Our project is unique in that we aim to shed light on the ancient past of the island, in an effort to learn more about the earliest inhabitants of Pitcairn--one of the often overlooked chapters of Pitcairn history. Our work could answer some of the very questions that have stymied specialists for decades, by deciphering the use and meaning of the markings these prehistoric peoples etched so carefully in stone, all the while embarking on an adventure of our own .
Significance of the Pitcairn Petroglyphs
Pitcairn is what anthropologists call a “mystery island," that is, one of a handful of Pacific islands that were inhabited in past times—with populations that left plenty of archaeological remains in their wake—but abandoned their island homes before anyone could learn about the origins, culture, and history of those settlers. Yet, in the case of Pitcairn we know it was inhabited by Polynesians, making it one of the most remote trade outposts in its cultural area. Considering the formidable navigational feat of the Polynesians—their ingenuity, curiosity, and ambition—those who settled on Pitcairn, and lived there for 700-800 years starting about 900 AD, must have been highly skilled navigators, for there is no other explanation for the great amount of obsidian and basalt tools sourced from Pitcairn spread within such an extensive contact network. However, whereas the concept of Polynesian wayfinding, or traditional navigation, has gained enough attention to enter popular culture, few give any consideration to the astronomer priests, or skywatchers, whose duty was to keep track of time and establish an annual cycle of activities, both practical and ceremonial. Polynesian skywatching served a very important function, the heavens being the inspiration for cultural principles so significant that Polynesians saw in them the work of the gods. Previous experience has shown us that in Polynesia, marae ceremonial structures and places that have a high concentration of petroglyphs tend to be located near areas where specialised astronomer priests (skywatchers) observed the night sky; in many cases, the motifs depicted in the rock surface represent the very events that were marked by the rising and setting of specific stars, be it the opening of the deep sea fishing season, the arrival of migratory birds or marine fauna such as turtles, or navigating itself. Several marae and chiefly house sites in Eastern Polynesia are associated with observational alignments to the calendar stars or the cardinal points as seasonal and ceremonial markers, and on occasion as the bearings of the underworld. These same practices might be true of such sites on Pitcairn, however, no studies like this have ever been carried out on on the island despite the fact that its ancient inhabitants also evidently must have had considerable knowledge of the stars, even if just for navigation. Properly locating where the ancient marae were known to have stood and registering the petroglyph sites would not only provide early Pitcairn within a strong cultural context, it would also enhance the existing archaeological inventory of Pitcairn Island and shed light on its fascinating yet obscure prehistory.