Ara Metua – ancient Polynesian road

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Side road to Harerangi joins to Ara Metua, Cook Islands
Side road to Harerangi joins to Ara Metua / From "The Material Culture of the Cook Islands" Te Rangi Hiroa, New Plymouth, 1927.
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.

Short history of ancient Rarotonga

Although Rarotonga is known to Polynesians for thousands of years, 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, 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.

Megalithic infrastructure

Side road to Harerangi joins to Ara Metua, Cook Islands
Side road to Harerangi joins to Ara Metua / From "The Material Culture of the Cook Islands" Te Rangi Hiroa, New Plymouth, 1927.

Centuries ago Ara Metua was a true wonder. For most part this 29 – 29.5 km long and 4.6 – 5 m wide road was paved with basalt or coral slabs. In villages road had kerbs 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 inner and outer part. Six tribes of Rarotonga for most part were in the 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 ringroad of Rarotonga

Major part of Ara Metua exists up 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 northern, western, north-eastern side as 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 most part this is common paved street, turning into dirt road further in the country. Major modernisation works were made during the 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 hospital, hotels, prison, university, national stadium, airstrip. For most part Ara Metua goes through gardens and farms.

There is little evidence left telling about amazing achievement of ancient Polynesians.

References

  1. Matthew Campbell, Memory and monumentality in the Rarotongan landscape, 2006, Antiquity 80:102-117. Accessed 13.01.11.

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Ara Metua - ancient Polynesian road -21.255304, -159.809695 Ara Metua – ancient Polynesian road
Coordinates: 21.2553 S 159.8097 W
Categories: Roads and paths, Megaliths
Values: Archaeology
Rating: (2.5 / 5)
Address: Australia and Oceania, Polynesia, Cook Islands, Rarotonga, circular road around the island inwards from current main circular road – Ara Tapu
Alternate names: Te Ara-Metua, Te Ara Nui o To’i, Te Ara-nui-a-Toi (The Great Road of Toi)
Age: Around 1050 AD
Culture: Polynesians

Landmarks of Cook Islands

Te Manga mountains, Rarotonga
Te Manga mountains, Rarotonga / Marcus Gleinig, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0
The diverse Cook Islands represent a true spirit of southern seas – on many of these islands people still are living slow paced and tasty lives amidst beautiful scenery. As always, there is the other side of coin: frequent warfare in the past, terrible hurricanes and worries about rising sea level. Islands are associated with New Zealand – but nevertheless they represent an independent nation.

Megaliths

Mnajdra, lower temple. Such structures were created long before Stonehenge and Egyptian pyramids
Mnajdra, lower temple. Such structures were created long before Stonehenge and Egyptian pyramids / steve deeves, Flickr / CC BY 2.0
One of the most fascinating groups of archaeological monuments are prehistoric structures made of stones – megaliths. Through the ages, people have loved to strain their minds to find a sensible explanation to the many riddles posed by megaliths.

Even today, we can admit with some pleasure, there are thousands of mysteries left for us.

Recommended books

Papa Mike’s Cook Islands Handbook, 3rd Edition


Third Edition of this popular Cook Islands Guidebook, containing updated information on all populated islands of the Cook Island chain. The 3rd edition is the initial e-book edition, enabeling readers with a wi-fi connections to access Web sites and e-mail addresses by clicking on the text of the book. The guide includes complete lodging and restaurant information as well as guides to the various tours and island night performances.

Lonely Planet Rarotonga, Samoa & Tonga


Lonely Planet Rarotonga, Samoa & Tonga is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Surf the swells around the southern coastlines, hike the challenging Cross-Island Track, or check out Tonga’s ‘Stonehenge of the Pacific’; all with your trusted travel companion. Get to the heart of Rarotonga, Samoa and Tonga and begin your journey now!

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