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First Polynesians Crossed the Pacific as Early as 850 B.C.

A new analysis of pottery found on Tongatapu¿the largest island in the south pacific Kingdom of Tonga¿suggests that the first Polynesian settlers may have traveled thousands of miles across the ocean as early as the first millennium B.C. David Burley of Simon Fraser University and William Dickinson of the University of Arkansas publish this interpretation in today's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The potsherds in question, discovered at the Nukuleka site on Tongatapu in 1999, date back to 900 to 850 B.C. and bear stylistic markings of the Lapita people, the cultural ancestors of modern Polynesians. Unlike other pottery found in Tonga, though, some of the Nukuleka pieces show decorations characteristic of early Lapita pottery found near Melanesia, some 2,000 miles to the west of Tonga. Also, when the researchers analyzed the composition of the pottery, they discovered it contained sandy materials not found anywhere in Tonga. Instead the high pyroxene and quartz levels in the pottery resembled that found in materials indigenous to the Santa Cruz Islands in Melanesia.

From these findings, Burley and Dickinson reach two conclusions. First, they say the evidence indicates that Nukuleka, positioned at the entrance to a large lagoon on Tongatapu, probably served as "the initial staging point for population expansion within western Polynesia." Moreover, they suggest that the first Tongan settlers at Nukuleka came directly from Melanesia over the sea. The authors concede that the sherds may have originated at some intermediate point in Fiji, in which case the first settlers need not have sailed so far. But they say this scenario is unlikely because no Lapita sherds with telltale Melanesian decorations have turned up in Fiji so far.

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