Current Research on the Island of Ua Huka, Marquesas Archipelago, French Polynesia

Article excerpt

STRATIGRAPHIC ARCHAEOLOGY IS A RELATIVELY RECENT phenomenon in French Polynesia, although the first excavations there were carried out some four decades ago (e.g., Suggs 1961). Consequently, but also due to inherent research conditions in the region--from geographical, political, and practical viewpoints--the currently available data are insufficient to allow one to address with certainty major questions confronting prehistorians (Conte 2000). This is the case, for example, with addressing the fundamental problem of the antiquity of human colonization of these islands. This question has implications for the mechanisms of transformation of both environment and human culture.

The debate on this theme (e.g., Anderson 1994, 1995; Ellison 1994; Kirch 1986; Kirch et al. 1991, 1992; Kirch and Ellison 1994; Spriggs and Anderson 1993) is a direct consequence of the lack of archaeological work. Similarly, proposed reconstructions of the historical trajectories of Polynesian societies from their arrival in the islands up until contact with Europeans (Kirch 1984) cannot be validated until tested against the facts. Moreover, only a patient accumulation of data will gradually clarify the history of pre-European Polynesian societies and contribute to a better understanding of the impact of European arrival on these societies.

In spite of recent archaeological efforts, large inequities exist between regions and types of landscapes explored and the problems and methods adopted--all matters which affect any synthesis. This situation is compounded by many studies not being adequately published, or only available in the difficult to access "gray literature." This results in underestimating the work actually accomplished, and misunderstanding the results already achieved because they are not available to the scientific community. In short, no archipelago and few islands in Eastern Polynesia are at the present time sufficiently explored.

THE UA HUKA RESEARCH PROJECT

In order to contribute to the effort to fill in such lacunae, a research program has been undertaken on the island of Ua Huka in the Marquesas Islands (see Fig. 1) for the past decade. Ua Huka is regarded as a kind of "test island" for addressing major archaeological problems in Eastern Polynesia. This project combines deep test excavations in a search for early sites, the excavation of stratified sites, the inventory and the study of surface monuments, and ethnographic studies. The goal is to accumulate sufficient information to formulate, with respect to the major research questions for the region, historical and anthropological reconstructions which are well supported by information from various sources, notably using archaeological data. Some information (for example, about the period of colonization) will contribute directly to current debates, while other information will help to provide a reference base for comparison with studies being undertaken on other islands.

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One would think that the Marquesas would be the locality for which there are the most numerous and the best published studies and therefore not considered a priority area. However, only Suggs' study of Nuku Hiva (Suggs 1961), with the inherent defects of its time, proposed a synthetic and dynamic reconstruction of the prehistory of a Marquesan island. In addition, recently renewed excavations at one of his principal sites (Rolett and Conte 1995) have produced data that contests the dates Suggs proposed for the colonization period and opens to question the entire model suggested for the development of the Marquesan society of Nuku Hiva. In fact, the studies undertaken in the Marquesas have been too localized and too geographically dispersed. They tackle such a variety of questions and use a variety of sources and approaches that a global vision, even a schematic one, is hardly possible at an island scale or on the level of the archipelago. …