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Was Nukuleka really the cradle of Polynesia?

Auckland, New Zealand


The pronouncement by the prominent Pacific archaeologist, Professor David V. Burley, from Simon Fraser University in Canada, together with his archaeological team of researchers, that the small fishing village of Nukuleka on the northern shores of eastern Tongatapu, at the entrance to the Fanga'uta Lagoon, to be the cradle of Polynesia, let alone the whole of Tonga, does certainly raise a few critical questions of some serious historico-cultural significance (Matangi Tonga, 7 January, 2008: Tonga's Nukuleka, the birth place of Polynesia).

Tonga has, of course, largely been argued by Pacific archaeologists to be the origin of Polynesia, followed by the settlement of Samoa, both in western Polynesia, from where the rest of Polynesia were settled, beginning with the Cook, Marquesas and Society Islands in the central Pacific, then succeeded by Hawai'i in the north, Rapanui (Easter Island) in the east and Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the south, in that order.

This chronology-based argument, as far as western Polynesia goes, was later critically revised, leading to its being replaced with a region-based argument, which propagated the view that at least both Tonga and Samoa were settled relatively at the same time loosely regionally rather than strictly chronologically, i.e., as a region rather than a chronology.

If that was the case, how would the regionally-led argument (and not a chronologically-driven one) affect the local settlement scenario in Tonga? Would Fanga'uta, of which Nukuleka was and is still very much a part, physically, historically and culturally, be considered to have been settled as a single lagoonal area more or less at the same time?

Chronologically speaking, why, then, Nukuleka? But, really, why not Lapaha, 'Alakifonua or Folaha? Or, indeed, why not one of the other many adjoining offshore islands? There must be reasons, most, if not all, of which have remained unanswered. To unearth many, if not all, of these questions would undoubtedly give us a fuller picture of the human history.

Would the truth about Nukuleka solely hinge on the archaeological evidence alone? If not, there is a need for us to bring all the evidence to a convergent point, be they archaeological, linguistic or oral historical. How does, for example, oral history play a role in the scheme of things?

We know for sure that the history of Tonga before the emergence of the Tu'i Tonga is overly symbolically and mythologically represented (in correspondence with the so-called archaeologically and linguistically constructed Lapita society, culture and history), which does not mean (and not an excuse at all) that, because it is highly mythical, it is entirely impossible to make sense of both its complexity and historicity.

With the effective use of heliaki, the refined and sophisticated ephiphoric and metaphoric device for the qualitative and associative formal, substantial and functional exchange between ideas, images and objects in mythology and history, we can surely be able to effectively demarcate between the symbolic and the historical in connection with the human conditions. In effect, the same device can be applied to all forms of formal language, as in oratory, proverbs and poetry.

How does Nukuleka, then, relate to the shifting landscape movement of the Tu'i Tonga, which was mostly confined to Fanga'uta and its adjacent areas, which included an inland coastal-inland turn from 'Alakifonua through Pelehake and Toloa and along the fairly lengthy windward stretch in the southern coasts to Heketa in eastern Tongatapu?

How does Nukuleka stand in relation to Heketa and the shoreline mobility of the Tu'i Tonga from there along the northern coastlines through the Niutao Point (which is opposite Nukuleka) to Lapaha in Mu'a? How is Nukuleka implicated historically and culturally in its close physical proximity to Niutao, where the Langi Tamatou stands?

Was Nukuleka an island, later joined to the Niutao Point, hence its literal meaning "Small-island", in the same way that Nuku'alofa (literally meaning "Island-of-generosity") was connected to mainland Tongatapu in subsequent times? Intentionally or accidently, it is interesting to take note that somehow this particular early landscape movement took place in full circle, both beginning and ending in the Nuku'alofa area.

Was Nuku, the island, named after Leka, the prominent navigator of the Tu'i Tonga? Leka was a toutaivaka, navigator, not a toutaiika, fisherman, although both professions, toutaivaka and toutaiika, were under the generic professional class ha'a toutai. In fact, Ula-mo-Leka, the famous poet-navigator, happened to have combined both navigators of Tu'i Tonga and Tu'i Kanokupolu, i.e., Ula, in his person.

Or, was Leka, the navigator, named after Nukuleka, the small neighbouring island, which was opposite the Niutao Point? Or, was Nukuleka (like the island of Mo'unu opposite Lapaha at later times) merely a safe and convenient anchorage for the imperial fleet of the Tu'i Tonga led by his famous navigator, Leka?

In fact, Kula was the toutaiika of the Tu'i Tonga, and he was based in the Popua-Ma'ufanga area, which was and still is part of Fanga'uta. The word kula, red, in addition to 'uli, black, is prominently featured in Pacific arts, where kula is symbolically man-related, as in kula 'i moana, sunburnt in the ocean, and 'uli 'as in ma'uli, birth-delivering, and moa'uli, courting-go-between, as a female symbol.

Of all the related complex and elaborate beautiful kupesi, geometric designs - such as those used in the arts of tufunga tatatau, tatooing, tufunga ngaohi kulo pottery-making and nimamea'a koka'anga, fine art of bark-cloth-making - which Professor Burley mentioned are, in fact, derived from the master material art of tufunga lalava, line-space-intersecting, kafa sennit-lashing, associated with both tufunga fo'uvaka, boat-building, and tufunga langafale, house-building.

Perhaps the bigger, more important, question would be, How does the kupesi as an significant facet fit in here, as far as the multiplicity of opposed and complementary physical, psychological and social tendencies, characterising the totality of the reality of Tongan society, both synchronically and diachronically?

These artforms were the fatongia, prerogatives, of the so-called hereditary ha'a professional classes, such as ha'a tufunga, class of material artists, ha'a faiva, class of performance artists and ha'a fa'a, class of cultivators, amongst many others. There were class sub-divisions, as in faiva toutaivaka, long-distant navigators and faiva toutaiika, deep-sea fishermen, amidst many others.

The practice of ha'a in the Tu'i Tonga rule was radically scrutinised by the powerful Samoan-led, Tu'i Kanokupolu-informed regime, when it was changed from it being fatongia-based, economically-led, e.g., ha'a tufunga, material artists and ha'a tufunga nimatapu, artists-of-the-handling-of-the-dead, to it being ego-centred, politically-driven, e.g., Ha'a Ngata and Ha'a Havea.

In conclusion, I would also like to throw in a point that is both timely and politically necessary for us all locals and foreigners, academics and non-academics alike, to reflect upon. I refer here to the need to "indigenise" both anthropology and archaeology, not to mention the whole of the disciplinary spectrum vis-a-vis Tonga and the Pacific.

By "indigenisation", as in the case of both Tongan archaeology and anthropology, reference is made to seeing things Tongan as they objectively are, as opposed to their subjective imagining in what we would like them to be. In short, we must observe things Tongan on their own terms rather than by imposing upon them qualities extrinsic to Tongan society, culture and history.

For example, our words for Polynesia and Lapita, imposed by foreigners rather than mediated between them and the locals, are Moana and Pulotu. These local terms are deeply embedded and broadly endowed with sophisticated forms of knowledge, developed carefully and systematically over centuries of life-long, experientially-refining, trial-and-error application and experimentation.

In fact, early ethnographers were correct in classifying Polynesia, literally "many-islands", into western and eastern Polynesia, Pulotu and Havaiki, yet subsequent scholars in the field still fail consciously or unconsciously to recognise that, in terms of local knowledge, the physical, psychological and social dynamics at the interface of this western-eastern divide, can be truly and fruitfully critiqued within the locally-made Pulotu-Havaiki distinction.

Pacific archaeologists, like Pacific linguists, have, for example, come up with the dual marine-based, land-based as characteristic productive and reproductive features of the so-called Lapita social organisation, yet they still refuse to take into account the notion of the kaimoana, kaifonua duality in local understanding and praxis - and many more.

'Ofa atu fau,

Dr 'Okusitino Mahina
Lecturer in Pacific Political Economy and Pacific Arts
Anthropology, University of Auckland, Auckland
New Zealand
Director, Vava'u Academy for Critical Inquiry and Applied Research
Tapinga'amaama Campus, Dr 'Okusitino Mahina Education Centre
Tefisi-Nga'akau, Vava'u