The Tongan State - Prehistoric Polity in Oceania

The Rise and Fall of the Prehistoric Tongan State of Western Polynesia

Tongan State Megalithic Monument, the Ha'amonga'a Maui Trilithon, near Niutoua
Tongan State Megalithic Monument, the Ha'amonga'a Maui Trilithon, near Niutoua. Holger Leue / Getty Images

The Tongan State (~AD 1200-1800) was a powerful political entity in prehistoric Oceania, and its political control extended over an entire archipelago and influenced islands well beyond its borders. When first seen by Europeans in the late 18th century, the Tongan polity ruled over some 170 volcanic, coral and sand cay islands spread over the 800 kilometers (500 miles) between Ata in the south to Niufo'ou in the north. The main island of the Tongan archipelago is Tongatapu, with an area of 259 sq km (100 sq mi) and an estimated population of some 18,500 people in late prehistory.

Prior to the 18th century, the Tongan state was a highly stratified, geographically integrated chiefdom and politically complex society. Powerful hereditary chiefs controlled land use and production of goods under a centralized leadership of the Tu'i Tonga dynasty; they built tombs, mounds, fortifications and other earthworks. Elite constructions include stone-faced tombs of the rulers, sitting or resting mounds, pigeon-snaring mounds and large conical water wells. A LiDAR study conducted in 2015 (Freeland and colleagues) identified over 10,000 mounds on Tongatapu, most between 20-30 meters in diameter (65-100 feet) and 40-50 centimeters (15-20 inches) in height, although some reach 10 m (33 ft) or more.

Dynastic Lineages and Chronology

The Tongan state was ruled by three dynastic lineages, commonly abbreviated as TT, TH and TK; specific rulers are listed in the literature by their lineage and their number.

  • Tu'i Tonga (abbreviated TT and meaning "the Lord of Tonga"), established during the pre-state period, were the main and traditional sacred and secular administrative leaders
  • Tu'i Ha'atakalaua (TH) was established during the reign of TT-24 to create a separate secular line of leaders, while the TT afterward took mainly a religious and ceremonial role
  • Tu'i Kanokupolu (TK "Heart of Upolu"), was established during the reign of TT-30 to create an administrative role for the TH line


  • 850-700 BC: first settlement of Tonga by the Lapita culture
  • AD ~1000-1250: pre-state, establishment of the first dynastic rulers with the main city at Tongatapu, burials are earthen mounds
  • AD 1250-1350: state formation, first stone-faced tombs and platforms
  • AD 1350-1650: political upheaval and state establishment; TT capital established at Lapaha; TH lineage formed
  • AD 1650-1900: state collapse and reconstitution, TK lineage established about 1650
    • 1770s: Captain James Cook lands and records the state level society
    • AD 1773-1799: influx of foreign explorers, missionaries, and beachcombers led to the breakdown of the political system
    • AD 1845: King George I begins the process of rebuilding the government
    • late 19th century: constitutional monarchy established

First Settlement

The first settlement of the western edge of Polynesia, called the Polynesian Homeland and including the two archipelagos of Tonga and Samoa, was by the Lapita culture people, between about 2900-2750 BP. The two island groups are oriented along a southwest to northeast sailing corridor about 1,000 km (620 mi) long, and it was here that the ancestral Polynesian society developed. It wasn't until 1,900 years later that the Tongan society led an eastward expansion, to Tahiti, the Cook Islands, the Austral and Marquesa Islands, and finally Easter Island.

The oldest site to date discovered in the Tongan archipelago was at Nukuleka on the island of Tongatapu.

State Emergence AD 1200-1350

While information about the earliest emergence of the Tongan state is limited, according to tradition, the leadership combined the roles of sacred and secular in one individual, the Tu'i Tonga. The earliest stone structures are in the form of worked slabs and blocks of carbonate stone. The first were built in eastern Tongatapu, such as the Heketa site, where nine stone structures are located on lands which gently slope towards the coastline.

Heketa was a small elite center, where the highest status cemetery is marked by a small sitting platform with a large stone backrest (estimated weight 5 tons), a three-tiered tomb with a stone house or god house and an adjacent loft house. The principal structure built during this period is a megalithic trilithon known as the "Ha'amonga a Maui" (Burden of Maui) made of reef limestone. The pillars and lintel of this megalithic monument weigh 26 tons, 22 tons and 7 tons, respectively. According to tradition, Heketa was the venue of the first "fruits ceremony" and it was where the kava drinking ceremony was developed by King Tuitaui (TT-11).

State Establishment and Lineage Fissioning (1350-1650)

Under King Talatama (TT-12), the TT dynasty relocated its capital from Heketa to Lapaha, and built more than 25 stone-faced tombs, a ditch system cut through the limestone bedrock, and a canoe wharf and harbor. The tombs are dramatically larger during this period, some built with more than 350 tons of worked stone slabs, some of which alone are longer than 5 meters and weigh over 10 tons each. Quarrying and transporting such huge chunks of rock would have required widespread labor networks, evidence of a new order of social relationships.

The basis of political stability was the institution of a hereditary succession of men descended from a semi-divine TT ancestor. At the same time, the development of the new TH lineage was likely a result of splitting governmental power into two roles, sacred and secular: the sacred tasks remained with the TT rulers, but the secular governmental actions moved to TT-24's brother, who was given the title of Tu'i Ha'akalaua.

Sphere of Influence

It is about this time that the Tongan state began to engage in a multitude of interactions with other islands, including importing prestige goods such as parrot feathers from Fiji and mats from Samoa: they may have cemented political alliances with arranged marriages. The core area of Tongan influence was Fiji to West Polynesia, with lesser influence over a much larger area: archaeological evidence show shared material culture and thus contact with Rotuma and Vanuatu, Uvea, east Fiji and Samoa.

The premier monument of the early state is Paepaeotelea, a royal tomb located in Lapaha and built between 1300 and 1400, probably the first of the royal tombs to be built there.

Collapse and Reconstitution 1650-1900

The traditional system of Tongan government began to decay with the rise of TK, before European contact, ~1650. The event which is traditionally said to have sparked the collapse of the TT lineage happened ~1777-1793, when the wife of the TT ruler attempted to take the TK leadership role. Today, traditional stories speak of this action as being an outrageous attack against cultural norms, scholars suggest the move was likely an attempt to return Tonga to the TT lineage and its system of government.

Civil war broke out and the coup failed, and the TT line was as much as extinguished. The TK line was one of several chiefly lineages with the potential to take over after the failure of the TT line, and they introduced Christianity to Tonga and established a constitutional monarchy replacing the traditional government in the 19th century.

Cities and Sites: Mu'a, Heketa, Lahapa, Nukuleka