Diverse geographies and cultures
There are thousands of small islands scattered across the Pacific Ocean. They have diverse geographies, being continental, volcanic or coral. They also have diverse cultures, but there are many similarities of language, culture and myths.
How the islands of Tuvalu were formed
The traditional version
Tuvalu's islands were created by Te Pusi, the eel, and Te Ali, the flounder. Carrying home a heavy rock, a friendly competition of strength turned into a fight and Te Pusi used his magic powers to turn Te Ali flat, like the islands of Tuvalu, and made himself round like the coconut trees. Te Pusi threw the black, white and blue rock into the air – and there it stayed. With a magic spell it fell down, but a blue part remained above to form the sky. Te Pusi threw it up again, and its black side faced down, forming night. With another spell, the rock fell down on its white side and formed day. Te Pusi broke the rest of the rock into eight pieces, forming the eight islands of Tuvalu. With a final spell, he threw the remaining pieces of blue stone and formed the sea.
The scientific version
After his Pacific voyages between 1835 and 1836, Charles Darwin proposed that coral atolls were built on slowly sinking volcanoes, while at the same time the crater edge was being built up by new deposits of coral. The subsidence theory explained why coral rock was found at depths far greater than the 40 metres at which coral polyps can survive. His theory was controversial at the time – others believed that reefs grew on underwater platforms raised by volcanic action. Darwin proposed that a coral atoll be drilled for samples, and Tuvalu achieved scientific fame when the Royal Society of London funded expeditions to Funafuti. In 1898, after three 'boring' expeditions, scientists managed to obtain atoll core samples from 340 metres below the surface. When analysed, they showed traces of shallow water organisms, thus supporting Darwin's hypothesis. Not until 1952, on Enewetok in the Marshall Islands, was it possible to drill to a depth of 1,290 metres (right through the coral structure) and actually reach volcanic rock.
Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet South Pacific & Micronesia 3rd edition © 2006 Lonely Planet
Where did the people of the Pacific come from?
When Europeans sailed into the Pacific in the 1500s they were surprised to find people with ancient traditions living on the tiny islands scattered across the vast expanse of ocean. People across the Pacific had obvious links of culture, food and technology. They could 'read the past' in stories, music, song, dance and the patterns in carvings and tattoos. Scientists and archaeologists use methods such as carbon dating, DNA testing and linguistic evidence to 'read the past' and tell the story of migration patterns.
Interpreting the evidence
Historians have different theories about the history of the Pacific and use a range of methods to interpret the evidence.
Artefacts, or everyday items left behind, show how people lived, but they can also show us the sequence of how groups migrated across the Pacific. Distinctive red pottery with raised circular patterns was discovered at Lapita on the coast of New Caledonia in 1952. Measuring the amount of Carbon 14 left in the pottery, archaeologists estimate that Lapita pottery was produced 3,500 to 2,000 years ago. Because the pottery has been found in many places in the Pacific, historians say that this indicates the pottery travelled with the people as they migrated. The pottery has been found on the coasts as far west as the Bismarck Archipelago (a group of islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea), north to Hawaii and as far east as the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. By dating the different finds of pottery, archaeologists can estimate the timeline of migration of people across the Pacific.
Biological or genetic evidence
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), or genetic evidence, suggests that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Melanesian, Polynesian, South-East Asian and Han Chinese peoples are all descended from one ancient group of people.
Languages provide many clues to the links between peoples. By studying the variations and similarities in languages, it can be shown that the Austronesian language family, which is found throughout most of the Pacific, originated in Taiwan around 5,200 years ago and moved through South-East Asia, along New Guinea and into Polynesia. All Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and most inland Papua New Guinea languages are non-Austronesian or Papuan.
|Bahasa (Indonesia)||ikan||Maori (New Zealand and Cook Islands)||ariki|
|Javanese (Indonesia)||iwak||Tuvaluan and Tokelauan||aliki|
|Tetun (Timor Leste)||ikan||Rapa Nui (Easter Island)||'ariki|
|Tagalog (Philippines)||isda||Samoan and Hawaiian||ali'i|
|Maori (New Zealand)||ika||French Polynesia||ari'i|
|Fijian||ika|| || |
|Hawaiian||i'a|| || |
|Rapa Nui (Easter Island)||ika|| || |
What do scientists think happened?
Connections between the evidence – such as artefact dating, genetic links and the spread of languages – can produce a picture of how people migrated across the Pacific. The map of Pacific migration shows the story of what historians, scientists and archaeologists think happened in the Pacific based on the best interpretations of the evidence at this time.
While this evidence remains under constant scrutiny, there is broad consensus that Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands were occupied by Papuan people from about 50,000 years ago and that there were waves of migration from Asia through the Pacific to the eastern islands, beginning around 6,000 years ago. These continued for several thousands of years until New Zealand was finally settled by Maori people about 1,000 years ago.
What alternatives are possible?
While the map and evidence described above present a fairly well-accepted view of the early settlement of the Pacific Islands, the information below about the voyages of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl on the Kon Tiki and about the Caves of Nanumaga challenge the experts to review the evidence.
Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki
Contrary to the prevailing scientific opinion in the 1940s, Thor Heyerdahl suggested that people could have reached the islands much more easily from the Americas to the east. Living and studying flora and fauna on the remote French Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva, he noted that the winds and currents came steadily from the east and that South American plants such as the sweet potato were to be found in Polynesia. In 1947, after being towed 100 kilometres to the open water, he sailed a balsa-wood raft named Kon-Tiki, which was accurately modelled after ancient South American rafts to demonstrate that such voyages were theoretically possible. He followed this up with archaeological work on Easter Island (Rapa Nui), finding stone statues, similar to those on Galapagos Islands, to suggest that South Americans had been in the Pacific.
The fire caves of Nunumaga
A legend in Nunumaga in Tuvalu told of a 'large house under the sea', suggesting people had once lived where the sea now flows. In 1986 two divers discovered fire-blackened walls in a cave 40 metres below sea level. This suggests people lived here before the sea levels rose 14,000–8,000 years ago, before the Lapita people settled. Lapita pottery dates the settlement of this area to 3,000–3,500 years ago.
Adapted from: Pacific Neighbours, Understand the Pacific Islands, Chapter 1 (p14) and Chapter 3 (p28–31)