Ancient cities in Pacific were much older than previously thought

The first cities in the Pacific were established much earlier than previously thought, according to a new study.

Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) used aerial laser scanning to map archaeological sites on the island of Tongatapu in Tonga.

They found that urbanisation in the Pacific was an indigenous innovation that developed before Western influence.

“Earth structures were being constructed in Tongatapu around AD 300. This is 700 years earlier than previously thought,” study co-author Phillip Parton said in a statement.

“As settlements grew, they had to come up with new ways of supporting that growing population. This kind of set-up – what we call low-density urbanisation – sets in motion huge social and economic change. People are interacting more and doing different kinds of work,” he added.

Ruins of eight ancient city sites discovered in Xiong’an New Area

Studying urbanisation has been tricky in the Pacific due to challenges in collecting data.

But by combining high-tech mapping and archaeological fieldwork, researchers are overcoming these hurdles.

Studies using lidar mapping in Mesoamerica and Southeast Asia have unravelled patterns in the ancient built environments associated with profound societal changes such as the rise of social institutions, agglomeration effects, and settlement growth.

The latest finding increases our understanding of early Pacific societies.

“We can see clues that Tongatapu’s influence spread across the southwest Pacific Ocean between the 13th and 19th centuries,” Mr Parton said.

“When people think of early cities they usually think of traditional old European cities with compact housing and windy cobblestone streets. This is a very different kind of city,” he added.

The collapse of this kind of low-density urbanisation in Tonga was due to the arrival of Europeans, researchers say.

“It didn’t collapse because the system was flawed; it was more to do with the arrival of Europeans and introduced diseases,” Mr Parton explained.

“This is just the beginning in terms of early Pacific settlements. There’s likely still much to be discovered,” he added.


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