Thu, Feb 05, 2009 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE : Rock art highlights ancient east-west Polynesian links


A panel of ancient artwork on a beach rock on Foa Island, Tonga, is pictured in this photo released on Tuesday. The discovery of more than 50 ancient rock engravings in Tonga has excited archaeologists who see a link between the Pacific island and Hawaii in the pre-European era.


The discovery of more than 50 ancient rock engravings in Tonga has excited archaeologists, who say they demonstrate the links between the Pacific island and Hawaii before Europeans arrived.

“The site is a truly significant discovery in illustrating the remarkable Polynesian voyaging capacity,” said archaeologist David Burley, a specialist in Tongan history.

“In the pre-European era, whether Tongans went to Hawaii, Hawaiians to Tonga or some other possibility, it illustrates a connectedness of west and east Polynesia in later pre-history that is under-appreciated,” he said.

Tonga, where Burley has documented a fishing village established 2,900 years ago as the first settlement in Polynesia, is 5,060km from Hawaii.

The rock drawings, or petroglyphs, include images of humans and animals and are on two slabs of beach-rock that were exposed by erosion on Tonga’s Foa island.

They are in the style of the earliest stick figure forms in Hawaii, which would place them between the years 1250 and 1550.

Burley said the dates correlated closely with two adjacent archaeological sites on Foa, a village and a pigeon-snaring mound — between 1450 and 1650.

“In short, I am fully convinced that the site is pre-Captain Cook,” he said referring to the English explorer who stayed in Tonga for three months in 1777.

Tongan resident artist Shane Egan, who was alerted to the drawings by two Australian tourists late last year, called in Burley from Simon Fraser University in Canada to investigate and document the site with him.

“Having an average height of 20 to 30 centimeters, some much larger, there are very nicely stylized images of men and women, turtles, dogs, a bird, a lizard, as well as footprints and some weird exotic combinations,” Egan told the Matangi Tonga Web site.

Burley, in an e-mail interview, said that, stylistically, the images were clearly Hawaiian and nothing remotely close had been found elsewhere in west Polynesia.

“Not only are the petroglyphs executed in Hawaiian style but there is one image suggesting the person was knowledgeable of their cultural protocols and meaning. In particular, there appears to be a kapu stick image which marks, in Hawaii, a sacred place,” he said.

Tonga’s previously reported rock art has been limited to simple geometric engravings, though there is also a single engraved outline of a foot on a stone at a royal tomb. Burley said the petroglyphic foot was so rare he had assumed it was intentionally carved in a symbolic fashion, but the latest find meant he was not so sure.

He said it might have been on a stone that was quarried for the tomb. The Foa site was recently found to have been a quarry for blocks used in tomb construction.

Egan, who has a keen interest in archaeology and the early history of Tonga, said that now the images had been exposed they were within the tidal range and were constantly being eroded.

“The grooves are now shallow and in the broad light of day one would be excused for passing them by unnoticed,” he said.

“At night, with torch lighting from the side the glyphs immediately take form and in greater detail jump up at you, revealing a myriad of images dancing about the rock,” he said.

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