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The megalithic gate of Ha’amonga ‘a Maui, Tonga

New research suggests Tonga was a vast seafaring empire

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Scattered over 500,000 square kilometres in the southern Pacific Ocean are the Tonga islands. The kingdom of Tonga is a Polynesian sovereign state and archipelago comprising nearly two hundred islands with around a quarter of them inhabited. Now new research suggests that the ancient seafaring empire of Tonga served as a hub through which distant settlements exchanged artifacts and ideas, according to a report in Live Science.

The date that the first occupation of the Tongan islands took place is ambiguous - as is the dating of most of the archaeological sites in the region. However, the mainstream opinion suggests the first settlers of the islands were the Lapita people who arrived in around 1500 BC. The Lapita people were a pre-historic culture predating the Polynesians who later populated the islands from Hawaii to Easter Island - clearly demonstrating their navigational and seafaring skills.

Beginning about 800 years ago, a powerful chiefdom arose in Tonga. However, until now, little has been known about how far Tonga's influence actually reached, how much voyaging took place, and what interactions occurred in the Pacific.

A new study conducted by archaeologists at the Australian National University in Canberra and recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, attempted to answer these questions by studying nearly 200 stone tools excavated from the tombs of the ancient rulers of Tonga, as well as 300 stone artifacts and rock samples from other Pacific islands, such as Samoa.

Tongan stone axe-head

Tongan stone axe-head analysed by the researchers. Photo: Dr Geoffrey Clark, ANU

The results showed that, incredibly, two-thirds of the stone tools from Tonga were long-distance imports that came from Samoa, Fiji, and even as far away as Tahiti (about 2,500km from Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu. On the other hand, stone artifacts found on the other islands, such as Samoa, appeared to have been made from locally-sourced rocks.

The findings suggest that the Tongan chiefdom had extensive contacts with other islands and that Tonga may have been at the centre of a maritime empire that goods flowed towards as tribute from distant islands. The results may also explain why megalithic structures began appearing all around the Pacific at roughly the same time.

The researchers now plan to go further back in history to the early days of the Lapita people to trace the rise of the Tongan state and how this influenced relations and interactions in the Pacific over time.

Featured image: The megalithic gate of Ha’amonga ‘a Maui, Tonga

By April Holloway



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angieblackmon's picture

was it the Tonga that brought sweet potatoes with them?

love, light and blessings


aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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