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Early European explorers were astounded to find the far-flung South Pacific islands inhabited by peoples who shared similar physical characteristics, languages, and cultures. How had these people -- who lived a late-Stone Age existence and had no written languages -- crossed the Pacific long before Christopher Columbus had the courage to sail out of sight of land? Where had they come from? Those questions baffled European explorers, and continue to intrigue scientists and scholars today.

The First Settlers

The late Thor Heyerdahl drifted in his raft Kon Tiki from South America to French Polynesia in 1947, to prove his theory that the Polynesians came from the Americas. Bolstered by linguistic and DNA studies linking the Polynesians to Taiwan, however, experts now believe the Pacific Islanders have their roots in eastern Asia. The accepted view is that during the Ice Age a race of humans known as Australoids migrated from Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and Australia, when those two countries were joined as one land mass. Another group, the Papuans, arrived from Southeast Asia between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Later a lighter-skinned race known as Austronesians pushed the Papuans out into the more eastern South Pacific islands.

The most tangible remains of the early Austronesians are remnants of pottery, the first shards of which were found during the 1970s in Lapita, in New Caledonia. Probably originating in Papua New Guinea, Lapita pottery spread east as far as Tonga. Throughout the area, it was decorated with geometric designs similar to those used today on Tongan tapa cloth.

Apparently the Lapita culture died out some 2,500 years ago, for by the time European explorers arrived in the 1770s, gourds and coconut shells were the only crockery used by the Polynesians, who cooked their meals underground and ate with their fingers off banana leaves. Of the islanders covered in this book, only the Fijians still make pottery using Lapita methods.

Melanesians

The islands settled by the Papuans and Austronesians are known collectively as Melanesia, which includes Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. Fiji is the melting pot of the Melanesians to the west and the Polynesians to the east.

The name Melanesia is derived from the Greek words melas, "black," and nesos, "island." The Melanesians in general have features more akin to sub-Saharan Africans: skin color ranging from brown to black, flat or hooked noses, full lips, and wiry hair. But interbreeding among the successive waves of migrants resulted in many subgroups with varying physical characteristics. That's why the Fijians look more African-American than Polynesian. Their culture, on the other hand, has many Polynesian elements, brought by interbreeding and conquest.

Polynesians

The Polynesians' ancestors stopped in Fiji on their migration from Southeast Asia but later pushed on into the eastern South Pacific. Archaeologists now believe that they settled in Samoa more than 3,000 years ago and then slowly fanned out to colonize the vast Polynesian triangle.

These extraordinary mariners crossed thousands of miles of ocean in double-hulled canoes capable of carrying scores of people, animals, and plants. They navigated by the stars, the wind, the clouds, the shape of the waves, and the flight pattern of birds -- a remarkable achievement for a people who had no written languages.

Their ancestors fought each other with war clubs for thousands of years, and it stands to reason that the biggest, strongest, and quickest survived (many modern Polynesians have become professional football and rugby players). The notion that all Polynesians are fat is incorrect. In the old days, body size did indeed denote wealth and status, but obesity today is more likely attributable to poor diet. On the other hand, village chiefs are still expected to partake of food and drink with anyone who visits to discuss a problem; hence, great weight remains an unofficial marker of social status.

Polynesian Society -- Although Polynesians frequently experienced wars among their various tribes, generally their conflicts were not as bloody as those in Fiji. Nor were their wars as likely to end with cannibalistic orgies at the expense of the losers as in Fiji and Melanesia, where cannibalism was widely practiced.

Polynesians developed highly structured societies. Strong and sometimes despotic chiefdoms developed on many islands. The royal family of Tonga continues a line of leaders who were so powerful in the 1700s that they conquered much of Fiji, where they installed Polynesian customs, including their hereditary chief system. Melanesians are more likely to choose their "big men" by consensus rather than ancestry.

In some places, such as Tahiti, the Polynesians developed a class system of chiefs, priests, nobility, commoners, and slaves. Their societies emphasized elaborate formalities. Even today ceremonies featuring kava -- that slightly narcotic drink so loved in the islands -- play important roles in Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji. Everyday life was governed by a system based on tabu, a list of things a person could or couldn't do, depending on his/her status. Tabu and its variants (tapu, tambu) are used throughout the South Pacific to mean "do not enter"; from them derives the English word taboo.

Western principles of ownership have made inroads, but by and large everything in Polynesia and Fiji -- especially land -- is owned communally by families. In effect, the system is pure communism at the family level. If your brother has a crop of taro and you're hungry, then some of that taro belongs to you. The same principle applies to a can of corned beef on a shelf in a store, which helps explain why islander-owned grocery shops often teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. It also explains why you should keep an eye on your valuables.

Although many islanders would be considered poor by Western standards, no one in the villages goes hungry or sleeps without a roof over his or her head. Most of the thatch roofs in Polynesia today are actually bungalows at the resort hotels; nearly everyone else sleeps under tin. It's little wonder, therefore, that visitors are greeted throughout the islands by friendly, peaceable, and extraordinarily courteous people.

The Old Gods -- Before the coming of Christian missionaries in the 1800s, the Fijians believed in many spirits in the animist traditions of Melanesia. The Polynesians, however, subscribed to the idea of a supreme spirit, who ruled over a plethora of lesser deities, who, in turn, governed the sun, fire, volcanoes, sea, war, and fertility. Tikis were carved of stone or wood to give each god a home (but not a permanent residence) during religious ceremonies, and stone maraes were built as temples and meeting places for the chiefs. Sacrifices -- sometimes human -- were offered to the gods.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.