Focus: from the islands of Tonga to Vanuatu, following in the footsteps of Polynesian ancestral populations


The Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs has made the world’s outermost reaches a site for exploration: it is currently supporting an archaeological mission in Oceania.

At the heart of Micronesia and Melanesia are about 20 islands which have been a Polynesian settlement since ancient times, while being located outside of the Polynesian triangle: they are the “Polynesian enclaves”. Vanuatu accounts for a large number of these. The mission run by Frédérique Valentin is seeking to understand how these societies emerged. Hitherto located at the Talasiu site in the Tonga Islands, this year it has been moved westward, to Vanuatu.

Using paleobiological data, the mission studied migratory processes which led to the formation of a Polynesian society in Tonga from about 1000 BC. It also looked into burial practices to determine their anthropological characteristics. The study is based on a large and highly diverse corpus (pottery, finery made from shells, etc.). For example, this first phase led to a theory about a society in which the burial space is completely interlinked with the living space, with graves not being used as a physical means of remembering the deceased.

To continue its research, the mission is seeking to better understand East-to-West Polynesian migration from the 10th century AD. This migration helped to populate Polynesian enclaves and created contacts between the existing populations and waves of migrants. With a proven presence in the north of Vanuatu via specific archaeological material, there is no clear information about these contacts in the south of the archipelago. The mission intends to fill this void by listing the archaeological resources in the southern islands: Futuna and Aniwa.

Image Diaporama - Talasiu site (Tonga) and its environment at (...)

Talasiu site (Tonga) and its environment at the start of excavations. Photo: Talasiu Mission.

Image Diaporama - Example of a grave at the Talasiu site (...)

Example of a grave at the Talasiu site (Tonga). Photo: Talasiu Mission.

Image Diaporama - Talasiu site (Tonga): finery or valuables (...)

Talasiu site (Tonga): finery or valuables discovered in 2014. Photo: Talasiu Mission.

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