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The high volcanic islands of French Polynesia had been indicated as being the base for the development of Polynesian social structure, its art and its customs. For the precise date of their first arrival no reliable evidence is available, and if a guess is ventured it could fall equally appropriately on the century of Roman withdrawal from Britain or that of the Saxon invasion.

Whatever the date, the period of occupation was sufficient for the development, by the time of European discovery over 200 years ago, of three grades or social classes among the inhabitants: the manahune or landless serfs; the class of landed proprietors ra'atira (ringatira), who held them in subjection; and a supreme aristocracy the ari'i (ariki or aliki). Traditions and religious ceremonies in this area show that political aristocracy first arose in the western island of Raiatea, which formerly bore the significant name of Havaii (cf. Hawaiki) - "Vikings of the Sunrise": Ch. VIII - and retained its prestige even though Tahiti ultimately grew to dominance.

The subsequent migrations and disbursals from Tahiti, such as that to the Marquesas, 900 miles north-east of Tahiti, which took place in the 10th century, and the migration to New Zealand 400 years later, were probably made by the ringatira class, who founded it economically difficult and socially intolerable to continue in submission to the ariki. This would seem to be definitely so in the Cook Islands, whose chiefs falsified their genealogy, claiming direct descent from the gods in order to eliminate or suppress those details in their ancestry which would reveal their descent from the less important chiefs of Rarotonga.

Although the inhabitants of Polynesia were physically akin to one another and shared a common culture, considerable differences arose in their manner of life in response to the widely different environments which the islands offered.

The high islands for instance, such as Tahiti and Rarotonga, had deep, sheltered, forest-clad valleys leading down to fertile, alluvial plains; water was abundant, and there was a great variety of food plants and material resources. On the low islands, coconut and pandanus might be the only useful trees and areas for cultivation would probably be limited. Not only did the varied environment, with limited resources here with abundant supplies there, have their influence on life and customs, and on the articles made for use and pleasure, but isolation also had a marked effect, particularly upon decorative art and on religion.


Two trees, coconut and breadfruit, provided the staple vegetable food of Polynesia and their relative importance was in accordance with the height of the island. Coconut grew on low-lying areas while the breadfruit was planted on the slopes of the high islands. Breadfruit was baked for daily use, and mashed baked breadfruit, which kept indefinitely provided both a valuable reserve for food for time of scarcity and an esteemed relish at all times. In Polynesia, the serving of food to guests was done in accordance with the degree of ceremony.

Kava is drunk throughout Polynesia, except New Zealand and is made by adding water to the pounded root of the pepper tree. In some low islands a special brew of coconut is substituted for kava. In all sections of the Southsea islands, food bowls were made of wood, but pottery was made only in some parts of Melanesia.


For clothing, a strong, tough, but pliable paper (tapa) was made by felting the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree and the breadfruit, but plaited grass fabrics were also made everywhere, and alone were used on the coral atolls. Tapa was decorated with attractive designs, which were usually painted but sometimes printed.


Houses in tropical Polynesia were merely thatched rooms, supported on stout centre and side posts, and, except for movable screens used temporarily to keep out driving rain were without walls. Throughout Polynesian dwelling houses were of modest size, but very large buildings were erected to serve as meeting places and guest houses, and as a focus for hospitality and social and religious ceremonies. These houses stood on a stone platform originally no more than a foundation. In eastern Polynesia the platform became much larger and more elaborate and was bounded by carefully built walls of dressed stone around which stood either large upright slabs or carved stone figures representing gods or ancestors.

The erection of commemorative carvings is a fundamentally eastern Polynesian practice which found expression in a medium and a manner related to local conditions and resources. In Tahiti, stone figures were fashioned and in the Marquesas Islands naturalistic carvings in both wood and stone were made. But it was in Easter Island however that sculptures attained their most majestic proportions.

Large, but not gigantic, stone figures formally stood in Raivavae, a southern outlier of the Tahiti islands. Statues of wood and stone of medium size were made also in the Marquesas Islands and from these and other resemblances it is often considered that the Easter Islanders could have migrated from the Marquesas though, there is evidence in culture and myth that Mangareva might have been their last prior homeland.


The fact that the Polynesians inhabited Easter Island is almost as remarkable as their achievements in sculpture. Easter Island is 1,750 miles from Mangareva and is an isolated speck in a wide open ocean. The Polynesians sailed to Easter Island as they sailed to the Marquesas and to New Zealand, and as they had sailed for hundreds of years from island to island across the broad Pacific. Their craft were frail but buoyant and generations of experience, added to bravery and enterprise, had made them the best navigators of their time in the world. They lacked nautical instruments, but their knowledge of the stars and of the winds prevailing in the different seasons kept them on their main course, while their custom of sailing in squadron, spread over a wide front by day, though gathered together at night time increased their chance of sighting land.


The Pacific often belies its name, with even the smallest community inhabiting low coral islets finding occasion for war. The men love fighting at all times, and social and economic stress gave them frequent occasion. Fighting, however was not haphazard; custom and tapu impose upon it a certain orderliness. Treacherous attacks were seldom made; instead, a raiding party would halt before its opponent village, and formal challenges from tribe to tribe, from family to family, and even from individual to individual would be made. Sometimes, indeed, the battlefield was carefully cleared of trees and shrubs.

Examples of Polynesian handicraft.

The most surprising feature was a deliberate restriction in the type of weapon to be used; the bow and arrow, though known throughout Polynesia, were never used in fighting, but only in a formal archery practice or competition in which chiefs alone took part. Clubs, spears and throwing stones were the weapons chosen, and the battle between the opposing lines, which had been carefully drawn up according to rank, commenced with a volley of hurled stones. A general melee of hand-to-hand combats with spear and club immediately followed, but even here a man shows as his opponent an enemy of rank and status equal to his own.


The chief decorative art of Polynesia was wood carving. Also, tattooing had an ornamental purpose as did the painted designs on tapa and the intricate cord-lashing patterns on adze handles. Intricate carved patterns on weapons, canoe and houses generally had some symbolic significance - perhaps a story of the gods, or some episode in legends or tradition. The most obvious symbolism are found on the Easter Island tablets, the carvings on which appear to have hieroglyphic characters.


The commemoration of ancestors whose personal mana persisted after death was an essential part of Polynesian religion. The only variation was in the relative importance of the different gods. The chief place, according to Tane in New Zealand, was held by Tu, the war god in Hawaii, and by Tangaroa in Central and Eastern Polynesia. Sometimes the function of a god varied; Rongo, the Tahitian god of agriculture became a war god in Hawaii.

See Polynesian Mythology

The marae, where elaborate ritual with human sacrifice was practised, was the centre of public religious practice. Images of the gods were made but not worshipped as idols; they stood around the marae or were kept in special god-houses or in a curtain sanctuary in a priest's home.

The spiritual sanction of religion was mana, the influence of power and authority believed to exist in all gods and to be invested in men of rank and authority. It was acquired from the gods by ritual and incantation; but, just as some men command respect without having to demand it, so did men of rank and personality find it inherent in them. The most powerful negative influence was tapu, which set an article apart as too powerful, too charged with mana, and therefore too dangerous to be touched. Only a special ritual carried out by a priest could remove the tapu and render an article usable again.

The exalted rank of chiefs, particularly of the ariki or aristocracy was inherent in the powerful tapu of their person; it demanded low obeisance from all who approached them, and the same powerful influence protected their food supplies and their possessions.

The social ceremonies were subsidiary only to religious observances. Tribal rank was emphasized in large tribal gatherings, at which every man sat and spoke according to a precisely predetermined precedence, which was observed also in the distribution of food during their accompanying feast, or in ceremonial kava drinking.   

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