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Human Settlement of the Pacific

This page supports specialist and non-specialist teachers by providing background information about the concepts that underpin the LENScience resources on pacific migration and human settlement of the Pacific.

Pacific Navigation and Migration


Our Polynesian ancestors are renowned as some of the world’s most successful and innovative navigators. Using their knowledge of tides and stars, Polynesian seafarers explored vast areas of the Pacific. They discovered and settled nearly every inhabitable island in the Pacific Ocean well before European explorers got here in the 16th century. 


Māori oral legends tell us that Hawaiki is the legendary homeland from which Māori and Polynesian people explored and colonised the islands of the Pacific and Aotearoa New Zealand. There is also increasing scientific evidence that Polynesians reached South America well before the first Europeans.


The Origins of Polynesian Peoples

1, 2

Polynesia is defined as the islands found roughly in a triangle formed by Hawaii, Aotearoa-New Zealand and Easter Island (Rapa Nui) (see Figure 2).


When looking at human settlement of the Pacific, anthropologists divide the Pacific into two regions (see Figure 3): 

  • Near Oceania, which was settled by humans by 30,000 BP
  • Remote Oceania, which was not settled until around 3000 BP


Notice that Polynesia is in Remote Oceania.



The first human settlers of Remote Oceania are associated with the Lapita culture, which first appeared in the Bismarck Archipelago in Near Oceania around 3500 BP. (An archipelago is a chain or cluster of islands formed from volcanic activity). 


The Lapita culture is named after the distinctive patterned pottery seen in Figure 4, which was first found at a site called Lapita in New Caledonia. Anthropologists are very interested in who the Lapita people were and what role they played in the settlement of the Pacific. 


Remnants of Lapita pottery are now found throughout many areas of Remote Oceania, which suggests that the Lapita people were the first to settle this area. Table 1 shows how the age of the pottery remains found in each area supports the idea that this settlement spread from west to east from Melanesia into Polynesia.



Evidence such as this suggests that the Lapita people are the ancestors of modern Pacific peoples, but questions remain about whether there could also have been contributions from other populations from Asia and Micronesia at later times.