Settlement of the South Pacific Islands Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Between the eighth and twelfth centuries, Polynesians settled most of the islands and island groups in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. The discovery of New Zealand was one of the last in a long series of deliberate voyages of colonization across the Pacific, which had begun from Southeast Asia or, some scholars hypothesize, South America, some five thousand to seven thousand years earlier.

Summary of Event

The Cook-Austral volcanic chain is located on the southern part of the Pacific plate, in a region of shallow seafloor known as the South Pacific superswell. The first settlers of New Zealand (also known as Aotearoa) and many other island groups in the South Pacific were the Polynesians. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Polynesians discovered New Zealand New Zealand sometime after 800 c.e. Some Central Pacific islands, such as the Marquesas, were probably populated by about 1000 b.c.e., but the earliest vestiges of civilization there date back to only 150 b.c.e. From the Marquesas, the Polynesians branched out to other settlements. The Cook Islands Cook Islands and Austral Islands Austral Islands were settled by the Polynesians sometime shortly before or after they reached New Zealand. Some theories argue that New Zealand was settled first, while others state that the Maoris Maoris of New Zealand began their voyage on Rarotonga, the capital island of the sixteen-island Cook group, possibly as early as the fifth century c.e. The southern Cook Islands were apparently settled by Tahitians Tahitians around 800, while the northern islands were settled a little later by Tongans Tongans and Samoans Samoans . [kw]Settlement of the South Pacific Islands (c. 700-1100) [kw]South Pacific Islands, Settlement of the (c. 700-1100) [kw]Pacific Islands, Settlement of the South (c. 700-1100) [kw]Islands, Settlement of the South Pacific (c. 700-1100) Pacific Islands, South Polynesians Pacific Islands;c. 700-1100: Settlement of the South Pacific Islands[0480] Australia;c. 700-1100: Settlement of the South Pacific Islands[0480] New Zealand;c. 700-1100: Settlement of the South Pacific Islands[0480] Expansion and land acquisition;c. 700-1100: Settlement of the South Pacific Islands[0480] Exploration and discovery;c. 700-1100: Settlement of the South Pacific Islands[0480] Kupe Toi

The Austral Islands are a seven-island volcanic group sometimes known as the Tubuai Islands. Archaeological diggings in these isolated islands have uncovered habitation sites, council platforms, and marae temples on Rurutu, showing man’s presence around the year 900. Tubuai and Rimatara also have the ruins of open-air stone temples, and giant stone tikis have been found on Raivavae that resemble those in the Marquesas Islands and on Easter Island. On Rapa there are remains of seven fortresses on superimposed terraces; such fortresses are found nowhere else in Polynesia except New Zealand, where the Maori people settled. Architecture;Austral Islands Exquisite wood carvings, now in museums, tell of an artistic people highly evolved in their craft, who were also superb boat builders and daring seafarers.

Scholars believe that the population of these islands occurred by way of long, island-hopping voyages made in large, wood-hulled canoes that enabled the voyagers to take plenty of food, food plants, domesticated animals, and other supplies with them. Opinions concerning why these people spread across the Pacific usually center on ecological factors: limited or declining resources in the homeland, competition for resources, predation, and political motivations such as intertribal strife and religious beliefs. In fact, overpopulation may have been the chief motive for exploration. Some scholars, alternatively, believe that deliberate exploration, such as that undertaken by Europeans in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, also motivated the voyages. Exploration;of South Pacific[South Pacific]

Although the names of the early voyagers have been lost to history, the legends still tell of certain individuals who may or may not have been real. One mythical Polynesian navigator was Kupe Kupe (legendary) , who arrived in New Zealand around 925. Another was a mythical Maori named Toi Toi (legendary) , who was estimated to have arrived in New Zealand around 1350. The latter individual came with the Great Fleet, supposedly composed of eight giant canoes, which transported a mass of Polynesian settlers. Like many other Polynesian legends, this story is open to debate; some authorities question the date of 1350, while others question whether the expedition ever happened.

It is likely, however, that because the first Polynesians settled on the east coast of New Zealand, the settlers may have come from islands to the east, such as Tahiti or the Marquesas. On arrival, the Polynesians found New Zealand to be the home of many large, flightless birds, particularly the moa. The eleven species of moa varied in size, from the size of a turkey to that of the giant moa, which stood over 10 feet (about 3 meters) tall. Today, most authorities think the Polynesians originated between five thousand and seven thousand years ago in Southeast Asia.

A variety of theories have been posited to account for the Polynesian migrations Migrations;Polynesian . In the mid-twentieth century, the Norwegian explorer and archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl posited that the Polynesians had originated from South America. Although linguistic and physical characteristics of the Polynesians differ from those of South American Indians, Heyerdahl proved in 1947, with his now-famous Kon-Tiki expedition, that a raft could have traveled from South America to the South Pacific islands in 101 days. Travel by sea;Polynesians Heyerdahl’s theory is best suited to the settlement of New Zealand, since one of the staple cultivated food crops of pre-European New Zealand, the kumara—a type of sweet potato—originates from central South America.

However, Heyerdahl’s and other theories positing a South American origin have now been largely abandoned because of the faunal, floral, and linguistic similarities between the Polynesians and Southeast Asians. The early adzes and fishhooks of New Zealand seem clearly to have precursors in other parts of Polynesia. Also, the fact that the Polynesian islands and island groups were essentially settled in a west-to-east chronology indicates that the people most likely came from Southeast Asia. Thus, the preponderance of evidence linking the Polynesians with Southeast Asia is perhaps an indication that the Southeast Asians traveled as far east as South America, where they discovered the kumara and took it back to the islands.


Some have attributed the discovery of various Pacific islands to luck, but colonization of the Austral and Cook Islands and New Zealand is largely a testimony to the development of navigational skills among ancient and medieval Southeast Asian peoples. Although the oral tradition of the South Pacific islands does not provide much information, the Polynesians’s knowledge of navigation was probably based on observation of the winds, stars, marine currents, birds, and migration routes. The journeys undertaken by the Polynesians in their fragile craft dwarf the voyages of exploration boasted of by the later European explorers. In a sense, the colonization of the South Pacific island groups represents the more important “age of exploration”: These migrations led to the peopling of new continents, and the fact that Stone Age peoples had the wherewithal to journey thousands of miles is remarkable in itself. Considering their small seacraft and the daunting odds they overcame in traveling such great distances on the open seas, these Polynesians may have been the greatest navigators and sailors in the history of the world—even more advanced than the Vikings or other European explorers of a later era.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrow, Terence. The Art of Tahiti and the Neighbouring Society, Austral and Cook Islands. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979. A specialized work on Polynesian art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heyerdahl, Thor. American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory Behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1953. A scholarly explanation of why Polynesians might have originated in South America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1950. Heyerdahl’s famous story of his adventures as he replicated the route that he theorized that early South American Indians made across the Pacific in search of what are now known as Polynesian islands.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Irwin, Geoffrey. The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Suggests that the Pacific Islanders could have taken advantage of seasonal wind patterns to sail around the open ocean and would then have had a reasonable chance of getting back to where they started without incurring too much risk.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLean, Mervyn. Weavers of Song: Polynesian Music and Dance. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. An overview of Polynesian music and dance.
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    xlink:type="simple">Siikala, Jukka. Akatokamanava: Myth, History, and Society in the Southern Cook Islands. Auckland, New Zealand: Polynesian Society, in association with the Finnish Anthropological Society, 1991. A good general history of the Cook Islands.

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