Saturday, June 22, 2024

Stone adzes traveled widely, perhaps as a lubricant for Polynesian trade networks


How valuable was high-quality stone in a stone-age culture?

So important that the valuable stone found its way long distances from home.

This isn’t news to the archaeological community. It has found a Kaho`olawe-sourced basalt adz in the Tuamotu Islands. Mauna Kea adz quarry stone tools in the Marquesas. Marquesan Eiao Island adzes throughout what is now French Polynesia. The longest adz in the Bishop Museum’s collection was found in the ocean off O’ahu, but came from the Pu‘u Pāpa‘i quarry on Molokai.

Quality stone tools traveled. Maybe as trade items. Maybe a gifts between chiefs. Maybe because a stone tool from afar had a special prestige, or a mana, a perceived spiritual power.

They were part of what archaeologists call “interaction networks” between the spread-out islands across the Pacific.

The Museum of Stone Tools has some adz images here. 

Most volcanic islands had at least some good quality stone, although the quality varied. New Zealand and Australian researchers Christopher Jennings, Marshall Weisler and Richard Walter last year in the journal Archaeology in Oceania published a comprehensive report on stone quarries across the Pacific. It is entitled, “An archaeological review of Polynesian adze quarries and sources.”

They argue that stone tools were more than just useful implements, but a significant part of cultural activity in Polynesia. They hold that “the adze industry played a much more significant and complex role in Polynesian cultural history than is currently realized.”

Early Pacific residents could make tools from readily available sources near home, but if they found exemplary qualities in remote sites, they would go to great lengths to get that material—such as quarrying in the frigid heights of Mauna Kea, or an isolated island like Eiao.

Adzes, they say, were “the most distantly exchanged items in the Neolithic world.”

But why? “We can establish a relationship between large scale quarry production, fine grained stone, highly skilled flaking technology and long-distance exchange, but we still do not know what drove these associations,” they wrote.

A good quarry would be used continuously over long periods of time. The Pu‘u Pāpa‘i quarry on Molokai is one of the oldest in Hawai’i, perhaps because it had high quality stone and was near an early settlement site at Kawela.

Researchers Marshall I. Weisler, John Sinton, Quan Hua, and Jane Skippington reviewed that quarry in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology, a 2024 paper with the ponderous title, “Indirectly Dating one of the Oldest Adze Quarries in the Hawaiian Islands Provides Insights into the Colonisation Process and Community Network.”

Adzes made from stone at this specific Molokai quarry are readily identified because it the unique chemical characteristics, high in strontium and phosphate. The unique chemical makeup of quarry stones is how adzes are sometimes linked to their home islands.

One suggestion from a lot of recent work is that adzes were a key component of exchange networks. It is not clear whether adzes were a lubricant that facilitated trade between distant islands, or whether voyaging canoes were simply early Snap-On tool trucks, hauling quality tools to customers.

One thing that seems clear is that hauling valuables between island was a long-standing practice in the Pacific. It dates back at least to the Lapita culture of thousands of years ago, according to paper from May 2024 by Nicholas W. S. Hogg, Scarlett Chiu, Patrick V. Kirch and Glenn R. Summerhayes. 

That paper, in Archeology in Oceania, reviews early exchange networks involving adzes and pottery in the Lapita era of far western Polynesia.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2024

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