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King of the Island

6 January 2005 (All day)
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Power base. Ruins on Maui suggest that the island's first king exerted control by quickly building temples, such as those seen elsewhere by Captain Cook (inset).

Hawaiian legends say a ruler named Pi'ilani brought peace to Maui by routing rival chiefs, marrying a powerful queen, and setting himself up as absolute ruler. Indeed, religious states that emphasized divine kingship emerged on several Hawaiian islands. Now a preliminary study of temples on Maui, described in the 7 January issue of Science, suggests this may have happened within a single generation just as the stories suggest.

The most sophisticated and stratified societies in the Pacific evolved on the Hawaiian Islands. Oral histories written down in the 19th century provide a rich source of information about the rise of royalty. Other clues come from the many temples these rulers built to demonstrate their divine power and to receive tribute. Yet the technique normally used to measure ancient artifacts, radiocarbon dating, can't get a clear fix on such recent history.

Archaeologist Patrick Kirch of the University of California, Berkeley, and geochronologist Warren Sharp of the Berkeley Geochronology Center solved that problem with another kind of radiometric dating, measuring the ratio of uranium-238 to thorium-230.

When Hawaiians built temples to agricultural gods, they placed coral into the basalt walls and foundations, presumably as offerings. By dating the coral--which stopped absorbing uranium from seawater once it was cut from a reef—they discovered that eight temples on southeast Maui were all built between 1580 and 1640 C.E. The samples that most accurately reflected the time of collection from the sea--those from the tips of branches, the youngest part of the coral--yielded an even tighter age range, perhaps as narrow as 30 years. "We can now rule out gradual construction," Kirch says. "The rapidity is striking."

That fast pace, Kirch and Sharp argue, implies a major change in politics. "It looks like one person taking control of the system and ratcheting up [his power]," Kirch says, because only a powerful ruler could have marshaled the labor to build such temples so quickly. Michael Kolb of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb suggests that the similarity of the offerings could also indicate a centralized authority. "The standardization of worship hints at state religion," he says. "It shows you just how centralized the power was."

Related site
Brief History of Polynesian Archaeology, by Patrick Kirch

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