Monumental Architecture in West Polynesia: Origins, Chiefs and Archaeological Approaches

Article excerpt


In West Polynesia, monumental structures with a volume [greater than or equal to] 2500 [m.sup.2] include mounds of earth or stone that in traditional history were used to house or bury chiefs, as well as being the focus of ceremonial and religious activity. We review archaeological theory about the initiation of monumental architecture and examines how chiefly and high-status activity might be identified. Large structures with monumental dimensions often have a complicated construction history that spanned several centuries indicating change to the social structure, particularly the power of elites. As a result archaeologists need to develop ideas that relate episodes of architectonic change to alterations in the prehistoric socio-political system.


Complex societies are associated worldwide with monumental architecture, making the examination of massive structures integral to the study of the origins and development of socio-political complexity (Childe 1949; Peebles and Kus 1977; Trigger 1990). In Polynesia the hierarchically organized chiefdoms encountered by early European visitors displayed substantial variation in their size, organization and degree of stratification, as well as sharing fundamental features denoting a common origin (Sahlins 1957; Kirch and Green 1987). Such socio-political similarities and differences were manifested in the settlement landscapes of island groups, which often contained examples of monumental architecture made in earth, stone or a combination of the two (Kirch 1990; Graves and Green 1993).


This paper examines the origins of monumental structures in West Polynesia (Figure 1), and reviews archaeological approaches to the study of massive structures. These include methods for assessing chiefly power from the evidence offered by large constructions, and how the study of monumental architecture might inform us about the development of late-prehistoric societies in the Central Pacific. Our approach draws on literature from Polynesia and other parts of the world, and illustrates conceptual perspectives on the study of monumental architecture, using examples from Samoa, particularly the Pulemelei mound, and Tonga, with which we are familiar. The review demonstrates the way in which different readings of monumental architecture, each containing a range of inbuilt assumptions, can be created for complex structures like the Pulemelei mound, and the importance of archaeological data to examine their validity.

Several factors have been used to explore variability in Polynesian socio-political institutions and they provide a context for understanding the development of monumental architecture. They include the productivity of island environments (Anderson and Walter 2002; Ladefoged 1992), the population growth cycle (Kirch 1984), and the nature of the ancestral political system (Kirch and Green 2001).

The nature of island environments clearly sets limits on the level of social complexity able to be supported by a Neolithic technology. Sahlins (1958) and Goldman (1970), for example, noted in their synchronic analyses of Polynesian chiefdoms that the least stratified societies came from resource-poor coral atolls that were unable to support large populations and where large-scale architecture was absent (see also Adler and Wilshusen 1990).

The attainment of large, high-density populations in much of Polynesia has been argued by Kirch (2000:307-11) to follow some form of logistic pattern, in which high rates of initial growth eventually slowed as human numbers began to exert various kinds of pressure. In island ecosystems with plentiful productive resources, particularly arable land, population size and density could reach levels where intensification of the political, economic and social systems comprising a chiefdom were expressed in monumental construction.

In addition to the demographic trajectory, political development was shaped by the social divisions and architectonic features of an Ancestral Polynesian Society (APS), hypothesized to be located in West Polynesia about 2200-1900 BP, and transported by colonists to East Polynesia (Kirch and Green 2001:79). …