Taking the High Ground

Taking the High Ground: The archaeology of Rapa, a fortified island in remote East Polynesia

Atholl Anderson
Douglas J. Kennett
Series: Terra Australis
Volume: 37
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: ANU Press
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24hd92
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Taking the High Ground
    Book Description:

    This volume brings the remote and little known island of Rapa firmly to the forefront of Polynesian archaeology. Thirteen authors contribute 14 chapters, covering not only the basic archaeology of coastal sites, rock shelters, and fortifications, but faunal remains, agricultural development, and marine exploitation. The results, presented within a chronology framed by Bayesian analysis, are set against a background of ethnohistory and ethnology. Highly unusual in tropical Polynesian archaeology are descriptions of artefacts of perishable material. Taking the High Ground provides important insights into how a group of Polynesian settlers adapted to an isolated and in some ways restrictive environment.

    eISBN: 978-1-922144-25-6
    Subjects: Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. 1 Archaeological research on Rapa Island, French Polynesia
    (pp. 7-24)
    Atholl Anderson, Douglas J. Kennett and Eric Conte

    This volume describes the results of archaeological and related research on Rapa Island, which lies at the southern extremity of French Polynesia. Notable for its numerous fortified sites atop the peaks of a spectacular volcanic landscape, Rapa has remained nonetheless an enigma in Polynesian prehistory. It has been linked, on the one hand, with its more famous and nearnamesake Rapa Nui (Easter Island), in hypotheses of Amerindian migration and the dire impacts of deforestation and societal isolation, and, on the other hand, with settlement and fort construction in the similarly cool and remote nearest neighbour to the southwest, New Zealand....

  4. 2 ‘Dwelling carelessly, quiet and secure’: A brief ethnohistory of Rapa Island, French Polynesia, AD 1791–1840
    (pp. 25-46)
    Atholl Anderson

    In 1826, the first European missionary to Rapa, the Rev. John Davies, quoted Judges 18:7 in seeing the Rapans as ‘dwelling carelessly, quiet and secure, and having no business with any man’ (in Stokes n.d.:28; an idiomatic rendering of the passage). It was to some extent, possibly to a great extent, quite illusory. Rapa was certainly isolated by comparison with most of East Polynesia, and it was small, mountainous and relatively cold, but even the first European visitors found that Rapans exhibited evidence of contact with the outside world, and within Rapan traditions, historical observations and ethnographic data which together...

  5. 3 Archaeology of the coastal sites on Rapa Island
    (pp. 47-76)
    Atholl Anderson

    Archaeological research on the coastal landscape of Rapa was confined to remains of habitation and associated resource exploitation, leaving aside various kinds of structural remains (below). The objectives were to define the Rapan archaeological sequence, but primarily its beginnings (Kennett et al. 2006), to describe the use of coastal resources, and to characterise broad variation in coastal settlement patterns. On the basis of Pacific archaeological experience generally, and according to previous archaeological and ethnographic data from Rapa, it was assumed that pertinent evidence most probably would be found close to the shore. We focused on an approximately 300 m wide...

  6. 4 The archaeobotany of Rapan rockshelter deposits
    (pp. 77-96)
    Matiu Prebble and Atholl Anderson

    Archaeobotanical records are becoming increasingly important in resolving several issues in the archaeology of Remote Oceania. Robust chronologies for island colonisation have been constructed for a number of islands through direct dating of plant materials with low inbuilt radiocarbon ages (e.g. Allen and Wallace 2007; Wilmshurst et al. 2011). The nature of biological introductions is better understood from abundant introduced plant remains found in archaeobotanical records (e.g. Kirch et al. 1995; Weisler 1995; Orliac and Orliac 1998; Burney et al. 2001; Allen and Wallace 2007). Increasingly, phytolith and starch grain analyses are being used as a first measure of plant...

  7. 5 Cordage from Rapan archaeological sites
    (pp. 97-104)
    Judith Cameron

    More than 80 per cent of the items of material culture produced by traditional Polynesian groups were made from plant fibres (Kirch and Green 2001:164–165), yet very little is known about prehistoric fibre artefacts in French Polynesia. The first Europeans to discover Rapa in 1791 (Chapter 2) exchanged iron for Rapan artefacts, some of fibre. Among them was a fishing line from the Vancouver Collection of the British Museum (Chapter 2). During his fieldwork on Rapa (1920–21), Stokes (n.d.) found several fragments of archaeological cordage on Rapa, but they were all surface finds of unknown age. An assemblage...

  8. 6 Bird, reptile and mammal remains from archaeological sites on Rapa Island
    (pp. 105-114)
    Alan J. D. Tennyson and Atholl Anderson

    Rapa Island, French Polynesia, has a land vertebrate fauna typical of an isolated oceanic South Pacific Island. Birds dominate the fauna and there are no native mammals or terrestrial reptiles. Together with its smaller offshore islands, Rapa has a small, poorly known but important bird fauna. Bird species recorded breeding or as migrant residents are: Christmas shearwater Puffinus nativitatis, little shearwater Puffinus assimilis myrtae, Kermadec petrel Pterodroma neglecta neglecta, Murphy’s petrel Pterodroma ultima, black-winged petrel Pterodroma nigripennis, white-bellied storm petrel Fregetta grallaria titan, Polynesian storm petrel Nesofregetta fuliginosa, red-tailed tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda, grey duck Anas superciliosa, spotless crake Porzana tabuensis,...

  9. 7 Prehistoric fishing on Rapa Island
    (pp. 115-134)
    Yolanda Vogel and Atholl Anderson

    This chapter presents the results of analysing fish-bone assemblages from Rapa, while Chapter 9 will discuss some points of interpretation. The material was recovered from a number of rockshelter sites around Rapa (see Chapter 3, Figure 3.1 for site locations). Most of the fish bone comes from the Tangarutu rockshelter, with another large assemblage from the Akatanui 3 rockshelter. Four other rockshelters (Akatanui 1, Angairao C, Angairao E and Noogoriki) provided only small amounts of fish bone. The material was dry sieved in the field using 3 mm sieves, and bulk samples were also retained at most sites. Primary sorting...

  10. 8 The Tangarutu invertebrate fauna
    (pp. 135-144)
    Katherine Szabó and Atholl Anderson

    The island of Rapa presents an interesting lens through which to investigate human decision-making and resource-use patterns in a marginal environment. In addition to being small and isolated, Rapa is climatically marginal, being positioned on the southern fringe of the tropical Indo–West Pacific marine province. Most obviously, this geographical situation translates to restricted species diversity, with a great many common tropical taxa not able to survive the conditions. However, as pointed out by Preece (1995:345), it would be a mistake to see the marine fauna of marginal Polynesian islands as simply an impoverished subset of the tropical Indo–West...

  11. 9 Marine resource exploitation on Rapa Island: Archaeology, material culture and ethnography
    (pp. 145-166)
    Katherine Szabó, Yolanda Vogel and Atholl Anderson

    As Rapa lacked the usual suite of Polynesian domesticated animals, it is not surprising that evidence for marine fishing and marine exploitation in general is strong. However, the discussion of fishing techniques and broader aquatic resource exploitation must be placed within the unique environmental context of the island; no straightforward transference of traditions or interpretations in other parts of Polynesia will suffice to explain the patterns seen here. The cultural adaptations that formed on Rapa are exemplified by a remarkable assemblage of very small fish hooks produced in candlenut endocarp that was recovered from Tangarutu. In the absence of tropical...

  12. 10 Palaeobotany and the early development of agriculture on Rapa Island
    (pp. 167-188)
    Matiu Prebble and Atholl Anderson

    Palaeobotanical studies in tropical and subtropical Remote Oceania have established broad records of vegetation and climate change covering the past 6000–7000 years. They mostly have used sedimentary deposits from large, closed depositional basins such as high-elevation bogs or volcanic caldera lakes in the tropical Hawaiian Islands (Selling 1948; Selling in Massey 1979; Athens and Ward 1993) and subtropical Easter Island (Flenley 1979; Flenley and King 1984; Flenley et al. 1991), and numerous bogs in northern New Zealand. While these records have provided good regional pictures of vegetation change, including the effects of fire and increases in seral pollen and...

  13. 11 A Bayesian AMS 14C chronology for the colonisation and fortification of Rapa Island
    (pp. 189-202)
    Douglas J. Kennett, Brendan J. Culleton, Atholl Anderson and John Southon

    One of our primary objectives on Rapa was to establish a settlement chronology. Although we encountered a range of archaeological sites and cultural features during our short time on the island, our chronological work was focused on determining the likely age of colonisation, with investigations of coastal rockshelters, and the age of hilltop fortifications and their proliferation (Figure 11.1). Heyerdahl’s Norwegian expedition to Rapa occurred during the 1950s, shortly after Libby’s breakthrough development of radiocarbon dating. Early applications of radiocarbon dating in archaeology were often limited, and in this tradition, Mulloy (1965:59) acquired two radiocarbon dates from the fortified site...

  14. 12 The archaeology of Rapan fortifications
    (pp. 203-234)
    Douglas J. Kennett and Sarah B. McClure

    Fortifications were common features in the East and South Polynesian sociopolitical landscape. The initial appearance of defensive features coincides with the first evidence for political hierarchy in West Polynesia (Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, Clark and Martinsson-Wallin 2007; Kennett and Winterhalder 2008) and the competing political systems that they represent. This is roughly coincident with the East Polynesian expansion, and competition for land in West Polynesia may have been one contributing factor stimulating exploration and eventual settlement on increasingly remote islands between AD 800 and 1200. This pulse of migration and settlement to increasingly remote islands was an extension of the...

  15. 13 Rapan agroecology and population estimates
    (pp. 235-246)
    Jacob Bartruff, Douglas J. Kennett and Bruce Winterhalder

    Colocasia taro (C. esculenta) grown in pondfield irrigation systems is the staple of Rapa’s subsistence economy. Pondfield irrigation systems are well known in Oceania. Their development usually coincides with the prehistoric expansion of island populations and the associated need to increase crop yields from limited amounts of land (e.g. with intensification, Kirch 2000:317). The primary goal of this type of irrigation system is to create the most favourable growing conditions for Colocasia taro, pools of slow-moving water 2.5 cm to 5 cm deep. This involves the construction of artificial terraces, berms and irrigation canals that require a significant investment of...

  16. 14 The prehistory of Rapa Island
    (pp. 247-256)
    Atholl Anderson, Douglas J. Kennett and Eric Conte

    Rapa is a small, high and substantially isolated volcanic island lying in East Polynesia at the temperate edge of the subtropical South Pacific. Discovered by Europeans in 1791, Rapa has been the subject of lengthy ethnological and anthropological fieldwork but relatively little archaeology and that directed almost entirely at the hilltop fortifications that dominate the landscape. Our fieldwork, during six weeks in the winter of 2002, has produced sufficient variety and abundance of material from archaeological sites (Appendix D) and palaeoenvironmental research to enable the sketching of a first prehistory of Rapa.

    Before turning to that, it is worth noting...

  17. Appendices
    (pp. 257-288)