The Polynesians, whom Robert Louis Stevenson called, “God’s best and sweetest work,” are a tall, golden skinned people with straight or wavy hair. They have fine, almost intimidating, physiques, and a soft, flowing language. They evolved their great bodily stature through a selective process on their long ocean voyages, as the larger individuals with more body fat were better able to resist the chill of evaporating sea spray on their bodies. More than 150 years after the missionaries left the islands, most maintain their early Christian piety and devotion.
Ancient Polynesians developed a rigid social system with hereditary chiefs; descent was usually through the father. In most of Polynesia there were two classes: chiefs and commoners. In Hawaii, Tahiti, and Tonga, an additional intermediate class existed. Of course, slaves were outside the class system, but slaves only existed in New Zealand, the Cook Islands, and Mangareva.
People did not live in villages but in independent dwellings. There were groupings around temples and chiefs’ residences though. The Polynesians lived by fishing and agriculture, using tools made from stone, wood, bone, and shell. The men were responsible for planting, harvesting, fishing, cooking, house and canoe building. The women tended fields and animals, gathered food and fuel, prepared food, and made clothes and household items. Both men and women worked together in the family and community, not as individuals.
The Polynesians lost their art of pottery making during their long stay in Haviki, and had to cook their foods in underground ovens called umus. It was forbidden for men and women to eat together so there had to be two umus (earth ovens). Food included breadfruit, taro, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, and coconuts. Pigs, chickens, fish, and unfortunately dogs, provided an important source of protein.
Land was collectively owned by families and tribes. There were nobles and commoners. Through this system, large numbers of people could be mobilized for public works or war.
Two main forces controlled Polynesian island life – mana and tapu. Manu is a spiritual power of which chiefs and gods have the most and commoners had the least. Persons of unequal manu were forbidden to marry, and children from this prohibition were killed. Tapu is where our word taboo comes from. In this rigid caste system, there were a long line of laws determining what tapu was.
Polynesian art was not painted. They used no masks and few colors. Their art forms were very traditional. Three of the greatest archeological sites in Oceania are in Polynesian: Easter Island, Huahine, and Tongatapu.
Polynesian music were drums made of sharkskin for Eastern Polynesians and slit gongs for Western Polynesians. Panpipes were used in the Solomon Islands and flutes were used throughout Oceania.
Cite for September Posts: Stanley, D., South Pacific Handbook.