Polynesia is a group of scattered islands in the vast Pacific Ocean. Around 2000 BC, families made long, dangerous journeys to settle there. The settlers arrived with pigs, dogs, and hens. They built thatched wooden houses, gathered bananas, coconuts, and breadfruit, and fished.
The settlers’ ancestors came from southeast Asia, and had lived there for at least 30,000 years. Slowly, they moved to islands in the Pacific. By 1200 BC, they reached Tonga and Samoa, on the western edge of Polynesia. Around 300 BC, they began to sail farther across the ocean.
The islands in southeast Asia, where settlers traveled from, were probably overpopulated. This would have meant the farmland was exhausted, forests had been cut down, and the soil had eroded away. There may also have been wars between rival islanders, competing for food and land. But some sailors may have been adventurous, eager to explore new lands.
Settlers traveled in double-hulled canoes, which had sails made of matting. They observed stars, clouds, ocean swells, migrating birds, and te lapa (rays of light reflected underwater from land), and made maps from sticks, pebbles, and shells. Using these techniques, they reached distant islands like Hawaii, and also New Zealand, where settlers called themselves MAORIS.
The islands of Polynesia cover an area of over 800,000 sq miles (2 million sq km). Roughly triangular in shape, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island are at its points. It took many days to sail between groups of islands. Settlers carried farm tools and food plants, to help them survive when they landed.
Settlers first reached New Zealand around AD 800. At first they lived in small, peaceful groups, but, as the population grew, they became more warlike. Around 1500, they began to build fortified hilltop settlements, called pa. They decorated buildings with woodcarvings, and tattooed their skins with swirling designs.