Living in the eastern Pacific

Oh Lono shake out a net-full of food,
A net-full of rain.
Gather them together for us.
Accumulate food, Oh Lono!
Collect fish, Oh Lono!

(Hawaiian prayer to the God Lono)

Set within a triangle formed by Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the south, Hawaii to the north and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, the Polynesian islands are dotted across the vast eastern Pacific Ocean. Though small and separated by thousands of miles, they share similar environments and were settled around 1,500 years ago by people with a common cultural heritage.

These people were exceptional boat builders and sailed across the Pacific navigating by currents, stars and cloud formations. They were skilled fisherman and farmers, growing fruit trees and vegetables and raising pigs, chickens and dogs. Islanders were also accomplished craftspeople and worked in wood, fibre and feathers to create objects of power and beauty.

They were poets, musicians, dancers and orators. Eleven closely-linked languages were spoken across the region. They were so similar that Tupaia, a Tahitian who joined Captain Cook on his first voyage, was able to converse with islanders more than two thousand miles away in New Zealand.

Every aspect of life was directly influenced and inspired by the gods, including the hierarchical structure of Polynesian societies. Chiefs, warriors and priests inherited their power from the gods. Their role and status was often identifiable through dress, ornaments or tattoos.

Illustration: On 18 August 1773, Captain Cook anchored his two ships, the Resolution and Adventure, in Vaitepiha Bay, Tahiti. William Hodges' (1744-97) drawing in grey wash and watercolour over pencil shows his impression of this landscape, which was new to him and his fellow voyagers.