The culture of the Polynesians, simple in its material equipment, was evolved socially, politically, and religiously far beyond what we would expect of a stone-age people. The heights they achieved in social graces when entertaining, in the imagery of their songs, in concepts of how the world came to be, and the political wisdom of their chiefs, the skill of their experts in building and navigating ocean-going crafts, the energy they put into the worship of their gods, and some of the stone monuments they have left behind have given an impression of participation in a higher civilization. Some believe a civilization foundered in the Pacific with the sinking of a continent or archipelagoes of large islands. But sober students give ear to the geologists who say that no significant changes have taken place in the disposition of the islands in Polynesia since man is likely to have appeared in the Pacific. They look for other explanations.
It does appear that the ancestors of the Polynesians left Indonesia late enough to carry with them the germs of budding Asiatic civilizations but still too early to know about such things as rice and the loom. This in itself should put their departure anterior to the Christian era. Therefore, Polynesians can be considered as carrying on in isolation and under changed conditions a culture that was rather highly evolved in their Indonesian homeland but some of whose complexity was of necessity shed en route. A detailed comparative study of many of the high points of their culture, however, does reveal a considerable amount of development from simple beginnings in Polynesia itself, and a capacity to create, invent, and elaborate. For all their isolation, the Polynesians and their culture were not degenerating. There is danger of robbing them of credit by assuming that they did not, by their own unaided efforts, and in the islands as they were, achieve some of the things we admire. The great steppedplatform tombs of Tonga and the stepped-platform temples of Tahiti owe nothing to Indonesian or Central American pyramids, as they were constructed quite recently when certainly no communication was going on between Polynesia and these regions. The beautifully fabricated and ornamented bark cloth of East Polynesia may be superior to any that has been made elsewhere in the world. The circular fishhooks of Polynesia, operating on the opposite principle from our hooks, but effectively, and affording protection against snagging on the coral bottom, are an example of one of a number of ingenious inventions that may be Polynesian.
The Polynesians lived in simple, one-room houses thatched with local materials. In some of the islands the people built large and more elaborate meeting houses. They subsisted mainly on fish and a few cultivated plants such as taro, the sweet potato, and yams. But the fruit of the breadfruit, pandanus, or the coconut was the staple food in some of the islands. Their domesticated animals, the dog, pig, and fowl, were important for feasts but were not a part of the daily diet. Their clothing of bark cloth, matting fibers, or leaves was scant but quite sufficient for the environment. Only the chiefs donned elegant feather headdresses or feather cloaks. Chiefs of rank were elaborately tattooed and possessed the finest belongings.
Absence of metal tools and pottery has been put down as evidence of the undeveloped state of Polynesian culture, but lack of ores and suitable clay would have forced their abandonment if the ancestors of the Polynesians knew of them. With an abundance of coconut shell and gourds for containers and with the ground oven for cooking, pottery vessels were not at all necessary. Coconut leaves and pandanus leaves provided an unlimited source of material for mats and baskets in the tropical islands of Polynesia. Where these were lacking, as at Easter Island and New Zealand, the people turned to reeds or flax.
As fishing was so vitally important, the making of outrigger canoes, fishing nets, and fishing hooks and tackle occupied much of the men's time. Canoes were the means of travel and transport around the shores of islands and between island and island within a group and often between groups. The canoes for ocean sailing required the services of carefully trained and highly skilled men. The chiefs employed and supported these men. These canoes enabled the Polynesians to reach and spread over the whole of the vast Pacific area and to maintain life at a high level at their island homes. They offered a means of escape, too, in times of defeat in war. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of their best efforts were bestowed on their canoes.
In East Polynesia the places of worship were impressive assemblages of buildings, altars, and images set apart from the habitations. In West Polynesia single houses for the gods stood upon or beside the village green, and it was the platform-tombs of the chiefs that were elaborated. Both had to do with the veneration of the spirits of the ancestors, whom they worshipped. The offerings frequently included human sacrifices. Women were precluded from the main sacred rituals, but in secular affairs they enjoyed considerable status, some even occupying the position of high chieftainship.
The chiefs were a hereditary class; the highest-ranking member in East Polynesia was the eldest son of the previous highest chief. The carefully memorized and guarded genealogies of the chiefs went back to the gods. In Hawaii, with the title of supreme chief went the ownership of all the land in the domain and complete autocratic powers. The social organization was feudalistic: commoners cultivated the land as tenants and paid tribute to the chief assigned to their district. He kept a portion of the tribute and passed the rest on to the chief above him.
Throughout a large part of Polynesia, however, the independent groups regarded themselves as descended from a common ancestor and their chief as the most directly descended in the senior, male line from this ancestor. The chief represented the people to outsiders and was looked up to as their father, their leader in war and peace, and their high priest.
The Polynesians stood in sharp contrast to the Melanesians and Micronesians in the complete absence of clans. The Polynesian family, as with us and many Proto-Malays in Indonesia and the Philippines, is bilateral, counting, as the cooperative family group, relations through both the father and the mother, whereas the clan groups reckoned descent either through the female line alone or through the male line alone.