Southeast Asians Migrate into the South Pacific Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Skilled navigators from Southeast Asia, who felt motivated to cross great expanses of water in search of new homes, settled the islands of the South Pacific.

Summary of Event

The South Pacific is believed to be the last place on Earth to be inhabited by humans. The islands of the Pacific are divided into three regions: Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Together they form an area four times the size of Europe.

There are several theories as to the origins of the South Pacific people. The most agreed on is that the first inhabitants of the Pacific were hunters and gatherers from what is now Indonesia. Short of stature, dark-skinned with frizzy hair, these immigrants were the direct ancestors of the Aborigines of Australia, the Highland people of Papua New Guinea (Melanesia), and the Negritos still living in the interiors of the Philippines and Malaysia. The path of their migration went from Indonesia to Melanesia, over the Pacific into Micronesia. Travelers continued to migrate to the Pacific in waves, moving from island to island.

Melanesian peoples had lived in the southwest Pacific for more than thirty-five hundred years, but the remote islands of Oceania remained uninhabited. By 2500 b.c.e., a wave of immigrants sailed into the islands in steps from Southeast Asia, reaching the Bismarck Archipelago north of Papua New Guinea by 1600 b.c.e. These new arrivals mixed with the black-skinned Papuan-speaking aborigines, creating the Melanesian culture that eventually moved on to Fiji. Later travelers also sailed north to Micronesia. The first settlers of Melanesia are believed to have deliberately and frequently taken to the seas. These successful settlers were adept at finding and utilizing valuable resources.

At the same time (2500 b.c.e.), Austronesian-speaking people from the Philippines and Indonesia reached Palau, Yap, and the Marianas Islands in western Micronesia. Vegetation on the Micronesian coral islands was very different from the lush vegetation to which they were accustomed. They had to change their methods of farming. They became expert boat builders and navigators. Migration from one island group to another was slow, usually spread over several generations. Many traveled eastward; others stayed and intermarried with Melanesians and other Asian travelers.

Evidence shows that most Micronesian cultures are related to the Polynesian culture in that they can both be traced back to Southeast Asia through the Lapita culture. The peoples of Nukura and Kapingamarangi, two Micronesian atolls, have characteristics similar to Polynesians. This indicates these atolls may have been settled by voyagers from Samoa and Tonga, which are believed to be the first of the Polynesian islands to be settled.

Archaeologists have determined that the true homeland of Polynesia is on the western edge of Polynesia itself. The migration of Polynesians can be traced through pottery. Lapita pottery—named for the location in New Caledonia (Melanesia) where it was found—provides evidence of the general route the ancestors of the Polynesians traveled when migrating into the Pacific in 1500 b.c.e. It proves that ancient Polynesians sailed through Melanesia, not Micronesia, as was originally thought. A particular mix of materials and distinctive designs characterizes this pottery. Though changed over time, these materials and designs remained consistent throughout the regions in which this pottery was found.

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Research also indicates that it probably took the Lapita people no more than a few hundred years to move from island to island through Melanesia to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Samples of this pottery have been found on islands from the northeast coast of New Guinea to archipelagos at the western edge of Polynesia. It is believed that the basic ceramic knowledge came from Southeast Asia.

The Lapita who settled in Melanesia became absorbed into the Melanesian population. Those who continued into Polynesia found uninhabited islands and founded their own society. Present-day peoples of Polynesia are direct descendants of the Lapita, evolving with little outside input. They intermarried with the people they encountered on the move into the Pacific. This expansion was the first major movement of Austronesian-speaking people into the Pacific.

The Lapita developed knowledge of seacraft by developing outriggers and double-hulled canoes. They traveled in small numbers, two hundred to four hundred people, without navigational instruments. They traveled upwind, searching in the direction from which they could most easily return in case they did not find land. By 1000 b.c.e., Polynesians moved farther east toward the Hawaiian Islands and farther south and west to New Zealand. They brought with them root crops such as taro and yams, dogs, chickens, and other poultry. It was at this time that the Lapita culture began to disappear.

Significance

Discovery of the remote, widely spread Pacific Islands was one of the most remarkable achievements of humanity. Despite the ongoing differences in the scientific community as to the origins of the South Pacific people, it can be agreed on that their travels are unparalleled in ancient times. Voyaging across the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean was not easy. The voyagers traveled in canoes built using tools made of stone, bone, and coral. There was the danger of capsizing in heavy seas, and hulls could be smashed against coral reefs or hidden rocks. The voyagers were often exposed to the elements, with only grass or leaf shelters for protection.

In spite of these hardships, the early travelers continued their move eastward. They navigated without instruments and depended on observations of the stars, currents, and the movement of ocean swells and by traditional knowledge of the patterns of nature for clues to the direction and location of islands. They also studied the seasons of the westerly winds and knew when to avoid hazardous weather.

Quarrels regarding leadership could have been one of the reasons small groups split off and continued moving east. Their migration took place step by step, with only part of those who participated in the first move taking part in the second one. A wave of exploration preceded a wave of colonization. Canoes with explorers were sent out to look for land before the group followed with the women and children.

Modern science has contributed to the studies of the South Pacific expansion with computer-aided simulations, carbon-14 dating and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) testing. Computer simulations of exploratory voyages show that explorers traveled upwind in search of islands. Although traveling upwind may have been difficult, if they did not find land, a tailwind would ease their return. This upwind travel may indicate that the voyagers to the South Pacific were strongly motivated to search the ocean and settle it.

The majority of studies have been done on the Polynesian movement east; there is very little information on the Micronesians. The contribution of the Polynesians was the development of seafaring and navigation skills and canoe technology that enabled them to travel back and forth across the Pacific. They often returned to central Polynesia and not only related their adventures but also gave directions to the island they had visited, inspiring additional travel.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Jim. “In Search of the Lapita Homeland: Reconstructing the Prehistory of the Bismarck Archipelago.” Journal of Pacific History 19, no. 4 (1984): 186-187. An article on the Lapita pottery culture from its origin in the Bismarck Archipelago to its disappearance c. 1000 b.c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bellwood, Peter S. Man’s Conquest of the Pacific: The Prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. A study of the migration of people and cultures into Southeast Asia and the South Pacific Ocean.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bellwood, Peter S. The Polynesians: Prehistory of an Island People. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978. A detailed study of the history and culture of the Polynesian people of the South Pacific
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heyerdahl, Thor. American Indians in the Pacific. London, England: George Allen & Unwin, 1952. A study of the theory that the South Pacific islands were settled by South Americans.

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