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6 amazing facts about the ancient Polynesians

When you hear the word “Polynesia,” do you instantly picture a tropical island, blue-green waters, exotic plants, and friendly locals? Polynesia is a region that stretches across the Pacific Ocean and can include places ranging from New Zealand and surrounding islands in Oceania to Hawaii and Easter Island. Generally speaking, anyone with indigenous ancestry from this region is known as Polynesian. But how much do you know about Polynesian culture? If you’re not up on your history, you’ll enjoy these interesting facts.

Polynesian is a generic term

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To call an indigenous person from Polynesia “Polynesian” is a bit like using the blanket term “African” to reference anyone who lives on the continent of Africa. It’s not wrong but it’s a little lazy. While it outlines that a person is from a specific region of islands in the Pacific Ocean, it doesn’t recognize the nuances between the various ethnicities. In truth, there are roughly 36 unique ethnicities and cultures that can be considered Polynesian, including the more well-known cultures such as Maori, Tahitian, and Samoan.

In ancient Tahiti, a caste system existed

Photo of an ancient Tahitian statue
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Typically, when you hear the phrase “caste system” you might picture India. But the idea of a rigid class system isn’t unique to the nation with the second-largest population in the world. In ancient Tahiti, there was a very strict class system that heavily discouraged intermarrying between them. This policy was upheld so strongly that any children borne from relations between two people of different classes would be killed.

Large villages weren’t a thing

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In today’s modern society, the idea of a small decentralized village can seem foreign. But for many Polynesian cultures, familial homes were more important with only a few communal spaces located nearby. These gathering spaces centered around religious ceremonies or social functions. However, you could easily determine a family’s social status simply by looking at the decor of their home. Upper class or nobility tended to own furniture that featured ornate carvings. And wealthier individuals also had sleeping mattresses in their homes.

The Ori Tahiti and the hula are often mistaken as the same dance

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Remember how we said earlier that the word “Polynesian” is a bit of a catch-all term for various cultures within the region? Well, a perfect example of how easily people mistake one culture for another is with the hula and the Ori Tahiti dance. While similar outfits may be worn by the dancers, and both art forms are intended to tell a story — that’s it for similarities.

The hula is Hawaiian in origin and features slow gentle movements of the hips, arms, and hands. It is considered a very graceful dance and is designed as if to replace the oral tradition and tell the history of the Hawaiian people. In contrast, the Ori Tahiti is a faster-paced dance with rapid movements and intense hip-shaking. Not only is it accompanied with driving drums, but it focuses on telling the story of everyday people.

Polynesians first settled the area in 800 CE

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Most historians and experts agree that the Maori were the first to settle in what is now known as Polynesia. The earliest records place them in New Zealand as far back as 800 CE. By all accounts, their new homeland was nothing like what they had left behind in Southeast Asia. New Zealand’s colder and wetter climate meant the settlers had to adapt to their new surroundings. But it wasn’t until 1500 CE that the Maori began to develop the intricate village systems that we know today.

The Polynesians were considered expert navigators

Photo of Polynesian people rowing a large canoe
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The idea of setting sail for parts unknown in nothing more than a canoe with the stars and sun as your guide probably seems a little crazy. But it’s only been within the last century that people could rely on technology like GPS to chart a course with confidence. Before these inventions, and even those used by European explorers like the sextant or the compass, many Polynesian cultures were relying on celestial bodies, interpretation of waves, ocean swells, understanding wind speeds, and even patterns in local wildlife.

One of the most popular navigation methods was “downwind sailing.” Rather than setting a direct course to a particular place on a map, you plan to travel slightly north of your goal and then turn directions and let the wind push you to your final destination.