The many thousands of islands in the great Pacific Ocean, sometimes called Oceania, are divided into three main groups. Melanesia is a group of islands lying to the south of the equator, Micronesia, islands north of the equator and Polynesia, the largest group of islands lying south and east of Oceania.
The Term Polynesia
The word Polynesia means “many islands”. The origin is from the Greek words poly, meaning many and nesos meaning island. Polynesia consists of thousands of islands stretching from New Zealand in the southwest to Easter Island over 8,000 kilometers to the southeast and north towards the Hawaiian Islands.
The peoples of Polynesia were believed to have migrated from Southeast Asia and they were lighter skinned and taller than their Micronesian and Melanesian brothers. They were excellent seafarers having settled in Tonga and Samoa over 3,000 years ago. Expert navigators, the Polynesian Marquesan explorers reached Tahiti and Easter Island prior to 500 AD and later established colonies in Hawaii, New Zealand and other Polynesian islands.
Polynesians built and sailed sophisticated ships in order to travel hundreds and thousands of miles throughout the Pacific. Examples of such ships include the Pahi, a deepwater voyager of the Society Islands; the Ndrua , the largest ship of the Pacific, over 80 foot long and carrying more than 200 warriors and the Waka Taurua, a popular Cook Island all-purpose boat.
It has long been speculated that Polynesians reached South America. The sweet potato, native to South America and the only food plant not native to Asia or the Pacific, has been found throughout Polynesia.
European explorers such as Magellan, Tasman, Bougainville and Cook reached Polynesia in the years stretching from the 1500’s to the 1800’s. Various European powers, including Spain, Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the nascent power, the United States of America colonized most of Polynesia. Today most Polynesian islands are independent nations or territories or states of Europe and America.