When Captain Cook landed at Easter Island (13 March 1774) an interesting episode took place.

As the master drew near the shore with the boat, one of the natives swam off to her, and insisted on coming a-board the ship, where he remained two nights and a day. The first thing he did after coming a-board, was to measure the length of the ship, by fathoming her from the tafferel to the stern, and as he counted the fathoms, we observed that he called the numbers by the same names that they do at Otaheite; nevertheless his language was in a manner wholly unintelligible to all of us.

Cook commented that ‘the inhabitants of this island do not seem to exceed six or seven hundred souls, and above two-thirds of those we saw were males.’ Then he continues:

In colour, features, and language, they bear such an affinity to the people of the more western isles, that no one will doubt they have had the same origin. It is extraordinary that the same nation should have spread themselves over all the isles in this vast ocean, from New Zealand to this island, which is almost one-fourth part of the circumference of the globe.

A head of wooden figure, Easter Island – Rapanui. 20th century.
A head of wooden figure, Easter Island – Rapanui. 20th century. Image: Yvonne Carrillo–Huffman
© Australian Museum

In fact Polynesian people settled numerous islands in the area defined by a triangle with the sides of over 7,000 km long, spanning New Zealand in the south-west, Easter Island in the east and Hawaii in the north, over the equator. All three groups of islands (the largest New Zealand) were occupied between 700 and 1000 years ago. The entire population, at its highest, probably reached about a quarter of a million people. It is estimated that Polynesians numbered about 265,000 in 1800 and about 163,600 in 1850 – one eighth of the current population of Bali, comparable to the present population of Darwin or Hobart.

Speaking variants of the same Austronesian language and sharing numerous cultural traits as well as common origin, Polynesians inhabited the largest territorial estate, scattered through about a thousand islands and archipelagos. Long-term settlement on smaller islands was possible only by maintaining constant communication and exchange network between them. This networking resulted in the formation of the most extensive maritime culture in the world. In addition it was the geographically largest and most dispersed cultural entity ever formed.

Like people of Southeast Asia before them, Polynesians proved that the ocean was not an obstacle but rather a conduit for communication and contacts. But they proved it on the scale that is breath-taking even with modern means of seafaring. The roots of Polynesian people and their culture are in Southeast Asia. Their genetic and linguistic links are found among indigenous people of Taiwan and east Indonesian islands, including Flores, Sumba, Lembata, Alor, Timor, Sulawesi and Moluccas.

In the second millennium BC, if not earlier, Polynesian ancestors appeared in northeast Melanesia - Bismarck Archipelago and Solomon Islands, ready to colonise the vast Pacific Ocean. On the way they picked up some Melanesian genes and left linguistic footprints on their path.

Additional Information:

A few years earlier, on his first epic voyage, James Cook enlisted a guide and companion Tupaia (c. 1725–1770) - Tahitian nobleman, priest, shrewd politician, diplomat and outstanding navigator, who would converse with and understand Maori people of New Zealand without any difficulty during an exploration of its coastal waters in 1770.

Now about 2 million Polynesians reside in some 15 countries, mostly New Zealand, USA and Australia.