Geographically, Polynesia is the largest sub-region within the Pacific Islands and forms a large triangle spanning from Hawaii in the north, New Zealand in the south and the Easter Islands (Rapa Nui) in the west. This area covers about 17 million squares kilometres and has a population of almost 2 million people. Other well known Polynesian islands include Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and Kingdom of Tonga.
Some quick cultural facts about Polynesian:
There are about 30 languages spoken across Polynesia. Key languages are Samoan, Maori, Tahitian and Tongan
Folklore and cultural heroes are very important for Polynesians. There is a rich body of folklore and mythology, relating to the origins of humans, cultural practices (eg. tattooing) and institutions.
Most Polynesians now follow Christianity. Prior to the arrival of European missionaries in the early 1800s, Polynesians practiced a variety of religions, although all believed in tapu ("taboo"), which makes certain things forbidden due to their sacredness.
Melanesia is the most populated region with the Pacific Islands with a population of around 6 million people. There are about 2000 islands in this group and include Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Some quick cultural facts about Melanesian:
Over 1,300 languages are spoken throughout Melanesia, which is pretty remarkable given the total land area is only 1 million square kilometres. In terms of the number of languages spoken per land mass, this gives Melanesia the greatest density of languages spoken in the world. Remarkably, Papua New Guinea’s population of around four million people, speak 800 languages, which is nearly ¼ of the world's languages!
Oral history (stories containing historical information) is critical in Melanesia as no culture within the region ever developing a writing system. Mythology also plays a significant part of Melanesian culture.
Missionaries are very active in this region and therefore, Christianity is widely practiced. It is common for Christian concepts to include elements of native religions and vice versa. Although banned in the 1920s, headhunting and cannibalism were once practiced in Papua New Guinea. Most groups across the region believe in spirits that inhabit forests, mountains and swamps.
Located in the western Pacific Ocean, are the small islands of Micronesia. The corners of the region are defined by the Republic of Belau in the southwest; Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands) in the southeast; Guam in the northwest; and the Marshall Islands in the northeast.
Micronesia population of 650,000 is spread across 2100 islands, with many of these being uninhabitable volcanic and coral Islands. The total land area is very small, comprising about 2,700 square kilometres, with Guam being the largest island. Micronesia is divided into five sovereign states and three U.S. territories and has a shared cultural history with Polynesia and Melanesia.
Apart from tremendous natural beauty, the Pacific Islands boast a rich cultural heritage. Given the sheer size of the Pacific Islands, a fantastic way to discover them is on a cruise. Check out cruise specialist such as www.cruiseabout.com.au for a comprehensive range of cruise lines and routes throughout the Pacific.
(Photo by Pierre Lesage via Flickr)