Ancient Oceania

Ancient Oceania

The pattern of settlement across PolynesiaThe pattern of settlement across Polynesia Oceania consists of the islands of Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea, and the Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian island groups of the South Pacific. The first of these islands to be settled were Australia and New Guinea. Aboriginal Australians migrated to Australia from Southeast Asia between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago. Some also settled on New Guinea, which was then connected to Australia by land. The settlement of the other South Pacific islands did not begin until about 5000 years ago. New Zealand remained uninhabited until about 750 years ago.

Aboriginal rock paintings known as Gwion GwionAboriginal rock paintings known as Gwion Gwion

Aboriginal Australians

The earliest inhabitants of Australia probably reached the continent between about 60,000 and 50,000 years ago. European settlers in the 18th century called the native peoples "Aborigines", meaning “people from the earliest times”. When the colonizers arrived, the Aboriginals lived by hunting and gathering their own food. They had no knowledge of metals so they used long wooden spears, tipped with stone or bone. They always knew where to find water, even in the driest desert. They knew which plants were safe to eat and which could be used to make medicine. But as the Aboriginals were a nomadic people, with few possessions, it was easy for the Europeans to claim ownership of their land.
Aboriginal Australians demonstrating the spearthrowerAboriginal Australians demonstrating the spearthrower

The didgeridoo may be around 1500 years old.The didgeridoo may be around 1500 years old.

Aboriginal beliefs

Although the Aboriginal way of life seemed "primitive" to the colonizers, it is based on a complex system of beliefs and traditions. Aboriginals believe that the world was created by their animal, plant and human ancestors during a period known as Dreamtime.

Aboriginals believe in an everlasting spiritual life known as “Eternal Dreaming”. Their music, poetry, dancing and sculpture are all inspired by their religious beliefs. One musical instrument is a long wooden tube called a didgeridoo. The weather is very important to Aboriginals. Many of their rituals involve the fertility of the land and the growth of new plants.

Maori warriorMaori warrior


New Zealand was originally settled by Polynesians from Eastern Polynesia around 1250 AD. The descendants of these settlers became known as the Maori. New Zealand was then home to some giant flightless birds, such as the moa, and the Maoris hunted them to extinction by about 1500. In the absence of game, the Maoris turned to cultivation of sweet potatoes, taro, gourds, yams and cabbage trees, or, where this was not possible in the far south, gathering wild plants. Forced to compete with one another for land and resources, wars between Maori tribes (called iwi), broke out frequently. Family groups, called hapu, built pa (hillforts) to defend themselves and their lands.
Model of a pa, built on a headlandModel of a pa, built on a headland

New Guinea

The Aboriginals of Australia remained hunter-gatherers, but the people who first settled in New Guinea became farmers about 10,000 years ago. There is evidence that they grew yams, coconuts, bananas and sugar cane.

The Polynesians travelled in sturdy wooden canoes.The Polynesians travelled in sturdy wooden canoes.

Polynesian voyages

There are thousands of tiny islands spread thousands of kilometres apart across the South Pacific Ocean. Apart from New Zealand, most of them are very small. Finding these islands in ancient times involved the risky business of travelling very long distances in canoes. The Polynesians were the first people to inhabit these islands. They constructed large canoes, some big enough to hold 100 people, to explore and settle on them. Probably originating in Taiwan and Southeast Asia, they had reached Tonga by c.1000 BC. By AD 1000, they had gradually explored the other islands in the South Pacific Ocean.

The Polynesians must have been expert seafarers in order to cover such vast distances without using maps or modern equipment. They navigated using the Sun, Moon and stars. They found new islands by following migrating birds. It is clear that they were among the greatest explorers in history.


Easter Island

A row of moai on Easter IslandA row of moai on Easter IslandMoai on the hillside at Rano RarakuMoai on the hillside at Rano RarakuEaster Island (Rapa Nui in the local Polynesian language) lies 3700 kilometres (2300 miles) off the coast of Chile, in South America. There are nearly 900 massive stone heads, called moai, dotted about on the island, all that is left of a civilization that grew up on the island, created by settlers. 

Settlers probably reached Easter Island between AD 700 and 1200. They built long altar platforms on the seashore where religious rituals took place. The heads were not carved till later, between AD 1250 and 1500. They stood on the altars, nearly all of them facing inland, but they were probably not statues of gods. They are more likely to be ancestors of the island’s inhabitants. The statues were carved at the quarries where the stone came from—only the eyes were added once the statues were in position.

No one really knows how these huge blocks of stone were put in place, although it is possible that tree trunks could have acted as rollers and ropes made from plant fibres could have been used as pulleys.

It is not known what happened to the Rapa Nui civilization, but it is possible that disases carried aboard the first European ship to reach Easter Island in 1722, and to which the islanders had no resistance, may have wiped out much of the population in a short time. 

Consultant: Philip Parker

See also in History

See also in Culture

Apart from African peoples, the Australian Aboriginal peoples have occupied the same territory continuously longer than any other human populations.

Easter Island is one of the world's most isolated inhabited islands. Its closest inhabited neighbour is Pitcairn Island, 2075 km (1289 miles) to the west, with fewer than 100 inhabitants. The nearest continent, South America, lies 3512 km (2182 miles) away at its closest point, central Chile.

Rongorongo is a system of glyphs (symbols or marks) discovered on Easter Island, which may be writing. It has never been deciphered. If it is writing, it would be the only known system of writing to develop independently in Polynesia.

The sweet potato originated in Mesoamerica, where it is called kumar in the Quechuan languages. It is known as kumara in several Polynesian languages and Maori. This is possibly evidence of ancient trade between the Americas and Oceania.

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