The Pacific Islands were unsettled by any of the early hominid species, but with assistance from ice-age land bridges, modern humans settled the Philippines, Australasia and elsewhere by no later than 40,000 years ago (long after the earliest known boats). Eastern Polynesia may have been settled by South American sailors following the Humboldt Current. Sophisticated agriculture developed to supplement fishing.
Human migrations from Southeast Asia to the South Pacific Islands of Oceania began as early as 40,000 BCE. A concentrated wave of migration about 2000 BCE produced profound environmental changes as humans introduced domesticated animals, depleted species of native fauna, and practiced agriculture resulting in deforestation and erosion. Although subsequent settlements achieved ecological balance, few who saw the region as a paradise in the 1600s realized just how fragile that balance was.
The thousands of islands and huge ocean gulfs between them meant that settlement was uneven; some—such as Hawaii and Easter Island—remained unsettled until well into the first millennium AD. Isolation helped create significant linguistic diversity; there are not only hundreds of different languages, but several different language families (in civilizations without writing, oral histories were greatly developed). Philologists can chart the linguistic changes, dating the settlement of each island and tracking the rise and fall of loose-knit empires, with religiously potent chieftains and various class systems.
- A plaster cast of an Arawi Maori shows detailed tribal tattoos—New Zealand was one of the last parts of Oceania to be settled by humans, about 800 years ago.
- For the European voyagers, who began visiting the South Pacific in larger numbers between 1600 and 1800, many of the Oceania islands assumed mythical status as tropical paradises.
- Today, few islands are truly remote, peripheral, or insular. Islands certainly do not exist in stasis. It no longer makes sense to distinguish islands and continents or to stereotype them or their inhabitants.