The major islands are the Hawaiian, Line, Samoan, Tuvalu, Tonga, Phoenix, Chatham, and Tokelau islands; Pitcairn and Easter islands; and those of French Polynesia (the Society, Marquesas, Tuamotu, and Tubuai islands). New Zealand is usually included, though the southern boundary is sometimes extended only to Tonga.

The Polynesian people who inhabit many of the islands are descended from various racial groups. They are usually tall, with brown skin and dark, wavy hair. Their features are often similar to those of the Malayo-Indonesians, to whom they are related. The origins of the Polynesians are not known. They migrated eastward from Southeast Asia or, according to some authorities, from India or South America. Many of the islands once populated with these peoples are now uninhabited. In others the Polynesians have been almost supplanted by other groups (as in New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands).