Wherever their true homeland lies, the Neolithic Austronesians were accomplished sailors. Eventually, they settled the north coast of Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck and Solomon Islands, bringing domesticated chickens, pigs and a few crops for farming. These Neolithic Austronesians were most likely the ancestors of the Lapita culture, which reached as far east as Tonga and, many believe, gave rise to the Polynesian culture. The Polynesians’ ancestors continued spreading east by sea: 2,500 years before Columbus sailed his ships across the Atlantic, they had already populated the islands of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. The early Polynesians continued east to Tahiti and the Marquesas, then ventured north to Hawaii and farther southeast to Rapu Nui (Easter Island). New Zealand was the last major landmass on Earth to be populated by humans—the Polynesians finally landed there around the 13th century. Their descendants are the Maori people.
The Polynesians developed superior navigation skills based on stars, currents, flight patterns of birds and other natural observations that allowed them to cross wide stretches of open ocean. They migrated to the farthest reaches of the Polynesian Triangle on large, double-hulled canoes, akin to modern catamarans. These boats could carry both settlers and their cargo, including plants and animals. Starting in the 1970s, groups from the Polynesian Islands began building boats based on the old designs, studying traditional navigation and retracing the ancient voyages between the islands. One group recently completed a trip from New Zealand to Easter Island and back, sailing two waka hourua (double-hulled canoes) more than 10,000 nautical miles.
Polynesians speak a related group of languages called Malayo-Polynesian, which comes from a Proto-Austronesian language spoken in Southeast Asia millennia ago. One interesting difference between Polynesia and Melanesia is the wider diversity in languages among the islands of Melanesia. Melanesia is one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, while Polynesia typically has one language per island group.