Chiefly Tombs, Lineage History, and the Ancient Tongan State

Geoffrey Clark*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    12 Citations (Scopus)


    In the small archipelago of Tonga in the Central Pacific an Archaic state developed during the second millennium AD that was one of the most powerful socio-political entities to exist in prehistoric Oceania. The Tongan state was organized by three related chiefly lines who had a profound impact on Tonga's socio-political system over the past 700 years. Tongan elites constructed chiefly tombs and this article considers how their mortuary structures reveal lineage history. During state emergence the first stone-faced tombs were built for the paramount Tu’i Tonga (Lord of Tonga) who is credited with centralizing rule over the islands of the Tonga Group. After state establishment and the creation of a political center at Lapaha, tomb size increased massively with large tombs continuing to be made after lineage fissioning, which is often seen as an event that diminished the power of the paramount. The collapse of the traditional Tu’i Tonga government correlates with the rise of a junior dynasty that constructed large tombs as its influence grew. The comparative study of elite mortuary structures provides new insight to the emergence, rise, and fall of powerful dynasties, and competition among rival chiefly lines in a complex Polynesian society.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)326-343
    Number of pages18
    JournalJournal of Island and Coastal Archaeology
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2016


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