- 3 Crossroads in East Polynesia
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to the marquesas islands
A When did you first go to the Marquesas?
S As I mentioned, Dr. Alexander Spoehr, who was the director of the Bishop Museum at the time, had developed a five-year research program for Polynesian archaeology and obtained Carnegie funds to support it.1 With Dr. Emory as the leader, I was able to parti cipate, too.
A It sounds like you got into the swing of things!
S The problem was that only Dr. Emory and I were on the staff of Bishop Museum at the time, and the two of us could not be everywhere. So we collaborated with archaeologists from other places. I went to American Samoa; someone from Aotearoa went to Western Samoa; and an archaeologist from the Fiji Museum covered the Fijian Islands. Then, while I was doing a preliminary inspection of some sites in American Samoa, news arrived that pottery had been found in Western Samoa.
A Pottery?! Didn’t everyone think that pottery didn’t exist in Polynesia?
S That’s right. When the announcement was made, I immediately reasoned that if pottery had been found in Western Samoa, it would soon be found in nearby American Samoa, because there are no significant cultural differences between them.
So, rather than stay where discoveries had already been made, I set my sights on the Marquesas. I had wanted to explore those islands ever since wondering if ancient one-piece fishhooks, like those in Hawai‘i and Tahiti, had originated there. Since the Southern Marquesas are so isolated, I hoped that early Polynesian cultural sites might be better preserved than in other places.
By chance, in 1963, an archaeological expedition from Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Museum2 was going to the Marquesas Islands. I was able to travel with them as far as Hiva Oa, in the Southern Marquesas, where Professor Carlyle Smith, from the University of Kansas, disembarked.
A Before you go on, could you describe what the Marquesas are like? I don’t think most people even know where they are.
S The Marquesas are a group of islands located about 900 miles northeast of Tahiti. [End Page 71] These days, you can get there by airplane or by boat, which takes three days from Tahiti. When I went, I caught a ride on a copra boat. It took two or three weeks because the boat stopped at many small islands on the way, including some in the Tuamotu Archipelago.
The first person to conduct archaeological excavations in the Marquesas was Robert Suggs, who was a graduate student at Columbia University at the time. In 1956 and 1957, he excavated a site at Ha‘atuatua Bay on the island of Nuku Hiva, where he found potsherds.
A He found pottery?
S Yes, it was the first discovery of pottery in East Polynesia.
A What a landmark discovery!
S Suggs excavated more than twenty ancient sites on Nuku Hiva. His most archaeo-logically important findings were five potsherds on the eastern side of the island, around Ha‘atuatua Bay. In a paper published in 1961, he reported that radiocarbon dating indicated they were from 124 bc. This was big news.
Suggs concluded that there had been a significant connection, two thousand years ago, between ancient Marquesan culture and the cultures of West Polynesia and Melanesia. In addition to the potsherds, he found ornaments and a peeler made of shell. Based on his discoveries, he suggested that Mangareva and Easter Island had originally been settled by Marquesan voyagers.
The report by Suggs was one of the reasons I was eager to go to the Marquesas in 1963, when Professor Carlyle Smith and I traveled there thanks to the Thor Heyerdahl museum’s expedition. Professor Smith wanted to find pottery. The ancient capital of the Marquesas had been located at Atuona Bay, on Hiva Oa. Professor Smith and I went to Hiva Oa and together excavated a rock shelter. To my surprise, I found no fishhooks. He also excavated a large religious site inland, but he couldn’t find any...