Antiquities of the Pacific Islands

(This is taken from John D. Baldwin's Ancient America, originally published in 1871.)

Pacific islands


There are indications that the Pacific world had an important ancient history, and these multiply as our knowledge of that world increases. The wide diffusion of Malay dialects in the Pacific islands suggests the controlling influence by which that ancient history was directed. The ancient remains at Easter Island are known; two of the “great images” found there are now in the British Museum. All who have examined this island believe these remains “were the work of a former race,” and that it had formerly “an abundant population.” It is not generally known that antiquities more important than these exist on many of the other islands of the Pacific Ocean.

An educated and very intelligent gentleman, who has lived many years on one of these islands, and visited a considerable portion of Polynesia, finds that the Pacific has antiquities which deserve attention. He has sent me papers containing descriptions of some of them, taken from the diary of an intelligent and observant shipmaster, much of whose life as a mariner has been passed on the Pacific. These papers were prepared for publication in a newspaper at Sydney. The gentleman sending them says in his letter: “These researches are not very minute or accurate, but they indicate that there is a vast field ready for exploration in the Pacific, as well as in Central America and Egypt.”

The papers to which I refer begin with ruins observed in the island of Ascension or Fanipe, and describe “the great temple” at Metallanine. This was a large edifice, well built of stone, and connected with canals and earth-works. “Vaults, passages, and platforms, all of basaltic stones,” are mentioned; also, “below the pavement of the main quadrangle, on opposite sides, are two passages or gateways, each about ten feet square, pierced through the outer wall down to the waters of the canal.” Within the walls is a “central pyramidal chamber or temple,” with a tree growing on it. The whole ruin is now covered with trees and other vegetation.

Other ruins exist in the island, one or two of which are described. “Some are close upon the sea-shore, others are on the tops of solitary hills, and some are found on plateaus or cleared spaces far inland, but commanding views of the sea. One of the latter kind is a congeries of ruinous heaps of square stones, covering at least five or six acres. It is situated on a piece of table-land, surrounded by dense forest growths, and itself covered with low jungle. There is the appearance of a ditch, in the form of a cross, at the intersecting angles of which are tall mounds of ruin, of which the original form is now undistinguishable beyond the fact that the basements, constructed of large stones, indicate that the structures were square. The natives can not be induced to go near this place, although it abounds in wild pigeons, which they are extremely fond of hunting.”

These ruined structures were not built by barbarous people such as now inhabit the island of Ascension. There is no tradition relating to their origin or history among the present inhabitants, who, it is said, attribute them to “mauli,” evil spirits. The “great temple” was occupied for a time, “several generations ago,” according to the natives, by the shipwrecked crew of a Spanish buccaneer; and relics of these outlaws are still found in its vaults, which they used as storehouses.

On many low islands of the Marshall and Gilbert groups are curious pyramids, tall and slender, built of stones. The natives regard them with superstitious fear. The author of these papers, being a mariner, suggests that they are “landmarks or relics of ancient copper-colored voyagers of the Polynesian race during their great migrations.” Remarkable structures of this kind are found on Tapituea, one of the Kingsmill islands, and on Tinian, one of the Ladrones, where, also, remarkable Cyclopean structures are found. They are solid, truncated pyramidal columns, generally about twenty feet high and ten feet square at the base. The monuments on Tinian were seen by M. Arago, who accompanied Bougainville. According to his description they form two long colonnades, the two rows being thirty feet apart, and seeming to have once been connected by something like roofing. On Swallow’s Island, some twelve degrees eastward of Tapituea, is a pyramid similar in construction; and on the west side of this island is “a vast quadrangular enclosure of stone, containing several mounds, or probably edifices of some kind, of which the form and contents are not known by reason of their being buried under drift-sand and guano.”

On Strong’s Island, and others connected with it, are ruins similar to those at Metallanine. On Lele, which is separated from Strong’s Island at the harbor by a very narrow channel, there is a “conical mountain surrounded by a wall some twenty feet high, and of enormous thickness.” The whole island appears to present “a series of Cyclopean enclosures and lines of great walls every where overgrown with forest.” Some of the enclosures are parallelograms 200 by 100 feet in extent; one is much larger. The walls are generally twelve feet thick, and within are vaults, artificial caverns, and secret passages. No white man is allowed to live on Lele, and strangers are forbidden to examine the ruins, in which, it is supposed, is concealed the plunder taken by the natives from captured or stranded ships. On the southwest side of the harbor, at Strong’s Island, “are many canals lined with stone. They cross each other at right angles, and the islands between their intersections were artificially raised, and had tall buildings erected on them, some of which are still entire. One quadrangular tower, about forty feet high, is very remarkable. The forest around them is dense and gloomy; the canals are broken and choked with mangroves.” Not more than 500 people now inhabit these islands; their tradition is, that an ancient city formerly stood around this harbor, mostly on Lele, occupied by a powerful people whom they call “Anut,” and who had large vessels, in which they made long voyages east and west, “many moons” being required for one of these voyages.

Great stone structures on some of Navigator’s Islands, of which the natives can give no account, are mentioned without being particularly described. Some account is given of one remarkable structure. On a mountain ridge 1500 feet above the sea, and near the edge of a precipice 500 feet high, is a circular platform built of huge blocks of volcanic stone. It is 150 feet in diameter, and about 20 feet high. On one side was the precipice, and on the other a ditch that may have been originally 20 feet deep. Trees six feet in diameter are now growing in the ruins of this platform. Remarkable ruins exist on some of the Marquesas Islands, but they have not been clearly described.

At first, when these antiquities were noticed by seamen, it was suggested that they were the remains of works constructed by the old buccaneers; but closer examination soon put aside this theory. Neither the buccaneers, nor any other people from Europe, would have constructed such works; and, besides, it is manifest that they were ruins before any crew of buccaneers sailed on the Pacific. The remains on Easter Island were described by Captain Cook. It has now been discovered that such remains exist at various points throughout Polynesia, and greater familiarity with the islands will very likely bring to light many that have not yet been seen by Europeans. The author of these papers, referring to the old discarded suggestion relative to the buccaneers, says: “Centuries of European occupation would have been required for the existence of such extensive remains, which are, moreover, not in any style of architecture practiced by people of the Old World.”

It is stated that similar stone-work, consisting of “walls, strongholds, and great enclosures,” exists on the eastern side of Formosa, which is occupied by a people wholly distinct in race from the Mongols who invaded and occupied the other side. The influence to which these ancient works are due seems to have pervaded Polynesia from the Marquesas Islands at the east, to the Ladrone and Carolina Islands at the west, and what is said of the present inhabitants of Ascension Island might have a wider application, namely, “They create on the mind of a stranger the impression of a people who have degenerated from something higher and better.” At a few points in Polynesia a small portion of the people show Mongol traits. Dark-colored people, evidently of the Papuan variety, somewhat mixed with the brown race it may be, are found at various points in larger numbers; but the great body of the Polynesians are a brown race, established (at a very remote period, perhaps) by a mixture of the Papuans with the Malays. Now take into consideration the former existence of a great Malayan empire, the wide distribution of Malay dialects on the Pacific, and the various indications that there was formerly in Polynesia something higher and better in the condition of the people, and the ancient history indicated by these ruins will not seem mysterious, nor shall we feel constrained to treat as incredible the Central American and Peruvian traditions that anciently strangers came from the Pacific world in ships to the west coast of America for commercial intercourse with the civilized countries existing here.

Ruins similar in character are found in the Sandwich Islands, but here the masonry is occasionally superior to that found elsewhere. A gentleman interested in archeological inquiries gives the following account of a Hawaiian ruin which he visited in the interior, about thirty miles from Hilo. He says he went with several companions to the hill of Kukii, which he describes as follows:

“The hill is so regular in its outline that it appears like a work of art, a giant effort of the Mound-Builders. Its general form resembles very much the pyramid of Cholulu in Mexico, and from this fact I felt a great interest in climbing it. We proceeded, Conway, Eldhardt, Kaiser, and I, on foot up the grassy slope of the hill. There was an absence of all volcanic matter; no stone on the hill except what had been brought there by the hand of man. As we arrived near the summit we came upon great square blocks of hewn stone overgrown by shrubbery, and on reaching the summit we found that it had been leveled and squared according to the cardinal points, and paved. We found two square blocks of hewn stone imbedded in the earth in an upright position, some fifteen feet apart, and ranging exactly east and west. Over the platform was rank grass, and a grove of cocoanuts some hundred years old. Examining farther, I found that the upper portion of the hill had been terraced; the terraces near the summit could be distinctly traced, and they had evidently been faced with hewn stone. The stones were in perfect squares of not less than three feet in diameter, many of them of much greater size. They were composed of a dark vitreous basalt, the most durable of all stone. It is remarkable that every slab was faced and polished upon every side, so that they could fit together like sheets of paper. They reminded me much of the polished stones in some of the walls of Tiahuanuco, and other ruins in Peru. Many of the blocks were lying detached; probably some had been removed; but there were still some thirty feet of the facing on the lower terrace partly in position. But all showed the ravages of time and earthquakes, and were covered with accumulated soil, grass, and shrubbery. Conway and myself, in descending the hill, had our attention attracted by a direct line of shrubbery running from the summit to the base of the hill, on the western side, to the cocoanut grove below. Upon examination, we found it to be the remains of a stairway, evidently of hewn stone, that had led from the foot of the hill to the first terrace, a height of nearly 300 feet. Within this stairway, near the base, we found a cocoanut-tree growing, more than 200 years old, the roots pressing out the rocks. The site for a temple is grand and imposing, and the view extensive, sweeping the ocean, the mountains, and the great lava plain of Puna. It was also excellent in a military point of view as a lookout. From the summit it appeared as an ancient green island, around which had surged and rolled a sea of lava; and so it evidently has been.

“By whom and when was this hill terraced and these stones hewn? There is a mystery hanging around this hill which exists nowhere else in the Sandwich Islands. The other structures so numerously scattered over the group are made of rough stone; there is no attempt at a terrace; there is no flight of steps leading to them; there is no hewn or polished stone, nor is there any evidence of the same architectural skill evinced. They are the oldest ruins yet discovered, and were evidently erected by a people considerably advanced in arts, acquainted with the use of metallic instruments, the cardinal points, and some mathematical knowledge. Were they the ancestors of the present Hawaiians, or of a different race that has passed away?”

He inquired of the oldest natives concerning the history of this ruin, but “they could give only vague and confused traditions in regard to it, and these were contradictory. The only point on which they agreed was that it had never been used within the memory of man.” They also said there was another old structure of the same kind in Kona, whose history is lost. The language of the Sandwich Islands is so manifestly a dialect of the Malayan tongue, that the influence of the Malays must have been paramount in these islands in ancient times.



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