Archive for the ‘Ancient Pacific’ Category

The Other Easter Island Mystery, Part One: Write or Rongorongo?

By: The Scribe on April, 2013

easterisland rongoRongorongo is an indigenous Polynesian hieroglyphic script… and you’ve probably never heard of it before!

There’s a reason for that: it wasn’t discovered until the 19th-century on Easter Island. And of course, when talking about Easter Island, it just so happens that some giant pieces of stone tend to grab the spotlight…

While there hasn’t been much in the way of direct dating for the script, the only tablet that has been carbon dated (Tablet Q) resulted in a date of “sometime after 1680.” However, one of the specific glyphs—glyph 67—appears to represent the Easter Island palm tree, which went extinct around 1650. So, we know that the script is at least that old, if not older.

Part of the trouble with dating this ancient language stems from the Spanish explorers, who annexed the island in 1770. When the treaty was signed by both the Spanish and Easter Island chiefs, some of these Rongorongo glyphs were used—and some scholars have speculated that maybe the language was invented after the Spanish arrived and used for the treaty in particular.

rongorongoEvidently, no explorer reported seeing the script prior to 1864, causing some historians to believe that the script may have been a result of trans-cultural diffusion—in other words, the locals saw Spanish writing and were inspired to create their own writing system.

But if that happened, it means the writing system was invented, used widely, disappeared, and became almost completely forgotten within—quite literally—less than a century. This would be highly unusual for any language!

Some have suggested that because the forest-clearing of Easter Island for agricultural use (and thus for permanent residents through colonization) began around 1200, the invention of Rongorongo can’t be earlier than the 13th-century—but that’s still a much later date than placing it at the Spanish annexation.

So, what does Rongorongo actually look like and what do the characters mean?

Stay tuned for Part 2…!

Ancient Avian Extinction in the Pacific

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

The problem of species extinction isn’t a modern-day invention—the story of how the dodo became extinct is probably one of the earliest non-dinosaur examples that everyone knows about, but dinosaurs and dodos aside, extinction has been an issue for… well, as long as humans have been around to mess things up.

A recent report has found that the first humans to settle the Pacific Islands weren’t just exploring and discovering… they were also destroying, and ended up leaving “a wave of extinct bird species in their wake.”

Humans are known for their destructive tendencies on existing species, but usually it’s the land mammal populations that suffer—creatures who are large enough to provide meat and resources. Historians and biologists are well aware that numerous large species in Australia were hunted to extinction about 40,000 years ago, and the first North Americans are guilty of the same between 10,000-20,000 years ago.

But when humans trekked their way to the Pacific Islands between 3500 and 700 years ago, they discovered something incredible! A number of bird species had actually evolved to be flightless, fearless, and more than a little rotund. The ecosystems of islands like Hawaii and Fiji had no real predators for these birds, so they just didn’t bother to fly anymore… why would they need to?

Sadly, humans thought this meant open season on the bird species, and hunted many of these species to extinction—and the other species? Well, because humans started burning away trees and natural plant life for the sake of agriculture, the other birds lost their habitats and died out that way.

The fossil record shows the extinction of these species, but until recently that record was rather incomplete. Some rough estimates on the numbers of total bird extinction have ranged from 800 to 2000 species. A study done at the University of Canberra has now pegged a more accurate number to be at least 983 species, and up to 1300.

What does that mean overall? It means that humans arriving in the Pacific Islands were responsible for theextinction of almost 10% of the world’s bird species.
If there’s any good news in this, it means archaeologists now know more or less what they’re looking for in terms of the remains of extinct species—so while these bird species are gone forever, the future may reveal their ancient remains and tell us about who they were and what species they were ancestors to.

Are Hobbits alive and well and living in Indonesia?

By: The Scribe on November, 2010

If you think that hobbits are only found in books and movies you may be surprised by what scientists in Indonesia have discovered. The bones of a three foot tall humanoid female were unearthed on the island of Flores and similar remains have been found on the Palau islands in the South Pacific which are located about 2,000 km away from Flores. Scientists are beginning to believe that this may be an entirely new strain of human and has been named Hoimagemo floresiensis.

The first example of this species was a partial skeleton and skull that was found in a site known as Liang Bua. The skull that was connected to the skeleton was approximately the size of a grapefruit. The remains are known to have belonged to a three foot tall humanoid female and was dated to about 18,000 years ago. What is exciting is that the skeletons found on the Palau islands are more recent than this. In fact, this species is known to have lived at the same time as early Homo sapiens, something that is changing the entire way that scientists view human evolution.

This is because in the past human evolution was believed to have followed a single straight path. One species of human was thought to have evolved into the next and that two or more species of humanoids did not coexist at the same time. However the fact that Homo floresiensis lived at the same time as Homo sapiens and that modern humans and Neanderthals were co-existent in Europe approximately 30,000 years ago has caused scientists to review what was previously believed to have been true.image

It is known that H. floresiensis was a tool user. This is because stone tools were found alongside the remains discovered on Flores. The tools were extremely delicate but would have been used by these small humans. Remains of six other individuals that belonged to the same species were also discovered on the island. Scientists are looking for more evidence of how they may have lived and the tools that they

The remains of these diminutive humans are new enough that they had not yet become fossilized. Because of this scientists are hoping to be able to extract DNA so that they can study it at length. This discovery may make it possible to get new information on how humans have evolved and how they arrived on the island. There are a number of theories that include land bridges or being washed ashore due to tidal waves.

Although the skeleton found on Flores dated from 18,000 years ago it is believed that these small humans were alive and active on the island until approximately 12,000 years ago. In fact, some people believe that since the island is so isolated that there is always the chance some may still be alive and living in isolated areas and that they simply have not been discovered yet. Some scientists believe that these small humans may also have given rise to some of the folk lore and legends of small people may have been based on these humans.

The First Polynesian Settlement

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

A recent claim has placed a village in Tonga as the birthplace of Polynesia – not Samoa!

Samoa may have to re-evaluate its tourism position – after advertising itself as the “cradle of Polynesia” for decades, it turns out that Samoa is actually the middle child. Instead, a small, unassuming fishing village in Tonga has been confirmed as the first Polynesian settlement, established around 2900 years ago.

The site of Nukuleka was identified through pottery shards that were spread around the area, attracting the attention of historians due to their unique appearance. This pottery was carried through the region of Melanesia and into the Pacific by a group of people (whose own origins are still debated) that eventually settled here to become Polynesia’s first inhabitants.

The Lapita people located this first village near the mouth of the Fanga-uta lagoon, which 3000 years ago was a large beach – full of shellfish and small wildlife, such as turtles and birds, which the people ate as their main sustenance. Archaeological investigations on the site uncovered layers upon layers of shellfish in the area, confirming human habitation here was extensive – and that the site was not simply a seasonal encampment.

About a century after their establishment of Nukuleka, the entire group of Tonga islands was settled. It was nearly a thousand years later when the Lapita finally made the decision to move toward eastern Polynesia. It was really only after this migration that the distinctive Polynesian culture was developed, or at least to the extent that it is known today, however the identification of Tonga’s fishing village as the first Polynesian settlement has certainly re-written the history of the ancient Pacific.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard!

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