IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > F. The Pacific Region, 1513–1798
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
F. The Pacific Region, 1513–1798
The term “Pacific” is used here to refer to the “island Pacific,” not the Pacific Rim or the Pacific Basin. The latter two terms are generally used to describe the larger continental masses and nations that surround the Pacific Ocean, the Americas in the east and Asia and Australia in the west.  1
1. The Pacific Islands in Pre-European Times
The Pacific Ocean is the largest single feature of the globe, covering a third of the earth's surface. It contains some 25,000 islands totaling 1.6 million square kilometers scattered across about 88 million square kilometers of water. The region, which exhibits considerable physical and cultural diversity, is conveniently divided into Melanesia (islands of Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, and parts of Fiji), Micronesia (small islands north of the equator), and Polynesia (many islands in the triangle stretching from Hawaii through New Zealand to Easter Island). The region contains several distinct types of island formations. Many of the Melanesian islands in the east are large continental masses with tall, densely forested mountains, deep valleys, large rivers, and swampy coastal areas. Many of the Polynesian islands are volcanic, with corrugated mountain ranges divided by deep valleys. The central and northern parts of the Pacific have low-lying coral islands surrounded by reef and sometimes just a meter or two above water. The physical geography of the islands helps shape their climate. Thus, the larger continental islands have warm temperatures, high humidity, and heavy rainfall. The atolls, with much smaller land masses, are more vulnerable to the elements.  2
The Pacific was the last major habitable area to be settled by humans (See Southeast Asia). There was once much disagreement among scholars about how and by what route the Pacific Islands were settled, but recent archaeological, linguistic, and botanical research has resolved the controversy. It is now accepted that the ancestral homeland of Pacific Island peoples was in Southeast Asia, which was settled some 2 million years ago. From there, small numbers of people, probably in several waves, settled the then joint landmass of Australia and Papua New Guinea, perhaps 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. About 4,000 years ago, they branched out from the New Guinea mainland and reached island Melanesia, settling New Caledonia and New Hebrides (Vanuatu). By about 3,500 years ago, Fiji was settled. Five hundred years later, Tonga and Samoa were settled. In Samoa, from where no further migration seems to have taken place for the next 2,000 years, the basic institutions of Polynesian culture took shape. The Marquesas Islands were settled around 300 C.E., Hawaii and Tahiti around 600 C.E., and New Zealand 750 C.E.  3
The manner in which the islands were settled once aroused much debate. Andrew Sharp, a New Zealand scholar, argued that the Polynesians lacked the navigational technology and skill to embark on purposeful voyages of settlement across vast expanses of empty seas. Some of the islands were undoubtedly settled accidentally. However, combining oral and documentary evidence with practical seamanship, David Lewis has shown that ancient Polynesians had the knowledge and the skill to make a three-way voyage, to discover an island, return home, and then return to the new island to settle it. For the Polynesians, Lewis argued, the empty ocean was full of telltale signs (cloud formations, swell patterns, drift objects, patterns of bird flights), and they read these just as Western navigators read their charts. Purposeful voyages thus probably served as a major vehicle for the initial colonization of the islands.  4
Cultural diversity characterized the traditional Pacific, though most Polynesian islands exhibit linguistic and cultural similarities that are due, in part, to frequent trading and social contacts. The greatest diversity is found in the larger continental islands of Melanesia, where over a thousand languages are known to exist, most spoken by just a few thousand people. Ancestor worship, initiation ceremonies, warfare, and other such practices were an integral part of the traditional Melanesian world, as was subsistence agriculture. Melanesian societies were generally small in scale and egalitarian in ethos. Leadership was exercised by “big men” who achieved positions of power and authority through personal ability, ambition, adept manipulation of kinship and social networks, and the accumulation and strategic distribution of wealth. The position of big men was generally not heritable, though sons of big men, if they were able, had an advantage over other competitors.  5
Polynesian societies, on the other hand, were larger in scale and more hierarchically organized. Lineage defined and structured the social system. The lineage that could trace its roots back through several generations to a common founding ancestor, real or fictitious, claimed, and was accorded, a higher social standing and seniority. Its head was often the leading or paramount chief of the entire clan. Chiefs, variously known throughout Polynesia as ariki or ali'i, were thought to possess mana—moral power and authority—and had well-defined rights and obligations in relation to their people. They commanded respect and deference, exercised control over the production and distribution of the primary resources, and often received the first fruits of the land as symbolic tribute.  6
The chiefs exercised greater power in some Polynesian societies than in others. In Tonga, Tahiti, and Hawaii, for example, their rule extended over large areas and thousands of people. Here, chiefs formed an exclusive and powerful class and married within that group. In Marquesas and New Zealand, the system of stratification was less developed. Micronesian societies exhibited traits found both in Melanesia and Polynesia. The smaller atolls in the Carolines, for example, were basically egalitarian in character, while high islands such as Pohnpei and the Marshall Islands had a highly developed system of chieftainships.  7
The population of the Pacific Islands at the time of European contact cannot be estimated with any accuracy. Some estimates place the population of Melanesia at 3.5 million, of which 3 million were found in New Guinea and 500,000 in the smaller islands of Melanesia. In Polynesia, the population numbered around half a million, though recent work suggests a much higher figure. In Hawaii, according to most conventional figures, the population at contact was around 250,000, but some recent researchers have put the figure at 700,000 to 800,000. The Micronesian islands probably had 100,000 to 150,000 people. People in the larger islands practiced some form of subsistence agriculture, while those in the smaller islands and atolls of the central and northern Pacific depended on the exploitation of marine resources.  8
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.