Oceania Prehistory

By | January 3, 2023

Oceania (Mission History)

In terms of population, Oceania has over time received more foreign missionaries than any other continent; there are now only a few people in the Pacific who are not Christians. On many islands, competition between different mission societies resulted in local conflicts. Spanish Jesuits were the first to land on the Marianas in 1668, and by 1710 they had converted the entire population, which, however, had been greatly reduced during the same period. Thereafter, it took more than 100 years for Catholic missionaries to gain a foothold in other parts of Oceania. Visit Countryaah for detailed information about Oceania.

James Cook’s voyages opened the Pacific to a stream of foreigners, including missionaries from Protestant Europe. In 1796, the London Missionary Society began missionary work in Tahiti and other Polynesian islands. In the hierarchical societies, the transition to Christianity in several cases took place under the leadership of a chief, and missionaries exercised considerable political influence. In the chiefless Melanesian communities in the western part of Oceania, missionaries gained a foothold only slowly in the 1800’s and 1900’s, often using Polynesian missionaries; in the highlands of New Guinea, missionary work did not begin in earnest until after World War II.

Many of the 1800’s British missionaries were artisans and descended from the lower middle class. An exception was the Anglican Mission in Melanesia, whose predominantly academically educated members represented a high-church Protestantism in close alliance with the colonial state power.

Christian missionaries have played a crucial role in Oceania’s societal change, both in the destruction of the people’s cultural heritage and in the building of a new cultural foundation, especially through education. The missions have now been transformed into self-governing, local (indigenous) churches. The Pacific Conference of Churches was formed in 1966, and in most states, churches are central to the development of modern society.

Oceania (Prehistory and History – Prehistoric Societies)

The pre-European societies in Oceania were unwritten and consistently small. The Aborigines of Australia lived in egalitarian groups, with only older men playing a leading role. In most Melanesian village communities, informal leaders competed for power and influence, but in the Polynesian and Micronesian territories there was an inherited hierarchy that in some places could take the form of powerful principalities. As a result of European influence, it developed in the 1800’s states with kings in Hawaii, Tahiti and Tonga.

Apart from Australia, where hunting and gathering were the mainstays, the subsistence economy in Oceania was based on root crops and tree crops combined with fishing in coastal areas as well as in many places pig farming and hunting. The technology was based on hand power and rocks or shells from sea creatures. Draft animals, cattle, grain and metals were first introduced by Europeans. The wide spread of communities in diverse natural environments led to political fragmentation and a diversity of cultural forms of adaptation, but at the same time, within larger regions, social and cultural communities were created based on trade and marriage exchanges. A famous example is the ceremonial sphere exchange system, which integrated the Trobriands and other islands NE of New Guinea into a community.

Oceania (Prehistory and History – War and Bomb Trials)

World War II strengthened Oceania’s strategic and economic importance. The populations of colonies in Melanesia and Micronesia were involuntarily involved in the fighting between Japan and the allied powers led by the United States, while the southeastern Melanesian and many of the Polynesian islands served as supply and base areas. For the first time, the people of Oceania became acquainted with an incredible material wealth and met with human respect and sympathy among the many foreign soldiers, which stimulated the desire for independence. Since World War II, the United States, Britain, and France have conducted more than 250 nuclear tests on coral islands in Micronesia and Polynesia. The United States and Britain stopped the experiments in 1963, while France continued despite international protests.

French Polynesia

French Polynesia, Territoire de la Polynésie Française, French colony in the Pacific Ocean, includes four major archipelagos; a total of 4167 km2, 245,500 residents (2002). The archipelagos are located in NW-SE-oriented, parallel rows. All the islands are of volcanic origin, formed over so-called hot spots during the migration of the overlying Pacific plate to the west. Many of the volcanic islands were later modified into atolls by sinking into the subsoil, by water level changes and through coral growth.

The climate of the islands is generally marine-tropical, but the precipitation varies greatly from island to island. The capital Papeete in Tahiti gets over 2000 mm a year, while the lower islands and the islands near the tropics are dry. The largest seasonal differences are due to the displacement of the trade wind system.

The population is Polynesian, linguistically divided into 5-6 Polynesian languages, of which Tahitian is the most widespread; it works alongside French as a common language.

The settlements are predominantly gathered in villages whose population often belongs to one or quite a few kinship groups. Due to mosquito infestation, the cultivated areas on the atolls, especially in the case of sumptaro, are far from the villages.

On most islands, agriculture and fishing are still the main occupations. A large part of the production, eg bananas, pineapple and taro, is used for self-sufficiency. For export, coconut is grown and processed into coconut oil. Local fishing is also for local supply, while high seas fishing is almost entirely in foreign hands and export-oriented. The main exports are cultured pearls and coconut oil. Tourism stands at approximately 150,000 visitors a year for a third of foreign exchange earnings. In addition, there are significant subsidies from France and the military activities, including the nuclear test sites at Muroroa.

The companion islands have over half the population and consist of two groups: Îles du Vent (the islands on the windward side, ie in the east, where the trade winds come from) and Îles sous le Vent (the islands on the leeward side). The first include the main island of Tahiti (1042 km2; 152,000 residents (2001)) with high mountains (Mont Orohena, 2237 m), the capital Papeete and Faa International Airport. The second group consists of five major volcanic islands, Raiatea and Bora Bora.

To the SW are the Tubuai or Austral Islands, a 1300 km long series of volcanic islands and atolls; approximately 6386 residents (2002). The capital is Mataura on Tubuai.

The Tuamotu Islands are located NE of Tahiti and include 78 atolls in two long rows; a total of 690 km2 with 15,973 residents (2002) incl. The Gambier Islands towards the SE. Particularly well known are Muroroa and Fangataufa, which since 1964 have been used for nuclear weapons tests.

The Marquesas Islands are furthest to the NE and consist of ten islands; 1049 km2, 8712 residents (2002). The main island is Nukuhiva. These islands play an important role in Polynesian folklore.


The first people to settle in the eastern Polynesian area that now forms French Polynesia came from Samoa and Tonga in western Polynesia. The Marquesas Islands were populated approximately 200 BC, and from here people spread to the Society Islands and other archipelagos. For the same reason, all the peoples of the East Polynesian area are historically and culturally closely related.

Before Europeans came to the area, Polynesian communities were hierarchically organized and led by local chiefs. Wars between districts with competing chiefs and religious ceremonies in honor of the gods occupied an important place in the lives of the communities.

The visits of British and French sailors to Tahiti in the late 1700’s, such as Samuel Wallis’ in 1767, Louis Antoine de Bougainvilles in 1768 and James Cooks in 1769, as well as the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1797, had decisive consequences for development.

A single chieftain family, Pomare in Tahiti, was able to overcome rivals and found a monarchy thanks to the support of the Europeans. The Christian missionaries, however, still had great political influence.

Disputes between rival British and French interests led in 1842 to the creation of a French protectorate. In 1880, France finally annexed the islands under the name Établissements français de l’Océanie (EFO).

Due to the growing opposition of the Polynesians to colonial rule, France had to reorganize the EFO in 1957 under the name French Polynesia; in 1977 the area gained limited autonomy.

In 1963, France decided to transfer its nuclear tests from North Africa to the Muroroa Atoll in French Polynesia. The Polynesians thus became heavily dependent on the newly built administrative and supply apparatus. Their former subsistence-oriented lives came to rest predominantly on wage labor and market economy.

Although the Polynesian people of French Polynesia are working to gain more control over their own lives, they are bound to France in a strong dependency relationship.