Ara Metua – ancient Polynesian road
The ancient Polynesian road – Ara Metua – still exists and is in use. But it has changed beyond the recognition, turning from unique megalithic monument into (almost) usual road.
Map of the site
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Short history of ancient Rarotonga
Although Rarotonga is known to Polynesians for thousands of years, the first settlers here came from Marquesas and Society Islands around the 10th – 11th century AD.
In their time was built the road around the island – Te Ara Nui o To’i – The Great Road of Toi. This road was named after Toi, the most likely local ruler at the time. The time of construction is not known for sure – according to legends, this was in the 11th century AD, one thousand years ago.
According to local legends next settlers to Rarotonga arrived with two canoes around 1250 AD. One brought Takitumu people from Tahiti, led by Tangi’Nui. He was fleeing from his elder brother Tutapu. He and his team met the other canoe in the sea – those others were led by Karika from Samoa. They arrived in Rarotonga together and quickly conquered the island.
Unfortunately with this conquest were erased almost all memories about the building of great road which was named also Ara Metua – road of ancestors.
Centuries ago Ara Metua was a true wonder. For the most part, this 29 – 29.5 km long and 4.6 – 5 m wide road was paved with basalt or coral slabs. In villages roads had curbs of larger stones at both sides, there were made also stone seats – possibly for talkative villagers enjoying small talk with passers-by. Some of the last such seats were standing at Arai Te Tonga in the north-eastern part of island.
Bananas and platans were planted along the road, houses were located 10 – 30 m away from it.
Carefully paved roads branched off and led to ceremonial sites – marae. Some of the most important marae were placed along this road, while further up in the mountains were located more secluded, somewhat secretive marae. Basically, Ara Metua was the spiritual, administrative, and economical ring of this island.
Road went along the basis of hills, dividing the island into the inner and outer parts. Six tribes of Rarotonga, for the most part, were in a state of war and people were living inside the road ring, in the mountains. During the wars, only armed groups crossed the road and went towards the sea to fish.
This changed with the coming of missionaries in the 19th century. Step by step the hostilities among the people of Rarotonga decreased and they moved across the road, to the seaside.
By the early 20th-century two-thirds of the road still had ancient paving.
Inner ring road of Rarotonga
Major part of Ara Metua exists up to this day, although in some places the route has slightly changed. Approximately three-fourths of the island can be circumnavigated by this road and only in some sections, one should return to the younger Ara Tapu, which goes along the sea. Ara Metua has been preserved in the northern, western, north-eastern sides as a 19.4 km long section, in the south-east as 2.8 km long section, and as a 1.3 km long section in the south. Faint traces of former road are seen over the "missing" three sections which are 5.5 – 6 km long.
Ancient road structure, in general, is not visible anymore – for the most part, this is a common paved street, turning into dirt road further in the country. Major modernization works were made during World War II.
As all ancient roads, Ara Metua is less busy and more scenic than Ara Tapu. Along the old road are found sacred ancient sites – marae, including the most sacred one – Arai Te Tonga. Many casual places are located along this road as well – nearby is a hospital, hotels, prison, university, the national stadium, airstrip. For the most part, Ara Metua goes through gardens and farms.
There is little evidence left telling about the amazing achievement of ancient Polynesians.
- Matthew Campbell, Memory and monumentality in the Rarotongan landscape, 2006, Antiquity 80:102-117. Accessed 13.01.11.
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