue, Wallis and Futuna, Nauru, Kiribati, Cook Islands and parts of Samoa. The Samoan archipelago was never completely conquered due to the fierce resistance of its inhabitants and the warrior culture which they had developed. Nonetheless, all the other archipelagos sent tribute to the Tongan royal families. Between the XIV and XV Centuries, the imperial dynasty of Tu’i Tonga arose, due to internal crises and to the increase of Samoan influence within the imperial aristocracy. The decrease in long-distance navigation as a result of the Little Ice Age which began around 1300 AD, led to a loss of administrative efficiency in this thalassocracy – a seaborne empire.

A good amount of what is known about this period is due to the rich oral tradition in the Western Polynesian islands. Possibly the greatest importance of this nucleus of expansion in Tonga and Samoa is that all the Polynesians, connected linguistically and culturally, can trace their genealogy all the way back to those few humans who settled the Ha’apai island group in Tonga some 3,500 years ago.
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