The Sea of Islands that is the Pacific is divided into three great cultural areas: Polynesia and Melanesia lie mostly below the equator while Micronesia is above it. The name Polynesia comes from the Greek words poly (many) and nesos (islands). The Polynesian Triangle has Hawaii at its north apex, New Zealand 8,000 km to the southwest, and Easter Island an equal distance to the southeast. Melanesia gets its name from the Greek word melas (black), probably for the dark appearance of its inhabitants as seen by the early European navigators. Micronesia comes from the Greek word mikros (small), thus, the "small islands".
The term Polynesia was coined by Charles de Brosses in 1756 and applied to all the Pacific islands. The present restricted use was proposed by Dumont d'Urville during a famous lecture at the Geographical Society in Paris in 1831. At the same time he also proposed the terms Melanesia and Micronesia for the regions that still bear those names. The terms are not particularly good, considering that all three regions have "many islands" and "small islands"; in Melanesia it is not the islands, but the people, that are black.
The notion that the Pacific islands and their peoples are all similar—if you've seen one you've seen 'em all—is a total fallacy. No other group of six million people anywhere on earth comes from such a variety of cultures. The population is divided between Melanesians (80 percent), Polynesians (7 percent), Asians (6 percent), Micronesians (5 percent), and Europeans (2 percent). Ninety percent of the people live on high islands, the rest on low islands and atolls. About a million reside in urban areas. The region's charming, gentle, graceful peoples are among its main attractions.
The Polynesians, whom Robert Louis Stevenson called "God's best, at least God's sweetest work," have fine features, almost intimidating physiques, and a soft, flowing language. One theory holds that the Polynesians 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 (polar animals are generally larger than equatorial animals of the same species for the same reason). Other authorities ascribe the Polynesian's huge body size to a high-carbohydrate vegetable diet.
The ancient Polynesians developed a rigid social system with hereditary chiefs; descent was usually through the father. In most of Polynesia there were only two classes, chiefs and commoners, but in Hawaii, Tahiti, and Tonga an intermediate class existed. Slaves were outside the class system entirely, but there were slaves only in New Zealand, the Cook Islands, and Mangareva. People lived in scattered dwellings rather than villages, although there were groupings around the major temples and chiefs' residences.
They lived from fishing and agriculture, using tools made from stone, bone, shell, and wood. The men were responsible for planting, harvesting, fishing, cooking, house and canoe building; the women tended the fields and animals, gathered food and fuel, prepared food, and made clothes and household items. Both males and females worked together in family or community groups, not as individuals.
The Polynesians lost the art of pottery making during their long stay in Havaiki (Western Polynesia) and had to cook their food in underground ovens (umu). Breadfruit, taro, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, and coconuts were cultivated (the Polynesians had no cereals). Pigs, chickens, and dogs were also kept for food, but the surrounding sea yielded the most important source of protein.
Numerous taboos regulated Polynesian life, such as prohibitions against taking certain plants or fish that were reserved for exploitation by the chiefs. Land was collectively owned by families and tribes, and there were nobles and commoners. Though the land was worked collectively by commoners, the chiefly families controlled and distributed its produce by well-defined customs. Large numbers of people could be mobilized for public works or war.
Two related forces governed Polynesian life: mana and tapu. Mana was a spiritual power of which the gods and high chiefs had the most and the commoners the least. In this rigid hierarchical system, marriage or even physical contact between persons of unequal mana was forbidden, and children resulting from sexual relations between the classes were killed. Our word "taboo" originated from the Polynesian tapu. Early missionaries would often publicly violate the taboos and smash the images of the gods to show that their mana had vanished.
Most Melanesians live on high, volcanic islands and great differences exist between the bush people of the interiors and the saltwater people of the coasts. There's also great variety among the tribes of the interior; for centuries they waged wars with each other. Some clans were matrilineal, others patrilineal.