Ana Manuku: A Prehistoric Ritualistic Site on Mangaia, Cook Islands

Article excerpt


Archaeological and palaeontological research has demonstrated the often profound impact of colonizing humans on previously isolated island ecosystems, including forest clearance, erosion and alluvial deposition, biotic scarcity and extinction, and introduction of non-indigenous species (Kirch 1983; 1997; 2000; Steadman 1995; Kirch & Hunt 1997). Such human-induced environmental changes are well documented on Pacifc islands such as Aneityum (Hope & Spriggs 1982), Rapanui (Flenley et al. 1991; Steadman et al. 1994), the Marquesas (Steadman & Rolett 1996; Rolett 1998) and the Hawaiian Islands (James et al. 1987; Athens 1997).

On many high islands in Polynesia, late prehistoric populations reached densities of [is greater than] 100 persons/sq. km (Kirch 2000), sustained by major agricultural developments such as dryland field systems or converting valley bottoms to irrigated pondfields for taro. While improving crop yields, these capital-intensive production systems also contributed to a sociopolitical context with considerable competition for land, and often open conflict between social groups. At their prehistoric endpoints of indigenous development (i.e. their fateful encounters with the West), many Polynesian societies had:

1 high-density populations;

2 highly intensified production systems;

3 reduced natural resources;

4 hierarchical political control and social stratification; and

5 intense competition for land and other resources.

In some societies, such as Rapanui, Marquesas, or Mangareva, this situation was also marked, according to ethographic and ethnohistoric sources, by aggression that included warfare or raiding between competing groups, taking of enemy victims for sacrificial offerings and cannibalism (Kirch 2000).

Our research on Mangaia, Southern Cook Islands, has provided substantial evidence in support of the general model of environmental and sociopolitical change outlined above (Steadman & Kirch 1990; Kirch 1996; Kirch et al. 1992; 1995). In this paper we present new data from a Mangaian rock-shelter site that further elucidate the social (and ritual?) consequences of inter-group competition in the late prehistoric period.

Mangaia (52 sq. km) is divided into six traditional districts that begin on the limestone coast and meet atop the volcanic uplands (FIGURE 1). At least 2000-3000 people lived on Mangaia at European contact (Hiroa 1934: 6), yielding a population density of 39-58 persons/sq. km. Because much of the limestone region lacks soil, the density per area of arable land exceeded 100 persons/sq. km. Prehistoric landscape and vegetational changes have been interpreted from sediment cores from all districts (Ellison 1994; Kirch & Ellison 1994). Among Mangaia's numerous archaeological sites, Tangatatau Rockshelter (site MAN-44, Veitatei District) has yielded the richest and longest (c. AD 1000-1750) prehistoric sequence of artefacts, midden bone, shell and plant material (Kirch 1996; Kirch et al. 1992, 1995). Consumption of vertebrates at MAN-44 changed considerably during this time (see Discussion).


To test whether the cultural/faunal sequence at MAN-44 was characteristic of the entire island, we undertook excavations at a bone-rich rock-shelter called Ana Manuku (site MAN-84) in Keia District, 2 km north of MAN-44. Here we report the stratigraphy, chronology, faunal sequence and cultural context of MAN-84, followed by a discussion of how this new site influences our thinking on the cultural sequence of Mangaia.


Kirch excavated two 1-sq. m test units (D31, E18) at MAN-84 in 1991 (FIGURE 2). Steadman and Anton excavated nine 1-sq. m units in 1997. Because of differences in bone retrieval methods between the 1991 and 1997 excavations, the tabulated faunal data in this paper are based only on the units excavated in 1997 (C28-C32, D28-D30, D32). …