Paul Kekai Manansala
Unearthing an ancient Pacific capital
Randy Boswell , Canwest News ServicePublished: Monday, January 21, 2008
A Canadian archeologist's discoveries in the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga are rewriting the history of a vast portion of Oceania and tracing the common origins of a host of island peoples -- including Hawaiians, Tahitians, Samoans and New Zealand's Maoris -- to a remote peninsula that he believes was once the site of a large and lasting "capital" of ancient Polynesia.
Simon Fraser University's David Burley says his latest finds from the Nukuleka archeological site on one of Tonga's southern islands shows it was the principal "founding settlement" of Polynesia about 2,800 years ago, and endured long enough for a genetically and culturally distinctive people to evolve and begin spreading across the immense "Polynesian triangle" bounded by Hawaii in the north, New Zealand in the southwest and fabled Easter Island in the far southeast, not far from the coast of South America.
Burley's finds at Nukuleka first made headlines in 2001 after he published a study showing it was the oldest archeological site in Polynesia. Elaborately decorated pottery shards recovered from a layer of shoreline nearly 3,000 years old indicated it was the earliest known encampment by ocean voyagers from ancient Melanesia - the Pacific island group to the west that includes New Guinea, Fiji and New Caledonia.But the latest excavations at Nukuleka, conducted last summer by Burley's team, revealed a much richer array of artifacts and a revised theory about the importance of the site.
The Tongan outpost, says Burley, became a "major village" that appeared to prosper for generations and, eventually, serve as a seedbed for the peopling of all of Polynesia.
Critically, he adds, the settlement at Nukuleka lasted long enough for distinctively Polynesian physical traits, pottery styles and chieftain-based social structures to develop, differentiating these people from their Melanesian ancestors.
"It's not a small little site as we originally thought," Burley told Canwest News Service. "It becomes the central place from which the population at Tonga begins to spread out across Polynesia. This site is so different in scale that it truly must have been a node from which people got settled and came back, and so on - like the capital."
The SFU team's evidence that Nukuleka was "the cradle of Polynesia" has already prompted a renewed push by Tongan officials to win UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition for its islands' archeological treasures.
Chile's Easter Island, a UNESCO site believed to have been first reached by a small party of Polynesians less than 1,000 years ago, is famous for its massive carvings of stone heads and dramatic civilizational collapses.
Solving the "Polynesian problem" - explaining how and when these ancient Asians migrated across such immense stretches of ocean to populate so many far-flung islands - has been a central challenge for generations of anthropologists and archeologists.
Burley said the new finds will be of particular interest to Polynesian populations throughout the Pacific and their diaspora around the world.
"Nukuleka," he said, "becomes a village to which all Polynesians in some way can probably relate their heritage to."
© Canwest News Service 200