Mangareva is the largest of the Gambier Islands at the southeastern corner of French Polynesia. South of this group lies nothing but clear ocean all the way to Antarctica. To the east lie just four small and scattered islands in the Pitcairn group, and then well over 2,000 kilometers (1,400 miles) beyond those, the remote Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the most isolated outpost of ancient Polynesia. In 1834, a Belgian priest by the name of Honoré Laval be gan working as a missionary on Mangareva. He remained on the island for almost four decades and compiled a detailed account of the indigenous peoples. Ironically, their traditional religious practices were simultaneously being relentlessly destroyed in the missionary zeal to convert them to Catholicism.

Laval describes the use of two tall, dressed stones set up side by side on a small mountain, for determining the solstice. When the sun rose between them, a "learned person" called Akaputu, seated on a flat stone in the middle of the village, announced that the sun had reached its resting place. The anthropologist and Maori scholar Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa), who visited the island a century later, coincidentally published his Ethnology of Mangareva in the same year Laval's account, which had languished in missionary archives in Belgium, was finally brought to publication. Buck documents four separate places where observations were made of the northern and southern limits of the course of the sun along the horizon. The place of observation, in one case at least, was a flat rock or stone on which the priest sat. From vantages close to the east coast, the changing rising position of the sun could be tracked against various islets visible on the reef to the east. Elsewhere, people took advantage of other foresights, such as natural landmarks on mountain ridges, and sometimes used the setting rather than the rising sun. In another case, the focus of attention was the shadow of a mountain at sunset: when this reached a certain stone, the winter (June) solstice had arrived. The practice of placing a pair of stones on the horizon to mark the limiting rising or setting position of the sun with maximum precision seems to have represented the culmination of this widespread tradition.

Archaeological and archaeoastronomical work by the American anthropologist Patrick Kirch has recently established, beyond any reasonable doubt, the location of one platform used to make solstitial observations as recorded by Laval. The platform at Atituiti Ruga is about twenty-three meters (seventy-five feet) square and contains a large, flat boulder at its center. From here, sunrise on summer (December) solstice was observed over Agakauitai, an island in the outer barrier reef that is visible on the sea horizon to the east. The shadow of the eastern peak of Auorotini (Mount Duff), which towers over the site to the north, passed across the platform shortly after local noon on the winter (June) solstice.

Why was it important to keep track of the sun? One possibility is that the solstices were used to mark the start of the new season or the new year. A side benefit of this would be to keep the calendar in phase with the seasons. The Mangarevan calendar had much in common with the calendars of most of the rest of Polynesia: it was a lunar calendar based on the phase cycle of the moon, days within the month were reckoned by nights of the moon, and it used month and day names of which variants appear more widely. As is the case with all lunar calendars, it would have been necessary to insert an inter calary month from time to time in order to keep the months in step with the seasons. Making observations of the solstices would be one way to do this.

However, even though the calendar is of a type familiar through Polynesia, clear evidence of careful observations of the solstices is nonexistent elsewhere, except for hints in Hawai'i. This raises the question: did a particular concern with the annual motions of the sun happen to develop in Mangareva but not in other places, or was it a wider Polynesian preoccupation that just happens to have survived long enough in this island to be reliably recorded?

See also:

Lunar and Luni-Solar Calendars; Solstitial Directions.

Easter Island; Hawaiian Calendar; Polynesian and Micronesian Astronomy.

Lunar Phase Cycle; Solstices.

References and further reading

Buck, Peter H. [Te Rangi Hiroa]. Ethnology of Mangareva, 414-415. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1938.

Kirch, Patrick V. "Solstice Observation in Mangareva, French Polynesia." Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture 18 (2004), 1-19.

Laval, P. Honoré. Mangareva: L'Histoire Ancienne d'un Peuple Polynésien, 213-214. Braine-le-Comte, Belgium: Maison des Pères des Sacrés-Coeurs, 1938. [In French.]

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 142-143. Dordrect, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

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