Temples of Boom: Ancient Hawaiians took fast road to statehood

Around 400 years ago, the residents of two Hawaiian islands built stone temples at a dizzying pace over the course of a generation or two, a new study finds. A construction boom of that kind and magnitude reflected the surprisingly rapid formation of a fledgling political state out of formerly independent populations, investigators say.

STATE BUILDERS. Dating of coral found in the remains of prehistoric Hawaiian temples such as this one, shown from above, unveils a period of rapid state formation. Kirch

Until now, many researchers assumed that chiefs of various communities on the islands of Maui and Molokai had directed construction of temples over a span of approximately 250 years.

New age estimates of the temples indicate that they were built within a much narrower window of time, say Patrick V. Kirch of the University of California, Berkeley and Warren D. Sharp of the Berkeley Geochronology Center. The revised dates come from pieces of sea coral that were placed in special wall compartments during dedications of new temples.

Southeastern Maui contains the remnants of 30 temples that were constructed within a 60-year span, between A.D. 1580 and A.D. 1640, Kirch and Sharp report in the Jan. 7 Science.

The results coincide with the accounts of native Hawaiians, recorded by 19th-century Spanish missionaries, that a single leader assumed control of at least two formerly independent communities on Maui around A.D. 1600. Anthropologists typically treat such accounts as myths, Kirch says.

“I was surprised by the new dates for these temples,” he remarks. “This is tangible evidence for the speed with which an archaic state formed in Hawaii.”

An archaic state is a political system with several social classes, as well as rulers who claim power on the basis of their special relationships to gods. Bureaucracies, armies, and an early form of taxation first emerged in archaic states.

Kirch and Sharp analyzed seven coral offerings from what they regard as a representative sample of temples on Maui, as well as one piece of coral from a large temple on Molokai. The preservation of delicate branches and surface structures on the specimens show that local people collected live coral from shallow waters and deposited it in a temple the same day, the scientists say.

The researchers measured ratios of specific forms of uranium and thorium in the coral specimens to calculate their ages. This technique is more precise than previous radiocarbon measurements of the ages of wood and charcoal unearthed in the temples, Kirch and Sharp say.

State formation capped a period of population growth and expansion of agriculture on the island, Kirch theorizes. Prehistoric settlers probably first reached Maui around A.D. 1400.

A relatively speedy transition from village-based life to stratified societies also occurred in ancient Mexico, say Joyce Marcus and Kent V. Flannery, both of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. New radiocarbon dates for sites in the Valley of Oaxaca indicate that only about 1,300 years elapsed between construction of the oldest-known ritual building, where village men gathered for ceremonies, and the first state temple.

Marcus and Flannery’s results appear in the Dec. 28, 2004 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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