Excavations in Peva Valley, Rurutu, Austral Islands (East Polynesia)

Article excerpt


The Peva dune site on Rurutu, Austral Islands, excavated in 2003, has yielded a rich archaeological assemblage containing artifacts and both vertebrate and invertebrate fauna from two distinct stratigraphic layers. The lower layer dates from the East Polynesian Archaic period (c. A.D. 1000-1450), and the upper layer from the Classic period (c. eighteenth and nineteenth centuries A.D.), during which time the site was a ceremonial marae. The two layers are entirely distinct, separated by a thick deposit of sterile beach sand. This article analyzes the major temporal trends in Rurutu's artifact and faunal assemblages, and discusses them in terms of both the general efflorescence of East Polynesian culture, and the more specific emergence of a uniquely Austral culture, which impressed early European visitors as being quite unique.

Keywords: East Polynesia, Austral Islands, Cook Islands, Rurutu, colonization.


The Austral Islands, which have close ties to the Societies and southern Cooks, are an area of key importance to East Polynesian prehistory. However, relatively little archaeological research has been done there, and so the Australs remain poorly understood in terms of the colonization of East Polynesia. In addition, there are few firsthand accounts of traditional life. The position and character of the Australs in East Polynesia is unique. They lie on the periphery of central East Polynesia and define its southern boundary. They are more temperate than the Societies to the north and the southern Cooks to the northwest. Despite being one of the most centrally located groups in East Polynesia, they are one of the most isolated. They have strong cultural and linguistic bonds with both the Societies and the southern Cooks and yet are far enough from each to possess a distinct character. The Australs are thus well situated to test current models of early East Polynesian prehistory.

Most early, or Archaic, East Polynesian sites date to within A.D. 1000-1450 (e.g., Rolett 1996, 1998; Walter 1996). During this period the Polynesians were not only colonizing islands but voyaging back and forth between them, a phenomenon that tapers off after A.D. 1450 and almost disappears by European contact. The sharing of ideas contributed to the linguistic and cultural similarity within East Polynesia, evident in the common characteristics of the material culture of this era, most notably the form of domestic and manufacturing tools, adzes, one-piece pearlshell fishhooks, and ornaments, the similarities that can be attributed to interaction (Rolett 1996; Walter 1996). Geochemical sourcing of materials such as basalt has provided empirical confirmation of inter-island and inter-archipelago exchange (e.g., Weisler 1998). Experimental voyaging (Finney 1977, 1994) and computer simulations (Irwin 1992, 1998) have demonstrated that a well-equipped canoe can traverse distances of hundreds of kilometers, whether sailing into the wind or against it. These lines of evidence have all contributed to the concept of a regional homeland, comprising multiple interacting archipelagoes.

Central to the idea of a regional homeland is the fact that important resources are unevenly distributed among the islands in East Polynesia. Two of the most important resources are basalt for adze making and pearlshell (Pinctada margaritifera) for fishhook manufacture. Following the colonization of an island, multiple voyages may have been necessary to supply the new population with raw materials and other necessities. Long-distance voyaging and trade networks appear to have flourished prior to c. A.D. 1450, after which imported artifacts gradually diminish from the archaeological record. This pattern is seen throughout East Polynesia. For example, adzes from Eiao in the Marquesas were exported as far as Mo'orea in the Societies and Mangareva, all found in deposits dated to before A.D. 1450 (Green and Weisler 2002: 233; Weisler 1998; Weisler and Green 2001: 420). …