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What is Polynesia?

Never Lost What is Polynesia?
What is Polynesia?

We’re kind of far separated with this big ocean when you look at it from the Western perspective. But from our perspective this ocean is not what separates us; it’s what connects us.

Kaimana Barcarse, Navigator-in-training

Polynesia—from the Greek for "many islands"—is a collection of over 1,000 islands strewn over a broad region of the Pacific Ocean known as the Polynesian triangle.

Bounded by (and including) Hawai'i to the north, Easter Island to the southeast, and New Zealand to the southwest, the vast Polynesian triangle covers an area equivalent to North and South America combined. The land mass of Polynesia is puny by comparison: all the Polynesian islands stuck together would cover an area only about a third the size of New York state.

Visitors to Hawai'i from North America, Asia, and Europe are often surprised to learn that they are (still) in the Northern Hemisphere. At a latitude of approximately 20° north, the Hawaiian Islands are roughly 1,320 miles (2,300 km) north of the equator, as close to Alaska as they are to Los Angeles. Easter Island lies 4,500 miles (7200 km) to the southeast; New Zealand, 4,300 miles (6900 km) to the southwest.

Polynesia was first populated some 3,000 years ago, when a people known as the Lapita journeyed eastward from New Guinea, arriving first in Tonga and Samoa. There, in what's known as the "Cradle of Polynesia," a distinctly Polynesian culture developed over the course of a thousand years. Roughly 2,000 years ago, these Polynesians journeyed across thousands of miles of deep ocean to populate the Cook Islands, the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, Hawai'i, Easter Island, and finally, New Zealand.

Early Polynesians probably journeyed all the way across the Pacific to South America. That's the only ready explanation for the presence all across Polynesia of sweet potatoes, which hail from South America. Further evidence: Throughout Polynesia the word used for sweet potato is kumara—the same word used by the Peruvian Indians in South America.