The islands of Oceania are uninhabited, with the exceptions of Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Australia was first settled some 40,000 years ago - at first along coasts and river banks, later (from as late as 5000 BC) inland. The move inland may have been connected to a rise in sea levels, which inundated coastal areas and also isolated populations on new islands, especially in Tasmania and the Torres Straits islands. The inhabitants - today known as aborigines - live a Stone Age hunter-gathering lifestyle.
New Guinea was also settled about 40,000 years ago. From c.5000 BC, agriculture, based on tropical crops such as taro, yams and bananas, developed in the highlands of the interior. On the coast, where tropical diseases kept the population sparce, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle prevailed.
By this stage in history, farming is well-established in the two great river valleys of China, the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, and is spreading to neighboring areasclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 3500BC
Stone Age farmers and hunter-gatherers inhabit South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 3500BC
Permanent villages have grown up along coasts and riversclick to view South America 3500BC
Hunter-gatherer cultures cover most of North Americaclick to view North America 3500BC
In Australia, a new cultural development has begun, with the emergence of a new toolkit based on small, finely finished flaked stone implements to make knives and shafted axes. The dingo is also introduced about now. These developments are evidence for contact with peoples from South East Asia, but they are probably at least as much to do with the climate becoming drier. Smaller implements allow for a more mobile lifestyle needed to cover a wider range of territory in search of food.
Far to the north, in southern China, population movements are taking place which will have a huge impact on Oceania in the millennia to follow. The ancestors of today's Austronesian peoples (of which the Melanesians and Polynesians are examples, as well as Malays and Madagascans) are migrating from south China to Taiwan at this time. They take with them their Stone-Age farming culture and well-developed fishing and navigation techniques.
Trade routes are spreading out across East Asia from the core areas of the Yellow river and Yangtze river valleysclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 2500BC
Major population movements begin to affect this region, as peoples orginally from southern China enter the South East Asia along its coasts and islands - they are the ancestors of today's Malays and Polynesiansclick to view South East Asia 2500BC
Large villages are developing along the Pacific coast, with temple-mounds and irrigation systems being constructedclick to view South America 2500BC
The ancestors of the Inuit are arriving in North Americaclick to view North America 2500BC
In Australia, the shift to the new tool kit of smaller and finer stone implements is taking place at different times in different places. The process is probably not a peaceful one - scenes of violence portrayed in cave paintings probably date from around this time, reflecting a fierce competition for resources between different groups. These technological changes seem to have been accompanied by changes in religious beliefs and practices, with old sacred sites abandoned. This may indicate the replacement of older populations by incoming ones.
To the north, Austronesian migrants have now settled the coasts and islands of South East Asia, south to the northern coast of New Guinea, and as far east as the Solomon islands. At about this time they also embark on the first of their great colonizing ventures, when a group of them sail the 2500 km (1550 miles) eastwards across open water to settle the Mariana islands.
The first literate, urban civilization has appeared in the history of East Asia, under the Shang dynasty in northern Chinaclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 1500BC
A second population movement is affecting the region, as peoples from inland southern China move down into Burma and Laos; these are the ancestors of today's Mon and Khmerclick to view South East Asia 1500BC
The peoples of the Pacific coast are making strides towards civilizationclick to view South America 1500BC
Farming is spreading to eastern USAclick to view North America 1500BC
In Australia, the new stone tool kit continues to spread, and leads to other changes: the existence of large base camps and cemeteries indicate larger, more stable tribal territories as groups coalesce or exterminate each other in seeking to secure food sources in the dryer conditions.
Groups of Austronesians continue to migrate eastwards, reaching Fiji by 1300 BC and Tonga and Samoa by 1000 BC. They carry with them their cultural package known to modern scholars as the "Lapita culture", marked in the archaeological record by pottery with distinctive decorations based on tattoo designs. This culture probably originated in southern China, and it is based on a mixed economy of horticulture and maritime subsistence. The people had pigs, dogs and foul.
Chinese civilization expands under the Zhou dynasty, which will be the longest-lasting dynasty in China's historyclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 1000BC
Bronze Age technologies are now becoming established among the peoples of South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 1000BC
The first civilization in South America is in the makingclick to view South America 1000BC
The Olmec civilization has appeared in North Americaclick to view North America 1000BC
By this date, almost all Australia is covered by the new technology based on the small stone tool kit.
In the western Pacific, an inter-island trading system has developed, linking the Austronesian communities of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and as far east as Fiji.
China is divided amongst many warring states, but in this turbulent time the philosopher Confucius lives, and his teachings will deeply influence millions of people in East Asia right up to the present dayclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 500BC
The Malays and Javanese now inhabit their modern homes, and the Iron Age has come to the regionclick to view South East Asia 500BC
In the Amazon basin, the Arawak diaspora is in full floodclick to view South America 500BC
The influence of the Olmec civilization now covers much of Central Americaclick to view North America 500BC
The inhabitants of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa are developing intensive trading relations, which will, over several centuries, lead to the emergence of a common Polynesian culture in these islands. This culture is marked by some significant losses in technology, as well as some remarkable gains. Of the losses, the most notable are the gradual disappearance of pottery and of the weaving loom. This must have been linked to a reduction in the Pacific Islanders dependence upon rice and millet, and a growing dependence upon tropical plants such as taro and bananas, as well as upon fish and meat. Pottery is especially useful for carrying cereal grains, and so would become less useful in the new conditions of the tropical Pacific; and in place of textiles the islanders increasingly used bark cloth, in which they developed high level skills. They also developed further their boat building and navigation techniques, and later Polynesian societies were to produce sophisticated stone implements, elaborate irrigation systems, palisaded earthwork fortifications and monumental stone art.
China is now unified under the Han dynasty; under this dynasty the Confucian bureaucracy, which will be a feature of all later Chinese dynasties, is establishedclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 200BC
Indian traders are bringing Hinduism, Buddhism and other elements of Indian civilization to South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 200BC
The spread of maize as a staple crop allows new areas to be settled by farmersclick to view South America 200BC
Several post-Olmec civilizations are emerging in different parts of Central Americaclick to view North America 200BC
In Australia, the long dry spell is giving way again to a wetter climate, much like that of the present day. This period sees the emergence of long-distance trade routes, which in turn stimulates the quarrying and manufacture of stones and stone artefacts on a proto-industrial scale in some favoured locations, for distribution over a wide area.
In Polynesia, there is a new phase of outward expansion into the Pacific: Tahiti and the Society Islands have been colonized from Tonga and Samoa, and the Marquesa Islands have also been settled, from Samoa. The motivations for such long colonizing voyages are largely to be found in the immense, semi-divine prestige attached to founders of new settlements; in a very status-conscious society such as the Polynesian, this was one of the few ways in which a junior member of a leading clan could found a high status clan of his own.
Under the Han dynasty, Chinese civilization has greatly expanded its territory. as well as its influence on neighbouring countries such as Koreaclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 30BC
The first urban civilization of South East Asia has appeared, in Burmaclick to view South East Asia 30BC
The Moche and Nazca civilizations are now flourishingclick to view South America 30BC
The Mayan civilization is emergingclick to view North America 30BC
The newly settled Pacific islands are malaria-free, and have plenty of resources available for the newcomers to exploit. The different islands evolve different societies according to the local environment which prevails on each. Some of the larger islands, such as Tonga and Tahiti, develop hierarchical societies in which stratified ranks of chiefs dominate the population, while the inhabitants of other, smaller islands retain a more egalitarian society where high status does not necessarily confer political control. Long-distance inter-island contact between the far-scattered Polynesian islands persists on a regular, though infrequent basis.
The Han dynasty of China has dominated much of ancient East Asia for a long period of history - but not for much longerclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 200AD
Indian-style kingdoms and principalities are appearing in South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 200AD
The Moche have reached a high level of civilizationclick to view South America 200AD
The Mayan civilization is now emergingclick to view North America 200AD
By this date, the Hawaian islands have been settled by Polynesian colonists from the Marquesa Islands, and Easter Island has been settled from Tahiti.
China is weak and divided, but the influence of its civilization on Korea, Japan and Vietnam, is growingclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 500AD
Indian civilization exerts a deep influence upon the kingdoms and peoples of South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 500AD
Large chiefdoms have emerged in Amazoniaclick to view South America 500AD
The Hopewell culture has vanishedclick to view North America 500AD
This period sees the colonizing of the rest of the major islands of the Pacific, with voyages originating from the core area of Samoa-Tonga, Tahiti, the Society Islands, and the Marquesas.
At some point around this time the sweet potato arrived in Polynesia. This has led some scholars to think that Polynesian sailors voyaged as far as the coast of South America. Others believe that these vegetables floated on the ocean currents to their new destination.
China is now united and powerful again, under the great Tang dynasty, and its civilization exerts a huge influence on neighbouring lands such as Japan, Korea and Vietnamclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 750AD
Chinese influence is now growing in South East Asia, and ocean-going trade has led to the rise of the maritime empire of Sri Vijayaclick to view South East Asia 750AD
The Tiwanaku and Wari empires now dominate the highlands of Peruclick to view South America 750AD
The Pueblo culture is now developingclick to view North America 750AD
Inter-island communication remains an important part of Polynesian culture, despite the long voyages this entails. There is evidence dating to this period for the rise of Tongan rulers to a position of pre-eminence acknowledged by local rulers in Fiji, Samoa and other islands. This pre-eminence apparently endured into the 13th century.
Another example of continued inter-island links is the evidence for a second major colonization of Hawaii at around this date, this time from Tahiti. From this period a strictly-ranked hierarchical society began to take shape here.
China's influence over Korea and Japan has diminished, but at home it is a time of economic and technological advanceclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 979AD
The kingdoms on the island of Java have won their independence from the Sri Vijayan empire, and the remarkable Buddhist temple complex at Borobodur has been constructedclick to view South East Asia 979AD
The Chimu empire has appeared on the Pacific coastclick to view South America 979AD
The Mayan civilization is now in decline, while the Mississippian culture is risingclick to view North America 979AD
By about this time Polynesian colonists from Tahiti discover New Zealand. It is possible that the new arrivals have come on a single ship; however, the numbers of these ancestral Maories will soon multiply.
This period also sees the early stages of the construction of the great statues on Easter Island. These are the product of a culture which gives high value to competitive building between chiefs, with each chief seeking higher status by building larger statues. In future centuries these statues will reach truly massive dimensions. Other Polynesian societies, Tonga and Hawaii for example, also engage in large-scale monumental building in stone, but on a less dramatic scale.
This is a period of very strong economic progress, especially in China and Korea, and technologies like printing, the compass and gunpowder are all being developed hereclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 1215AD
The Chimu empire is now the leading state in the Pacific-Andean regionclick to view South America 1215AD
The Toltec empire has vanished, and the Mexica people have appeared in historyclick to view North America 1215AD
The Khmer empire is at the height of its power, and the great temple of Angkor Wat has been builtclick to view South East Asia 1215AD
The Maoris of New Zealand have quickly colonized both islands. The tropical crops they brought with them are unsuited to the temperate climate of most of the country, and the settlers adopted a largely hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The abundant wildlife, including the huge, flightless bird called the Moa, offered plentiful food. However, this has now been depleted, and the Maoris have learnt to eat native plants such as ferns, and to focus on growing their hardier crops such as sweet potato. This is only possible in the north; throughout most of South Island a thin population lives a hunter-gatherer way of life.
In other parts of Oceania, the Tongan "empire" has vanished; the rulers of Samoa, Fiji and other islands no longer recognize the Tongan ruler's pre-eminence. The people of Samoa have developed a highly complex system of chiefly offices, arranged in an elaborate hierarchy of local and regional councils. In far distant Easter Island, the construction of ever-larger monumental statues continues, reflecting a fierce competition between chiefs.
The past two centuries have been dominated by the rise and fall of the Mongol empire; however native dynasties have now regained control everywhereclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 1453AD
The Inca empire has begun its expansionclick to view South America 1453AD
Muslim merchants have established a network of small sultanates in the regionclick to view South East Asia 1453AD
The Aztecs are now building their empire in Central Americaclick to view North America 1453AD
By this time, long-distance voyaging is mostly a thing of the past for the Polynesians. However, the first European sailors have now appeared in these waters, and some of the major islands, including Australia and New Zealand, have either been sighted or visited.
On Easter Island, the last and greatest phase of statue construction suddenly comes to an end about now, although the inhabitants apparently continue to venerate these great objects. The social structure which produced the statues presumably continues largely intact.
In around 1550 or a little later, sweet potatoes were introduced into the New Guinea highland farming culture. This has led to to much more intensive farming, and so to a large expansion of population.
By this period, around 750,000 Aborigines live in Australiaclick to view Australia 1648AD
In China, the Qing dynasty rules, and Japan and Korea have experienced one of the most destructive wars in East Asian historyclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 1648AD
Europeans are beginning to make their presence felt in this regionclick to view South East Asia 1648AD
North America is now being colonized by Europeansclick to view North America 1648AD
The Spanish and Portuguese now control much of South Americaclick to view South America 1648AD
Over the past century and a half all the major Pacific islands have now been visited by European expeditions. The most famous of these were led by the British captain, James Cook, who between 1769 and 1779 visited Australia, New Zealand and many other islands. Other notable explorers were the Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen and the Frenchman Louis de Bouganville.
During this period, the first European missionaries arrived, along with some traders and other adventurers. Sadly, with the Europeans came guns and diseases new to the islanders. Dramatic population decline followed, along with a destabilization of traditional societies and an intensification of warfare. On Easter Island, for example, most of the great statues were thrown down in a fierce civil war.
The first permanent European settlement in the region has been established, in the form of a British penal colony on the south eastern coast of Australia.
Australia has been claimed for the British empireclick to view Australia 1789AD
New Zealand is inhabited by a people of Polynesian descent, the Maorisclick to view New Zealand 1789AD
This is the last glorious phase of East Asia's history before it feels the West's impact, and Qing dynasty China dominates the region with its tributary systemclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 1789AD
Dutch commercial and political influence now spreads far and wide throughout the islands and coasts of South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 1789AD
The USA is now an independent nationclick to view North America 1789AD
The Spanish and Portuguese empires rule most of South America between themclick to view South America 1789AD
In recent decades, Christian missionaries, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, have been active on all the islands of the Pacific. European traders and whaling ships also visit the islands regularly, and some establish small settlements, for example on the coasts of New Zealand. The calamitous effects of European diseases and firearms continue to destabilize many island societies. On some places, civil wars end in the establishment of monarchies which rule the whole island, as on Samoa, Tonga and Tahiti; in all these cases, the kings have converted to the Protestant form of Christianity, leading to the wholesale adoption of the new religion (plus large elements of European culture) by their peoples.
The British have now established a number of colonies in Australia, and the Dutch have started the first tentative colonization of New Guinea. American settlers - missionaries, traders and plantation owners - have established a major presence on Hawaii.
The areas of British settlement have expandedclick to view Australia 1837AD
The introduction of European firearms has led to fierce wars between the Maori tribesclick to view New Zealand 1837AD
New intrusions into East Asian history, Western merchants and missionaries, are clamouring to be let into China and the other countries of East Asiaclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 1837AD
The British are acquiring more territories in the regionclick to view South East Asia 1837AD
The USA has purchased a vast territory from the Frenchclick to view North America 1837AD
The countries of South America have won their independence from Spain and Portugalclick to view South America 1837AD
Recent decades have seen several of the Pacific islands fall under European rule. The British have taken control of New Zealand, and have continued to expand their Australian settlements. The French have taken possession of the Society Islands, including Tahiti, and the Marquesas Islands (1842), and New Caledonia (1853 - which in 1864 becomes a French penal colony).
Other Pacific islands feel the impact of Western contact almost as deeply. American settlers have tightened their hold on Hawaii, and on Fiji, European cotton plantations have been established, bringing in imported labour from other Pacific islands. Easter Island has suffered from devastating slave raids from South America. Of all the Pacific Islands, only Tonga, under its king George Tupou I (reigned 1845-93), has escaped the worst effects of European contact most successfully.
Australia now contains several British coloniesclick to view Australia 1871AD
New Zealand is now a part of the British empireclick to view New Zealand 1871AD
East Asian history has taken a radically new direction as Western powers force open the doors of China and Japan to trade and missionary activityclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 1871AD
European power is growing in South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 1871AD
The USA almost tore itself apart in civil warclick to view North America 1871AD
Foreign investment is pouring into some South American countriesclick to view South America 1871AD
In the last decades of the 19th and the first decade of the 20th centuries, all the Pacific islands fell under the control of foreign powers. The nature and impact of colonial control has varied enormously from island to island, ranging from very little (as on Tonga and Vanuatu, both under loose British protection), to catastrophic (New Caledonia, where the indigenous people are by now being largely confined to reservations). Some of the islands have experienced changes of rule, the result of decisions taken the other side of the world in European capitals.
Many of these islands have seen major changes of population, as European settlers have arrived or indentured labourers from other Pacific islands, or from as far afield as India, have been brought in. On all the islands, Christianity has spread rapidly.
The Australian colonies have united to form one country, within the British empireclick to view Australia 1914AD
Refrigerated cargo ships have greatly expanded New Zealand’s economyclick to view New Zealand 1914AD
The European powers have shared out most of South East Asia amongst themselvesclick to view South East Asia 1914AD
Brazil, Argentina and Chile are growing wealthyclick to view South America 1914AD
Canada and the USA have experienced huge industrial expansionclick to view North America 1914AD
Japan has successfully modernized, and has gained international status at the expense of China and Koreaclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 1914AD
Recent decades have been ones of great change for the Pacific region. World War 2 had a huge impact on the Pacific region. Australia and New Zealand fought as Allies of Britain throughout the war, and it was the Japanese attack on the US navy in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, which brought the USA into the war. Many island groups (the Carolinas, the Marianas, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea) found themselves caught up in fierce fighting between the two sides, while others played host to thousands of Allied servicemen.
The post-war years saw the first tentative steps being taken towards independence, or alternatively full integration into the democratic processes of the western power to which they were attached (Tahitians were granted full French citizenship in 1946, New Caledonians in 1953, and Hawaii became the 50th state of the USA in 1959). On one island, the implications for democracy are not entirely welcome: native Fijians find themselves outnumbered by the descendants of Indian indentured labourers, who are potentially therefore in a position to dominate any democratically-elected governments.
Australia is now a fully independent countryclick to view Australia 1960AD
New Zealand is a fully independent country within the British Commonwealthclick to view New Zealand 1960AD
The countries of South East Asia have become independent from their Western mastersclick to view South East Asia 1960AD
Eva Peron wins the hearts of Argentiniansclick to view South America 1960AD
The USA and Canada have fought in the two world wars togetherclick to view North America 1960AD
China, Japan and Korea have all experienced some of the most turbulent times in their entire history, as great wars have swept through East Asiaclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 1960AD
Most Pacific islands became independent countries in the final decades of the 20th century, or self-governing states within Western-led organizations (for example, the Marianas are a self-governing commonwealth under US jurisdiction, and Tahiti has the status of a French overseas country). Whilst for some islands, independence has brought stable democracies and increasing prosperity, other Pacific nations have experienced instability, and even violence. This has been particularly true of those places where the colonial period introduced new ethnic elements. Racial tensions between Polynesians and Indians has destabilized Fiji on several occasions, leading to military coups, and the Solomon Islanders have experienced full-scale civil war.
Australia and New Zealand have been adjusting to new geopolitical realities in the world at large, seeing loosening ties with Britain and closer links to the leading Pacific powers of the USA and China.
Tourism is a major industry on many islands, notably Tahiti and Hawaii.
Australia has oriented itself away from Britain and towards the USA and the Far Eastclick to view Australia 2005AD
New Zealand has successfully re-orientated its economy away from reliance on Britainclick to view New Zealand 2005AD
South East Asia has experienced dramatic economic growthclick to view South East Asia 2005AD
Many countries of South America have swung, first to dictatorship, and then to democracyclick to view South America 2005AD
The NAFTA trade agreement is benefitting the economies of all North American countriesclick to view North America 2005AD
The recent histories of all the nations of East Asia, China, Japan and Korea, have seen them become major economic powerhouses in the worldclick to view East Asia: China, Korea, Japan 2005AD
Hover MAP for summary and tap to zoom. MAP < and > buttons change date. TIMELINE icons jump to date. See below for historical summary.