Last updated

Total population
c. 2,500,000
Regions with significant populations
New Zealand887,338
United States820,000 [1]
French Polynesia c. 215,000 [2]
Samoa 192,342
Tonga 103,036
Cook Islands 17,683
Canada10,760 [3]
Tuvalu 10,645 [4]
Chile 5,682
Polynesian languages (Hawaiian, Māori, Rapa Nui, Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, Rotuman, Tuvaluan and others), English, French and Spanish
Christianity (96.1%) [5] and Polynesian mythology [6]
Related ethnic groups
other Austronesian peoples, Euronesians

Polynesians form an ethnolinguistic group of closely related people who are native to Polynesia (islands in the Polynesian Triangle), an expansive region of Oceania in the Pacific Ocean. They trace their early prehistoric origins to Island Southeast Asia and form part of the larger Austronesian ethnolinguistic group with an Urheimat in Taiwan. They speak the Polynesian languages, a branch of the Oceanic subfamily of the Austronesian language family. The Indigenous Māori people constitute the largest Polynesian population, [7] followed by Samoans, Native Hawaiians, Tahitians, Tongans and Cook Islands Māori. [8]


As of 2012 there were an estimated 2 million ethnic Polynesians (full and part) worldwide, the vast majority of whom either inhabit independent Polynesian nation-states (Samoa, Niue, Cook Islands, Tonga, and Tuvalu) or form minorities in countries such as Australia, Chile (Easter Island), New Zealand, France (French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna), and the United States (Hawaii and American Samoa), in addition to the British Overseas Territory of the Pitcairn Islands. New Zealand had the highest population of Polynesians, estimated at 110,000 in the 18th century. [9]

Polynesians have acquired a reputation as great navigators—their canoes reached the most remote corners of the Pacific, allowing the settlement of islands as far apart as Hawaii, Rapanui (Easter Island) and Aotearoa (New Zealand). [10] The people of Polynesia accomplished this voyaging using ancient navigation skills of reading stars, currents, clouds and bird movements—skills passed to successive generations down to the present day. [11]


The Polynesian spread of colonization of the Pacific throughout the so-called Polynesian Triangle. Polynesian Migration.svg
The Polynesian spread of colonization of the Pacific throughout the so-called Polynesian Triangle.

Polynesians, including Samoans, Tongans, Niueans, Cook Islands Māori, Tahitian Mā'ohi, Hawaiian Māoli, Marquesans and New Zealand Māori, are a subset of the Austronesian peoples. Some share the same origins as the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, Southeast Asia (especially the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia), Micronesia, and Madagascar. [12] This is supported by genetic, [13] linguistic [14] and archaeological evidence. [15]

Chronological dispersal of the Austronesian peoples Chronological dispersal of Austronesian people across the Pacific.svg
Chronological dispersal of the Austronesian peoples

There are multiple hypotheses on the ultimate origin and mode of dispersal of the Austronesian peoples, but the most widely accepted theory is that modern Austronesians originated from migrations out of Taiwan between 3000 and 1000 BC. Using relatively advanced maritime innovations like the catamaran, outrigger boats, and crab claw sails, they rapidly colonized the islands of both the Indian and the Pacific oceans. They were the first humans to cross vast distances of water on ocean-going boats. [17] Polynesians are known to have definitely originated from a branch of the Austronesian migrations in Island Melanesia, despite the popularity of rejected hypotheses like Thor Heyerdahl's belief that Polynesians are descendants of "bearded white men" who sailed on primitive rafts from South America. [18] [19]

The direct ancestors of the Polynesians were the Neolithic Lapita culture, which emerged in Island Melanesia and Micronesia at around 1500 BC from a convergence of migration waves of Austronesians originating from both Island Southeast Asia to the west and an earlier Austronesian migration to Micronesia to the north. The culture was distinguished by distinct dentate-stamped pottery. However, their eastward expansion stopped when they reached the western Polynesian islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga by around 900 BC. This remained the furthest extent of the Austronesian expansion in the Pacific for around 1,500 years, during which the Lapita culture in these islands abruptly lost the technology of making pottery for unknown reasons. They resumed their eastward migrations by around 700 AD, spreading to the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and the Marquesas. From here, they spread further to Hawaii by 900 AD, Easter Island by 1000 AD, and finally New Zealand by 1200 AD. [20] [21]

Genetic studies

1827 depiction of Tahitian pahi double-hulled war canoes Tahitian warrior dugouts, Le Costume Ancien et Moderne by Giulio Ferrario, 1827.jpg
1827 depiction of Tahitian pahi double-hulled war canoes

Analysis by Kayser et al. (2008) discovered that only 21% of the Polynesian autosomal gene pool is of Australo-Melanesian origin, with the rest (79%) being of Austronesian origin. [22] Another study by Friedlaender et al. (2008) also confirmed that some Polynesians are closer genetically to Micronesians, Taiwanese Aborigines, and Islander Southeast Asians than to Papuans. The study concluded that Polynesians moved through Melanesia fairly rapidly, allowing only limited admixture between Austronesians and Papuans. [23] Polynesians belong almost entirely to the Haplogroup B (mtDNA) especially to mtDNA B4a1a1 (Polynesian motif), and thus the high frequencies of mtDNA B4 in the Polynesians are the result of drift and represent the descendants of a few Austronesian females who mixed with Papuan males. [24] The Polynesian population experienced a founder effect and genetic drift due to the ancestors of Polynesian being very few in numbers. [25] [26] As a result of founder effect, the Polynesian are distinctively different both genotypically and phenotypically from the parent population from which it is derived. This is due to new population being established by a very small number of individuals from a larger population which also causes a loss of genetic variation. [27] [28]

Soares et al. (2008) have argued for an older pre-Holocene Sundaland origin in Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) based on mitochondrial DNA. [29] The "out of Taiwan model" was challenged by a study from Leeds University and published in Molecular Biology and Evolution . Examination of mitochondrial DNA lineages shows that they have been evolving in ISEA for longer than previously believed. Ancestors of the Polynesians arrived in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea at least 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. [30]

A 2014 study by Lipson et al. using whole genome data supports the findings of Kayser et al. Modern Polynesians were shown to have lower levels of admixture with Australo-Melanesians than Austronesians in Island Melanesia. Regardless, both show admixture, along with other Austronesian populations outside of Taiwan, indicating varying degrees of intermarriage between the incoming Neolithic Austronesian settlers and the preexisting Paleolithic Australo-Melanesian populations of Island Southeast Asia and Melanesia. [31] [32] [33]

Other studies in 2016 and 2017 also support the implications that the earliest Lapita settlers mostly bypassed New Guinea, coming directly from Taiwan or the northern Philippines. The intermarriage and admixture with Australo-Melanesian Papuans evident in the genetics of modern Polynesians (as well as Islander Melanesians) occurred after the settlement of Tonga and Vanuatu. [34] [35] [36]

A 2020 study found that the Polynesians and the Indigenous peoples of South America, came in contact around 1200, centuries before Europeans interacted with either group. [37]


Female dancers of the Hawaii Islands depicted by Louis Choris, c. 1816 Danse des femmes dans les iles Sandwich (National Library of New Zealand).jpg
Female dancers of the Hawaii Islands depicted by Louis Choris, c. 1816
A portrait of Maori man, by Gottfried Lindauer. Paratene Te Manu, by Gottfried Lindauer.jpg
A portrait of Māori man, by Gottfried Lindauer.
Kava ('ava) makers (aumaga) of Samoa. A woman seated between two men with the round tanoa (or laulau) wooden bowl in front. Standing is a third man, distributor of the 'ava, holding the coconut shell cup (tauau) used for distributing the beverage. Samoan 'ava ceremony, c. 1900-1930 unknown photographer.jpg
Kava ('ava) makers (aumaga) of Samoa. A woman seated between two men with the round tanoa (or laulau) wooden bowl in front. Standing is a third man, distributor of the 'ava, holding the coconut shell cup (tauau) used for distributing the beverage.

There are an estimated 2 million ethnic Polynesians and many of partial Polynesian descent worldwide, the majority of whom live in Polynesia, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. [38] The Polynesian peoples are shown below in their distinctive ethnic and cultural groupings (estimates of the larger groups are shown):


Polynesian outliers:

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of the Pacific Islands</span> Historical development of the Pacific Islands

History of the Pacific Islands covers the history of the islands in the Pacific Ocean.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of Oceania</span> Historical development of Oceania

The history of Oceania includes the history of Australia, Easter Island, Fiji, Hawaii, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Western New Guinea, and other Pacific island nations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Melanesia</span> Subregion of Oceania

Melanesia is a subregion of Oceania in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. It extends from New Guinea in the west to the Fiji Islands in the east, and includes the Arafura Sea.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pacific Islander</span> Person from the Pacific Islands

Pacific Islanders, Pasifika, Pasefika, Pacificans or rarely Pacificers are the peoples of the Pacific Islands. As an ethnic/racial term, it is used to describe the original peoples—inhabitants and diasporas—of any of the three major subregions of Oceania.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lapita culture</span> Neolithic archaeological culture in the Pacific

The Lapita culture is the name given to a Neolithic Austronesian people and their material culture, who settled Island Melanesia via a seaborne migration at around 1600 to 500 BCE. They are believed to have originated from the northern Philippines, either directly, via the Mariana Islands, or both. They were notable for their distinctive geometric designs on dentate-stamped pottery, which closely resemble the pottery recovered from the Nagsabaran archaeological site in northern Luzon. The Lapita intermarried with the Papuan populations to various degrees, and are the direct ancestors of the Austronesian peoples of Polynesia, eastern Micronesia, and Island Melanesia.

The Micronesians or Micronesian peoples are various closely related ethnic groups native to Micronesia, a region of Oceania in the Pacific Ocean. They are a part of the Austronesian ethnolinguistic group, which has an Urheimat in Taiwan.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Melanesians</span> People of a geographical area

Melanesians are the predominant and indigenous inhabitants of Melanesia, in a wide area from Timor Leste to the Fiji Islands. Most speak either one of the many languages of the Austronesian language family, especially ones in the Oceanic branch, or from one of the many unrelated families of Papuan languages. Other languages are the several creoles of the region, such as Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, Solomon Islands Pijin, Bislama, and Papuan Malay.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polynesian outlier</span> Polynesian societies outside the main region

Polynesian outliers are a number of culturally Polynesian societies that geographically lie outside the main region of Polynesian influence, known as the Polynesian Triangle; instead, Polynesian outliers are scattered in the two other Pacific subregions: Melanesia and Micronesia. Based on archaeological and linguistic analysis, these islands are considered to have been colonized by seafaring Polynesians, mostly from the area of Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu.

Polynesian culture is the culture of the indigenous peoples of Polynesia who share common traits in language, customs and society. The development of Polynesian culture is typically divided into four different historical eras:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paper mulberry</span> Species of plant

The paper mulberry is a species of flowering plant in the family Moraceae. It is native to Asia, where its range includes Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, Myanmar, and India. It is widely cultivated elsewhere and it grows as an introduced species in parts of Europe, the United States, and Africa. Other common names include tapa cloth tree.

The indigenous peoples of Oceania are Aboriginal Australians, Papuans, and Austronesians. These indigenous peoples have a historical continuity with pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories. With the notable exceptions of Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, New Caledonia, Guam, and Northern Mariana Islands, indigenous peoples make up the majority of the populations of Oceania.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Oceanian art</span>

Oceanic art or Oceanian art comprises the creative works made by the native people of the Pacific Islands and Australia, including areas as far apart as Hawaii and Easter Island. Specifically it comprises the works of the two groups of people who settled the area, though during two different periods. They would in time however, come to interact and together reach even more remote islands. The area is often broken down into four separate regions: Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia and Australia. Australia, along with interior Melanesia (Papua), are populated by descendants of the first waves of human migrations into the region by Australo-Melanesians. Micronesia, Island Melanesia, and Polynesia, on the other hand, are descendants of later Austronesian voyagers who intermixed with native Australo-Melanesians; mostly via the Neolithic Lapita culture. All of the regions in later times would be greatly affected by western influence and colonization. In more recent times, the people of Oceania have found a greater appreciation of their region's artistic heritage.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polynesian navigation</span> Methods to navigate the Pacific Ocean

Polynesian navigation or Polynesian wayfinding was used for thousands of years to enable long voyages across thousands of kilometers of the open Pacific Ocean. Polynesians made contact with nearly every island within the vast Polynesian Triangle, using outrigger canoes or double-hulled canoes. The double-hulled canoes were two large hulls, equal in length, and lashed side by side. The space between the paralleled canoes allowed for storage of food, hunting materials, and nets when embarking on long voyages. Polynesian navigators used wayfinding techniques such as the navigation by the stars, and observations of birds, ocean swells, and wind patterns, and relied on a large body of knowledge from oral tradition.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polynesia</span> Subregion of Oceania

Polynesia is a subregion of Oceania, made up of more than 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean. The indigenous people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia are called Polynesians. They have many things in common, including language relatedness, cultural practices, and traditional beliefs. In centuries past, they had a strong shared tradition of sailing and using stars to navigate at night. The largest country in Polynesia is New Zealand.

Listed here are notable ethnic groups and native populations from the Oceania and East Indonesia by human Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups based on relevant studies.

Various genetic studies on Filipinos have been performed, to analyze the population genetics of the various ethnic groups in the Philippines.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Domesticated plants and animals of Austronesia</span> Ancient expansion of agriculture

One of the major human migration events was the maritime settlement of the islands of the Indo-Pacific by the Austronesian peoples, believed to have started from at least 5,500 to 4,000 BP. These migrations were accompanied by a set of domesticated, semi-domesticated, and commensal plants and animals transported via outrigger ships and catamarans that enabled early Austronesians to thrive in the islands of Maritime Southeast Asia, Near Oceania (Melanesia), Remote Oceania, Madagascar, and the Comoros Islands.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polynesian multihull terminology</span>

Polynesian multihull terminology, such as "ama", "aka" and "vaka" are multihull terms that have been widely adopted beyond the South Pacific where these terms originated. This Polynesian terminology is in common use in the Americas and the Pacific but is almost unknown in Europe, where the Anglo-Saxon terms "hull" and "outrigger" form normal parlance. Outriggers, catamarans, and outrigger boats are a common heritage of all Austronesian peoples and predate the Micronesian and Polynesian expansion into the Pacific. They are also the dominant forms of traditional ships in Island Southeast Asian and Malagasy Austronesian cultures, where local terms are used.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Māori history</span> History of Māori

The history of the Māori began with the arrival of Polynesian settlers in New Zealand, in a series of ocean migrations in canoes starting from the late 13th or early 14th centuries. Over several centuries of isolation, the Polynesian settlers formed a distinct culture that became known as the Māori.


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