During the 2,000 years which may have elapsed between the coming of the first Polynesian immigrant and the visit of Captain Cook, the Pacific colonists had increased until perhaps 800,000 Polynesians were living on the many islands suitable for habitation. They were too widely scattered to form a nation under one government; but they had lived so long near each other and had been so long separated from people in other parts of the world that they became one race or group of people. No other people look like them or do things as they do them.
As one group of colonists after another came into the Pacific they brought with them ideas and customs from their old homes and changed these ideas and customs in ways more suitable to life in their new homes. Thus there grew up a Polynesian civilization which is remarkable because it was made by a people who knew nothing of the use of metals.
The Polynesians had no iron, no pottery, and no beasts of burden. Their tools, weapons, and utensils were of stone, wood, shell, teeth, or bone. From hard wood or soft wood tipped with hard wood, effective spears and harpoons were made. Bowls and boxes were made with stone tools and engraved with stone or tooth knives. The canoe maker's tool chest contained adzes of stone, chisels of stone, shell, or bone, rasps and files of coral, and polishers made of coral or the rough skin of fish. In place of screws and nails cord made of fibers was used.
Although they lived in a "Stone Age," the Polynesians learned to make good use of all the things at hand and showed skill in the making of houses and clothing and in the cultivation of fields; in their art, government, and religious ideas they reached a high stage of development.
The Polynesian house was well suited to the tropical climate. It was chiefly a place to sleep; cooking, washing, and other household activities were usually performed in the open.
The ordinary family dwelling house was about ten feet wide and twenty feet long. It was set among trees, usually on a stone platform raised a few feet above the ground and extending beyond the walls of the house as a lanai. There were also large houses in which several families lived together and houses used for public meetings. The essential part of the house was the roof of thatch supported by poles. The sides of some houses were also thatched; many others were not walled in. The floor was the stone platform covered with mats, and there were no partitions to separate rooms. The material for the framework was the trunks of coconut, breadfruit, or other trees fastened together with sennit (fiber) lashings skillfully arranged. The thatch was usually dense layers of coconut, pandanus, or breadfruit leaves fastened to rods of bamboo or hibiscus. In Hawaii grass was used for thatch, and in New Zealand, where timber is abundant and material suitable for thatch is scarce, it was customary to make the entire house of planks hewed and carved with stone adzes.
Little clothing needed
On low tropical islands and along the shore of high volcanic islands, where most Polynesians lived, the need for clothing was small. A loin cloth (called malo in Hawaii) for men, a short skirt for women, and sandals for fishing on the reefs or walking on lava were the only essential articles. But the instinct for adornment led to the making of skirts, cloaks, and even headdresses which were attractive as well as useful.