The islands comprising Oceania are widely dispersed and composed of both volcanic and coral land mass. Geologically, the oldest islands consist of relatively flat spits of land, often shaped in the form of crescents that rise from coral reefs built up over eons around a central volcano that has eroded into the ocean. Islands that are geologically newer, such as the Hawaiian Islands, have larger volcanoes some of which are active, dormant or extinct.
Centuries before the birth of Christ, the Pacific Islands were populated progressively from West to East by several migrations of fishermen from Malaysia and South East Asia. There appear to have been four independent migrations throughout Oceania by:
- Melanesian aborigines
- A pre-Polynesian migration to coastal Melanesia
- The Polynesians
- An independent non-Polynesian colonization of Micronesia
As part of the Polynesian migration, Native Hawaiians traveled from the Marquesas Islands (in what is now French Polynesia) by canoe and settled in the archipelago of islands now known as Hawaii more than 1500 years ago (Anderson et al., 2006; Bushnell, 1993). In 1778, Captain James Cook was the first documented European to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands. Just prior to the first Western contact, it is estimated that there were 300,000-400,000 Native Hawaiians living throughout the archipelago of the Hawaiian Islands (Bushnell, 1993). In Hawaii, as in other isolated areas of Oceania, contact with foreigners meant the introduction of Western diseases for which the native population had no immunity, such as measles, chicken pox, and venereal diseases. These diseases resulted in the near extinction of the native population. Other diseases, probably introduced via Asian contact, such as leprosy or Hansen’s Disease, took a similar toll on the Native Hawaiian population (Bushnell 1993). The long term consequence of these events was that few full-blooded Native Hawaiians were able to survive. Those that remained of the Native Hawaiian population became integrated with other emigrant populations to Hawaii and eventually inter-racially married resulting in a high proportion of racially mixed Native Hawaiians.