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). 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.
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
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. 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
The direct ancestors of the Polynesians were the
NeolithicLapita 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
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
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.
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. Another study by Friedlaender et al. (2008) also confirmed that some Polynesians are closer genetically to
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. 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. The Polynesian population experienced a
founder effect and genetic drift due to the ancestors of Polynesian being very few in numbers. As a result of founder effect, the Polynesian are distinctively different both
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.
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
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
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. The Polynesian peoples are shown below in their distinctive ethnic and cultural groupings (estimates of the larger groups are shown):
^Pietrusewsky, Michael (2006). "Initial Settlement of remote Oceania: the evidence from physical anthropology". In Simanjuntak, T.; Pojoh, I.H.E.; Hisyam, M. (eds.). Austronesian Disapora and the Ethnogenesis of People in Indonesian Archipelago. Proceedings of the International Symposium. Jakarta: LIPI Press. pp. 320–347.
^Magelssen, Scott (March 2016). "White-Skinned Gods: Thor Heyerdahl, the Kon-Tiki Museum, and the Racial Theory of Polynesian Origins". TDR/The Drama Review. 60 (1): 25–49.