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Challenge to save Tonga’s ancient sites

Thursday 27 August 2015 | Published in Regional


NUKU‘ALOFA – An endangered ancient site threatened by government development has triggered the creation of the Tonga Heritage Society.

This week the group held its first meeting following public concern about heritage areas being lost to development.

A petition to save the Popua Si‘a Heu Lupe and related mounds as a heritage area has attracted over 1000 signatures.

Local historians say the area is linked to the ancient Tu‘i Tonga royal dynasty and was visited by explorer Captain James Cook.

The area is currently threatened by a planned residential subdivision to settle poor communities on the tidal flats.

The society’s media and communications officer, Shane Egan, said the group was surprised to learn of the lack of heritage protection in Tonga.

“There’s a lot of significant sites that have been documented but not really mapped out and not really protected,” he said.

“This is something we need to do and then we can possibly organise text books to make school students more aware. Tonga’s really significant in the whole Polynesian structure – so it’s important for all of Polynesia that we look after these things.”

The inaugural meeting of the Tonga Heritage Society chose foundation officers who will move to formally register the group as an incorporated society.

Local businessman Paul Johansson has been appointed society president.

The group came together following public concern over the loss of heritage areas to development activity in Tonga, and the realisation that there was no formal organisation through which the public could convey their concerns to development authorities.

A petition to save the Popua Si‘a Heu Lupe and related mounds as a heritage area was presented to Lord Vaea at parliament’s office on August 11 by Dr ‘Ana Koloto, the director of USP Tonga, supported by historian Dr Wendy Pond and others.

The historical significance of the area is currently threatened by a planned residential subdivision.

Dr Pond gave a presentation to the inaugural Tonga Heritage Society meeting, showing the locations of the important mounds from satellite imagery and their relationship to the ancient Tu‘i Tonga’s mala‘e at Patangata.

By the 12th century, Tongans and the Tongan paramount chief, the Tu’i Tonga, had a reputation across the central Pacific leading some historians to speak of a Tu‘i Tonga Empire.

Dr Pond said Captain Cook stayed at the location for a month where he was entertained by the Tu‘i Tonga during a voyage to Tonga in 1773.

“The area of the Tu‘i Tonga’s mala‘e also needs to be preserved as the natural access point to the sia heu lupe,” she said.

She described the area as an ancient wildlife sanctuary, which had been preserved by the Tongan administrators in the past.

“What’s happening now is a violation of centuries of history,“ she said. “The area is a wetland area and the central mound is a man-made island that stands out when the tide comes through. It is an incredibly beautiful area with the reflections of the mound in the water,” she said.

Raised walkways built around 600 years ago connect the mounds that were used for traditional pigeon snaring activities.

Tevita Motulalo said that the area around Patangata was central to Tongan administration before the modern governments were put into place.

“If there is any place in Tonga that is Tonga, it’s that little place,” he said.

New president Shane Egan noted that the flights of the lupe could still be observed in the area, and the ancient pigeon hunters knew exactly where to build the mounds on the flight path of the seasonal migration of the birds through the Pacific islands.

Tevita Fale, a local historian from Lapaha, also noted the importance of the site at the end of the peninsular, at the entrance to the Mu‘a lagoon, in his accounts of the ancient navigators of Tonga.