Story: Pacific migrations

Page 4. From West to East Polynesia

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Emergence of West Polynesian culture

Some 3,000 years ago (around 1000 BCE) the distinctive Polynesian culture and language began to emerge in West Polynesia. Decorated Lapita pottery evolved into Polynesian plainware, and there were other changes in technology and settlement.

Island geology and migration

There are two main types of island in the Pacific: continental and oceanic. Continental islands lie in the western Pacific, and oceanic islands in the eastern Pacific. On maps a geological division called the Andesite Line runs between the two regions; oceanic islands lie to the east of the line.

Continental islands are partly submerged continents. They have diverse rock types, better soils and more resources, making long-term settlement easier.

Oceanic islands sit on top of volcanic seamounts that rise from the ocean floor. They may be high, low, or atolls just above sea level. With more restricted rock types, soils and resources, they may have been more difficult to colonise successfully.

As voyagers began to migrate eastward they settled the continental islands first. These islands include all of Island South-East Asia; Australia; Melanesia; and the westernmost islands of Micronesia (Palau, Yap and the Marianas) and Polynesia (Tonga, Futuna and Uvea).

West Micronesia was settled by 1300 BCE – about the time the Lapita communities were established in the Bismarck Archipelago. Migrants spread through island Melanesia and West Polynesia during 1100–800 BCE. Samoa, which is close to Fiji and Tonga, was also settled then.

The oceanic islands of East Micronesia were not settled until perhaps 1,000 years later. Another millennium passed before East Polynesia was settled.

Migration to East Polynesia

Radiocarbon dating reveals that there were no human settlements in East Polynesia for 2,000 years after the Lapita arrived in West Polynesia. Some time after 1000 CE people began to spread through East Polynesian archipelagos, settling the closest first. There is debate about when the Southern Cook and Society Islands were first settled. 

Settlement stages

As well as the geological drawbacks of the eastern oceanic islands, there are other possible reasons for the long period that elapsed before migration to East Polynesia began.

Better canoe technology might have been necessary before further ocean crossings could be made. This is unlikely, however, as there are no marked changes in wind or weather between West and East Polynesia. There may in fact have been settlement further east during this time, as there is evidence of forest clearance and increased erosion on some islands. However, it is unclear whether humans caused this.

The oceanic islands are more isolated than the continental islands – eastward, there is proportionately more sea than land. Although closer oceanic islands, such as the Cooks, remained feasible targets, such islands may have proved harder to live on rather than harder to find. It is possible that exploration and discovery continued, but actual migration slowed.

The Polynesians, descendants of the Lapita, developed the ability to survive on more remote islands, and to reduce their isolation by voyaging between colonies.

East Polynesia was settled from West Polynesia, and in turn New Zealand was settled by seafarers whose most likely origin was somewhere in East Polynesia. These people developed their own culture and came to be known as Māori. Today, Māori regard East Polynesia as their homeland, which they call Hawaiki.

How to cite this page:

Geoff Irwin, 'Pacific migrations - From West to East Polynesia', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Geoff Irwin, published 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 8 Feb 2017