Physical Conditions Surrounding the Polynesians


Located off the coast of Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands are very diverse in many facets including culture, religion, and cosmology. Believed to be first inhabited around 1,500 B.C.E., the Pacific Islands are customarily divided into three ethnogeographic groups: Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian. Meaning "many islands," Polynesia included a large and diverse area of the South Pacific. With Hawaii to the north, New Zealand to the south, and Easter island to the East, the Polynesian culture includes the islands of Somoa, Tonga, French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands.

Most of the islands in Polynesia were formed within the last seven million years as a result of vigorous volcanic activity. Although there were different environments among the small islands of Polynesia, for the most part, the coasts were harsh to vegetation while the interiors were high and fertile because of the volcanoes. Ocean side, stiff winds blew in salty air which, along with a lack of rain, yielded unfavorable growing conditions; found growing in the area were mostly "shrubs, herbs, woody vines, and some trees"[1] The physical conditions in the Polynesian islands were not conducive to human inhabitation. In fact, most all raw materials needed to fuel human development on the islands had to be brought from the mainland. While the interior was fertile from volcanic ash and ocean silt, the topography was not very suitable for cultivation: most of it was either rugged or rain forest. The Polynesians accordingly learned to live in harmony with their surroundings. Given the size of their land area, even small changes, be they human or natural, could effect the entire ecosystem and its delicate balance. The geographic limitations forced the Polynesians to relate to and respect all parts of their environment--after all, they occupied a niche in nature, too. At the same time, the interior of the islands, because of their lack of usable land, forced the indigenous peoples to live close and connected lives: "The high Volcanic islands of Polynesia offered no such barriers [as found in Ancient Greece] to social and political unity. The fertility allowed for the development of elaborate social, religious and political ceremony."[2] Although land served in some respects as a barrier to development, by creating a common enemy (which was the land itself), the societies of Polynesia became closer and more elaborate.

In sharp contrast to the "blissfully simple and easy way of life"[3] purported by popular literature, the Polynesians began their culture with the obstacle of environment. Physical conditions, geography, climate, and weather undoubtedly were a central factor in the formation of Polynesian society. At low latitudes and surrounded by the sea, the Polynesian islands experienced high temperatures and humidity year-round in their tropical climate. Air currents moving north and west towards the equator called the trade winds brought heavy rains. Monsoon winds resulting from Asia's mercurial climate brought downpours to the islands in the summer and in the winter, left the islands dry. The aforementioned rains along with all-too-common hurricanes and the El Niño caused heavy flooding on the islands. Inland, fertile land yielded some comestibles such the yam, taro, cassava, banana, papaya, and sweet potato, which were native to the islands. The diet of the Polynesians included the aforementioned staples but was centered around indigenous maritime animals such as shrimps, clams, oysters, snails, eels, and many types of fish. But their diet was not the only thing centered around the sea.

These harsh conditions led the Polynesians to be very adaptive, efficient, and skillful on the seas. They were forced, by lack of materials, to trade for survival. However, this early emergence of mercantilist capitalism contrasts the usual development of surplus before trade. Traditionally, a surplus is obtained through the use of developed means of production in the practices of agriculture and domestication . This surplus would then serve a commodity which could be amassed as wealth and forthwith traded for needed goods. [4] In what began as a bartering society, the Polynesians were forced to trade relatively earlier than most developing societies and accordingly developed different values. They could not only sail proficiently in order to obtain materials, they were also prepared, because of their everyday surroundings, to "cope with the human problems of shipwreck, split families , and the sudden loss of a large portion of a social group."[5] Because of unique characteristics surrounding them, the Polynesians took a different route in development than most societies and accordingly, their culture differs (as will be discussed later in this project)

The Polynesians, united against the harshness of their surroundings, learned to use the sea and land to survive. But, at the same time, the sea and land helped shape their social organization, culture, and religion. They were forced to become adept at adapting and able to handle the inherent hazards of their seemingly tranquil surroundings. Their response to their environment shaped many important aspects of their society, including cosmology.

written by Chris Habetler.