Most of the islands of Polynesia are volcanic in origin. Submarine volcanoes, erupting again and again for thousands of years, have gradually built up from the seabed domes of lava, basaltic rock, and volcanic ash until finally they break the surface and new islands are born. In Hawaii, Samoa and other regions the volcanoes are still active.
As recent as October, 1927 Falcon Island in the Tonga Group emerged from the sea in this way.
The word "Polynesia" comes from two Greek words meaning "Many Islands". The name is fitting as in one island group, like the Marquesas, there may be thousands of islets.
Coral reefs have formed around most of the volcanic cones and some islands, like the Tuamotus, are entirely of coral formation.
The Polynesian people migrated to their island homes more than a thousand years ago. Since then, they have made do with the rich resources available.
They obtained food and drink from the native cocoanut palms. Fibre from the husk of the nuts was used in weaving coir mats, with the palm-fronds providing thatch for hut roofs and walls.
The Breadfruit tree was even more vital. The fruit, about the size of a coconut, consists of a hard core surrounded by a highly nutritious, fibrous pulp covered with a rough rind with small round lumps. When ripe the pulp is juicy and yellow, but has a rotten taste. Thus the Polynesians pick it green when the pulp is white and mealy. They then dig a shallow pit and cover its bottom with red hot stones. These in turn are covered with a layer of green leaves upon which is laid the pulp of the breadfruit. Several layers of stones, leaves and fruit are placed above each other in the pit in this manner until it is full, when several inches of earth is spread over all.
After something under an hour, the fruit is cooked. It has a sweetish taste more like that of plantains than a bread.
The natives used the inner bark of the breadfruit tree to make what little clothes they used in the warm island climate. They also used its timbers for making houses, furniture and canoes, and its gum for caulking the latter. Other key plants are bananas, yams, taro, and pandanus palms.
The Pacific islands are very poor in animal life with fowls, pigs, dogs and rats being the only sources of red meat. On the other hand, fish, lobsters and other seafoods were extremely plentiful, and Polynesians are expert fishermen and sailors.
Before any European influence on the islands they fashioned fish-hooks out of bone. These and their canoes were made entirely with stone tools.
Many of the Polynesian archipelagoes like the Cook Islands are British colonies, while the Tonga ("Friendly Islands') are ruled still by a native family under the protection of UK.
Ever since their discovery by Captain Cook and other early navigators, the Polynesian people have been famous for their charm, hospitality and intelligence, while their beauty is celebrated. Many a European, tired of the strain and hurry of "civilised life", has gone to live among the sighing palms and golden beaches of the "South Sea Islands".
Unfortunately, although Europeans brought science and trade to Polynesia, they also introduced new diseases and such evils as forced labour. All throughout the 19th century the native population appeared to be dying out, but today people are trying to make up for the past cruelty and the Polynesian population is increasing once more.
Text adapted from The Story of the Pacific. The Sanitarium Children's Library, vol. 7, pg7