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Polynesians

With their mastery of sea travel, the Polynesians cover long distances in their search for new ground.

Polynesians

The triangle formed by the islands of Tonga, Samoa, and Uvea saw the emergence of the earliest forms of Polynesian culture in the last centuries of the first millennium BCE. In this vast expanse—the birthplace of their culture—the original Polynesian communities gradually set themselves apart from the Lapita culture by shaping their own languages and maritime practices. They also developed innovative navigation techniques, with which they would set out to conquer the Pacific.

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Following a gradual process of linguistic and material evolution, distinctly Polynesian culture appeared in small, interconnected coastal communities with Lapita origins. Organized along similar social structures and ruled over by hereditary chiefs, these Polynesian communities were linked by common beliefs with regards to concepts such as mana (spiritual power) and tapu, as well as by their shared cosmogony and founding myths. Materially, the growth of their culture was reflected in the development of shell ornaments, tattooing materials, and stone-cutting techniques. The early Polynesian communities practiced horticulture and harnessed marine resources. On land, they cultivated roots and tubers such as taro and yams, as well as coconut, breadfruit, and banana trees. Although fishing provided most of their protein intake, they also reared pigs, dogs, and chickens, and hunted small birds. This model of subsistence, easily adaptable to relatively harsh environments, was widely replicated as they traveled further into the Pacific. Their proximity to the sea was central to the development of the Polynesians’ unique skills in ocean voyaging and shipbuilding. The development of advanced outrigger ships, triangular sails, and especially the first catamarans, allowed Polynesians to travel thousands of miles across the open sea, and to rapidly colonize the islands of Central and Eastern Polynesia by the end of the first millennium.

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Beyond the Pacific, Polynesian ships reached the Americas at least once before the end of the 15th century. They probably introduced chickens to the region, and they brought sweet potato farming back to their islands.