Pacific islanders (Polynesians, Melanesians, Micronesians) before contact with Europeans were able seafarers that had discovered and settled virtually all Pacific islands that could sustain permanent settlements, including rather isolated ones such as Rapa Nui (Easter Island), New Zealand, and Hawaii. Furthermore, there were empires spanning numerous islands spread out across hundreds of kilometers, such as the Tu'i Tonga empire. This gives the impression of a sophisticated seafaring culture that would extensively explore and regularly visit all noteworthy lands found in and around the Pacific ocean.

However, this does not appear to be the case. Instead, some island cultures would - for lack of resources for shipbuilding or for other reasons - lose the ability to build oceangoing vessels. This is the case for both Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Moriori of Rekohu (Chatham Islands). It is conceivable that they preferred isolation over maintaining contact with other islands, though the hardships resulting from changing their way of life and their subsistence economy may make this unlikely. But why were they not rediscovered by other Polynesians?

It seems that some island populations even became extinct when natural resources were exhausted. An example are the Polynesian settlements on Pitcairn and Henderson Island, though this has been linked to civil war on Mangareva Island with which they were apparently in contact.

Furthermore, if they could explore and settle almost every single Pacific island, why would they have missed the surrounding continents, which presumably would have been quite a bit easier to find? There is limited evidence for interactions with South America on a very limited scale, but there was apparently no established trade network let alone migrations of political interactions.

Regarding exchange between Pacific Islands and Australia, there may simply be no record of this. Two HB questions (this one and this one) regarding this resulted in the assessment that: 1. there are no known prehistoric contacts between native Australians and Pacific islanders (specifically Maori). 2. Pacific Islanders (whether Polynesians of Melanesians or others) would have had no interest in settling Australia (different climate from what they were used to). 3. They would not have had superior weaponry over that of the Australian Aborigines.


To what extent were Pacific island cultures in contact with one-another? What was the nature of their seafaring?

  • Was it a continuous and extensive trade network with political interactions like in the ancient Mediterranean?
  • Did such a trade network exist only in the core areas, such as in the the Tu'i Tonga empire, with outlying islands being isolated?
  • Were interactions rather local, to neighboring islands only, with a few rare examples of daring explorers visiting far-away lands?
  • Did this change over time with periods of extensive trade and integration and periods of the breakdown of inter-island exchange?
  • Was ocean-seafaring done by only a small group (a caste? a tribe?) of the wider population?
  • Or was, while the capabilities existed, no seafaring conducted for the purpose of trade (and consequently no need for continuous exchange over longer distances)?

Edit (March 10 2018): As suggested by @Semaphore I now limited the scope of the question to Polynesians. I do not want to discourage interesting insights about Melanesians or Micronesians or others, but maybe this will make the question easier to answer.

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    Could you focus on a specific culture or island group? The Pacific is a gigantic place. Even within the Polynesian Triangle you have a different picture from one end to the other, and I rather doubt one could generalise the Polynesian experience with the much denser Melanesia. In any case, in Polynesia there was no need for long distance trade between remote island groups (as opposed to within, e.g. South Island moa meat trade in NZ). Voyages after colonisation were mainly for familial purposes, which eventually died out (literally), causing long distance sea faring to decline.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 18:26
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    @0range - I am not sure why you limit the history of Pacific Islanders to just before European discovery (as per your comment, 1700s). As for "the time frame for which the question can conceivably be answered" (again, from comments) - you can go back 3000BP. You might find what you're looking for in Lapita culture. Much research from mid-80s is available online today, in particular, on Lapita ceramic series (i.e. pottery culture) and Lapita Homeland Project.
    – J Asia
    Commented Mar 11, 2018 at 23:52
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    Here's a very relevant article, I'll develop it into an answer if I find time: uhpress.hawaii.edu/journals/jwh/jwh052p273.pdf
    – Brian Z
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 0:37
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    @BrianZ - With this paper, this question has gone from 3000 BP to 30,000+ BP? If you find time, I believe Finney's paper is superseded by Sheppard, "Lapita Colonization across the Near/Remote Oceania Boundary" (University of Auckland, 2011).
    – J Asia
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 1:00
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    FWIW this question (or rather, the 7 questions in your post) strikes me as far too broad even with the current scope. Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 11:28

2 Answers 2


"Was it a continuous and extensive trade network with political interactions like in the ancient Mediterranean?"

No. Unlike the Mediterranean, trade is much more marginal in Polynesia. The problem is that all of the islands pretty much all had the same resources. Now, within the same island chain, there was potential for specialisation in comparative advantages. One notable example is the trade of moa meat from South Island to the North Island within New Zealand - there was bird meat in the north as well, but the relative abundance in the south meant short-distance trade made sense.

Beyond nearby islands within the same island group, the vast distances rapidly makes most trading not worth the trouble.

Although inter-island canoes did ply between the islands of the group and to a few islands outside it, trade was only a small part of the Tahitian economy . . . trade between the volcanic islands which contained the bulk of the population was probably limited to unique specialties, such as a special type of red feathers for the adornment of sacred loin-clothes worn by ruling chiefs, for each high island contained most, if not all, the range of resources available in the group as a whole.

Finney, Ben R. Polynesians Peasants and Proletarians. Schenkman Publishing, 1973.

However, as the example above hints, the main exception is religious or ceremonial items.

"Did such a trade network exist only in the core areas, such as in the the Tu'i Tonga empire, with outlying islands being isolated?"

In fact the Tu'i Tonga trade network is an example of such trades in ceremonial goods.

It appears that the pre—eminent Tongan context for the use of Fijian and Samoan trade goods was, and is, on ceremonial occasions and especially weddings, funerals, and various kinds of state and religious celebrations. At funeral presentations Samoan fine mats are the most important material object - a number of them being necessary as a cover for the dead and as gifts.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L. "Exchange patterns in goods and spouses: Fiji, Tonga and Samoa." The Australian Journal of Anthropology 11.3 (1978): 246-252.

This went hand in hand with the other major reason for transoceanic Polynesian contact - marriage.

In Tongan society, a woman and her children were traditionally of higher rank than her brother. If the highest ranekd sister of the Tu'i Tonga married a tongan, her son, being of superior rank, could pose a threat to the ruler's political position. By marrying a prominent Fijian, the Tu'i Tonga Fefine protected the Tu'i Tonga's status, since her offspring were considered to belong to the Fijian line, the Fale Fisi, and thus ineligible for Tongan kingship. For the hau or active ruler, a marriage with a Tongan woman might produce children of diminished rank, a problem the hau and other Tongan nobles often avoided by marrying high-ranked Samoan women. From the Tongan standpoint, Samoa served as a wife-giver and Fiji as a "husband-giver".

Hommon, Robert J. The Ancient Hawaiian State: Origins of a Political Society. Oxford University Press, 2013.

In this way, dynastic concerns served to maintain a link between the disparate edges of the so-called "Tu'i Tonga empire". The resulting familial ties were a major reason for long distance voyages between far apart islands. Early Polynesian settlers of both Hawaii and New Zealand made return trips for genealogical visits.

Unlike shorter distance examples like the Tui'tongans, however, Hawaii and New Zealand were too far away to keep up regular exchanges. Voyagers grew more and more infrequent until they ceased altogether when family ties died out, literally.

"Were interactions rather local, to neighboring islands only, with a few rare examples of daring explorers visiting far-away lands?"

As seen in the case of the Tu'i Tonga example, the islands were not actually "neighbouring". However, in general most voyages were indeed only regional, at least relative to the vast expanses of the Pacific. This does not mean only "daring explorers" range far, though. Beyond the initial discovery, detailed knowledge of how to reach the islands of Polynesia were often passed down generation to generation.

One example was Tupaia, known to the West for having boarded the HMS Endeavour during Captain James Cook's voyage to New Zealand. Even though he had only ever been to a few personally, mostly nearby ones, Tupaia knew of some 130 islands across Polynesia, including Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji on the eastern end of Polynesia, and Marquesas to the east. Moreover, he remembered from his forebears detailed instructions on how to get to the islands.

He was not, however, aware of Hawaii or New Zealand.

"Did this change over time with periods of extensive trade and integration and periods of the breakdown of inter-island exchange?"

The curious thing about the aforementioned gap in Tupaia's knowledge is that Hawaii was reputedly settled by Marquesans and Tahitians. This indicate that Tahiti's knowledge of the further islands did indeed die out after the voyages ceased.

In contrast, kinship ties to Taihiti was preserved in Hawaiian memory.

It is thus on account of her being the mother of chiefs, both here [Hawaii] and in Tahiti, that she is called Papa Nui Hanau Moku. She is said to have been a comely, handsome woman, very fair and almost white. Papa is said to have travelled eight times between Tahiti and Hawaii, and died in a place called Waieri, in Tahiti, during the time of Nanakehili, the fifth in descent from her and Wakea.

Cartwright, Bruce. "The Legend of Hawaii-loa." The Journal of the Polynesian Society 38.2 (150 (1929): 105-121.

"Was ocean-seafaring done by only a small group (a caste? a tribe?) of the wider population?"

It depends on how far you mean. Obviously, only vey specially trained navigators, as Tupaia was, could have known how to reach islands hundreds and even a thousand kilometers away. They could not have seen where they were going, and had to rely on specialist knowledge of navigation by sun and the stars, as well as wave and wind patterns.

On the other hand, the ability to kayak between nearby islands within a local island group was not remarkable.

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    I saw a documentary in the 1980s about the methods of Polynesian navigation. According to that documentary, and my memory, they used primarily wave patterns to determine the location and navigation. Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 18:11
  • @axsvl77 Ah yes, I've read about the navigators relying on the feeling of waves against their canoes for navigation. Pretty amazing, really.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 17, 2018 at 6:44

There was contact, but trade wasn't on their mind. A few factors to consider:

  1. The land is incredibly fertile. Fish are simple to gather, the land is lush and full of ready food sources, and there are tons of resources to make tools from.

  2. Islands are relatively consistent. Most islands usually contained the same generally abundant resources and there was little one could make on one island that couldn't be made on another. Simple economics, it's cheaper to make the goods locally than it is to trade over the seas.

  3. Land is scarce, not resources. There is really no parallel on the planet to this. 3b?. People also fit into above...none of these civilizations had large populations.

If you consider war an export, then yes...they traded frequently.

Conflict history of hawai'i: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_conflicts_in_Hawaii

War of Tonga and Samoa: http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document//Volume_8_1899/Volume_8%2C_No._4%2C_December_1899/The_war_of_Tonga_and_Samoa_and_origin_of_the_name_Malietoa%2C_by_Rev._S._Ella%2C_p_231-234/p1

The Tu'i Tonga in particular set up a large chain of basically vassal states that would pay tribute to them.

More on the Samoan wars http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-StaOldS-t1-body-d10.html

Wars amongst the Samoans were for a long time frequent and bloody; indeed, it was seldom that the islands were free from actual warfare or local quarrels, which were often decided by an appeal to arms. It was so in the olden times, and a remarkable statement in an old tradition reveals very strikingly the warlike sentiment.


Speaking of the Samoans as he found them in 1830, John Williams says, 'The wars of the Samoans were frequent and destructive…. The island of Apolima was the natural fortress of the people of Manono, a small but important island. These people, although ignorant of the art of writing, kept an account of the number of battles they had fought, by depositing a stone of a peculiar form in a basket, which was very carefully fastened to the ridge of a sacred house appropriated to that purpose. This basket was let down, and the stones were counted whilst I was there, and the number was one hundred and twenty-seven, showing that they had fought that number of battles.' And this was the list for one portion of the islands only! In this record, too, a stone was not placed after every conflict or battle, but simply at the close of each struggle or campaign, the stones being larger or smaller according to the duration of the conflict

Cook islands (Roratongo): http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-BucMangi-t1-body-d3-d2.html

The history of Mangaia illustrates the attempt of the Ngariki to keep the position of Temporal Lord of Mangaia within their own tribe, and their ultimate failure through the ambition of the warlike Tongaiti. Once precedent was broken down in this direction, the hope of establishing a hereditary ariki with temporal power over the whole island vanished. The principle that temporal power was the reward of war and not of hereditary descent led to frequent changes of secular government and offers a marked contrast to the social organization of Rarotonga, where secular power remained in the hands of the ariki families and succession was hereditary.

I think you can find a similar history in almost every Polynesian culture. They did invent the Haka war dances after all.

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