Much has been written about the origins of the Polynesian people in general and the Tuvaluan people in particular. One of the earliest records was the Narrative Of Missionary Enterprises in the South Seas by the Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society published by John Snow, London, 1840. The observations made by John Williams are quite comprehensive and have not been disputed to any significant degree subsequently. Williams makes the observation that the physical confirmation, general character and Malay countenance of the people furnished indubitable evidence of Asiatic origin. Williams also comments on the near affinity between the caste of India and the tabu of the South Sea islands. This affinity Williams contended related to such matters as the treatment women received in Polynesia and Bengal, and with respect to a great number of games and usages.
More decisive evidence is offered however in the form of the correspondence between the languages spoken by the Malays and the Polynesians. Williams observed that many of the words are the same, noting that the Polynesians employ the Malay numerals with scarcely any variation. These are the principal circumstances upon which Williams found the belief, that the copper coloured Polynesians, and the various tribes inhabiting the Indian Archipelago, have the same origin.
According to recent research by archaeologists, the Polynesian people are derived from the so-called Lapita people who came from South-East Asia and spread to Melanesia from the eastern islands off the coast of New Guinea to New Caledonia, about 5000 years ago. The name Lapita comes from a place in New Caledonia where large deposits of their pottery were found.
An example of the Lapita pottery found in Fiji.
The Lapita people produced pottery ornamented with distinctive tooth-shaped designs. About 3500 years ago some of the Lapita people went from Vanuatu to Fiji, and from there to Tonga and Samoa. This is known because some of their distinctive pottery has been found among the remains of the earliest settlers in those islands. Later, the people in Fiji were joined by other settlers from Vanuatu, but those in Tonga and Samoa were left alone to evolve in their own way. There they developed the particular set of physical, social and linguistic features which marked them out as Polynesians. From there, they set out to settle the islands to the north, south and east, eventually coming to Tuvalu.
Linguists can trace the movements of the Polynesian people by showing the relationships between their languages. Linguistic research supports the findings of the archaeologists by relating the Polynesian languages to the vast family of Austronesian languages spoken in Melanesia.
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Exactly why the early settlers began coming to Tuvalu about 2000 years ago is not known for sure. Some may have been blown here by accident. Others may have come because of wars or famine in their home islands, while others may have come in search of adventure. They travelled before the south-east winds in large sailing canoes, possibly navigating by the sun and the stars and observing wave patterns and birds to direct themselves towards land. It would have been a hard journey. Many voyagers may have died on the way. But the survivors though coming from lands with rich soil, adapted to life on coral atolls.
They became Tuvaluans !
Art of the Navigators