Haamongaa Maui

As ancient Polynesians voyaged across the Pacific, discovering and colonizing a great variety of islands, the cultures they established developed in different ways according to the environment and the available natural resources. At one end of the scale were sand and coral atolls where little but coconuts could be made to grow; lifestyle there was frugal, and many of these atolls were settled for only a short period before being abandoned. By contrast, in large and fertile island groups such as Tonga, the Society Islands, and the Hawaiian chain, populations thrived, and complex social hierarchies and powerful chiefdoms developed. The Tongan Islands, in the heartlands of ancient Polynesia, are unusual in that, never having been overthrown by European invaders, the pre-contact social structure has in essence persisted without severe cultural disruption right up to the present day.

On the largest Tongan island, Tongatapu, is found Oceania's most famous archaeoastronomical artifact: the coral trilithon known as Ha'a-monga-a-Maui. According to tradition, its construction was ordered by Tu'itatui, the eleventh sacred ruler of Tonga, in around c.e. 1200. It consists of three large coral monoliths, two standing and one placed as a lintel across the top, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the sarsen trilithons at Stone-henge in England. Nothing quite like it is known elsewhere in Polynesia. It is aligned along its length upon the rising position of the sun on the June solstice, and ceremonies to mark the occasion still take place.

Despite the superficial similarity between Ha'amonga-a-Maui and the Stonehenge trilithons, and the existence of solstitial alignments at both sites, it would be plainly ridiculous to posit a direct connection between these two sites on opposite sides of the world and separated in time by some three millennia. Even so, it might seem impressive that human thought could develop in such similar ways at such different places and times. However, there is absolutely no historical evidence to back up the assertion that the Tongan alignment was significant at the time of its construction. The present tradition dates no further back than 1967, when the King of Tonga, Taufa'ahau

Tupou IV, himself an amateur astronomer, began to take an interest in the alignment of the monument.

In fact, valuable insights about ancient Tongan astronomy may be found by focusing less on monumental alignments and examining instead a broader range of customs and traditions, including contemporary ones. In Tonga, many cultural practices have been unusually well preserved, though constantly subject to modern influences. Stories and poetry frequently refer to topographic features in the landscape and describe the motions of objects in the sky. Designs on bark-cloth and incised markings on war clubs often incorporate symbols of the heavenly bodies. Dance movements can have sacred and cosmic significance. As all this reminds us, knowledge of celestial phenomena formed an integral element of worldview in Tonga as well as throughout Oceania and among human societies everywhere.

See also:

Cosmology; Solstitial Directions.

Navigation in Ancient Oceania; Polynesian and Micronesian Astronomy; Stonehenge.

References and further reading

Bellwood, Peter. The Polynesians: Prehistory of an Island People (rev. ed.), 69-72. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Gifford, Edward W. Tongan Society. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1929.

Hodson, F. R., ed. The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World, 137. London: Royal Society, 1976.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L., and H. Arlo Nimmo, eds. Directions in Pacific Traditional Literature: Essays in Honor of Katharine Luomala, 195-216. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1976.

Kirch, Patrick V. On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Polynesian Islands before European Contact, 219-230. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Liller, William. The Ancient Solar Observatories of Rapanui: The Archaeoastronomy of Easter Island, 48-49. Old Bridge, NJ: Cloud Mountain Press, 1993.

Ruggles, Clive, ed. Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s, 132-133. Loughborough, UK: Group D Publications, 1993.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 137-139. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

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