There are thousands of islands scattered throughout the Pacific Ocean. Each one has its own fascinating history that was shaped by each of the islands’ unique features. Contrary to popular belief, some of these islands hosted advanced societies by the time of European colonization, though nevertheless succumbed to conquest due to disease and technological differences. The reasons behind the varying population density of the Pacific Islands is further discussed below.
The ability of these various island societies to progress into advanced societies depended on a multitude of factors. Among them include the islands’ climate, geological type, size and relative isolation. Ultimately, islands that had favorable characteristics among these factors were able to grow, advance and support larger populations.
Population Density of the Pacific Islands pre-Colonial Era
Climate and geological type were two of the biggest factors. In order to grow agriculture, either tropical or subtropical temperatures were required.
The islands geological types also varied. Islands that consisted of coral atolls or raised limestone had very thin soil and poor water sources, making agriculture very difficult to grow. Others consisted of volcanic islands with varied landscapes and rich soils that were better suited for agriculture.
Island size, of course, mattered greatly, as did its location to other islands. The habitable terrain on the islands determined how big of a population it could support, and whether or not it could generate enough surplus food for specialized labor to emerge.
Islands that were nearby other islands had a distinct advantage over ones in isolation. Contact with other islands spurred trade, and eventually kingdoms and polities grew from those close enough to each other.
Some islands with the most favorable characteristics were able to support some of the highest population densities in the world at the time. The tiny island of Anuta had a population density of over 1,100 as it converted nearly all available land to agriculture production. The Tongan and Samoan islands also had relatively high population densities and eventually consolidated their power into inter-archipelago empires.
Other islands with less favorable characteristics had very low population densities. Islands such as the Chatham’s were located in a subantarctic climate and were so isolated that trade was impossible. They thus has to resort to a hunter gatherer lifestyle.
Source: Guns, Germs, and Steel