The Pacific region was settled thousands of years ago, predominantly by Melanesian people in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu; Micronesians in Kiribati; both Melanesians and Micronesians in Fiji; and Polynesians in Tonga and Western Samoa. Most of the inhabitants resided in closely knit coastal communities, which were governed by powerful local chiefs. Fertile soil, except on coral atolls, and plentiful fish enabled living standards to be kept above subsistence levels in these economies. An ample diet, in terms of calories and protein, and a generally equable climate contributed to relatively long life expectancy. Explorers from Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century, from the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, and from the United Kingdom in the eighteenth century were primarily interested in trade in precious metals and spices. Except for the spread of diseases, against which local inhabitants lacked immunity, the life of the region was unaffected by these contacts.
Fiji covers a land area of 18,000 square kilometers in the South Pacific, midway between Hawaii and Australia. The country is made up of about 400 islands, of which the two largest comprise 90 percent of the total area and population. Owing to its volcanic origin, about four fifths of the land is mountainous and unsuitable for cultivation, but contains forests, mineral resources, and hydroelectric potential. Agricultural land is fertile with plentiful rainfall, although it is subject to drought and cyclones.
The Republic of Kiribati consists of 33 islands, with a land area of 726 square kilometers, widely scattered over the Central Pacific Ocean on both sides of the equator and the international dateline. The population of 66,000 is 98 percent Micronesian. The Gilbert group, where nearly all of the population resides, is a chain of 16 islands extending for 700 kilometers in a northwesterly to southeasterly direction. The Phoenix group is 1,600 kilometers to the east and is presently uninhabited. The Line group is 3,000 kilometers to the east and only the three northern islands are inhabited. Although the land mass is very small, the 200-mile economic zone around the islands covers an area of more than 3 million square kilometers, a much larger share of the ocean than enjoyed by any other country in the region.
Papua New Guinea comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and several hundred islands to the east and north. The land area is 463,000 square kilometers and the population of 3.6 million is largely Melanesian. Resources include plentiful arable land, extensive forests, rich mineral deposits, and hydroelectric potential. However, much of the terrain is mountainous, which makes travel and communications difficult. The population density is only eight persons per square kilometer and substantial areas of the interior remain unexplored. There are some 700 local languages, and allegiances are closely tied to villages. While social obligations differ among kinship groups, most land is communally owned and members assist others in need. For many inhabitants, contact with the modern world is recent and access to health, education, and other social facilities remains limited. Life expectancy is 52 years and poverty is more pronounced than in other Pacific island countries.