Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

The Onemea Site (Taravai Island, Mangareva) and the Human Colonization of Southeastern Polynesia

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

The Onemea Site (Taravai Island, Mangareva) and the Human Colonization of Southeastern Polynesia

Article excerpt


When first test excavated in 2003, the Onemea site on Taravai Island (site 190-12-TAR-6) yielded high densities of extirpated and extinct bird bones which, along with radiocarbon dates of AD 1000 to 1050, suggested a colonization phase occupation. Expanded excavations in 2005, reported here, revealed additional details of site stratigraphy, chronology and use. Initial human activity on the dune surface included exploitation of nesting or roosting seabirds, and sporadic use of combustion features. We interpret this initial phase as involving repeated, low intensity visits over a period of two to three centuries, beginning around AD 950, resulting in a palimpsest deposit (Layer III). Sometime in the 13th century intensive occupation on the dune commenced, resulting in the deposition of a cultural layer (Layer II) averaging 55-60 cm thick, containing earth ovens and with evidence for fishhook manufacture and use. Occupation of the Onemea dune ceased in the late 14th century AD. The chronology for the Onemea site, which is provided by 11 radiocarbon and three [sup.230]Th coral dates, lends support to a model of initial human colonization of southeastern Polynesia at around AD 1000.

Keywords: colonization, Mangareva, fishhooks, extinctions


The question of when Polynesians began to expand beyond the core Western Polynesian homeland to discover and settle the islands of Eastern Polynesia has been a matter of some contention (Anderson, 2001, 2003; Irwin 1981, 1992; Kirch 1986; Kirch and Ellison 1994; Sinoto 1996; Spriggs and Anderson 1993; Walter 1996). A 'long pause' of at least a thousand years duration between the initial Lapita settlement of Tonga-Samoa, and the subsequent expansion of Polynesian populations to the east is undoubted. But just when long-distance voyages of colonization to the east commenced and how rapidly the expansion into Eastern Polynesia took place, have remained topics of debate. Recent dating of key central and southeastern Eastern Polynesian sites, using AMS radiocarbon methods on better controlled samples has generally lent support to a 'short chronology' whereby central Eastern Polynesia did not begin to be colonized until after AD 800 or later (Allen, 2004; Anderson et al. 1994, 1999; Anderson and Sinoto 2002; Conte and Anderson, 2003; Green and Weisler 2002; Kirch et al. 1995; Rolett, 1993, 1996; Rolett and Conte, 1995; Weisler 1994, 1995). Recent claims that Easter Island was not settled until AD 1200 (Hunt and Lipo 2006, 2008) are relevant, since linguistic models of Polynesian settlement place the Rapanui language as an initial branch off of the Proto Eastern Polynesian interstage (Marck 1996).

Mangareva, or Gambier Islands, lie at the southeastern extreme of French Polynesia (23[degrees]07' S., 134[degrees]58' W.), with the Acteon Group of the Tuamotu Archipelago 180 km northwest, and the Pitcairn-Henderson islands 540 km southeast. Mangareva was therefore critically situated along the chain of islands possibly followed by early Polynesian voyagers as they explored the southeastern Pacific towards Easter Island. Indeed, Mangareva has been proposed as a possible immediate homeland of the first colonists of Rapa Nui; it may be the 'Marae-renga' mentioned in the oral tradition of Hotumatua (Metraux 1940:56).

Although Mangareva was investigated by pioneering archaeologist Kenneth P. Emory in 1934 (Emory 1939), and was one of the first islands to be subject to modern stratigraphic excavations, by Roger Green in 1959 (Suggs 1961a), it has until recently remained one of the least known Polynesian archipelagoes. Green's excavations have only recently begun to be published (Green and Weisler 2000, 2002, 2004). Beginning in 2001 a new multi-institutional project organized by Conte and Kirch recommenced archaeological investigations in Mangareva (Kirch and Conte 2008). Fieldwork in 2003 included the test excavation of a sand dune site at Onemea Bay on Taravai Island, and initial radiocarbon dates combined with abundant bones of extirpated seabirds suggested that deposits here probably date to an initial colonization phase (Anderson et al. …

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