NUKULEKA, a small fishing village on the northern shores of eastern Tongatapu, at the entrance to the Fanga'uta Lagoon, has been identified by a Canadian archaeologist, Professor David V. Burley, as the cradle of Polynesia.
David drew his conclusion from his final excavation at Nukuleka in August 2007 where, with his team of three archaeological students from the Simon Fraser University, Canada and a scholar from France, they found pieces of Lapita pottery that confirmed his belief.
"The big pieces of pottery are about 2,900 years old and with the others there may be 50 years difference," he said.
"Tonga was the first group of islands in Polynesia to be settled by the Lapita People about 3,000 years ago, and Nukuleka was their first settlement in Tonga," said David.
The Lapita people, the cultural ancestors of modern Polynesians, were the makers of Lapita pottery and David's research is showing that they moved out of island Melanesia and into the South Pacific islands making the initial human colonization of the region.
David is an authority on pottery in Tonga and in Polynesia who has done extensive archaeological excavation throughout the Tonga Islands since 1989. He has been to 'Ata, 'Eua, Ha'apai, Vava'u, Niuafo'ou and Niuatoputapu, but most of his findings were on Tongatapu.
David said that within 100 years of the arrival of the Lapita People, the whole of the Tonga islands were settled.
"Then a thousand years later they moved eastwards to eastern Polynesia.
Plentiful shell fish
"There are 19 Lapita sites that we have found around the Fanga'uta lagoon," said David. "They came here first about 3,000 years ago when the lagoon sea level was higher than today. There were no mangroves, so the lagoon shore was a big beach, and the lagoon was full of shellfish, and everything that we have dug up was packed with layers of shellfish. When we excavated at Havelu, there was no dirt, just solid shells.
"The waterfront around Nukuleka is still rich with shells, imagine 3,000 years ago. At the bottom of the Nukuleka site we found that they were also eating a lot of turtles and birds. We have documented 26 species of birds, including big pigeons and the shells were mainly Kaloa'a."
David's excavation at Nukuleka in August 2007 was rewarded with some of his best findings.
"This site was first excavated by Poulsen in 1964-65 and they found sherds, very different from other findings in Tonga, but very similar to what we found to the west, to western Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and so on, so obviously these people come from the west, based on linguist and other evidence.
"The designs in the pottery are very distinctive and similar to the tapa designs of today, they tell us how related they are to designs in other areas in Tonga and other places," David said. "The designs are also very similar to tattoo designs."
David returned to Nukuleka with his team in August to gather enough evidence to substantiate his claim that this is the earliest site in Tonga, and to collect samples for carbon dating.
"What we are trying to prove that this is the first site in Tonga, and every thing that we have found verifies that," he said.
"The Lapita pottery in Tonga shows they were here for 100 years before they started decorating the pot, then 100 to 125 years later they stopped completely decorating the pots," said David, who is working on a book about the site.
"I wanted to come back here. I want to give something back to the villages of what I have found. I lived in these villages for months, took the stuff away and they never heard from me, but now I want to give them something back.
"I want to do a better exhibition when the museum is on a better footing," he said.
Fonua, Pesi. 2008. "Tonga's Nukuleka, the birth place of Polynesia". Matangi Tonga Online. Posted: January 7, 2008. Available online: http://www.matangitonga.to/scripts/artman/exec/view.cgi?archive=8&num=3601