Chapter 11: The Pacific

Introducing the Realm

The Pacific realm is home to many islands and island groups. The name Pacific means peaceful. The largest island is New Guinea, which is home to most of the realm’s population.

New Guinea (in red)
New Guinea (in red)

Many of the Pacific islands have become independent countries, while others remain under the auspices of their colonial controllers. The Pacific Theater of World War II was a battleground between the Japanese and American forces and had a large impact on the current conditions of many of the islands. The United States has been a major player in the post–World War II domination and control of various island groups. The Hawaiian Islands became the fiftieth US state in 1959.

Drew Binsky: 6 Things I Love About the PACIFIC ISLANDS (Travel Guide)

The many islands can be divided into three main groups based on physical geography, local inhabitants, and location: MelanesiaMicronesia, and Polynesia.

Oceania
Oceania

Indigenous cultural heritage remains strong in the South Pacific, but Western culture has made deep inroads into people’s lives. Western trends in fast food, pop music, clothing styles, and social customs often dominate television, radio, and the cinema. Invasive Western cultural forces take the focus away from the traditional indigenous culture and heritage of the people who inhabited these isolated islands for centuries.

Traditionally, the islands were economically self-sufficient. Fishing and growing crops were the main economic activities, and nearby islands often established trade and exchanged natural resources. Fishing has been one of the most common ways of supporting the economy. There have been changes in the national boundaries to protect offshore fishing rights around each sovereign entity. Many waters have been overfished, consequently reducing the islands’ ability to provide food for their people or to gain national wealth. An increase in population and the introduction of modern technologies has brought about a dependency on the world’s core areas for economic support.

The Pacific is an extreme peripheral realm with little to offer to the core areas for economic exploitation. In recent decades, some national wealth has been gained from the mining of substances such as phosphates on a few of the islands. The main resources available are a pleasant climate, beautiful beaches, and tropical island terrain, all of which can be attractive to tourists and people from other places. Tourism is a growing sector of the service industry and a major means of gaining wealth for various island groups. To attract tourism, the islands must invest in the necessary infrastructure, such as airports, hotels, and supporting services. Long distances between islands and remote locations make tourism transportation expensive. Not every island has the funding to support these expenditures to draw tourists to their location.

Melanesia

The Region of Melanesia

The region of the Pacific north of Australia that borders Indonesia to the east is called Melanesia. The name originally referred to people with darker skin but does not adequately describe the region’s current ethnic diversity. The main island groups include FijiNew CaledoniaVanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea.

All are independent countries except New Caledonia, which is under the French government. The island of New Guinea is shared between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Many islands on the eastern side of Indonesia share similar characteristics but are not generally included in the region of Melanesia.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea location
Papua New Guinea location
Papua New Guinea map
Papua New Guinea map

Papua New Guinea is the largest country in the Pacific realm and therefore the largest in Melanesia. It’s the 3rd largest island country in the world. It is diverse in both physical terrain and human geography.

A Huli man. The Huli are one of the largest cultural groups in Papua New Guinea, numbering over 250,000 people.
A Huli man. The Huli are one of the largest cultural groups in Papua New Guinea, numbering over 250,000 people.
A woman of Papua New Guinea with facepaint
A woman of Papua New Guinea with facepaint

In fact, it’s one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. There are 851 known languages in the country. English is the language of government and the education system, but it is not spoken widely.

Drew Binsky: Inside Papua New Guinea: Land of 860 Languages

It is estimated that more than a thousand cultural groups exist in Papua New Guinea. Because of this diversity, many styles of cultural expression have emerged. Each group has created its own expressive forms in art, dance, weaponry, costumes, singing, music, architecture and much more.

Asaro Mudmen - They live nearby the village of Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.
Asaro Mudmen – They live nearby the village of Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.

The staple foods in Papua New Guinea include root crops, bananas, and sago.

A woman making sago flour pancakes
A woman making sago flour pancakes

Papua New Guinea’s diet is largely vegetarian, especially in the Gulf and Highlands regions. Mumu is a traditional method of cooking large quantities of food throughout Papua New Guinea, as well as other islands in the Pacific. It consists of an earth oven that is filled with hot coal or stones.

Preparing to cook a pig in a mumu (in the ground under banana leaves)
Preparing to cook a pig in a mumu (in the ground under banana leaves)

Dia is a dessert composed of sago and bananas cooked in coconut cream. Sugar is not added in some cooking exceptions. Instead, sweeter bananas are used to lend sweetness to the dish.

Drew Binsky: Pigs Can Buy Wives?

Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s least explored (culturally and geographically). It’s known to have numerous groups of uncontacted peoples, and researchers believe there are many undiscovered species of plants and animals in the interior. The word Papua comes from an old local term. Guinea comes from the  Portuguese word Guiné meaning “land of the blacks” in reference to the dark skin of the inhabitants.

Name Explain: Which Part Of New Guinea Is Papua?

In the 18th century, traders brought the sweet potato which became a staple food and transformed traditional agriculture and societies due to the higher crop yields compared to the previous staple of taro. In the past, many parts of the country practiced headhunting and cannibalism. Papua New Guinea received independence in 1975.

Papua New Guinea is the most rural country in the world. The high mountains of the interior reach 14,793 feet. It’s one of the few regions close to the equator that experiences snowfall, which occurs in the most elevated parts of the mainland.

In the highlands of Papua new Guinea
In the highlands of Papua new Guinea

Dense rainforests can be found in the lowland and coastal areas. The terrain has made it difficult for the country to develop transportation infrastructure. Some areas are accessible only on foot or by airplane. The country is situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire. There are a number of active volcanoes, and eruptions are frequent. Earthquakes are relatively common, sometimes accompanied by tsunamis.

Mt. Tavurvur erupting
Mt. Tavurvur erupting

Papua New Guinea is connected to the Australian segment by a shallow continental shelf across the Torres Strait. It’s believed that this shelf used to be exposed as a land bridge during the ice age. Consequently, many species of birds and mammals found on New Guinea have close genetic links with corresponding species found in Australia. One notable feature in common for the two landmasses is the existence of several species of marsupial mammals, including some kangaroos and possums, which are not found elsewhere.

Baby tree kangaroo on the chief's wife's shoulder in Papua New Guinea
Baby tree kangaroo on the chief’s wife’s shoulder in Papua New Guinea
The short-beaked echidna lays eggs.
The short-beaked echidna lays eggs.
Sugar glider
Sugar glider

Papua New Guinea is a diverse country that still has many mysteries to be revealed in its little-explored interior. The country’s large physical area provides greater opportunities for the exploitation of natural resources for economic gain. The interior of the island has large areas that have not been exploited by large-scale development projects.

A village in Papua New Guinea
A village in Papua New Guinea

In the past few decades, oil was discovered and makes up its largest export item. Gold, copper, silver, and other minerals are being extracted in extensive mining operations, often by outside multinational corporations. Subsistence agriculture is the main economic activity of most of the people. Coffee and cocoa are examples of agricultural exports.

A number of islands off Papua New Guinea’s eastern coast—including Bougainville—have valuable mineral deposits.

travelguruTV: Papua New Guinea – Tropical Islands

Bougainville and the islands under its jurisdiction are physically a part of the Solomon Island archipelago but are politically an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. Volcanic vents deep under the sea continue to bring hot magma and minerals to the surface of the ocean floor, creating valuable exploitable resources. Papua New Guinea has laid claim to these islands and the underwater resources within their maritime boundaries. Rebel movements have pushed for the independence of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville but have been unsuccessful. The islands remain under the government of Papua New Guinea.

Al Jazeera English: Bougainville votes on independence from Papua New Guinea

Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands location
Solomon Islands location
Solomon Islands Map
Solomon Islands Map
National Geographic – The Solomon Islands
Drew Binsky: Natural Blondes with Dark Skin? (SOLOMON ISLANDS)

To the east of the island of Guinea are the Solomon Islands, a group of more than one thousand islands. About eighty of them hold most of the population of more than half a million. English is the official language, but only 1-2% of the people are fluent. There are 70 local languages spoken as well as an English creole.

Solomon Islands has one of the highest rates of family violence in the world and over 73% of both men and women believe that violence against women is justifiable. Another manifestation and driver of gender inequality in Solomon Islands is the traditional practice of bride price. Although specific customs vary between communities, paying a bride price is considered similar to a property title, giving men ownership over women. Gender norms of masculinity tend to encourage men to “control” their wives, often through violence, while women felt that bride prices prevented them from leaving men.

World Bank: Shell money – why it pays. Solomon Islands—thinkEQUAL

The island of Guadalcanal was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in World War II between Japan and the United States.

The Battle of Guadalcanal: Anatomy of a Decisive World War II Victory | History

The Solomon Islands were a colony of Great Britain but gained independence in 1978. Colonialism, World War II, and ethnic conflict on the islands created serious divisions and political tensions over the past few decades. In 2003, military and police troops from other islands and Australia intervened to restore order after ethnic tension erupted into civil unrest.

Auki, the capital of Malaita (one of the Solomon Islands)
Auki, the capital of Malaita (one of the Solomon Islands)

Shifting tectonic plates are the source of environmental problems. Active seismic activity has created earthquakes and tsunami conditions that have brought devastation to the region. An earthquake of 8.1 magnitude hit the Solomon Islands in 2007, bringing high waves and many aftershocks. The tsunami killed at least fifty-two people, and as many as one thousand homes were destroyed.

Scarcity of fresh water sources and lack of sanitation has been a constant challenge facing Solomon Islands. Lack of safe drinking water in school-age children results in high risks of contracting fatal diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

World Bank: Bringing Clean Water to Rural Communities in Solomon Islands

The islands contain several active and dormant volcanoes. Tropical rain forests cover a number of the islands and more than 230 varieties of orchids and other tropical flowers brighten the landscape. Mammals are scarce on the islands, with the only terrestrial mammals being bats and small rodents. Birds and reptiles, however, are abundant. There is concern that these resources might be harmed by deforestation and the exploitation of resources for economic gain.

Vanuatu

Vanuatu location
Vanuatu location
Vanuatu map
Vanuatu Vacation Travel Guide | Expedia

The country of Vanuatu was inhabited by a large number of South Pacific groups; as a result, many languages are spoken within a relatively small population.

Blond Vanuatu boy
Blond Vanuatu boy

The French and the British both colonized the island archipelago. It was called the New Hebrides before independence in 1980 when the name was changed to Vanuatu. These small volcanic islands have an active volcano and have experienced earthquakes in recent years.

Mt. Yasur is a volcano on Tanna Island, Vanuatu.
Mt. Yasur is a volcano on Tanna Island, Vanuatu.

One of Vanuatu’s means of bringing in business has been to establish offshore banking and financial services, similar to what is found in the Caribbean. Many shipping firms register their ships there because of the advantages of lower taxes and flexible labor laws.

English and French are the two official languages and a pidgin language, bislama, is spoken. Bislama combines Melanesian grammar with a mostly English vocabulary. There are also 113 indigenous languages. he density of languages, per capita, is the highest of any nation in the world, with an average of only 2,000 speakers per language.

Language lessons from the happiest place on Earth – Vanuatu and Bislama | Tess Walraven | TEDxBasel

Despite its tropical forests, Vanuatu has a limited number of plant and animal species. It has an indigenous flying fox. Flying foxes are important rainforest and timber regenerators. They pollinate and seed disperse a wide variety of native trees. Their diet is nectar, pollen, and fruit and they are commonly called “fruit bats”. There are three or possibly four adult saltwater crocodiles living in Vanuatu’s mangroves and no current breeding population. It is said the crocodiles reached the northern part of the islands after cyclones, given the island chain’s proximity to the Solomon Islands and New Guinea where crocodiles are very common.

The cuisine of Vanuatu incorporates fish, root vegetables such as taro and yams, fruits, and vegetables. Most island families grow food in their gardens, and food shortages are rare. Papayas, pineapples, mangoes, plantains, and sweet potatoes are abundant through much of the year. Coconut milk and coconut cream are used to flavour many dishes. Most food is cooked using hot stones or through boiling and steaming; very little food is fried. The national dish of Vanuatu is lap lap. Lap lap is a baked pudding. It is made up of grated yam, banana, manioc, or taro that is mixed with coconut milk and salt, then baked under hot stones.

Lap lap
Lap lap

New Caledonia

New Caldonia location
New Caledonia location
New Caledonia map
New Caledonia map

New Caledonia is still a colony of France and was once a French prison colony. Under a current agreement, sovereignty is slowly being turned over to the local island government. Periodic reevaluations of the local government will be conducted to see if independence can be granted.

Al Jazeera English: Independence from France? New Caledonia holds vote on Sunday
Note: As of 2020, New Caledonia is still part of France.

New Caledonia has historically relied on subsistence agriculture and fishing for its livelihood. About 25 percent of the world’s known nickel resources are located here. Nickel resources will substantially affect the economy, bring in foreign investments, and raise the standard of living.

Culture – New Caledonia

There are many unique birds and plants on the islands and the region has the richest diversity in the world per square kilometre. The west coast of New Caledonia has a drier climate and different habitat from the rain forests that cover most of the island. 

A typical landscape from the South of New Caledonia. The red-orange color of the rocks comes from the soil which is rich in metal oxides.
A typical landscape from the South of New Caledonia. The red-orange color of the rocks comes from the soil which is rich in metal oxides.

The New Caledonia Great Barrier Reef is the second largest barrier reef in the world.

New Caledonia: The Coral Garden | National Geographic

Fiji

Fiji
Fiji Vacation Travel Guide | Expedia

Fiji is located in the eastern sector of Melanesia and has almost one million people. The country includes more than one hundred inhabitable islands, but two are home to most of the population.

Fijian village of Navala
Fijian village of Navala

Colonialism heavily impacted the population’s ethnic makeup. During British colonial rule, thousands of workers from South Asia were brought in by the British to work on the sugar plantations. After a century of British rule, Fiji became independent in 1970. The people of South Asian descent remained in Fiji and now make up more than one-third of the population.

Saris on sale in Lautoka, Fiji
Saris on sale in Lautoka, Fiji

Ethnic conflicts erupted on the political scene between the Melanesian majority and the South Asian minority. Political coups and coalition governments have attempted to work out political solutions with limited success.

Endowed with forest, mineral, and fish resources, Fiji is one of the most developed of the Pacific island economies. Natural resources include timber, fish, gold, copper, offshore oil, and hydropower.

Coconut palms line the beaches of Fiji.
Coconut palms line the beaches of Fiji.

Fiji’s culture is a rich mosaic of indigenous Fijian, Indo-Fijian, Asian and European traditions. Fijian cuisine has traditionally been very healthy. Fijians prefer a more tuber and coconut-based diet. High caloric foods are good for hard-working villagers who need extra calories while working on their farms but this causes a range of chronic illness such as obesity. Coconut is used not only for food, it plays an important role in Fiji’s economy.

Micronesia

North of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea is the large region of Micronesia. The “micro” portion of the name refers to the fact that the islands are small in size—often only one square mile or so in physical area. The region has more than two thousand islands. Most of the islands are composed of coral and do not extend above sea level to any large extent. These low islands dominate the high islands. The high islands are usually of volcanic origin and reach elevations in the thousands of feet.

Guam

Guam location
Guam location
Guam map
Guam map

The largest island in Micronesia is Guam. It is only 210 square miles in area and reaches an elevation of 1,335 feet at its highest point. Coral reefs surround Guam’s volcanic center. Guam is not an independent country but a US possession. The island was a strategic location during World War II, and the United States has major military installations located on the island.

Wendover Productions: Guam: Why America’s Most Isolated Territory Exists

the largest ethnic group are the native Chamorros, accounting for 37.3% of the total population. The official languages of the island are English and Chamorro. Filipino is also a common language across the island. 

Native Chamorro performers
Native Chamorro performers

Guam’s economy depends primarily on tourism, Department of Defense installations and locally owned businesses. It’s a popular destination for Japanese tourists.

Guam was home to several endemic bird species, but today at least twelve of them are extinct in the wild due to the accidental introduction of the brown tree snake.

Vice News: 2 Million Snakes Have Taken Over The Island Of Guam (HBO)

Northern Mariana Islands

Northern Mariana Islands location
Northern Mariana Islands location

The Northern Mariana Islands are next to Guam and are current US possessions, along with Wake Island in the northeast. The US administers the United Nations Trust Territory of the Federated States of Micronesia.

Drew Binsky: The 8th Wonder of the World? (NAN MADOL, MICRONESIA)

Implemented in 1986 and renewed again in 2004, the islands entered into the Compact of Free Association with the United States and established an independent status.

Visit the USA: Ask a Local: Northern Mariana Islands

The Marianas and the Hawaiian islands are the world’s foremost consumers, per capita, of Spam which was introduced to the islands by the American military as war rations during the World War II era.

Nauru

Nauru location
Nauru location
Nauru map
Nauru map
The History of Nauru: How The World’s Wealthiest Country Lost Everything | NowThis World
Note: Millions of years is mentioned.

The independent island country of Nauru is only about eight square miles in physical area, but its large phosphate deposits created enormous wealth for its small population. Once the phosphates had been mined, however, there was little means to gain wealth on such a small island with a devastated landscape. Many on Nauru are trying to live off the investments from their mining wealth or have moved to find a livelihood elsewhere. Nauru had 10,670 residents as of July 2018, making it the second smallest sovereign state after Vatican City.

Drew Binsky: INSIDE NAURU – the world’s least visited country

Fauna is sparse on the island because of a lack of vegetation and the consequences of phosphates mining. Many indigenous birds have disappeared or become rare owing to the destruction of their habitat.

Palau

Palau location
Palau location
Palau map
Palau map

Palau, located in western Micronesia, has a population of about twenty thousand people and an area of about 177 square miles.

Palau limestone islands
Palau limestone islands

Its early inhabitants included people from Asia and from the Pacific realm. British explorers arrived early on the island, but Spain dominated it during the colonial era. After losing the Spanish-American War, Spain sold the island to Germany, which implemented mining operations on the island. After its defeat in World War I, Germany lost the island to Japan. Japan used it as a strategic outpost but was defeated in World War II and had to give up all its external possessions. After 1945, Palau was held by the United States and the UN. In 1994, the island opted for independence and retained an agreement of free association with the United States. The United States has held strategic military installations on Palau and other islands in Micronesia. Palau’s economic and geopolitical dynamics are highly reflective of US activities in the region.

Quartz: Palau is an island paradise standing up to the world

Saltwater crocodiles are indigenous to Palau and occur in varying numbers throughout the various mangroves and in parts of the rock islands. 

Palauan society follows a very strict matrilineal system (tracing kinship through the female line). The cuisine includes local foods such as cassava, taro, yam, potato, fish, and pork. Fruit bat soup is a delicacy.

A traditional Palauan house
A traditional Palauan house

Marshall Islands

Marshall Islands location
Marshall Islands location
Marshall Islands map
Marshall Islands map
Drew Binsky: How AMERICAN are the MARSHALL ISLANDS?

Marshall Islands, on the eastern side of Micronesia, experienced serious devastation from the conflict between Japan and the United States during World War II. The Marshall Islands became a testing ground for US nuclear weapons. Atomic bombs were tested on various atolls, rendering them uninhabitable. An atoll is a coral island that surrounds a lagoon.

Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation: Birth of an Atoll
Note: This video mentions evolution and billions of years.
Aerial view of Majuro, one of the many atolls that make up the Marshall Islands
Aerial view of Majuro, one of the many atolls that make up the Marshall Islands

From 1946 to 1958, the United States conducted sixty-seven atmospheric nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. The largest was known as the Bravo test, which included the detonation of a nuclear device over Bikini Atoll that was one thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. There are concerns about radioactive fallout that may still affect the people who inhabit nearby atolls. The Marshall Islands were granted independence in 1986 with an agreement with the United States to provide aid and protection in exchange for the use of US military bases on the islands.

ABC News: The Marshall Islands, a nation that fears it’s on the brink of extinction

Polynesia

Polynesia map
Polynesia map

The largest region of the Pacific is Polynesia, a land of many island groups with large distances between them. The root word poly means “many.” Numerous groups of islands have come together under separate political arrangements. The region includes the Hawaiian Islands in the north and the Pitcairn Islands and Easter Island to the east. New Zealand is now studied as a part of the Austral realm, but the Maori living there are originally from Polynesia. Polynesia has a mixture of island types ranging from the high mountains of Hawaii, which are more than 13,800 feet, to low-lying coral atolls that are only a few feet above sea level. Islands that have enough elevation to condense moisture from the clouds receive adequate precipitation, but many islands with low elevations have a shortage of fresh water, making habitation or human development difficult.

Polynesian culture stems from island resources. Fishing, farming, and an understanding of the seas created a way of life that gave Polynesia its identity. Polynesians created innovative maps that provided a means of sailing across large expanses of open seas to connect with distant islands. Their lifestyle revolved around natural resources and the creative use of natural materials. Polynesian art, music, and language reflect a diversity of cultural trends derived from a common heritage. The warm climate and beautiful islands contrast with violent destructive storms and a lack of fresh water or resources, which can make life difficult.

Hawaii

Hawaii map
Hawaii map

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Polynesia only had four independent island groups: KiribatiSamoaTonga, and Tuvalu. The rest of the many islands and island groups in Polynesia are claimed by or under the control or jurisdiction of other countries: mainly the United States, France, Great Britain, or New Zealand. Hawaii was a sovereign and independent kingdom from 1810 to 1893, when the monarchy was overthrown and the islands became a republic that was annexed as a US territory. Hawaii became the fiftieth US state in 1959. Hawaii’s development pattern is modern, based on tourism from the continental United States and the US military base on Pearl Harbor. According to the US Census, Hawaii had a population of 1.4 million in 2020. More than one-third of the people are of Asian descent, and at least 10 percent are native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders. The United States has a number of additional possessions in Polynesia that include various small islands, atolls, or uninhabited reefs.

The Hawaiian Islands include more islands than the few usually listed in tourist brochures. Approximately 137 islands and atolls are in the Hawaiian chain, which extends about 1,500 miles. Hawaii is one of the most remote island groups in the Pacific. The islands of the Hawaiian archipelago are a product of volcanic activity from an undersea magma source called a hotspot, which remains stationary as the tectonic plate over it continues to shift creating new volcanoes. Mt. Kilauea, an active volcano on Hawaii, the largest island in the Hawaiian chain, is considered by geologists to be one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano – Behind the News

The active volcano of Mauna Loa and two dormant volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Hualālai, are on the same island. Mauna Kea is Hawaii’s tallest mountain at 13,796 feet above sea level, which is taller than Mt. Everest if measured from its base on the ocean floor.

Hawaii, like most islands of the Pacific realm, has a tropical type A climate, but snow can be found on the tops of its highest mountains during the winter months. The island of Kauai receives more than 460 inches of rain per year and is one of the wettest places on Earth.

Kauai Vacation Travel Guide | Expedia

The rain shadow effect created by Mt. Wai’ale’ale is the reason for the high level of precipitation. All the rain falls on the windward side of the mountain, creating a rain shadow on the leeward side of the mountain, which is a semidesert.

Top 10 Things to Do in Hawaii | National Geographic

Kiribati

Kiribati location
Kiribati location
Kiribati map
Kiribati map
Drew Binsky: This Country is Disappearing 😢

Kiribati includes three sets of islands located in both Micronesia and Polynesia. It’s considered one of the least developed countries in the world.The main component of Kiribati is the Gilbert Island chain in Micronesia, where the capital city and most of the population are located. The other two minor island chains are the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands in Polynesia. Both island chains were US possessions before being annexed with the Gilbert Islands to become Kiribati. The Line Islands were used for testing of British hydrogen bombs starting in 1957. Three atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted by the British on Malden Island, and six were conducted on Christmas Island. There is concern about how radiation affected people present during the tests and thereafter. The Phoenix Islands have few inhabitants. In 2008, Kiribati declared the entire island group a protected environmental area, which made it the largest protected marine habitat in the world. Kiribati is the only country with land in all four hemispheres: north and south of the equator and on both sides of the 180° meridian.

South Tarawa is a narrow strip of land between the lagoon and the ocean
South Tarawa is a narrow strip of land between the lagoon and the ocean.

Until recently, the people of Kiribati mostly lived in villages with populations between 50 and 3,000 on the outer islands. Most houses are made of materials obtained from coconut and pandanus trees. Frequent droughts and infertile soil hinder reliable large-scale agriculture, so the islanders have largely turned to the sea for livelihood and subsistence. Most are outrigger sailors and fishermen. Copra (coconut) plantations serve as a second source of employment.

Samoa

Samoa location
Samoa location
Samoa map
Samoa map
Matador Network: Beautiful Samoa: The cradle of Polynesia

After the colonial era, Samoa was divided into Western Samoa and Eastern Samoa. The United States controlled the eastern islands, which are referred to as American Samoa. Before World War I, Germany gained control of the larger, more extensive western islands only to lose them to New Zealand after the war. Western Samoa was under the New Zealand government until 1962, when it gained independence. The name was officially changed from Western Samoa to Samoa in 1997.

The Samoan Islands are volcanic, and the most active volcano last erupted in 1906. In Samoa, three-quarters of the nearly two hundred thousand people live on the larger of the two main islands. Samoa forms part of the Samoan tropical moist forests ecoregion. Since human habitation began, about 80% of the lowland rainforests have disappeared.

Landscape of Samoa
Landscape of Samoa

Colonialism has had a major impact on the culture, especially in the case of religion. Christianity became widespread once it was introduced and is now the religion of about 99 percent of the population. American music and societal trends are also a major influence on the islands because of migration between Hawaii and the US mainland. Many Samoans have moved to the United States and established communities. Cultural traditions have been preserved and are often integrated into modern society. Samoa has some of the oldest history and traditions of Polynesia.

Some Samoans live a communal way of life, participating in activities collectively. Examples of this are the traditional Samoan fale (houses) which are open with no walls, using blinds made of coconut palm fronds during the night or bad weather.

Samoan family
Samoan family

As with other Polynesian cultures, Samoans have two gender specific and culturally significant tattoos.

A Samoan woman with a traditional malu, the type of tattoos given to women.

For many years, the United States has held an extensive naval station in the bay of Pago Pago on American Samoa. During World War II, there were more US military personnel on the islands than Samoans. American Samoa became a key military post for the United States. American Samoa remains a US possession; however, Samoans are not US citizens unless one of their parents is a US citizen.

Tonga

Tonga location
Tonga location
Tonga map
Tonga map

South of Samoa is an archipelago that is home to the Kingdom of Tonga. Only about 36 of the 169 islands are inhabited by a total population of about one hundred twenty thousand people. Tonga is ruled by a monarchy that never lost its governance powers throughout the colonial era. Tonga is the only monarchy in the Pacific. The two main methods of gaining wealth are by remittances from citizens working abroad and tourism.

Drew Binsky: Why is This Country CLOSED ON SUNDAY? (TONGA)

Tuvalu

Tuvalu location
Tuvalu location
Tuvalu map
Tuvalu map

The island nation of Tuvalu comprises four reef islands and five atolls for a total land area of about ten square miles. In 2008, it had a population of about twelve thousand people. These statistics indicate that Tuvalu is one of the four smallest countries in the world. Nauru is only about eight square miles in area. Only the Vatican and Monaco are smaller. The low elevation of the islands of Tuvalu make them susceptible to damage from rising sea levels. The highest point is only fifteen feet in elevation. Any increase in ocean levels as a result of climate change could threaten the existence of this country.

Drew Binsky: This AIRPORT is a PLAYGROUND! (Seriously)

The cuisine of Tuvalu is based on the staple of coconut and the many species of fish found in the ocean and lagoons of the atolls. Desserts made on the islands include coconut and coconut milk, rather than animal milk. Tuvaluans also eat seafood, including coconut crab and fish from the lagoon and ocean. Another traditional food source is seabirds. Flying fish are also caught as a source of food; and as an exciting activity, using a boat, a butterfly net, and a spotlight to attract the flying fish.

Rainwater harvesting is the principal source of fresh water in Tuvalu. Nukufetau, Vaitupu and Nanumea are the only islands with sustainable groundwater supplies. The effectiveness of rainwater harvesting is diminished because of poor maintenance of roofs, gutters and pipes. Tuvalu is working to implement composting toilets.

The traditional community system still survives to a large extent on Tuvalu. Each family has its own task, or salanga, to perform for the community, such as fishing, house building or defence. The skills of a family are passed on from parents to children.

French Polynesia

French Polynesia location
French Polynesia location
French Polynesia map
French Polynesia map

The South Pacific is home to many islands and island groups that are not independent countries. The biggest and most significant group in the southern region is French Polynesia. France colonized a large number of islands in the South Pacific and has continued to hold them in its control or possession as external departments or colonies. In western Polynesia, the French maintain control over the islands of Wallis and Futuna. French Polynesia consists of four main island groups: the Society Islands, the Austral Islands, the Tuamotu Islands, and the Marquesas. There are around 130 islands in French Polynesia, and many are too small or lack resources to be inhabited.

Tahiti, located in the Society Islands, is the central hub of French Polynesia. Papeete is the capital and main city with a population of almost thirty thousand. Tahiti is a major tourist destination with a mild climate that stays at 75 °F to 85 °F year-round and receives adequate rainfall to sustain tropical forests. Most of the people live along the coastal areas; the interior is almost uninhabited. The Society Islands include the island of Bora Bora, which is considered by many to be a tropical paradise and one of the most exotic tourist destinations in the world.

Bora Bora Vacation Travel Guide | Expedia

The volcanic Marquesas Islands to the northeast are the second-most remote islands in the world after the Hawaiian Islands. The weather pattern in the Pacific does not bring enormous amounts of precipitation to the Marquesas, a reality that restricts human expansion in the archipelago. The higher elevations in the mountains—the highest is 4,035 feet—draw some precipitation from the rain shadow effect, giving rise to lush rain forests on portions of the islands.

Basaltic rock formation in Hatiheu, Nuku Hiva island.
Basaltic rock formation in Hatiheu, Nuku Hiva island.

With less than ten thousand people, the Marquesas do not have a large population to support and rely on financial support from outside to sustain them. French painter Paul Gauguin is buried there, and the islands are remembered as his home during the last years of his life.

Gauguin, Paul - Sacred Spring, Sweet Dreams (Nave nave moe)
Gauguin, Paul – Sacred Spring, Sweet Dreams (Nave nave moe)

The Austral Islands are the southernmost group of islands in French Polynesia and are home to only about 6,500 people. French Polynesia also includes the Tuamotu Archipelago, between the Society Islands and the Marquesas, which comprises about 75 atolls and an uncounted number of coral reefs that extend for about nine hundred miles. The islands have a population of fewer than twenty thousand people, and the main economic activity is the cultivation of black pearls and coconuts.

The French government used islands in the Tuamotu Archipelago as test sites for nuclear weapons. From 1966 to 1974, the French tested 41 atomic devices above ground in the atmosphere, and from 1974 to 1996, they tested 137 atomic devices below ground. Radiation concerns are the same here as they are on the Marshall Islands, where the United States tested atomic weapons. Scientific testing monitored by the World Health Organization has determined the humans living closest to the atolls are not presently in danger of radioactive materials either in the environment or in their food supply. The long-term effects of the underground tests continue to be monitored.

The Pitcairn Islands, Easter Island, and the Cook Islands

Pitcairn Islands location
Pitcairn Islands location
Pitcairn Islands map
Pitcairn Islands map

To the east of French Polynesia are the four Pitcairn Islands, controlled by Great Britain. The main island, Pitcairn, is the only inhabited island in this chain and is one of the least inhabited islands in the world; the total population is fewer than fifty people. Mutineers from the HMS Bounty escaped to Pitcairn in 1790 after taking various Tahitians with them.

Wall Street Journal: Pitcairn Islands Face Extinction

Even farther east than Pitcairn, on the edge of Polynesia, is Easter Island.

Easter Island location
Easter Island location

Now under the government of Chile, Easter Island was historically inhabited by Polynesians who built large stone heads that remain somewhat of a mystery.

National Geographic: End of Easter Island | Explorer
Cook Islands location
Cook Islands location
Co0k Islands map
Cook Islands map

At the center of Polynesia are the fifteen small Cook Islands, which are controlled by New Zealand and are home to about twenty thousand people, many of whom claim Maori ethnicity.

Cook Islands Vacation Travel Guide | Expedia

Key Takeaways:

✎ Melanesia includes the islands from Papua New Guinea to Fiji. Micronesia includes small islands located north of Melanesia. Polynesia includes island groups from the Hawaiian Islands to the Pitcairn Islands. Papua New Guinea is the largest country in the Pacific, approximately seven hundred languages are spoken by the many local groups that live there.
✎ Low islands in this region are usually composed of coral and low in elevation. High islands are usually volcanic in origin and mountainous with high elevations. Micronesia consists mainly of low islands, while Polynesia consists of many high islands, such as Hawaii.
✎ Tourism is the main economic activity in the Pacific, but minerals and fossil fuels provide some islands with additional wealth. Fishing and subsistence agriculture have been the traditional livelihoods. Offshore banking has also been established in the region.
✎ The United States, the United Kingdom, and France used various islands for nuclear testing. Radiation fallout continues to be an environmental concern. Typhoons, tsunamis, volcanic activity, earthquakes, and flooding create devastation on the islands. Fresh water can be a valuable resource, as it is in short supply on many islands.

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Additional information and image credits:

Melanesia https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/13-1-the-pacific-islands/
Micronesia https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/13-1-the-pacific-islands/
New Guinea By LocationPapuaNewGuinea.svg:ByRei-arturptenRei-artur blogderivative work: Abhijitsathe (talk), MagentaGreen – LocationPapuaNewGuinea.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7931668
Oceania By User:Kahuroa – Outline: File:World2Hires filled mercator.svg; Map information based on Vaka Moana: Voyages of the Ancestors – the discovery and settlement of the Pacific, ed K.R. Howe, 2008, p57., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61904861
Fiji By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32294058
Fiji By TUBS – Own workThis W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Adobe Illustrator.This file was uploaded with Commonist.This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this file:  Kiribati on the globe (Polynesia centered).svg (by TUBS)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15176002
Papua New Guinea By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32649889
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Hawaii map By Nick Roux – :Image:Map-USA-Hawaii.svg, CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?
curid=22746503
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Tree kangaroo By panvorax – originally posted to Flickr as Baby tree kangaroo on the chiefs wifes shoulder, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7896570
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Woman with face paint By Christopher Michel – A few of my best memories as a Photographer., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31215732
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Malaita By Irene Scott/AusAID, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32166662
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Islands
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanuatu
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fijian_cuisine
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiji
Chamoru By Marilyn Sourgose – originally posted to Flickr as IMG_7883, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12006503
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nauru
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guam
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuvalu
Hatiheau Bay By Steve Berardi – Flickr: Hatiheu Bay, Nuku Hiva (French Polynesia), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15076725
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