Thursday, September 27, 2007

Adze in French Polynesia's Tuamoto came from Hawai'i

A prehistoric basalt adze found 70 years ago in the Tuamotu archipelago of French Polynesia came from volcanic rock on Kaho'olawe.

This is a huge piece of news in Hawaiian and Pacific archaeology, Polynesian culture and Pacific canoe voyaging. It is hard evidence of two-way voyaging between Hawai'i and the islands south of the equator in western Polynesia.

It may be the first hard evidence of prehistoric Hawaiian material in the South Pacific. And it confirms Polynesian oral tradition, as well as the experimental voyaging conducted by the Polynesian Voyaging Society and canoes like the Hokule'a.

Other adzes tested in the same study came from a number of different volcanic islands and further bolster the idea of a period of active long-distance voyaging by Polynesians.

The coral islands of the Tuamotu have no basalt of their own. The basalt adzes found there came from volcanic islands hundreds of miles away and from nearly every point of the compass.

Clearly, pre-European Pacific voyagers conducted regular, back and forth long-distance trade, and if not a Polynesian Grand Central Station, the Tuamoto were a key crossing point, a navigational waypoint, a trade center.

If any more nails were needed in the coffin of the concept that Polynesians were downwind “drift voyagers” incapable of windward sailing, this is it.

It's been a bad year for anyone holding the idea that Pacific voyagers weren't consummate navigators and sailors. Earlier this year, researchers found that chicken bones on the coast of Chile came from the descendants of birds brought across the Pacific by Polynesians. That was the first hard evidence of something Polynesian being found in the Americas.

Now this.

Scientists Kenneth Collerson and Marshall Weisler, of Australia's University of Queenland, published in Science (, their paper “Stone Adze Compositions and the Extent of Ancient Polynesian Voyaging and Trade.”

The 19 adzes they tested were collected by the famed Bishop Museum archaeologist Kenneth Emory from 1929 to 1934. They were found on nine coral islands, most of them low atolls—Arakita, Napuka, Takaroa, Katiu, Manihi, Ahe, Taiaroa and Nukutavake, plus the upthrust coral island Makatea.

The coral islands don't have good solid, dense-grained rock. And while a fair cutting tool can be made from things like a large clam shell, if you don't have metal, little cuts wood as nicely as hard, sharpened stone. So if you need to shape wood for canoes, for tools and for house construction, a heavy, dense, basalt adze is a nice thing.

The researchers tested the Tuamotu adzes for major elements, trace elements and isotopes, creating patterns that allowed the adze basalts to be accurately linked to their sources.

The results confirm that the Tuamotu group was a heartland of Polynesia, receiving valued hard rock from all directions—including Hawai'i.

The study found that individual adze stone came from Rapa to the south of the Tuamotu, Rurutu in the Austral Islands to the southwest, Eiao in the Marquesas to the north, the Pitcairn group to the southeast, Tahiti to the west.

And Kaho'olawe. The Kaho'olawe adze was collected on Napuka, 2,500 miles from its home lava flow.

There are several sources of stone on Kaho'olawe with the same chemical signature, and it is intriguing that one of them is very near the island's westernmost point, known as Kealaikahiki, “the way to Tahiti.

Most of the adzes, as might be expected, came from the nearest source, the Society Islands, which include Tahiti.

The Tuamotu are alternatively known as the Paumotu, the Cloud of Islands, the Dangerous Archipelago. For modern sailors, they are frightening because the islands are so low that they are frequently not visible until you can see or at night hear the surf breaking on their shores. And that's too close for comfort.

But for non-instrument navigators like the Polynesians, finding such islands was important to confirm their positions. And in the case of a long voyage from Hawai'i, if could also be a place to reprovision—since fresh food, water and other supplies would almost certainly be in low supply.

What to trade for provisions? What did the Tuamotu islanders need? Something that was easily stored in a canoe bottom and couldn't spoil. How about adze stone?

Another idea is that stones were brought as ceremonial gifts. Interestingly, modern canoe voyagers have developed independently a tradition of carrying stones from their home islands as gifts to people they visit.

“Imagine the value we place today on objects that originate from afar. They take on a special status of their own. This may be some of the value attributed to an adze brought from such a distance,” Weisler said.

The Kaho'olawe stone adze was found on the island of Napuka, in the northern part of the western Tuamotu. The adze was made of Kaho'olawe rock, but it was shaped in a Tuamotu design—suggesting that perhaps it was delivered as a raw chunk of rock, or a partly-shaped adze “blank.” And it was finished in the local style by the stoneworkers of the Tuamotus.

“The Kaho’olawe adze reaffirms that oral histories mentioning travel between Hawai’i and Tahiti are likely to have been based on real events,” Weisler said.

Furthermore, “This 4000 km journey now stands as the longest uninterrupted maritime voyage in human prehistory,” he said.

University of Hawai'i anthropologist Ben Finney, a co-founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, said the find appears to confirm a navigational decision made for the initial voyage of the voyaging canoe Hokule'a, for its 1976 Hawai'i-Tahiti voyage.

That decision: sail for the Tuamotu group first. It's hundreds of miles wide and hard to miss. Then, on having reconfirmed your position, sail the few hundred miles from there to Tahiti.

Did other Polynesian navigators also use the Tuamoto group, which is central in western Polynesia, as a waypoint? Or did they visit for other reasons? That's not yet known, but the visits occurred and continued to occur for an extended period of time, the paper's authors say.

“Our data show that the Tuamotu adzes originate from the Marquesas, Pitcairn, Austral and Society Islands; that is, most of the island groups surrounding the atoll archipelago ...postcolonization voyaging must have been common enough for voyaging knowledge to be passed across generations and that it continued until about 1450 CE when most voyaging ceased in East Polynesia.” they wrote. (CE, for Common Era, is the equivalent of AD, which stands of Anno Domini. 2007 CE and 2007 AD are the same year.).

This isn't the end of this adze/voyaging story. The remarkable thing about the techniques Collerson and Weisler used is that they can be applied to any basalt material, and will determine where it came from.

“Given the amount of adze material from Polynesia in museums, we believe that its quite likely that if more funding was available for our work, that we will make other very exciting and significant discoveries,” Collerson said in an email.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate


Joan Conrow said...

Wow, that's pretty cool. Thanks for setting the record straight.

Unknown said...

This parallels exactly what I've been searching for recently online. Lovely! Do you know or do the two researchers know (have shared or are willing to share) how far afield lithics and/or related debitage have been found from the Pitcairn fine grain basalt and the obsidian quarries there on the Island? Thanks.

Unknown said...

.....with the basalt item answered herein, any info on the obsidian?

Jan T said...

I specifically asked about obsidian, and it's not clear any was in the Tuamotu collections. In any case, no obsidian was tested.
Obsidian, as you may know, is common on Easter/Rapa Nui, and there's a quarry on Kaho'olawe as well. I didn't know it was also available on Pitcairn.

Tom said...

Of course, the adze isn't from a dated context and might have arrived in the Tuamotus at any time, including the recent past.

Jan T said...

Response to Tom: It was collected more than half a century ago, so not, certainly, in the recent past.