When the Skies Spoke: The Archaeoastronomy of Nuku Hiva
Rediscovering the Cosmos, Gods, and Time in Ancient Polynesia
When the Skies Spoke: The Archaeoastronomy of Nuku Hiva
Rediscovering the Cosmos, Gods, and Time in Ancient Polynesia
“The heavens have changed minimally since people first started studying celestial phenomena, and human technology has evolved significantly since then, yet the enlightened few who fully understand astronomical events are celebrated and regarded with awe, and many people still see something magical and miraculous in the motion of the planets and stars.”
The goal of our project is to locate, assess, and corroborate the astronomical function and ethnographic importance of archaeological sites in Nuku Hiva—one of the largest islands of the Marquesas, and one of the richest in terms of the sheer number of megalithic constructions built there—and then to study the correlations between Marquesan archaeoastronomy and that of other islands within the same cultural sphere in order to gain a better understanding of the Polynesian universe and of the elements that helped shape their cultural identity. We would like to study the rock art, tohua, and marae of Hatiheu, Aakapa, Anaho, Taipivai, Taiohae, and now mostly uninhabited Haatuatua, working 3-5 days in each valley. Your tax-deductible donation (in the U.S.) would not only enable our team to carry out these investigations, but also to present the results in a 45 minute-long documentary, offering a comprehensive and entertaining introduction to Marquesan and Polynesian archaeoastronomy, highlighting a little known yet most-impressive aspect of Polynesian culture, all the while seeking to find what this reveals about the nature of these ancient contacts and human ingenuity. All who pledge will receive a copy of the film while documentary sales would be used to generate the necessary funds to carry out a similar expedition to Hiva Oa, in the Southern Marquesas group, thus completing the documentation of the archaeoastronomy of the Marquesas Islands.
What is Archaeoastronomy?
The term “archaeoastronomy” was coined in 1973 by Elizabeth Chesley Baity to designate a fairly new field of study that blended the physical science of astronomy with the social sciences of anthropology, archaeology, and history to explain how ancient cultures interpreted astronomical phenomena. Considered a controversial field at times, only a handful of pioneers have ventured into the subject in Polynesia so far, and the subject remains obscure despite the fact that there is a fair amount of ethnographic information and archaeological evidence regarding the role of astronomical phenomena in Polynesian cosmogony, mythology, and religion, as well as its practical application in everyday life, particularly in navigation, time reckoning, and in the regulation of farming and fishing activities. “Star maps,” “calendric calibration devices,” observatories, and structures with astronomical alignments—ranging from petroglyphs and stone markers, to large ceremonial structures several meters long—have been found in several islands in Eastern Polynesia, such as Huahine, Mangareva, Raiatea, Raivavae, Rapa Nui, Rurutu, and Tahiti. Surely their number would rise considerably with a more comprehensive study of archaeological sites on these, and other, Polynesian islands, especially the Marquesas, since it is considered a point of dispersal from where Polynesians spread to several other islands in that part of the Pacific.
Why the Marquesas Islands?
The Marquesas Islands, named “Te Henua Enata” or “The Land of Men” by their Polynesian discoverers, are located approximately 1,370 km northeast of Tahiti and 4,800 km west of Mexico. Although they are part of French Polynesia, geographically they are one of the most remote island groups in the world and the most distant from any continental land mass. The archipelago is divided into two distinct island groups extending about 370 km from northeast to southeast. The Northern group is comprised by Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, and the two uninhabited islands of Ei’ao and Hatutu. Hiva Oa, Tahuata, Fatu Hiva, and uninhabited Fatu Huku and Motane make up the islands of the Southern group. Cultural and linguistic evidence indicate that the first settlers of the Marquesas originated from Western Polynesia and may have arrived as early as 600 AD, ultimately expanding and settling other islands in a sphere of cultural influence that included places as far away as Hawaii and Easter island. As populations grew, eventually every Marquesan valley became inhabited, divided into settlements led by a tribal chief. Secular festivities, treaties, and other celebrations took place in communal meeting centres called tohua, while all religious activities were carried out in ceremonial sites called me’ae where statues representing tribal deities were erected. These were the kinds of structures that were often aligned to astronomical phenomena on other Eastern Polynesian islands and it is very likely that this was also true in the Marquesas. Unfortunately, there is little published information regarding Marquesan archaeoastronomy as well as the ancient inter-island trade networks in the archipelago. These subjects have not been adequately considered in the interpretation of archaeological data, nor have inter-disciplinary comparisons been systematized to clarify the nature and conditions of inter-island communication. Nevertheless, there are probably few areas in the world where the potential for studying the growth and development of complex stratified social and political systems is as great as among the islands of Polynesia due to the often-cited “laboratory like” conditions of remote, isolated islands. A detailed study of the local calendric system, tohua and me’ae orientations, and rock art motifs would greatly contribute to our understanding of how Polynesians lived up until the time of European contact, in addition to fostering proper care and maintenance of valuable yet remote archaeological sites.
Archaeoastronomy in Eastern Polynesia and the Marquesas
Some 3,500 years ago in a span of about 500 years, the Lapita, the ancestors of the Polynesians, used their knowledge of the stars to settle an area 4,300 km wide in what is considered one of the speediest human expansions of the pre-historic world. Their descendants, the Polynesians, eventually settled hundreds of islands crossing millions of square kilometres of water without navigational instruments, guided by nothing more than complex astronomical observations and an understanding of natural signs. These navigators, or wayfinders, as they are known today, were undeniably skilled specialists who passed astronomical information from one generation to the next for over three thousands years. However, the observation of astronomical phenomena was not limited to navigation and served a far more important function carried out by powerful astronomer priests: to establish a cycle of yearly activities, where the heliacal and cosmic rising and setting of specific stars and asterisms determined when certain events took place. Depending on the activities that coincided with the rising and setting of a particular star or asterism, skywatchers announced when festivities, ceremonies, prohibitions, and the seasons started and ended. Astronomer priests or skywatchers studied the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets from special structures built in places with the best vantage point for each astronomic event, and ceremonial constructions were often aligned to astronomic phenomena. There is ample proof that Polynesians were exceptional navigators and that the wealth of information wayfinders commanded was an important factor in their success. With limited physical proof, mostly restricted to certain structures with an astronomical orientation, the expertise of Polynesian skywatchers is harder to grasp even though it almost certainly preceded Polynesian navigation and probably involved a much more extensive bank of knowledge regarding observation of the night sky. Hopefullythe recent interest in Polynesian navigation will spark notice of other Polynesian achievements and expose one of the more extraordinary abilities of the ancient Polynesians.
If the superb seafaring abilities of Polynesians are any indication, their knowledge of celestial phenomena was vast. In the 1940s, Anthropologist Maud Makemson recorded the names of 772 stars and constellations as well as several astronomical terms while working in different Polynesian islands. Evidently, the skill and knowledge involved in Polynesian archaeoastronomy was not learnt from one day to the next, indeed it involved centuries of information and experience passed from one generation to the next, until a specialized elite was able to establish seasonal patterns, keep track of time, and develop an agricultural cycle. It is easy to surmise that the heavens were the inspiration for cultural principles that were so significant that Polynesians saw in them the work of the gods. Nevertheless, Polynesian skywatching developed for very practical reasons, for agriculture and navigation (i.e. subsistence, immigration and trade), and was intrinsically related to almost every aspect of everyday affairs. Spearheaded by something as important as survival, population dispersal, and economic growth, people found a way to understand and use astronomical events for their own benefit, yet many concepts remained the same, year after year, century after century, from island to island. Examining the differences and similarities between Marquesan archaeoastronomy and that of other islands would undoubtedly offer great insight as to the nature of Polynesian inter-island migrations and contacts, as well as the unique evolution and cultural identity of these island-societies.
Between 1984 and 1999, the Department of Archaeology of French Polynesia sent several scientific teams led by Edmundo Edwards to conduct an archaeological survey of the different valleys in the Marquesas. These scientists recorded close to 7,000 petroglyphs and nearly 1,000 archaeological features, such as house sites, temples, shrines, dancing platforms, ceremonial centres, burial and refuge caves, agricultural terraces, and quarries, on the islands of Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva, and Tahuata. However, there are many valleys that were densely occupied in the past that have never been surveyed, and not more than 30 structures have been excavated on all of the Marquesas. Studies have shown that Eastern Polynesians often oriented their sacred architecture to topographic and astronomical phenomena, often carving rock art in the vicinity of places where astronomical events were observed, depicting the promising rewards they expected to receive during a specific time of the year (whales, turtles, tuna, etc). Hatiheu and its neighbouring valleys in Nuku Hiva are home to one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the Marquesas many of which are carved on panels that face north (tiu) or towards the ocean, yet the significance of this is unknown. Evidently, no conclusions can be made without further study, other than that since Polynesian petroglyphs had a symbolic as well as a functional significance, Marquesan pictographs were not idle markings, nor were they made for purely aesthetic reasons.
The common ancestry of Polynesians is evident in the many terms and practices shared by people settled on islands sometimes thousands of kilometres away from each other, yet the richness of this seafaring culture is manifest in the diversity found in settlements that are sometimes only a few valleys apart. Much can be learned by placing Marquesan calendrics, within the context of greater Polynesia; while at the same time, the more we learn about Marquesan archaeoastronomy, the more we will be able to understand the Polynesian view of the cosmos and the place humans occupied in the Polynesian universe. The Marquesan calendric system is evidently tied to that of other Polynesians, but it is also unquestionably uniquely Marquesan; that, and the overwhelming importance of the concepts of Cosmos and Time, place archaeoastronomy at the top of the list of valuable research topics in Polynesia today.
Our Team (in alphabetical order)
Risks and challenges
As with any scientific investigation, although we are able to theorize what the results will be, there is no certainty as to the actual conclusions until we actually carry out our research. Nevertheless, this does not create a problem as we have worked on these kinds of projects several times before and the documentary script we have written is quite flexible, capable of adding footage of elements we had not anticipated, or subtracting parts that are no longer relevant. Flight and accommodation availability represent our greatest challenge, yet this is also not a problem as most of us are self-employed and can change the travel dates by a few weeks if the funds are not met on time; we have spoken with the managers and owners of the establishments where we will be staying, and all have said that they too are flexible regarding the reservations, as long as we book a few weeks ahead. We will be staying on Nuku Hiva for almost a month and the weather is quite stable there until November, so neither of these issues represents an obstacle to our project. Changes in ticket costs, and the distribution and promotion of the documentary are the only expenses that may threaten our carefully calculated budget, but travel insurance should buffer the impact somewhat and we are confident that the quality of our documentary will enable it to “sell itself.” All who pledge will receive a copy of our budget breakdown as proof of the transparency of the Pacific Islands Research Institute and we will answer any questions regarding our expenses at any time.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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