Uncovering ancient rituals in Polynesia
An ANU archaeologist on a dig faces cyclones and tropical storms, 35-degree heat and the danger of falling coconuts. Jane Faure-Brac reports.
The most difficult thing about doing an archaeological dig on a coral atoll in the South Pacific is getting there.
This was really exciting – it’s like finding the foundation stone of a cathedral.
Fakahina in French Polynesia is a remote doughnut-shaped ring of coral, of 11.5 square kilometres, surrounding a large lagoon.
A small, five-seater aircraft flies there once a month from Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, more than 1,000 kilometres away.
The important place of the atoll in the story of human migration and its fascinating history of ritualistic practices involving turtles have captured the attention of Pacific archaeologist, Dr Guillaume Molle, of the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology.
His plan to bring an archaeologist, cultural anthropologist, funerary and burials expert and two PhD students to the atoll for a four-week dig, was thwarted by the unavailability of seats on the aircraft. So Molle decided to go alone and hired two enthusiastic locals to help.
Transporting archaeological equipment to Fakahina also posed logistical hurdles for Molle. A boat makes a three-to-four week rotation delivering food and supplies around the Tuamotu Archipelago, including Fakahina.
Often the shops are bare if the boat has been delayed or cancelled by cyclones or tropical storms. People then rely on what they can grow in their gardens in this harsh environment.
Molle says the inhospitable atoll, battered by cyclones, looks like a moon landscape.
"Especially in the south which is really exposed to the waves, the vegetation has difficulty growing – there are just patches of vegetation, littered with coral blocks here and there,” he says. “You can walk for kilometres and kilometres in the sun and it’s dead flat and only about two or three metres above sea level.”
Luckily, his shipment of shovels, trowels, collecting equipment and other material from the University of Tahiti, made the boat and arrived in time for his dig last year.
“I was very lucky, and after two days excavating, I found this beautiful deposit of turtle bones about 30 centimetres beneath the surface,” he says, “It was interesting because it appeared to be an offering of part of the turtle only – just the vertebrae. Finding out why is a big question we have now”.
Scraping away at coral bedrock is far harsher than working in earth, and tools tend to wear down quickly. Molle says making observations is also much more difficult compared to working with soil or sand.
The white coral is mixed with white sand, making it difficult to detect changes in colour that could show different times when people occupied the site.
“Fakahina is an archaeological challenge like no other. In addition to digging in 35 degree Celsius heat, there is also the clear and ever-present danger of falling coconuts,” he says.
“I was lucky because the sites I excavated were closer to the lagoon so I wasn’t exposed to the sun the whole time and I had coconut trees all around me, but these can actually be very dangerous in the Tuamotus. Many people have died from a direct hit from a falling coconut. At the very least you can have a bad concussion, so you’re always looking over your shoulder.
“Sometimes when I was really busy excavating, my co-workers kept an eye and ear out and would suddenly shout, ‘Guillaume, you need to move NOW!’ and two minutes later, the coconut would fall right where I was.”
What the missionaries failed to erase was the importance of the turtle to the people.
Despite the challenges, he discovered some amazing finds.
His aim was to uncover primary evidence of ritualistic practices involving sea turtles as described in accounts by Catholic missionaries from France and Belgium in the 19th century.
The Europeans observed and documented the ‘pagan’ practices of the turtle rituals performed by the Polynesians in open-air ceremonial sites, known as Marae. However, in an effort to convert the population to Christianity, they suppressed the rituals.
According to tradition, ceremonially butchered offerings of turtle meat were made on an altar-like platform in the Marae. Parts of the turtle were cooked in separate ovens, then shared according to a strict hierarchy in the society. The turtle’s head and heart were reserved for the highest-ranking individuals in the tribes.
Molle’s dig uncovered two open-air ceremonial sites. As well as the bones of the ritual turtle offerings, he found a dedicated placement of coral branches in a pit beneath the coral-slab altar. “This was really exciting – it’s like finding the foundation stone of a cathedral. Before building a Marae, the site was sanctified by sprinkling salt water over coral branches taken from the sea,” he says.
“The people then built the structure and ceremonial platforms around this first offering so we’re seeing the very first gesture of the people marking the construction of this sacred site.”
As well as the coral-slab altar, the people built a cist or ceremonial chair, which could contain offerings and was used by the officiating tribal leader.
Molle says 150 years on, today’s inhabitants are largely unaware of the pre-missionary ceremonies in the Marae. “To the Polynesians, the turtle was seen as the embodiment of the ancestors and clans,” Molle says.
“Symbolically, turtles were also associated with fertility, so when they returned each year on their migration, it marked the start of the season of abundance and the people performed a lot of religious ceremonies, ultimately relating to their survival.
“I hear a lot from the people about how they still catch, prepare and cook turtle meat for special occasions,” he says. “It’s really interesting to me as I compare the present relationship between turtles and the locals, with the past and their subsistence diet.
“At the same time, I tell them about the old rituals and ceremonies and that really surprises them. It’s a lovely dialogue between archaeologist and populations there – true ethno-archaeology at work, flowing both ways.
“What I’ve realised is that while the Catholic conversion was swift and efficient with this small population, what the missionaries failed to erase was the importance of the turtle to the people. This has been maintained down the generations.”
When Molle returns in April this year with his full team (aircraft seats are already booked), he plans to investigate a site linked with an oral tradition describing the slaughter and burial of invading warriors.
* The project is conducted by the International Centre for Polynesian Archaeological Research at the University of French Polynesia, partnering with international institutions including ANU.