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The direct ancestors of the Polynesians were the NeolithicLapita culture, which emerged in Island Melanesia and Micronesia at around 1500 BC from a convergence of migration waves of Austronesians originating from both Island Southeast Asia to the west and an earlier Austronesian migration to Micronesia to the north. The culture was distinguished by distinct dentate-stamped pottery. However, their eastward expansion stopped when they reached the western Polynesian islands of eastern Fiji, Samoa and Tonga by around 900 BC. This remained the furthest extent of the Austronesian expansion in the Pacific for around 1,500 years, during which the Lapita culture in these islands abruptly lost the technology of making pottery for unknown reasons. They resumed their eastward migrations by around 700 AD, spreading to the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and the Marquesas. From here, they spread further to Hawaii by 900 AD, Easter Island by 1000 AD, and finally New Zealand by 1200 AD.
There are proposals that Polynesians may have also had pre-Columbian contact with the Americas. But evidence for this remains highly contentious.
Best-fit genomic mixture proportions of ethnic and tribal Austronesians in Island Southeast Asia and their inferred population movements (Lipson et al., 2014)
Analysis by Kayser et al. (2008) discovered that only 21% of the Polynesian autosomal gene pool is of Australo-Melanesian origin, with the rest (79%) being of Austronesian origin. Another study by Friedlaender et al. (2008) also confirmed that Polynesians are closer genetically to Micronesians, Taiwanese Aborigines, and Islander Southeast Asians, than to Papuans. The study concluded that Polynesians moved through Melanesia fairly rapidly, allowing only limited admixture between Austronesians and Papuans. Polynesians belong almost entirely to the Haplogroup B (mtDNA) and thus the high frequencies of mtDNA B4a1a1 in the Polynesians are the result of drift and represent the descendants of a few Austronesian females who mixed with Papuan males. The Polynesian population experienced a founder effect and genetic drift. As a result of founder effect, the Polynesian may be distinctively different in both genotypically and phenotypically from the parent population from which it is derived, this is due to new population being established by a very small number of individuals from a larger population which also causes a loss of genetic variation.
A 2014 study by Lipson et al. using whole genome data supports the findings of Kayser et al. Modern Polynesians were shown to have lower levels of admixture with Australo-Melanesians than Austronesians in Island Melanesia. Regardless, both show admixture, along with other Austronesian populations outside of Taiwan, indicating varying degrees of intermarriage between the incoming Neolithic Austronesian settlers and the preexisting Paleolithic Australo-Melanesian populations of Island Southeast Asia and Melanesia.
Other studies in 2016 and 2017 also support the implications that the earliest Lapita settlers mostly bypassed New Guinea, coming directly from Taiwan or the northern Philippines. The intermarriage and admixture with Australo-Melanesian Papuans evident in the genetics of modern Polynesians (as well as Islander Melanesians) occurred after the settlement of Tonga and Vanuatu.
Female dancers of the Hawaii Islands depicted by Louis Choris, c. 1816
Kava ('ava) makers (aumaga) of Samoa. A woman seated between two men with the round tanoa (or laulau) wooden bowl in front. Standing is a third man, distributor of the 'ava, holding the coconut shell cup (tauau) used for distributing the beverage.
There are an estimated 2 million ethnic Polynesians and many of mix Polynesian descent worldwide, the majority of whom live in Polynesia, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The Polynesian peoples are shown below in their distinctive ethnic and cultural groupings (estimates of the larger groups are shown):
Polynesian persons are noted to have, on average, larger bone structure and muscle mass than Caucasian persons, which has implications for BMI (Body Mass Index) comparability in measuring obesity. Polynesians' physical characteristics help them perform well in some physical sports, including American football and rugby.
^Carson, Mike T.; Hung, Hsiao-chun; Summerhayes, Glenn; Bellwood, Peter (January 2013). "The Pottery Trail From Southeast Asia to Remote Oceania". The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology. 8 (1): 17-36. doi:10.1080/15564894.2012.726941.
^Snowdon, Wendy; Malakellis, Mary; Millar, Lynne; Swinburn, Boyd (2014). "Ability of body mass index and waist circumference to identify risk factors for non-communicable disease in the Pacific Islands". Obesity Research & Clinical Practice. 8 (1): e36-45. doi:10.1016/j.orcp.2012.06.005. PMID24548575.