Maoli Petroglyphs Found in Tonga
Ancient Hawaiian rock art discovered in Tonga
From Matangi Tonga
30 Jan 2009
THE discovery of over 50 ancient rock engravings, including stylised images of people and animals, at the northern end of Foa island, Ha’apai, opens up a new chapter in Tonga’s history and may shed some light on its voyaging past.
The existence of the petroglyphs that had lain hidden under beach sand, possibly for hundreds of years, has opened up the possibility that there were direct long distance voyages between Tonga and Hawaii in the pre-European contact era.
After the rock engravings were noticed emerging on the Foa coastline late last year, following erosion by heavy seas, a Tongan resident artist, Shane Egan went to Ha’apai and had a look at them, before contacting the Lapita archaeologist, Professor David Burley, at the Simon Fraser University in Canada, to further investigate and document the site with him.
The Foa Petroglyphs have yet to be carbon dated, but both Shane and Professor Burley are excited about the find.
Said Shane, “The site on Foa Island is an amazing piece of artwork, with over fifty engraved images. Having an average height of 20 to 30 cm (some much larger) there are very nicely stylised images of men and women, turtles, dogs, a bird, a lizard as well as footprints and some weird exotic combinations.”
Shane, who has a keen interest in archaeology and the early history of Tonga, said he thought the images were close in form to those found in ancient Hawaii between 1200 and 1500 AD.
“This date correlates closely with an adjacent village site and pigeon-snaring mound (sia heu lupe) on Foa previously documented by Burley. It also raises the question of direct long distance voyages between Tonga and Hawaii in the pre-European contact era.”
The Foa rock engravings are on two large slabs of fixed beach-rock that Shane believes have been hidden and preserved under more than half a metre of sand and foliage for possibly hundreds of years.
Exposed by erosion
“After some recent erosion by heavy seas a chapter in Tonga’s ancient history has decided to present itself to the world,” he said.
The rock engravings were first sighted by visiting friends Richard Whelan and Janelle Johnston from Melbourne, “they told me of what looked to be some man-made engravings on beach rock at the north end of Foa Island in Ha’apai.
“After an initial investigation that confirmed the authenticity of the artwork, and identified the images as being very close in form to those found in ancient Hawaii, I invited Professor David Burley, being the leading authority in the area, to collaborate with me on the recording and documentation of this startling site.”
“A return visit to map the site and images in late December with Burley, and a follow-up visit to carry out night photography with my son Chas Egan and his partner Anna Fransson in early January, now provides a detailed and intriguing record that presents as many questions as answers.”
Shane said that Tonga’s reported rock art has been limited to simple geometric engravings found on several of the large facing stones of the Langi at Lapahaon Tongatapu.
“One exception is a single engraved outline of a foot on a stone at the Royal Tomb of Mala’e Lahi on ‘Uiha recorded in 1991 by Professor Burley; and a second hand report in 1920 of carved figures in southern Ha’apai by the archaeologist William McKern. Petroglyphs are similarly rare in Samoa but are found widely distributed throughout eastern Polynesia, especially in the Marquesas, Tahiti and Hawaii.”
Shane said that at the site on Foa Island the petroglyph images unfortunately occur within the tidal range and once exposed are constantly being eroded by waves, washing sand and rocks.
“The grooves are now shallow and in the broad light of day one would be excused for passing them by unnoticed. At night, with torch lighting from the side the glyphs immediately take form and in greater detail jump up at you, revealing a myriad of images dancing about the rock.”
Shane believes that many people will want to go and see the newly discovered artwork but there is a danger that they may be damaged. “We only ask people to respect the past and refrain from walking on the engravings or along the brittle edge of the rock layer. Tonga’s historic remains are fragile and this is a highly unusual and no doubt important story for present and future generations of Tongans to ponder,” he said.