8 February 2009
Ancient Tongan rock carvings may offer clues to voyagers
Discovery of over 50 ancient rock engravings in Tonga, may shed some light on the pre-Polynesian Lapita peoples who voyaged across the Pacific. The petroglyphs, including stylised images of people and animals, were found emerging from beach sand at the northern end of Foa island, late last year.
Artist Shane Egan called in archaeologist Professor David Burley, from the Simon Fraser University in Canada, to investigate and document the site. "The site on Foa Island is an amazing piece of artwork, with over 50 engraved images. Having an average height of 20 to 30cm (some much larger) there are very nicely stylised images of men and women, turtles, dogs, a bird, a lizard, as well as footprints and some weird exotic combinations," said Egan. He thought the images were close in form to some found in ancient Hawaii and dated to between 1200 and 1500 CE. If similar dating was found for the latest carvings, it would raise a question about direct long distance voyages between Tonga and Hawaii in that era.
"The site is a truly significant discovery in illustrating the remarkable Polynesian voyaging capacity," archaeologist David Burley, a specialist in Tongan history, said. "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." Tonga, where Burley has previously documented a fishing village established 2,900 years ago as the first settlement in Polynesia, is 5,060 kilometres (3,144 miles) from Hawaii.
The Foa rock engravings are on two large slabs of fixed beach-rock that were apparently exposed by erosion. The rock engravings were first sighted by visiting friends Richard Whelan and Janelle Johnston from Melbourne. 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 that, stylistically, the images were clearly Hawaiian and nothing remotely close had been documented 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."
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 may 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.
Sources: 3 News (31 January 2009), Thaindian News, ANI (2 February 2009), AFP (4 February 2009)