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There are many traditions of explaining how the world and its people
came to be where they are and how they are. In this chapter we present
several samples, including oral histories in poetry, archaeology in the
prose of the natural sciences, linguistics in the form of genealogies, and
the more conventional language of academic history.
All people order knowledge of past events, as statements of eternal
truths and guides to current choices. These folk histories are not fixed,
they need not agree with each other, and they do not ‘add up’ to a
chronology of Islanders’ experiences. For many centuries Hawaiians
and Palauans told variations of the following narratives, before professional
folklorists recorded, published and fixed them. Two sets of
conventions therefore shape these texts. The Kumulipo chant and the
‘Story of Latmikaik’ are not narrowly historical, but creation stories
from Polynesian Hawai’i and Micronesian Palau. They describe the
creation of the islands and their inhabitants; then they go on to their
more important purpose when they prescribe proper relations between
people and spirits and environment, between past and future, and
among different groups of people within the community. The narratives
must hold the audience’s attention in order to instruct them, so they use
every available poetic device.
In the 1940s the folklorist Martha Beckwith was concerned to record
Hawaiian narratives faithfully, to capture their poetry in her translation,
to establish their sources as a step towards the comparative analysis of
Polynesian myths, and to publish them for an academic audience. The
same procedures shape the form in which the anthropologist Richard
Parmentier presents the ‘Story of Latmikaik’, as it was told to him in
Belau (his spelling of Palau). In each case, fluid oral narratives are fixed
like jewels in the utilitarian setting of literary scholarship.
At the time when the earth became hot
At the time when the heavens turned about
At the time when the sun was darkened
1 Beckwith (trans, and ed.), The Kumulipo, 58-9.
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To cause the moon to shine
The time of the rise of the Pleiades
The slime, this was the source of the earth
The source of the darkness that made darkness
The source of the night that made night
The intense darkness, the deep darkness
Darkness of the sun, darkness of the night
Nothing but night.
The night gave birth
Born was Kumulipo in the night, a male
Born was Po’ele in the night, a female
Born was the coral polyp, born was the coral, came forth
Born was the grub that digs and heaps up the earth, came forth
Born was his [child] an earthworm, came forth
Born was the starfish, his child the small sea cucumber came forth
Born was the sea urchin, the sea urchin [tribe]
Born was the short-spiked sea urchin, came forth
Born was the smooth sea urchin, his child the long-spiked came forth
Born was the ring-shaped sea urchin, his child the thin-spiked came forth
Born was the barnacle, his child the pearl oyster came forth
Born was the mussel, his child the hermit crab came forth
Born was the big limpet, his child the small limpet came forth
Born was the cowry, his child the small cowry came forth
Born was the naka shellfish, the rock oyster his child came forth
Born was the drupa shellfish, his child the bitter white shellfish came forth
Born was the conch shell, his child the small conch shell came forth
Born was the nerita shellfish,
the sand-burrowing shellfish his child came forth
Born was the fresh water shellfish,
his child the small fresh water shellfish came forth
Born was the man for the narrow stream, the woman for the broad stream
Born was the Ekaha moss living in the sea
Guarded by the Ekahakaha fern living on land
Darkness slips into light
Earth and water are the food of the plant
The god enters, man cannot enter
Man for the narrow stream, woman for the broad stream
Born was the tough seagrass living in the sea
Guarded by the tough landgrass living on land
Man for the narrow stream, woman for the broad stream
Born was the ‘ A’ala moss living in the sea
Guarded by the ‘Ala’ala mint living on land
Man for the narrow stream, woman for the broad stream
Born was the Manauea moss living in the sea
Guarded by the Manauea taro plant living on land . ..
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So you want to hear the story of Latmikaik. Belau was totally empty
and had no people dwelling on it. Uchelianged (Foremost of Heaven)
looked out upon it and saw the expanse of the sea, which was
completely empty. Uchelianged’s voice then said, ‘Let a land arise. Let
a land arise.’ So a piece of land rose up to the surface of the sea at a place
called Lukes, between Ngeaur [Angaur] and Beliliou [Peleliu] today.
And then there was a clam which came into being there. This clam
grew larger and larger, and then there came into being the insides of the
clam. And, like a human being, the insides of the clam grew larger and
larger and became pregnant, with its belly swelling to a large size. Its
belly was very large. But it was not able to give birth. Uchelianged
observed this condition and said, ‘Let there be a strong sea. Let there be
a strong, running sea to shake it up so that it can give birth/ When it
gave birth, there were many, many fish.
And then these fish in turn gave birth and gave birth, until the sea
was crowded. When the sea became crowded, Uchelianged said to
Latmikaik, ‘Tell your children to gather together rocks and coral and
pile them up to the surface of the sea/ So they cleared away the rubble
beside Ngeaur and built it up until it reached the surface of the sea.
Uchelianged then said, ‘Build it so that you will be able to travel to the
heavens/ So Latmikaik said to her children, ‘Build it even taller so that
we can come near to the heavens. .. / The meaning of this expression is
that this Babeldaob is the heavens, and those creatures are creatures
beneath the sea.
And so when they had built it very tall it became slightly tilted. They
informed Latmikaik that they could not travel to the heavens, since it
had become tilted. Latmikaik then said to them, ‘Bring me a measuring
instrument so I can take a look at the situation/ They brought a measuring
instrument, and when the measurement was made, if the [stones]
fell over the end would reach Oikull [Measured] village. Latmikaik then
said to them, ‘Go ahead and kick it over/ They kicked it and when it fell,
Beliliou and all the rock islands all the way to Oikull were created. And
now the children of Latmikaik could travel to Babeldaob. As they
travelled, the land of Belau became more and more crowded. Villages
became crowded with people. These children of Latmikaik could live on
land or in the sea. . . .
So Chuab and the Woman of Ngetelkou lived there [at Ngeaur]. And
the Woman of Ngetelkou bore a child and called her Tellebuu. This
Tellebuu in turn gave birth and bore her first child Kebliil, and then bore
her second child Seked, a boy. She bore her third child, a girl, Dedaes.
They all crossed over to Beliliou, and they went to Liull house at
Beliliou. They lived there, and people started giving birth. They were
fish-people who could live in the sea and could also live on land.
Chuab also gave birth and bore her first child, a girl, Chitaueiuei. She
then bore her second child, Labek, and then bore another male child,
2 Parmentier, The Sacred Remains, 130,138-9.
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Boid, and bore another male child, Mengelechelauchach, and then bore
another male [child], Omuutaidnger. They traveled, circling around
Belau. Chuab lived there, and more and more people were born, and
those who lived in the sea came up on land. There was no marriage, but
they just mated in the sea and gave birth there.
The lawlessness of these people grew very great, and so Uchelianged
said to Chuab, ‘Create chiefly councils which will be the reason (uchul)
for lawfulness at Ngeaur/ So Chuab appointed Ucherkemur el Reked
and these other chiefs who were also named Ucherkemur, and they
carried the responsibility for Ngeaur. When Ucherkemur came up from
the sea he rapidly became out of breath in sitting [on land], so they
searched near Mekaeb and brought the shell of the giant clam
[Latmikaik] and placed it in front of the meeting house at the village of
Rois, named Bairebech. And the waterspout at Bkulengeluul shot up
into the air and filled this clamshell with water, and so the shell became
the drinking vessel of Ucherkemur. There were Ucherkemur el Reked,
and Ucherkemur el Bebael, Ucherkemur el Chedeng, and Ucherkemur
el Chai, and Ucherkemur el Lilibangel. These became the chiefs, and
they were the only ones at that time.
Uchelianged then said, ‘Now travel to Belau and create chiefly
councils there/ So Chuab traveled northward to Ngerechol and appointed
Uchelchol to be the chief at Beliliou. Chuab traveled northward
to Belau and established Secharaimul, and established Tucheremel at
Ngerusar, and established Rechiungl at Ngeremid. Chuab then traveled
to Ngersuul and created a council at Ngersuul, and then came to
Ngeruikl and created a council at Ngeruikl. Chuab traveled northward
to Ulimang and created a council at Ulimang and then established
Bdelulabeluu as the chief of Mengellang. These chiefs were the eight
chiefs [of Belau].
History became an academic discipline in the nineteenth century. Academic
historians cut their teeth on written documents, and especially
government archives whose interpretation became their agenda. The
division of academic labour allotted early human experience not to
History but to Anthropology or Archaeology. Anthropologists explored
the history of pre-literate societies by comparing cultural traits, until
this approach fell from favour in the 1930s. Meanwhile Archaeology
was developing formidable skills in analysing physical remains of past
societies, while linguists organised languages into families with genealogies
describing their evolution from common ancestor languages.
Disciplines are shaped by their material and their methods. To
approach the remote past through these disciplines involves some
understanding of their methods and materials. To analyse physical
remains of past societies, archaeologists collaborate with the natural
sciences. Where few ancient artefacts survive, that material must be
subjected to exact scientific analysis, so archaeologists adopt not only
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the procedures, but also the style of other scientists—rigorous argument
and specialised technical terms, couched in the austere prose of Science
and avoiding any hint of poetry.
High technology yields precise records, but has its limits. Radiocarbon
dating has been the main tool in creating a chronological framework,
but this method only covers the last 40,000 or 50,000 years.
Radiocarbon dating fixes the time of death of the sample, so we must be
clear about what is providing the date, and the event which we wish to
date. If we date a sample of charcoal, for example, we must be sure that
humans burned the wood, or that the fire occurred at the same time as
some human activity. The new technique of thermoluminescence dating
promises to expand that time-frame. Electrons are trapped in quartz
crystals at a predictable rate. If quartz sand or pottery is exposed to heat
or sunlight, these electrons are released. If it is then buried, electrons
become trapped again. If pottery from archaeological layers is heated
rapidly in a laboratory, it emits light at a strength which is proportional
to the release of the trapped electrons. Measuring this light therefore
tells us how long the pottery was buried. The interpretation of this
evidence is, however, controversial. It is possible that this technique
yields measures of time which differ from radiocarbon time.
We can never be sure of all the ways in which environment and time
have spared or destroyed evidence. One factor which has biased our
record in the Pacific Islands is the effect of rising sea levels. The
standard deviations attached to radiocarbon dates indicate the range of
time which they may represent. For example the proper radiocarbon
date for human occupation of the Lachitu rock-shelter in New Guinea is
35,360 ± 1400, which indicates that the actual date falls somewhere in
the range 36,760 to 33,960, or (to be 95 per cent sure by doubling the
margin of error) between 38,160 and 32,560. This standard deviation
embodies 7000 years of uncertainty. For these reasons archaeological
judgement is always provisional. Fresh evidence or new techniques
may alter the significance of old data. Archaeologists must infer large
statements from small samples, and there are usually at least two
credible ways to interpret the same data. The next text represents the
most likely interpretation of present evidence on the basis of present
technology. Every sentence should include ‘probably': but most have
been omitted because their reiteration would be tedious.
The south-west Pacific has not always had the physical shape which it
has now. During the Pleistocene era, commonly known as the Ice Age
(from about 2 million to 12,000 years ago), massive glaciers often
covered parts of the earth. This coincides roughly with the time it took
for our first human ancestors to appear in Africa, to evolve into modern
humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) and to colonise the major land masses.
Glaciers had little direct impact in the south-west Pacific, except the
highest peaks of New Guinea; but there were significant indirect effects.
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Large-scale freezing of the world’s water made sea levels fall. Some
‘continental islands’ (New Guinea and Tasmania) were then part of
neighbouring land masses. This did not apply to ‘oceanic islands’ such
as New Ireland, the Solomons and the islands of East Melanesia and
Polynesia. The south-west Pacific was therefore dominated by a much
expanded land mass which we describe as Australasia. Many intervals
between it and the smaller islands shrank, and so did gaps between the
islands themselves.
Australasia (or ‘Sahul land’) was never linked by land to South-East
Asia (‘Sunda land’). Australasia has been isolated by water for at least
60 million years, since the dawn of the age of mammals. As a result, the
region’s mammals are in evolutionary terms primitive—marsupials and
monotremes, quite distinct from the more advanced placental mammals
of the ‘Old World’ (Africa, Asia and Europe). Since humans and other
primates are placental mammals, we must seek the origin of our species
outside the region. Many Aboriginal Australians believe that they have
always inhabited the continent; but evolutionary scientists look towards
South-East Asia for a colonising source, and note that colonisation
depended on the ability to cross water barriers.
The ancestors of human beings diverged from the ancestors of
chimpanzees and gorillas relatively recently, perhaps within the last
5 million years. The oldest identifiable human ancestor is probably one
of the Australopithecines, dated to c.3.5 million years ago in Africa. The
oldest member of the genus Homo appeared about 2 million years ago,
along with patterned stone tools. About 1.6 million years ago Homo
erectus appeared, again in Africa—the immediate ancestor of modern
humans. Homo erectus appears to have been the first hominid to spread
across the globe: the remains of this species have long been known from
China (‘Peking man’) and Java (‘Java man’).
Scholars disagree about the emergence of modern humans. Some
endorse the ‘Regional Continuity’ view, which proposes that Homo
erectus evolved in different parts of the world into regionally distinctive
populations of Homo sapiens. Others prefer the ‘Replacement’ theory,
that modern humans evolved only once, in Africa, and then spread
across the world, replacing Homo erectus populations within the last
100,000 years.
Adherents of regional continuity see two separate lineages in Asia
and the Pacific. In China, a line of descent leads from early Homo erectus
populations (represented at the hominid fossil sites Lantian and
Yuanmou) through the more evolved Zhoukoudian specimens to more
sapient forms such as Dali and Maba and eventually modern Asian
(‘Mongoloid’) populations. In South-East Asia and Australasia another
distinct lineage leads from the Javanese Homo erectus forms of the earliest
Pucangan formations, through the younger Trinil then Ngandong
fossils, to modern Australian Aboriginal (‘Australoid’) populations.
Fossil evidence from Australia is considered by some to support this
argument. Replacement theorists place a different interpretation on
much the same evidence. The relatively recent colonisation of Australasia
is taken to demonstrate the movement of fully modern humans
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out of Africa. In either case, colonisation of the south-west Pacific must
be part of the wider story of Asian prehistory. We now leave this topic
until we have reviewed the cultural evidence.
We can be certain that humans had reached Australasia 40,000 years
ago, beginning a continuous human presence which continues to the
present. Archaeologists disagree whether humans arrived any earlier.
Thermoluminescence dating of sediments in the Arnhem Land
(Northern Territory) rock-shelter site of Malakunanja II shows that they
were deposited between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago; but it is not certain
that humans were there at the time. Other sites in Arnhem Land reveal
a human presence no older than 24,000 years. Elsewhere in Australasia
several sites are dated to between 40,000 and 35,000 years BP (before the
present). There is also evidence of human occupation on the Huon
Peninsula on the north coast of New Guinea. Occupation has been
proposed at 40,000 years ago. This date is disputed,3 but people certainly
occupied the Lachitu rock-shelter on the north coast of New
Guinea 35,000 years ago. They also occupied the Australian mainland
(as it is today) from a similar date: in the north, at Carpenters Gap 1 in
the Kimberleys (39,000 BP) and Nurrabulgin Cave in Cape York
Peninsula (37,000 BP); in the south-west, at Upper Swan near Perth
(38,000 BP); in the south-east, at Lake Mungo and associated sites in the
Murray-Darling basin (37,000 BP); and also in Tasmania, at the Warreen
cave site (35,000 BP).
These dates may or may not represent the earliest occupations of
these areas, given the problems mentioned above, and noting that
radiocarbon dating does not cover periods much older than 40,000 BP.
However, dates of such great antiquity occur only at the bottom of deep
deposits, which suggests that they were indeed the earliest occupations.
By contrast, in many sites in Europe, Africa and the Middle East dates of
this age occur at the top of deposits, indicating a long record of earlier
occupation. If we accept these dates as the earliest occupation of these
areas, does this indicate rapid colonisation? This cannot be answered,
since the standard deviations of radiocarbon dates allow a wide range
of time. All we can say confidently is that in archaeological time,
colonisation was extremely rapid.
We naturally look to South-East Asia for the antecedents of these
colonists, and there we face a puzzling absence. The famous ‘Java man’
fossils are some of the furthest-flung examples of Homo erectus, which
originated in Africa at least 1.6 million years ago. The dating of Javanese
specimens is controversial. Most would agree with a date of nearly
1 million years for the oldest examples, although radiometric dates of
nearly 2 million years have been obtained. Even more problematic are
the Ngandong or Solo forms, a more evolved form of Homo erectus, or
perhaps even an archaic Homo sapiens-, their most likely dates are
between 300,000 and 100,000 years ago. One aspect of the puzzle is that
no cultural evidence whatever is associated with these fossils, nor is
3 Allen, ‘When Did Humans First Colonise Australia?7; Bowdler ‘Homo sapiens in
Southeast Asia and the Antipodes7; and her ‘Sunda and Sahul’.
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\ Guinea
Map 4 Pleistocene archaeological sites
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there any such evidence anywhere in South-East Asia which can be
dated securely to that time. In fact there is no archaeological evidence
from South-East Asia older than that found in Australia, that is, 40,000
years. These dates are remarkably similar to those from Australasia. In
peninsular Thailand, humans occupied Lang Rong Rien cave in c.37,000
BP; in northern Vietnam, the oldest of a series of rock-shelters is dated
to c.33,200; and in peninsular Malaysia, in Perak, the Kota Tampan
stone workshop site is dated to c.31,000. Similar dates are found in
island South-East Asia: the Niah Cave in Sarawak, in the north of
Borneo, is dated to c.40,000; the rock-shelter Leang Burung 2 in southern
Sulawesi is dated to c.31,000; and Tabon Cave on the Philippine
island of Palawan had human occupants by 30,000 years ago.4
This evidence suggests that South-East Asia was colonised by
modern humans at the same time as Australasia, and that colonisation
was swift. It does not suggest where they came from, but the most likely
source is China. In this scenario, modern humans swept out of southern
China to find their way rapidly (in archaeological terms) to the mainland
and islands of South-East Asia, the continent of Australia and some
Pacific Islands. Colonisation took somewhere between 50 and 5000
years. There is little to suggest why it occurred at this time and no
earlier. It has been ascribed to the uniquely developed capabilities of
Homo sapiens sapiens, fully modern humans, but this suggestion begs as
many questions as it answers.
The immigrants certainly needed watercraft and navigational skills,
and adaptive skills to cope with new environments. Even during times
of lowered sea level and expanded land masses, people always had to
cross water to reach Australasia. They did not have to cross water to
reach Vietnam, Thailand, peninsular Malaysia, Java, Palawan or Borneo;
but the journey to Sulawesi did need watercraft for perhaps 50 kilometres
of open sea. Australasia could be reached only by several crossings,
of a maximum of 100 kilometres. Nor did the new colonists stop at
Australasia: they went on to New Ireland by 33,000 years ago, and to
Buka, the northernmost of the Solomon Islands, by 28,000 years ago.
These feats pose many questions. What craft did they use, what
routes did they follow, were their voyages accidental or deliberate? No
evidence sheds light on the kind of watercraft which people used. The
familiar seagoing outrigger and dugout canoes of the Pacific were only
developed much later, allowing the Austronesians to disperse (see next
sections). We assume that the Austronesian expansion made little or no
impact in Australia, so we might expect that Australian watercraft of the
recent past are survivors of a Pleistocene tradition. We discount the
dugouts of the north coast and the outriggers of the north-east, as these
reflect recent Macassan and Papuan influences. That leaves a variety of
bark canoes and log rafts which were made by Aboriginal Australians.
These craft do not seem capable of long ocean voyages, and indeed
some evidence suggests that none of them is very old. Aboriginal
people visited offshore islands during the Holocene with such craft:
4 Bowdler, ‘Homo sapiens in Southeast Asia and the Antipodes’.
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these journeys involved water crossings of less than 25 kilometres, and
most were less than 10 kilometres. Furthermore, such crossings began
(with perhaps two or three exceptions out of twenty-six instances) only
within the last 4000 years. This suggests that the maritime technology
observed in recent times in Aboriginal Australia was not the same as
that which carried the first colonists to the Pacific. The original voyages
of Pacific discovery may have been made with bamboo craft, perhaps
rafts. Extensive stands of large bamboo did not occur in Australia,
which could explain why this technology disappeared.
The possible migration routes from South-East Asia into Australasia
have been canvassed by Birdsell and by Irwin.5 These island-hopping
routes assume that the shortest crossings were the most likely, and
perhaps the most favoured. Birdsell suggests two main routes, one from
Java through Timor to northern Australia, the other from Sulawesi
through Halmahera to West Irian. He assumes that such voyages were
more likely to succeed at times of low sea level, when sea distances were
shorter. Irwin disputes this assumption. He argues that the different
distances ‘were probably all short enough for the risks to remain much
the same . . . a boat that is seaworthy enough to cross 10 nautical miles
can probably cross 100 or more, provided it is not of a type that becomes
waterlogged and provided the weather remains the same’.6 He also
addresses the issue of accidental or deliberate voyaging. A party containing
the least possible number of people was doomed to extinction,
so intentional voyaging is more likely.
We can only guess at the motives for these voyages. Many ideas have
been offered, including population pressures and environmental
disasters driving people to seek new resources. The evidence does not
lend much weight to these suggestions. The pattern of dates in geographical
space may represent extremely speedy colonisation. Colonisation
because of expansion under duress should leave evidence of a clear
‘gradient of antiquity’, with oldest dates in mainland South-East Asia,
including Java and Borneo. Younger dates would be expected in
Sulawesi and other non-continental islands, and even younger dates in
continental Melanesia. We would then expect to find dates in northern
Australia for early colonisation either at the same time as, or younger
than, those in New Guinea, with even younger dates in southern Australia
and oceanic Melanesia. In fact this is not the case; the evidence
does not suggest a gradual settling and ‘filling up’ of new islands and
ecological zones. There is no support for a theory of gradual population
increase with ensuing pressure on resources, forcing further migrations
into new regions. Some other motivation must have driven people to
voyages of discovery.
The people were hunter-gatherers, dependent on wild plant and
animal resources. It used to be thought that the hunter-gatherer (or
‘forager’) way of life was random and difficult; but it is now clear that
5 Birdsell, The Recalibration of a Paradigm'; and Irwin, The Prehistoric Exploration and
Colonisation of the Pacific.
6 Irwin, Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation, 27-8.
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these people had sophisticated and systematic strategies, passing
beyond mere subsistence. These strategies may even be the hallmark of
modern humans and explain their extraordinary adaptive success.
Given their obvious maritime abilities, these colonists were well
adapted to coastal environments, and were probably fishers and shellfish
gatherers as much as hunters and plant gatherers. Early sites seldom
preserve the organic remains with which to test this assumption,
but it is supported by such evidence as does exist. The remains of
fish bones and shellfish are preserved in the oldest levels of the
Mandu Mandu Creek rock-shelter (North-west Cape, Australia) and
Matenkupkum (New Ireland), both about 33,000 years old and both
located near Pleistocene coastlines. At Lake Mungo and other Willandra
Lakes sites, freshwater fish and shellfish formed part of the diet from
37,000 BP. Other sites of similar age are great distances from the then
coastline, so we know that the early immigrants were able to exploit a
wide range of resources in unfamiliar terrain, including some which
were previously unknown to them. The range of ecologies which were
exploited by 35,000 BP is remarkable. The people were accustomed to
tropical Asian forests and savannas, but they were soon targeting
wallabies (seasonally) on the edge of the Tasmanian glaciated highlands
and collecting emu eggs on the edge of the Western Australian desert.
Colonists may well have developed complex economic systems by
then. Evidence in New Ireland suggests that seafaring people introduced
mammals into new environments during the Pleistocene.
Intriguing evidence from Kilu on Buka Island (north Solomon Islands)
shows grains of taro on stone tools dated to c.28,000 BP. We do not know
whether taro was indigenous to Buka or had been brought by people.
These areas hint at the deliberate human dispersal of plants and animals
during early colonisation. This in turn is open to several interpretations.
On one hand, the people may have been sophisticated environmental
managers (but not ‘agriculturalists’). On the other hand, these dispersals
may have been by-products of providing enough food for long
sea voyages.
Colonists may also have moved hard goods over great distances. In
Australia, rock-shelter sites on what is now the coast of the Kimberley
region contain pieces of baler shell dated to c.28,000 BP—when the coast
was more than 50 kilometres away. Later, pearl-shell as well as baler is
found in levels dated to c.18,000 BP, when the sea was 200 kilometres
away. Further south, a site at Shark Bay contained baler shell dated to
c.30,000 BP—and the coast was 100 kilometres to the west. In several
areas of Australia in modern times, pearl-shell and baler shell were
important items in long-distance trade. We cannot conclude that these
items possessed the same significance thousands of years ago, nor can
we be sure that they imply trade similar to that of recent times; but they
do show that the colonists who began to exploit the resources of the
interior maintained some links with the distant coast.
In south-west Tasmania, the Darwin crater was made by the impact
of a meteorite. This crater contains small seams of glass produced by the
collision of the meteor with local rocks. Small pieces of Darwin glass in
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the form of flakes and tools have been found in dated deposits up to
28,000 BP. The actual routes humans had to follow from the crater vary
from 25 to over 100 kilometres. Natural glass also occurs on several
Melanesian islands, as volcanic obsidian. This was an important trade
item in recent times and probably much earlier. New Britain obsidian
was carried to New Ireland 20,000 years ago—350 kilometres in a
straight line, involving a minimum sea crossing of 30 kilometres. Small
but consistent amounts of this material were deposited over a period of
some 2000 years. These cases suggest that the early colonists adapted
rapidly to new environments and quickly built networks to maximise
the use of new resources. These were not desperate drift voyagers,
accidentally beached on new lands, or even desperate explorers driven
by environmental change.
It is surprisingly difficult to trace the origin of these remarkable
pioneers. Two kinds of evidence might help us: cultural and biological.
We would expect that colonists carried some identifiable ‘baggage’
which can be traced to its source: and their physiques might indicate
their relationship to source populations. In both cases, the evidence is
scanty and ambivalent.
At most of the early sites, the only clear cultural evidence is stone
artefacts. These present many intrinsic problems, compounded by scholarly
preconceptions based on Old World experience. Stone artefacts
occurred in the earliest African sites of the genus Homo. These early
assemblages make up the ‘Oldowan industry’ (after Olduvai Gorge).
Examples of the Oldowan industry often occur as a patterned, recurrent
set of types, which include pebble choppers and smaller flake tools and
scrapers. In Africa, a new range of tool types (typified by a large twofaced
‘hand axe’) known as the Acheulian industry indicates the emergence
of the immediate pre-human ancestor, Homo erectus. The Acheulian
is also found in Europe, the Middle East and parts of India—but not in
East Asia. Assemblages from China, of the same age as Acheulian sites to
the west, contain a characteristic range of flake tools, with some pebble
choppers. (The Homo erectus fossils of Java have no cultural associations.)
In Europe, the Acheulian industries were followed by Mousterian
industries (associated with Neanderthals) and then by Upper Palaeolithic
industries associated with fully modern humans (Homo sapiens
sapiens). These later assemblages are assumed to demonstrate increasing
complexity and refinement. In China, on the other hand, the stone tool
assemblages continued with few visible changes. The traditional interpretation
of these differences has been judgemental. East Asian stone
tool industries have been judged to lack progressive change compared
with African and European sequences. It is generally implied that the
Asian industries are simply a continuation of an original Oldowan
industry, stagnating in an evolutionary cul-de-sac.
These traditional views are not motivated entirely by blind prejudice.
Stone is inflexible, unlike pottery which is extremely plastic and lends
itself to decoration. The decorations can be regarded as stylistic, so that
pottery is an excellent medium for identifying cultural traits. People
made stone artefacts by striking rocks to detach and reduce them, which
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produced a limited range of forms and little opportunity for decoration.
Archaeologists face several problems in dealing with stone tools. They
appear in almost all pre-agricultural sites, but we know very little about
how they were used. This compounds the problem of identifying which
characteristics were functional, and which were stylistic (and therefore
culturally determined). Interpretation of the earliest Pacific stone
industries is hampered by all these difficulties: therefore only tentative
comments can be made. Early Australian stone tool industries have
been grouped together as the ‘Australian Core Tool and Scraper
Tradition’. This entity was based mainly on artefacts from the surface of
the Lake Mungo site. However, this concept implies a unity which may
not exist, and perhaps masks a variety in artefact assemblages from
Australasian Pleistocene sites. The artefact assemblages of early Australasia
do share many features. Artefacts from the Kimberleys, Shark
Bay, Cape York, Tasmania and New Ireland which are 30,000 years old
or older appear to form part of a common tradition, albeit amorphous,
or (more politely) ad hoc. The technical procedures seem to have been
identical in all cases. Some types recurred, namely small steep edge
scrapers and thumbnail scrapers. Stone artefact assemblages from
South-East Asian sites of similar age share similar attributes. The
complete lack of earlier cultural evidence from South-East Asia implies
colonisation by modern humans at the same time as Australasia,
c.40,000 years ago. The artefacts suggest only one possible source for
this colonisation: China. Chinese Pleistocene artefact assemblages did
not change much through time, and the very earliest (up to a million
years old) as well as more recent assemblages (up to c.20,000 BP) bear a
remarkable resemblance to those of Australasia.
Biological evidence presents quite different problems. Human remains
of Pleistocene age are rare in any part of the world, and Australasia
is no exception. No examples are known from Melanesia and
very few from South-East Asia apart from the Javanese Homo erectus
examples. The best-described example is the skull from the Niah Cave
(Sarawak): it is usually dated from about 40,000 years ago, but this date
has been questioned, as it may be a much younger intrusive burial.
Several collections of human remains from Australia have been
assigned a Pleistocene age. Many of these are not well dated. The beststudied
are the two Lake Mungo burials dated to between 26,000 and
32,000 BP, and the large Kow Swamp collection (between 14,000 and
9000 BP). All specimens are ascribed to the fully modern human species,
Homo sapiens sapiens. The Mungo examples, and some others, are
described as extremely gracile (light-boned), and the Kow Swamp and
other examples from the Murray Valley as very robust (heavily boned).
One interpretation of these differences is that the gracile specimens
derived from the Chinese Mongoloid lineage, whereas the Kow Swamp
group derived from the Javanese Australoid lineage. (This raises problems,
not least the implication that the Kow Swamp group is much
more archaic than the other group, and yet its antiquity is less.) In this
view, at least two separate groups of people colonised Australia, one
from Java and one direct from China. An alternative interpretation is
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that the two forms do not represent extreme differences, but that both
fall within the range of variation of modern Aboriginal populations. It
has also been suggested that the characteristics of the Kow Swamp
group developed only after late Pleistocene times. This view infers only
one colonising population.
The view favoured here is that Australia and the south-west Pacific
were colonised within the last 40,000 (or perhaps 50,000) years by
modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, who emerged from China and
moved swiftly across South-East Asia and Australasia. The Homo erectus
populations of Java were not part of this colonising population: by
then they were probably extinct. If we endorse this view, one more
problem remains: it does not explain the origin of the physical characteristics
thought to distinguish the ‘Mongoloids’ of East and South-
East Asia and Polynesia from the ‘Australoids’ of Australia and much
of Melanesia. To put this simply, Australian Aboriginal people of recent
times, Melanesians, Polynesians, South-East Asians and Han Chinese
are all descendants of one ancestral group within the last 40,000 years.
This does not satisfy those who see these differentiating features in
different Homo erectus populations, and consider that they needed more
than 40,000 years to become so distinct. It seems, however, that most of
the features used to define these groups are soft tissue differences which
have not been preserved from great antiquity. There is also debate on
how significant such differences are adaptively, and how rapidly they
may have altered under changing environmental circumstances. We do
not know how long it takes such characteristics to become distinctive.
To summarise, some 40,000 years ago, fully modern humans
embarked on a series of voyages out of China, across South-East Asia
into new lands in Australia and Melanesia. They probably reached the
southern end of the Solomon Islands chain, but not beyond. They
adapted quickly to an extreme range of environments, and soon set up
sophisticated economic networks. The archaeological record shows
continuous occupation from the earliest times until the end of the
Pleistocene. This is not to deny that people made further voyages—and
perhaps return voyages. In Australia, certain populations were dislocated
during the height of the last glaciation c.18,000 years ago:
increased aridity made previously comfortable environments marginal
for humans. We do not know if this, or other effects, occurred in
Melanesia; but clearly all such problems were overcome, because
populations survived, expanded, and responded to new challenges
described below.
One of the most useful historical disciplines which developed during
the past hundred years is Linguistics. Whereas Pleistocene archaeologists
co-operate most closely with the natural sciences, linguists rely
on Anthropology, Archaeology and Genetics to test evident connections
between languages and the people who spoke them. The study of
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Nuclear Peripheral Bali- Willaumez New
Papuan Papuan Vitu Chain Ireland
Tip Tip Network
Network Network
Far Micronesian North Southern New Central
Eastern Central Vanuatu Caledonia Pacific
Solomons Vanuatu
Rotuman- Tokelau
West Fijian Fijian
East Polyi
Figure 2.1 Austronesian language family
Tongic Nuclear Polynesian
(All Polynesian languages
except Tongan and Niuean)
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grammatical structure and vocabulary reveals language relationships
which are typically represented as genealogies which diverge with the
passage of time and exposure to new influences.
Austronesian languages are so closely related that linguists choose to
represent them as members of a family, whose relationships can be
expressed like a genealogy in which recent languages are the offspring
of older ones, no longer spoken. Linguists are confident about the
sequence of separations of a single language into a cluster of closely
related ones, which are treated as if they were siblings. However, it is
impossible to offer absolute dates for these developments, since languages
do not change at a regular or predictable pace. In the genealogy
in Figure 2.1, for example, the proposed date for the break-up of
‘Oceanic’ is estimated on the basis of archaeological rather than
linguistic evidence.
Slightly fewer than half of all Pacific Islanders speak Austronesian
languages. The great majority of other languages are spoken in New
Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Linguists classify these either negatively
as ‘Non-Austronesian’ or (more positively, but confusingly) as
Papuan. There are about 750 Papuan languages, making the New
Guinea area one of the most complex language areas in the world. The
broadest classification was proposed by Stephen Wurm,7 whose schema
is summarised in Figure 2.2. To express the great distances between
these languages, he uses broader terms than ‘family': a loose affiliation
of families is described as a ‘stock’, some stocks are grouped together
even more loosely as ‘super-stocks’, and faintly related stocks are
termed a ‘phylum’. This classification implies a sequence of relative
dates, but at present it would be foolish even to estimate the absolute
dates of their separations. Commenting on Wurm’s broad and bold
classification, Foley observes that Papuan languages are organised into
upwards of sixty distinct language families, with wider relations not yet
conclusively demonstrated.8
For the more recent (Holocene) period, covering the past 10,000 years,
archaeologists can integrate evidence from the social sciences, especially
Linguistics and Anthropology, and written accounts of societies in the
very recent past. Rather than simplifying the archaeologist’s task,
diversity of evidence compounds the difficulty of interpretation: once
again every statement should be read as if ‘probably’ were inscribed in it.
The dominant event of the Holocene (or Recent) period was the evolution
of a distinctive cultural complex (Lapita) in the Bismarck and
Solomon Archipelagos. The Lapita complex was first defined by its
pottery, but is now known to have included stone adzes, ornaments,
7 Wurm, Papuan Languages of Oceania.
8 Foley, The Papuan Languages of New Guinea, 13.
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Number: 507
Area: Most of New Guinea mainland
a greater part of Vogelkop Peninsula
b NW part of Irian Jay a
c NW Papua New Guinea
Finisterre-Huon Stock
East New Guinea Highlands Stock
Central-South New Guinea
Kutubuan Super Stock
Angan Family
Gogodala-Suku Stock
Marind Stock
Kayagar Family
Sentani Stock
Dani-Dwerba Stock
Wissel Lakes-Kemandoga Stock
Mairasi-Tanah Merah Stock
West Bomberai Stock
Binandere Stock
Rai Coast-Mabuso Super Stock
Adelbert Range Super Stock
Teberan-Pawaian Super Stock
Turama-Kikorian Stock
Inland Gulf Family
Eleman Stock
Trans-Fly-Yelmek-Maklew Super
Mek Family
Senagi Family
Pauwasi Stock
Northern Super Stock
Kaure Stock
Kolopom Family
South Bird’s Head-Timor-Alor-
Pantar Super Stock
Number: 24
Area: Northern part of Vogekop and
northern Halmahera
Bird’s Head Super Stock
Borai-Hattam Family
Northern Halmahera Family
Number: 98
Area: Sepik Provinces and western
Madang Province
Sepik Super Stock
Leonard Schultze Stock
Nor-Pondo (Lower Sepik) Stock
Ramu Super Stock
Yuat Super Stock
Number: 48
Area: Northern part of Sepik Provinces
and NW Madang Province
West Wapei Family
Wapei-Palei Stock
Maimai Stock
Kombio Stock
Marienberg Family
Monumbo Family
Number: 27
Area: Some parts of Island Melanesia
adjoining New Guinea mainland in
north-east and east
Yele-Solomons-New Britain Super
Bougainville Super Stock
Reef Islands-Santa Cruz Family
Figure 2.2 The major phyla of Papuan languages, 741 in number.
Adapted from S. A. Wurm, Papuan Languages of Oceania, Gunter Narr Verlag
Tubingen, 1982.
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stilt houses in villages, and domestic animals including the pig. This
technology then provided the skills and resources which enabled
people to colonise Remote Oceania. Quite independently, the 9000-year
record of swamp gardening at Kuk in the New Guinea Highlands
reveals changes in garden type and area of cultivation, in response to
environmental and social changes. If this uneven evidence is supplemented
by historical linguistics and human biology, the outline of
recent prehistory becomes clear. Using an arbitrary starting date of
10,000 years before the present, this section examines the settlement of
the Islands, using time slices of 10,000 BP, 5000 BP, 3000 BP, 2000 BP,
1000 BP and 500 BP (or AD 1500).
The Pacific World at 10,000 BP
As described above, hunter-gatherers reached the end of the main
Solomons chain well before 10,000 BP. Beyond the main Solomons the
only land mammals (except bats) have been imported by humans.
Thirty genera of land birds and 162 genera of seed plants find their
eastern limits here, and major breaks occur in the distribution of other
fauna and flora. This implies a boundary between Near and Remote
Oceania, restraining human dispersal beyond the Bismarck Archipelago
and the Solomon Islands. It may have barred settlement, not so much
because of sea gaps but because of the paucity of naturally occurring
Until 8000 BP New Guinea and Australia were joined by a neck of
land near Cape York, but the prevalence of malaria may have limited
the use of this corridor. Few sites of this period are known from lowland
New Guinea, and our picture comes largely from the Highlands and the
Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomons. Highlanders engaged in some
form of cultivation from about 9000 BP, maintaining a system of drains
in swamp margins at Kuk. A later, more extensive system is dated to
6000 BP. Other Highland sites at about 10,000 BP contain marine shell
ornaments, showing that Highlanders enjoyed indirect contact and
exchange with coastal regions.
Island Melanesian sites of a similar age show that people produced
wild plant food in the form of Canarium indicum (a native almond and
tree crop), which they may have brought from New Guinea during
the late Pleistocene. They also ate wild or cultivated taro (Colocasia
esculenta). There is evidence too that colonists deliberately introduced
New Guinea wild animals, such as bandicoots and large rats, to Manus,
and possums and rats to New Ireland. They may also have introduced
a small wallaby to New Ireland during the early Holocene. The movement
of obsidian from Talasea in New Britain across to New Ireland is
attested in several sites from 20,000 BP onwards. Neither obsidian nor
the introduced animals were carried to the Solomon Islands, which
suggests that there was little contact between archipelagos. Manus also
has sources of obsidian which was moving within that archipelago but
not beyond, by the early Holocene. This distribution again implies the
partial isolation of each archipelago.
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In brief, after the original push into the Bismarcks and Solomons,
people’s horizons contracted as they settled into varying environments.
They lived in hamlets of up to thirty people and often shifted
their residence. Exchange networks at the beginning of the Holocene
did not bridge the major ocean gaps (Manus to New Guinea or the
Bismarcks, or New Ireland to the Solomons) already traversed by the
first colonists.
Near Oceania at 5000 BP
Evidence from the early Holocene suggests small-scale cultivation or
wild plant food production, combined with hunting and gathering.
Some scholars argue that local developments then set the stage for the
settlement of Remote Oceania. This view (the continuity argument)
regards Lapita as a local development and sees no need to invoke
migrations into the region from further west. Some pre-Lapita sites
throw light on this question. Talasea obsidian was exchanged widely by
5000 BP to other parts of New Britain, New Ireland and Nissan to the
east, and as far west as the Sepik area, but there is no evidence that it
was used in the Solomons before the Lapita era. People at Talasea
developed an industry of stemmed obsidian tools before the Lapita
period, but comparable assemblages have not been found in later
(Lapita) levels. In the same area there are sites which were continuously
occupied before and during Lapita times, but most Lapita sites are in
places which were not previously occupied. Some continuity is also
apparent in the working of shell, with Tridacna shell adzes (albeit
stylistically different), Trochus shell arm-rings, shell beads and Trochus
one-piece fishhooks, as well as ground or flaked shell pieces found in
both types of sites. Bone points occur in pre-Lapita levels on New
Ireland and are also known from Lapita sites. The continuity argument
would be stronger if the main domesticated animal, the pig, and the
most common Lapita artefact, pottery, were definitely present before the
Lapita era. However, neither has been claimed for Island Melanesia.
Both have been claimed for New Guinea, but research has not confirmed
the pre-Lapita dates for New Guinea pottery, whose forms are
also very different. It would not be surprising if pigs were present
before Lapita in New Guinea, but the evidence is tenuous.
Meanwhile, after 6000 BP New Guinea Highlanders cleared more
forest for agriculture. Near the north coast, the Dongan site in the
Sepik-Ramu area yields fruit and nut species dating to about 6500 BP.
New Guinea pollen evidence points to forest clearance, and this may
represent intensification of production through increasing reliance on
cultivated food as a result of population increase. We should be
cautious, however, before imposing this evolutionary scenario on our
limited information. Evidence of forest clearance might, for example,
represent the inability of the forest to regenerate after initial clearance.
Over time, the forest would tend to shrink even without human population
growth. In Island Melanesia, pollen sequences beginning about
5000 BP show some human interference through fire from the start of
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the record, but this level of impact on the vegetation is very different
from a later major phase of rapid forest clearance (see below), representing
a classic pattern of ‘pioneer’ farming.
Lapita and the Colonisation of Remote Oceania, 3000 BP
The Lapita cultural complex was first defined by its distinctive
decorated pottery, which used toothed stamps to impress designs on the
pot before firing. Other artefacts have been added—stone adze forms,
ornament types, rectangular stilt houses in sedentary villages, and
introduced domestic animals, so the complex is no longer ‘just pots’.
The span of Lapita is from Manus and the Vitiaz Straits (between New
Guinea and New Britain) in the west to Tonga and Samoa in the east.
On New Guinea itself shards have been found (at Aitape) from only one
pot. The eastward spread of the Lapita complex from the Bismarck
Archipelago into West Polynesia seems to be linked to the spread of
Austronesian languages. Their mainly coastal distribution in Near
Oceania suggests that they intruded into a Non-Austronesian area.
Lapita culture dates from about 3500 BP to 2500-2000 BP, when it began
to lose its more widespread and distinctive features.
The most widespread archaeological phenomenon and the most
widespread language group in the same area must surely be linked.
Austronesian languages derived from South-East Asia and ultimately
Taiwan (see previous sections). The immediate Lapita ‘homeland’ lay in
the Bismarck Archipelago. Polynesian languages and cultures developed
later, at the eastern extension of Lapita, in a region previously
uninhabited. Speakers of these languages could hardly have come from
Taiwan to Island Melanesia and Polynesia without leaving any trace,
and the obvious trace at the appropriate time (no later than 3000 BP) is
Lapita. Island South-East Asian radiocarbon chronology shows the
spread of Neolithic cultures from Taiwan through the Philippines to
eastern Indonesia, and the same pattern of dates extends east into
This view of a movement of language and culture from the west has
its critics, who see Lapita as a local development from pre-Lapita
cultures in the Bismarcks, with little western influence. The evidence,
however, supports a South-East Asian origin. Lapita elements of South-
East Asian origin include particular kinds of pottery, pigs, dogs and
chickens, quadrangular stone adzes, polished stone chisels, various
shell ornament types, rectangular houses (some on stilts), large villages,
language, and probably aspects of boat technology, tattoo chisels, pearlshell
knives, trolling hooks and various stone artefact classes. On the
other hand some cultural elements were widespread before Lapita in
South-East Asia and parts of Melanesia (and cannot be new integrations
or intrusions in the Bismarcks). These pre-Lapita features include oval/
lenticular polished stone adzes, grindstones, hinge-region Tridacna shell
adzes, pierced shell pendants, shell beads, Trochus shell armbands, onepiece
shell fishhooks, bone points or awls, vegetation clearance by fire
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Map 5 Lapita sites
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and some form of cultivation, movement of wild animals and plants,
most of the Oceanic domesticated crop complex, shell-fishing and reef
fishing, possibly earth ovens, and some long-distance exchange. By
contrast, very few elements were unique to Melanesia: some crops,
obsidian stemmed tools and dorsal-region Tridacna adzes (of a very
different style to Lapita) and perhaps the earth oven. In brief, Lapita is
basically of South-East Asian Austronesian origin, although some
elements were invented and added in the Bismarcks, and some pre-
Lapita Melanesian elements were integrated into it.
The complementary distribution of Austronesian languages and
the Island South-East Asian Neolithic and Lapita cultural complexes
suggests dates for the spread of both. Proto-Austronesian split into
Formosan and Malayo-Polynesian groups around 5000 BP when some
people moved south to the Philippines and Sulawesi. Malayo-
Polynesian broke up when people moved from Sulawesi to north
Maluku at about 4500 BP. The next split occurred with a move to the
east, probably centred in Cenderawasih Bay in north-western Irian Jaya,
perhaps around 4000 BP. A further spread east resulted in Austronesian
and Lapita settlement in the Bismarcks by 3500 BP and the fragmentation
of Oceanic as Lapita settlements spread south and east through the
main Solomons and into Vanuatu and New Caledonia at about 3200 BP.
The next move was from northern Vanuatu to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa by
3000 BP. In brief, first settlement of Polynesia by the Lapita culture and
the absence of any but Polynesian languages there suggest that
Polynesians are direct descendants of the bearers of Lapita culture. An
origin in Island South-East Asia for the ‘pre-Polynesians’ now seems
certain, with evidence of some genetic admixture with populations in
northern Island Melanesia.
The connection between South-East Asia and Melanesia is not absolutely
certain, because of a gap in sites of the relevant period in northern
New Guinea and islands to the west. Language distribution implies
cultural connections on Japen and Biak Islands in Cenderawasih Bay or
on the shores of the bay. The integration of Melanesian elements into an
intrusive culture occurred either in this region or in the Bismarcks, but
it is at present an archaeological blank. So is the rest of northern New
Guinea for the relevant period. Possible evidence for early Austronesian
settlement along this coast or on offshore islands has been obscured by
a later back-migration of Oceanic Austronesian speakers from east to
west within the last 2000 years.
In northern New Guinea, some Non-Austronesians borrowed words
from Austronesian languages. ‘Pig’ in many Non-Austronesian languages
is an Austronesian loan-word even in inland areas, a hint of the
late introduction of this animal. The Wanelek pottery and polished
quadrangular adzes may represent a diffusion of Austronesian material
culture inland before 3750 BP. Taken together, this evidence implies an
early spread of material culture from west to east. Similarly, many crops
which were carried into the Pacific during the Lapita period have also
been found in pre-Lapita South-East Asia, and the words which describe
many of them can be traced to Malayo-Polynesian (spoken about
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Map 6 Settling the region
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5000 years ago). This evidence makes it difficult to accept a New Guinea
origin, and South-East Asia is much more likely.
Whatever the origins of the Lapita crop complex, the combined
package of crops and the three Pacific domesticates—pigs, dogs and
chickens—formed a systematic agricultural complex. Perhaps this is
what enabled the first permanent settlers to cross the Remote Oceania
barrier and colonise islands beyond. The distribution of Talasea
obsidian reached its greatest extension at the same time, from Borneo to
Fiji, a span of 7000 kilometres.
On the issue of voyaging technology, Green argues that: ‘An effective
voyaging system based on dugout canoes or rafts was already in place in
Near Oceania, but to it was added the outrigger canoe, the double canoe,
new developments in 2-boom triangular sail technology as well as an
ability to navigate these improved sailing vessels in return voyages over
distances independent of having land in sight/9 No Lapita or pre-Lapita
boats have been found. Technology and navigation skills were refined
at the time of Lapita, as is evident by expansion into Remote Oceania.
There is no pre-Lapita evidence of extension of voyaging range (and
developments in boat technology) in Near Oceania during the Holocene:
all the island groups reached before Lapita (the Bismarcks, Solomons and
Admiralties) were settled in Pleistocene times. Reconstructions of
Malayo-Polynesian terms include those for boat, sail, outrigger, rollers to
beach a canoe, cross-seat or boat ribs, paddle, to steer or rudder, and
boat/sea travel. These features were therefore known in Island South-
East Asia before the Lapita period. We do not know if they were also
present in Melanesia. Cognates of these terms were inherited by Oceanic
speakers in Lapita times, with the addition of a new term and new
technology, that of the double-hulled canoe.
Not all bearers of Lapita culture moved to Polynesia. The genes of the
‘stay-at-homes’ can be found in coastal and island groups in Melanesia
who are descendants both of local pre-Lapita populations and of
intrusive South-East Asian populations who also gave rise to the Polynesians.
Genetic evidence suggests that Fijians mixed with Island
Melanesians after first settlement by Lapita groups. The original Fijian
population would have been more Polynesian in appearance. This
might also have been true of the first settlers of Vanuatu and New
Caledonia. The genetic evidence down-plays any direct link between
Polynesians and Micronesians. Micronesian populations are diverse but
in general are a distinct Island South-East Asian population with
varying genetic input from Melanesia. At the same time as the spread
of Lapita into Remote Oceania, for example, the first colonisers reached
the Mariana Islands in northern Remote Oceania, about 3200-3000 BP.
There are specific parallels in pottery style with the Philippines and
Sulawesi at this time. The languages of the Marianas and Palau are
related most closely to those of the Philippines and eastern Indonesia in
a separate Austronesian migration contemporary with Lapita. Polynesians
cannot therefore be descendants from populations in Micro-
9 Green, “Near and Remote Oceania—Disestablishing “Melanesia”‘.
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nesia. There may have been a moment in the Bismarcks when a single
people using Lapita pottery were genetically, linguistically and culturally
distinct from their neighbours. But this unity and distinctiveness
would have been brief. Lapita-using populations who spread to
Polynesia and those in Island Melanesia then had divergent genetic,
cultural and linguistic histories.
Lapita society was probably hierarchical, given the demands of
voyaging and colonising far-flung islands, but its structure cannot be
established from archaeological evidence. This was not the only cultural
complex in Near Oceania, but it is by far the most visible, and few non-
Lapita contemporary sites have been identified. To what extent pre-Lapita
groups were committed to agriculture is unclear. They did not have the
full Lapita complex of plants and animals, which presumably gave Lapita
the demographic advantage and ability to settle rapidly across a large
area. Lapita groups, however, must initially have been small—one or two
canoe-loads in one locale, perhaps less than a hundred people, who
gained numbers by natural increase and recruitment from their
neighbours. Nearly all Island Melanesian and New Guinea societies were
fully agricultural by the time of European contact. Some agricultural
techniques, therefore, may have spread from Lapita centres to non-Lapita
groups by various processes. Adoption of agriculture by hunter-gatherers
or small-scale cultivators could have allowed population growth. They
might then have adopted Lapita culture and produced Lapita sites,
preventing any easy ‘ethnic’ classification for later Lapita settlements.
The Lapita move into Remote Oceania, however, brought colonists into
an uninhabited area, where local recruitment was not possible.
In the eastern Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, we first see
evidence of a recurrent colonisation pattern. This consisted of ‘pioneering’
agriculture and rapid extirpation of many birds and other fauna.
Where faunal records are available—in the small island of Tikopia in the
Solomon Islands and in New Caledonia—human settlement meant the
rapid extinction of many species. In New Caledonia these included a
giant megapode, at least ten other birds, a terrestrial crocodile, a turtle
and a large land snail. In Tikopia bones of three of the five extirpated
bird species are found only in the earliest deposits, with a great reduction
in turtle numbers and declining numbers (and sizes) of shellfish.
This pattern reflects a deliberate targeting of pristine fauna while plant
and domestic animal stocks were being established. Large-scale clearance
for agriculture also led to environmental degradation. People
responded by moving elsewhere and repeating the process. As population
grew, such profligacy was no longer possible, and people developed
conservation practices, such as terracing, to allow continuous
agriculture in one location.
The Post-Lapita World: Near and Remote Oceania at 2000 BP
At least a thousand years elapsed after 3000 BP, between Lapita settlement
in Tonga and Samoa, and the colonisation of East Polynesia.
Perhaps this interval was needed to develop a new voyaging strategy
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which operated mainly upwind across the great distances of East
Several Micronesian archipelagos were settled at about 2000 BR
Related, generally plain pottery styles are found in the lowest levels of
the earliest sites, arguably derived from late Lapita or from the plainwares
which followed it in parts of Island Melanesia. Apart from Palau
(settled from Island South-East Asia), the Marianas (Chamorro) and Yap
and Nauru (whose linguistic affiliations are unclear), all Micronesians
spoke languages belonging to the ‘Nuclear Micronesian’ group, whose
nearest relatives were in the region of the south-east Solomons and
northern Vanuatu, or in Manus. Nuclear Micronesian was a late offshoot
from Lapita, while West Micronesia seems to have been settled by
different colonists from island South-East Asia. Evidence from Fais—a
raised coral island 180 kilometres east of Yap—suggests that present
linguistic boundaries have shifted from earlier patterns. The people
now speak a Nuclear Micronesian language but the earliest site, dating
to about 1900 BP, implies first settlement from Yap to the west.
The Lapita complex ended about 2500-2000 BP. In Polynesia the
dentate-stamped pottery was succeeded by plain-wares and a distinctively
Polynesian material culture. By 2800 BP Lapita decoration had
given way to a plain-ware in Samoa, rather earlier than in Tonga and
Fiji, and in relative isolation. When Lapita decoration disappeared in
Island Melanesia and Fiji, different pottery styles derivable from the
non-dentate stamped ‘domestic ware’ of Lapita appeared from Manus
to Fiji. Vanuatu obsidian and pottery types appeared in Fiji, evidence of
renewed contacts to the west. Changes in pottery style might represent
further population movements, or continuity of groups who continued
to interact over the previous range of Lapita. The genetic evidence
suggests population movement for Fiji and possibly New Caledonia
and Vanuatu. A secondary movement of Austronesian speakers of a
Meso-Melanesian Cluster from New Britain to New Ireland and the
western Solomons would fit this time-frame, and a sharp language
boundary at the southern end of Santa Isabel may be the point where
we lose the linguistic signal of a spread of genes and culture which
continued further south.
Archaeological and pollen evidence from Guadalcanal is interesting
in this context. No evidence for Lapita settlement has been found here,
and a basic culture persisted from the earliest trace of settlement at about
6000 through to about 2300 BP. A dramatic change in the pollen and
cultural sequences then occurred, representing major forest clearance in
the ‘pioneering’ pattern, a shift in exchange networks, and the introduction
of pigs. It is tempting to view this as the movement of South-east
Solomonic speakers, bringing the full Lapita-derived agricultural suite
into a sparsely settled, Non-Austronesian, non-agricultural area. Events
further north may have aided this movement: if the Nuclear Micronesian
languages are indeed related to South-east Solomonic, then the agricultural
expansion postulated here may coincide with settlement
expansion from the same area into East Micronesia. It is significant that
the only group of Non-Austronesian languages in Remote Oceania, in
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the Reef Santa Cruz area, has been described as a secondary movement
from further north at about 2000 BP.
The need for Lapita groups to establish peaceful relations with earlier
settlers probably eroded preference for marrying their own kin, and
technological transfer allowed these other groups to ‘catch up’. Lapita
lost its distinctiveness and a variety of Creole cultures developed. The
earlier advantages of Lapita would ensure that the higher-status Austronesian
language prevailed. In many cases in Island Melanesia, Non-
Austronesian had important influences on Austronesian languages,
which would fit this model. Continued exchange, though attenuated,
could have ensured continuing changes in pottery style, in step over
much of Island Melanesia (the ‘Mangaasi’ or ‘Incised and Applied
Relief styles). Effects on social organisation would vary, and the
reassertion (or continuity) of pre-Lapita social forms cannot be discounted.
Secondary migration is one possible process of cultural change
towards the end of Lapita. Other scenarios include the collapse of the
exchange network, because it was onerous or redundant; transformation
of a system where hierarchy had been maintained by control of a
prestige-goods exchange network and perhaps a shared symbolic and
religious system; or absorption by non-Lapita groups.
On the island of New Guinea just after 2000 BP, the Papuan redslipped
pottery style spread rapidly east to west along the south coast of
Papua. The spread is associated with a distinctive settlement pattern,
long-distance movement of obsidian (from Fergusson Island in Milne
Bay) and other items of material culture derived from the Lapita culture
of the Bismarcks. Slightly later, pottery appeared along the north coast
and on islands offshore from Madang, also related to the Bismarcks
material. These pottery distributions are matched almost exactly with
east-to-west spreads of Austronesian languages out of New Britain. The
coincidence suggests that post-Lapita populations moved from the
Bismarcks along the New Guinea coasts and (in the Markham valley)
inland as well.
In the New Guinea Highlands at this time, Phase IV of use of the Kuk
Swamp (2000-1200 BP) is the first to show the rectangular grid of
ditched beds linked by major drains. This has been interpreted as a
‘Colocasian Revolution’, in which swamps became productive centres
for taro. This system enabled people to produce a significant surplus,
which generated inequalities in an economy based on pig exchanges.
Degradation of dryland environments into grassland areas gave the
swamps a new salience in agriculture, while stone axe production
began at specialised quarries, to supply intensifying exchanges.
A single piece of bronze from Lou’Island, near Manus, dating to 2100
BP bears tantalising witness to the end of the Lapita connections to west
and east. It is exactly contemporary with the earliest spread of metal
through island South-East Asia. Afterwards the orientations of the
archipelagos either side of New Guinea diverged rapidly. Island South-
East Asia became integrated into the ‘world system’ through the
Hinduised states and Chinese and Arab influences. These touched
western New Guinea (for instance Vietnamese Dongson bronze drums
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were there, dating to about 2000 BP) but evidently had no influence
further east.
After Lapita, exchange systems contracted sharply. Obsidian was
never again carried so far, and from about 2000 BP diversification seems
stronger than cultural unity in Island Melanesia. The region’s famous
diversity may be a product of the immediate post-Lapita era. In some
areas of Island Melanesia (unlike the northern Pacific, where trade
continued to link high islands with atolls), people stopped making or
trading pottery after 2000 BP: everywhere the number of potterymaking
centres declined.
The Pacific at 1000 BP (AD 1000)
Settlement of the Pacific was certainly punctuated: colonists reached
Near Oceania in the late Pleistocene, parts of Island Melanesia and West
Polynesia across the Remote Oceania barrier at about 3200-3000 BP,
West Micronesia at the same time (with a later burst into Micronesia
from Island Melanesia at about 2000 BP). They settled East Polynesia
rapidly, starting around 1600-1300 BP. Most of East Polynesia was first
settled between 2000 and 1000 BP: the Marquesas in AD 300-600,
Hawai’i at about AD 650, the Cooks and Tahiti at about AD 750-800 and
Rapanui (Easter Island) towards the end of the first millennium. New
Zealand was first settled even later, in the period AD 1000-1200.
Developments in voyaging and navigation were doubtless important,
but a fully agricultural subsistence base was critical in settlement.
East Polynesia was harder to colonise than West Polynesia: there were
greater distances, smaller islands, fewer stone resources, less variety of
plants and animals, and (in the south) environmental limits to some
crops. Pressure on resources must have been felt quickly, leading to a
continuous search for new islands. Colonisation may have been spurred
by the depletion of fauna. Each island would have had large colonies of
birds (many of them flightless) and turtles, shell and reef fish. As these
were depleted, some people were provoked to seek new reserves, as an
easier alternative to greater concentration on agriculture. The evidence
for agriculture also suggests a ‘pioneer’ pattern, with major erosion and
other landscape degradation, requiring the abandonment of some areas
for centuries. The return to such areas and greater efforts at soil
conservation occurred when no more ‘new’ lands were available.
In this period of initial settlement of East Polynesia, we must place
the contact with South America which led to diffusion of the Andean
sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and its Quechua-language term kumar (in
Polynesian, kumar a and related terms). Despite Heyerdahl’s celebrated
raft trip from South America to the Tuamotus, it is more likely that the
contact was made by Polynesians seeking new islands to colonise, than
by South Americans. The sweet potato spread throughout East Polynesia,
but not to West Polynesia or Island Melanesia. Heyerdahl and
others have claimed a significant South American input in the formation
of East Polynesian cultures, particularly that of Rapanui, but the
case is overstated. Claims that Rapanui’s original population was South
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American rather than Polynesian cannot be accepted (but see the next
section of this chapter).
Between 2000 and 1000 BP, Western Polynesians stopped making
pottery and began to develop the settlement patterns which Europeans
saw in the seventeenth century. In Fiji the outlines of a continuous
cultural sequence (with pottery) have been established. Fortifications
became widespread at about 1000 BP, suggesting increased warfare. In
Island Melanesia important realignments of exchange networks occurred
between 2000 and 1000 BP. In the Vitiaz Straits a forerunner of the
more recent exchange system developed about 1500 BP. The post-Lapita
trade links of the Mussau group north of the Bismarck Archipelago also
differed from those before. At around 1000 BP pottery imports to Nissan
switched from a northern supplier (probably on New Ireland) to a
southern source (Buka) and thereafter the historic patterns of settlement
and material culture can be recognised. People stopped making pots on
New Ireland and/or islands off its east coast. The exchange connections
of Tikopia switched at about 1950 BP, from north-western materials
(obsidian, stone adzes, chert) to materials from the south and east
(particularly pottery).
We know much less about this period than we do about earlier or
later periods: it is too late for the distinctive pottery of the Lapita period
and too soon for oral history. Cultural sequences are difficult to establish
in areas without pottery. In part this is due to a lack of distinctive
material culture innovation before about 750 BP: many sites are known
but little is certain. However, there is evidence of forest clearance. For
example at several places on Aneityum (southern Vanuatu) by about
1600 BP there was increased sedimentation, valley infilling and coastal
progradation. By about 1000 BP people began to use the newly created
valley flats for settlement and agriculture: at first dryland, and later
irrigated cultivation.
On New Guinea detailed cultural sequences for the last 2000 years
are available only for the south Papuan coast and the Massim. Between
2000 and 1000 BP these cultures were progressively ‘Melanesianised’,
similar to processes in Island Melanesia during the Lapita period. Just
after 1000 BP settlement patterns were disrupted and there were major
changes in pottery and other artefacts.
Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of New Guinea yields the fullest
record of human occupation and land use. Phase IV of that long history
ended about 1200 BP. People developed a fallowing system using the
nitrogen-fixing casuarina tree. That innovation made it possible to
abandon swamp irrigation. This became a Highlands-wide trend, which
occurred a few centuries later on the margins of the main valleys. Kuk
Swamp was abandoned until about 400 years ago. From about 1100 BP
comes the first direct evidence of sustained occupation of the islands of
Torres Strait, created when rising sea levels breached the land bridge
connecting Australia and New Guinea. Influences and items travelled
both ways, and exchange networks operated across the strait in the
nineteenth century. The contrast persisted, however, between agricultural
groups at the northern end of the strait and in New Guinea, and
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hunter-gatherers in the south and in Australia. Throughout prehistory
the islands formed a barrier rather than a bridge.
In Micronesia at about 1000 BP construction began at Nan Madol,
Pohnpei, in the eastern Carolines, of low platforms and islet fills,
precursors to the complex described below. Settlement at Nan Madol
began on sand beaches, bars or possibly in stilt houses over the reef
from about 1900 BP. Local subsidence and flooding may have encouraged
people to build their artificial islets. The similar site of Lelu on
Kosrae also has an early pottery phase beneath its artificial fill, dating to
about 2000 BP, but the phase of pottery use on Kosrae was probably
brief. Ceramic and stone material on Lamotrek Island in the Carolines
suggests that voyaging and trading long connected Lamotrek with Yap,
Palau and Chuuk. Ties to all these volcanic islands appear to date to at
least 800 BP. Lamotrek was probably first settled between 1000 and 900
BP, although it might have been occupied 500 to 700 years earlier. The
population gradually increased, with fluctuations, until it reached a
maximum between 700 and 500 BP.
The Pacific Islands on the Eve of European Contact, about 500 BP
Between 1000 and 800 BP first settlement occurred of the North and
South Islands of New Zealand. Occupation of the more remote
Chatham Islands at about 500 BP completed the settlement of the Pacific
Islands. Some islands such as Henderson, Pitcairn and Fanning (the
‘mystery islands’ of Polynesia) had been settled or visited but abandoned.
Settlement stopped when there were no more islands to find and
the eastern edge, the Americas, had been located and briefly contacted.
Between 1000 and 500 BP Polynesia achieved rapid population
growth, agricultural expansion and intensification. Hawaiians cleared
thousands of square kilometres of leeward forest and developed
intensive dryland field systems with altitudinal zoning of crops such as
sweet potato, breadfruit and taro on the big island of Hawai’i and in
parts of Maui. Whether population expansion reached environmental
limits before European contact and the population levelled off or
declined, are debated questions. For Hawai’i the evidence is equivocal,
but on Rapanui the people probably did provoke an environmental
crisis and the same may be true in the Marquesas.
The environmental limits to growth have also been invoked to
explain the highly stratified chiefdoms of Hawai’i and other islands.
Older ideas stressed war for land, and chiefs as war leaders, as a corollary
of population pressure in a circumscribed environment. More
recent theories propose that people were active agents in shaping social
systems, and competition among chiefs was the developmental
dynamic. Hawai’i has often been invoked in discussions on the rise of
stratified chiefdoms and the state, but its place as exemplar in general
schemes of state formation is by no means certain. As with other Island
‘archetypes’, the specificities of the situation are important. The
Hawaiian archipelago is the most isolated set of inhabited islands in the
world. No other societies developed states beyond regular contact with
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other ‘proto-states’ or other societies with which they traded or from
which they exacted tribute. On the other hand, the Tongan and Samoan
archipelagos were in exactly such contact, and their developments from
an ancestral chiefly system after 1000 BP should be seen in a regional
perspective which includes the eastern islands of the Fijian archipelago
as a ‘world system’. Its effects were widely felt, with the establishment
of Polynesian communities on the eastern borders of Island Melanesia,
the so-called ‘outliers’, and in some Micronesian islands. They were
more probably refugees from dynastic conflicts in West Polynesia, than
lucky drift voyagers who met a friendly reception.
In some areas of New Guinea and Island Melanesia material culture
and settlement patterns between 1000 and 500 BP seem broadly similar
to those observed at European contact, but in parts of the Solomons and
Vanuatu, major changes occurred during this interval. At about 750 BP
significant changes occurred in some ‘Polynesian outliers’ like Tikopia
or on islands adjacent to them. On Tikopia a Polynesian element became
prominent in the material culture. Some architecture took on Western
Polynesian forms, there were direct imports of Western Polynesian
stone adzes, and some new artefact types appeared, while pottery
imports from Vanuatu ceased. On Efate Island in Vanuatu at the same
period is the grave of Roy Mata, a chief who—according to oral
traditions—came from ‘the south’, set up Efate’s chiefly titles, and was
buried with human sacrifices and ‘voluntary’ immolations by representatives
of the many clans under his control. Roy Mata has been portrayed
as a Polynesian immigrant, and his burial recalls chiefly burials
in West Polynesia. New elements of material culture came in at this time
with a greater reliance on shell tools such as Terebra and Lambis adzes,
and pottery manufacture probably ceased. Two chiefly graves on
Aneityum display a similar assemblage of ornaments and fit with oral
traditions of chiefly burial rites. One has been dated to 300-400 BP and
skeletal analysis suggests a Polynesian affiliation. Several other
cemetery sites of this period are known from Efate and from Polynesian
outliers in Vanuatu and the Solomons with similar material culture.
Polynesian-speaking peoples on the outliers, Polynesian loan-words
in New Caledonian and Vanuatu languages, local myths involving
Polynesian culture heroes such as Mauitikitiki and Tangaroa, and oral
traditions of ‘Tongan’ contact all point to Polynesian influences in the
last 700 years. The nature of the contact and its effects varied. On
Rennell and Bellona (in the Solomon Islands), the current Polynesian
inhabitants have traditions of an earlier, darker-skinned population
called Hiti whom they found when they arrived from ‘Ubea’ (possibly
West ‘Uvea in New Caledonia). After a period of coexistence, conflict
erupted and the Hiti were massacred. The story seems confirmed by a
‘Hiti substratum’ in the languages of the two islands, pointing to the
former existence of a group related to the South-east Solomonic
speakers of the main Solomon Islands.
Archaeological evidence suggests that exchange systems such as the
Kula Ring of the Massim, the Hiri of the Gulf of Papua, and Carolinian
exchange systems were not static. The Kula involved a much stronger
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mainland New Guinea component 500 years ago. Although oral
tradition suggests that the Hiri started about 200 years ago, settlement
patterns consistent with intensive coastal trade occurred at about
1200-1500 BP and again from about 300 years ago. The eastern islands
of the Carolinian exchange systems had dropped out by about 300 BP.
Direct European contact with the New Guinea Highlands only
started in the 1930s, but the indirect effects began perhaps 200^00 years
earlier with the introduction of the sweet potato. This allowed agriculture
at higher altitude, and more productively as a dryland crop at
altitudes where agriculture was already practised. Its source was transplantation
of the sweet potato by Spanish colonists from South America
to the Philippines, and thence through exchange routes to Maluku and
west New Guinea. It was never of major importance in Lowland New
Guinea, but it became the staple in much of the Highlands and was still
spreading into marginal Highland areas during this century. Phase V of
drainage in the Kuk Swamp (400-250 BP) may be an adjustment to the
sweet potato, the size and pattern of ditches being the same as in
modern western Highlands sweet potato gardens. Golson, however, has
interpreted this phase as the development of raised-bed cultivation, and
sees Phase VI (250-100 BP) as representing the arrival of sweet potato.10
Spatial adjustments followed the adoption of the new crop, and twothirds
of the area under cultivation at Kuk in Phase V was abandoned in
Phase VI. The major advantage of swamp gardening from Phase IV
onwards had by then disappeared. Sweet potato allowed a major expansion
of pig herds, underpinning the pig-killing and exchange cycles
of the Highlands such as the Enga tee and the Hagen moka.
The well-endowed high islands of the Carolines were connected to
each other by trade, and to the low-lying atolls by patron-client relationships.
In Micronesia generally there was significant social stratification
in the period 1000-500 BP. The stone pillar latte structures of the
Mariana Islands, foundations for high-status residences, date from
about 1000 BP, and the megalithic architecture of Nan Madol on
Pohnpei from 750 BP onwards. Nan Madol consists of about ninety-two
artificial islets, separated by narrow watercourses. The total area is
80 hectares, while the islet area is just over 30 hectares including residential,
ceremonial and funerary structures in high-walled compounds.
Oral traditions record it as the capital of the Saudeleur dynasty, who
ruled Pohnpei as a centralised polity until a revolt of lower-ranking
chiefs about 1350 BP led to restructuring of power into five polities. Nan
Madol was then largely abandoned. The beginning of megalithic
architecture at Nan Madol coincided with the end of pottery-making on
A similar ‘urban’ complex existed at Lelu, 480 kilometres from
Pohnpei. Lelu, off the coast of the main island of Kosrae, is a small
volcanic island which has been artificially extended. Like Nan Madol it
formed a ‘disembedded elite centre’ in a neutral location, consisting of
similar high-walled residential and ceremonial compounds which also
10 Golson, ‘New Guinea Agricultural History: A Case Study’.
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have a network of canals. Its population in the early nineteenth century
was about 1000-1500, consisting of the paramount chief and the other
high-ranking chiefs of Kosrae. Michael Graves sees the paramount as
‘chief among chiefs’, rather than an absolute ruler in the way in which
Pohnpei’s Saudeleur dynasty has been interpreted. He also notes that
Lelu’s megalithic architecture is later than that at Nan Madol, beginning
about 1600 AD and rapidly completed.
Large-scale movements of people were accomplished by the sixteenth
century. The consequent distribution of ‘Polynesia’, ‘Melanesia’ and
‘Micronesia’ is often described as if these culture areas were distinct
from each other and from neighbouring Australia, East and South-East
Asia, or the Americas. The histories and usages of these terms are
considered in chapter 1. Here we seek to dispel two impressions: that
island populations severed all connection with each other, and that the
whole region was isolated from the rest of the world until the age of
Cook. Insularity and isolation were partly real, but were exaggerated by
eighteenth-century publicists and philosophers, for whom island societies
exemplified distinct (and preferably pure) archetypes. The final
section traces smaller-scale movements of people and ideas, usually
more recent than those considered above, providing evidence of interaction
as a corrective to illusions of insularity and isolation.
Castaways from South-East Asia, from South America, and from
Portuguese and Spanish ships of the sixteenth century appear to have
been significant actors in the last 2000 years of Pacific Island prehistory.
Large groups of castaways on any island were likely to leave detectable
traces, especially if the strangers were physically or culturally distinct.
Some Europeans in the eighteenth century were struck by the physical
diversity of the Islanders, and speculated that South-East Asian castaways
or colonists must be responsible. In 1787, for example, La
Perouse was convinced that South-East Asians had sailed as far east
as Samoa:
these different nations [in Polynesia] are derived from Malay colonies who
conquered these islands at different periods. I am convinced that the race of
woolly-haired men still found in the interior part of the islands of Luzon and
Taiwan were the aborigines of the Philippines, Taiwan, New Guinea, New
Britain, Vanuatu, Tonga, &c. in the southern hemisphere and of the Caroline,
Mariana and Hawaiian islands in the northern. In New Guinea, New Britain
and Vanuatu, they were not to be subdued; but, vanquished in the islands
farther east, which were too small to afford them a retreat in their centres,
they intermingled with their conquerors . . . These two very distinct races
appeared striking to our eyes at the Samoan Islands, and I can ascribe to
them no other origin.11
11 Author’s translation of the journal of Jean-Francois de Galaup de la Perouse. For a
complete English translation, see Dunmore, The Journal of la Perouse.
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La Perouse’s view was long held to explain differences in the
physical features, culture and language of Polynesians as opposed to
Fijians and other Melanesians. More recently, scholarly fashion has
swung against cultural diffusion with its emphasis on essentialised
racial categories and its sometimes racist elaboration. Modern scholars
prefer to explain diversity in terms of local adaptation and indigenous
agency, but historical babies may have been thrown out with the
diffusionist bath-water. If we revisit that scholarship in a more critical
spirit than its protagonists employed, we may recover an appropriate
sense of the mobility and the cultural diversity of Islanders’ experience.
Trans-Pacific voyages may have been rare between the settlement of
East Polynesia and the irruption of Europeans in the sixteenth century,
but for several centuries people sailed around the rim of the ocean. It
would be extraordinary if they were never cast away on unexpected
beaches. Modern genetic research, which describes wide human variety,
revives interest in mobility.
Seamen and merchants from India and China were increasingly
involved in South-East Asian trade by the start of the Christian era. As
ships became larger and more seaworthy, they were likely to survive
being carried out of their way in abnormal weather (such as occurs
during the El Nino phenomenon). A Chinese source of the third century
AD speaks of foreign ships more than 50 metres long that stood 4-5
metres out of the water. They could carry 600 to 700 people and 250 to
1000 tons of cargo. A Chinese source of the eighth century describes
even larger ships, while a sixth-century cave painting at Ajanta, India,
depicts a ship with three high masts, a bowsprit rigged with sails,
intricate steering gear, and no outrigger. The scale of some voyages is
suggested by the fact that people from Kalimantan eventually crossed
the Indian Ocean to settle in Madagascar.
Asian mariners were also active in the Pacific. The evidence suggests
at least three shiploads of South-East Asian castaways in prehistoric
times. On Futuna, a well-known tradition concerns people called Tsiaina,
the local word for China. Tsiaina is certainly a post-European
interpolation, but there seems no reason to doubt the principal elements
in the tradition. Six versions are on record. Elements common to two
versions or more are: (1) the immigrants landed at Alofi, Futuna’s sister
island; (2) they dug wells on their arrival; (3) they intermarried with the
islanders and multiplied; (4) they altered place names; (5) they travelled
about beating a wooden gong called lali to determine, by its resonance,
where they would settle; (6) they introduced better agricultural practices;
(7) they introduced improved methods of making and marking
bark cloth; and (8) they were finally overthrown and massacred. An
additional innovation is ascribed to them in the Futunan dictionary of
the missionary Isidore Grezel12 who arrived in 1843: the word moo is
defined as ‘a kind of squat pig, said to have come from China’.
Many features of Futuna’s tradition can be authenticated. Squat pigs
called moo are confined to Futuna and its immediate neighbours. The
12 Dictionnaire Futunien-Frangais.
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arrival point on Alofi is called Sa’avaka which translates in some
Polynesian languages as ‘sacred ship’. The digging of wells suggests
that Futuna was in the grip of drought, so that the voyage may have
resulted from El Nino conditions. A well attributed to them still exists at
Sa’avaka: it is 6 metres deep and 2.4 metres wide. Gongs called lali, in
use in ‘Uvea and Fiji in early European times, were unknown in Tonga
and Samoa until recently—suggesting their novel status in the central
Pacific. Irrigated taro cultivation, an innovation attributed to the
‘Chinese’, is unknown in most of the rest of Polynesia. Likewise, one of
Futuna’s two ways of making bark cloth and one of its two ways of
decorating it are unknown in East Polynesia. The unknown methods are
those attributed to the ‘Chinese’.
Futunan tradition says that the ‘Chinese’ were overthrown because
their rule became oppressive. This was apparently after the Dutch
explorers Schouten and LeMaire visited Futuna in 1616 (see chapter 4),
for an artist with their expedition depicted the island’s chiefs with long,
straight, plaited hair—among people with frizzy hair. The Dutch also
recorded a term for chief—one which fell out of use by missionary
times. This was latou (correctly: lain) which is cognate with datu ‘king,
prince, ruler’ in many South-East Asian languages and still preserved
in Samoan lain, ‘head builder’, Fijian ratu, ‘chief, and some Tongan surnames.
Futuna’s honorific vocabulary was also obsolete by missionary
times. However, some traces are detectable, while the honorific vocabularies
still used in Tonga, ‘Uvea and Samoa obviously had a common
origin and links with Futunan.
Futuna’s Tsiaina may have been the same people who introduced the
Tangaloa cult to West Polynesia where, in the opinion of E. S. Handy, a
researcher in the 1920s,13 it overlaid that of the Indo-Polynesians. Handy
speculated that the Tangaloa religion originated in southern China; but,
as Tangaloa was known in Polynesia as ‘Lord of the Ocean’, it seems
more likely that the cult came with people from the Sangir Islands north
of Sulawesi, where tagaloang signifies ‘open sea, ocean’. Other Polynesian
words, including lali, ‘gong’, also seem traceable to Sangir. Moreover,
honorifics are important in those languages; the Sangirese were
outstanding boat-builders and seamen; and the division of their society
into nobles, free people and slaves is reminiscent of those parts of
Polynesia that came under the influence of the Tangaloa people.
The earliest radiocarbon date so far for human settlement in East
Polynesia is AD 300 for a site on Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands. The site
yielded shards from pots evidently made in the Rewa Delta of Fiji. The
first Polynesian settlers of the Marquesas were apparently Tongans
because certain Marquesan words could not have come from anywhere
else: mei, ‘breadfruit'; maa, ‘breadfruit paste'; puou, ‘variety of breadfruit';
too, ‘sugarcane'; tokave, ‘variety of small coconut'; hoho’e ‘Kuhliidae, a fish
species; and kumaa, ‘rat’. The Polynesians of non-Tongan origin also
settled in the Marquesas—and settlers of ultimate American origin
appear to have arrived there from Rapanui (Easter Island).
13 Handy, Polynesian Religion.
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Rapanui was probably settled as early as the middle of the first
Christian millennium. Pacific scholars long believed that its first human
inhabitants were Polynesians. (Linguists divide the languages of East
Polynesia into Marquesic and Tahitic, while Rapanui is regarded as an
isolate.) It is more likely, however, that the first inhabitants were
American Indians from Ecuador or Peru because of the array of
cultivated American plants on Rapanui and other Eastern Polynesian
islands at the time of European contact: notably the sweet potato,
pineapple, capsicum, 26-chromosome cotton, soapberry and manioc.
The gourd, banana and blue-egg chicken, introduced to South America
from Asia, must also have reached East Polynesia from the east. Over
the centuries, castaways from Rapanui evidently drifted to the
Marquesas, Pitcairn, Mangareva, the Tuamotu Archipelago and Society
Islands with some plants and chickens. At first these were important
items in Eastern Polynesian economies, but as Polynesians from the
west introduced such plants as taro, yam, sugarcane, breadfruit and
paper mulberry, the capsicum, pineapple and cotton were virtually
abandoned in those islands that had them, although the sweet potato,
gourd and banana remained important. Both the fighting cock and a
heavy breed of domestic fowl were also introduced to East Polynesia
from the west, along with the dog and razor-backed pig. Many Eastern
Polynesian words, including several relating to bananas and chickens,
are unknown in West Polynesia. This suggests that the region’s early
culture was an amalgam of features from both east and west. One
feature seems to have been entirely due to American influence: the
building of massive stone structures, such as the marae or religious
courtyards of the Tuamotu Archipelago and Society Islands. However,
the term marae (cf. mala’e, ‘public place’, in Futunan) certainly came
from the west.
Rapanui became the home of a second band of American Indians in
about AD 1100. They belonged to the Tiahuanaco culture centred in the
high Andes. They and their descendants built the famous statues, or
moai, of Rapanui as well as a small, tower-like structure called twpa,
similar in name, appearance and function to Andean structures called
chullpa. All surviving twpa are built as corbelled vaults: the stones of the
interior wall overlap from bottom to top, so that the diameter becomes
smaller towards the top until a dome-like ceiling is formed. Small, low
entrances surmounted by large lintel stones are another distinctive
feature. In the Andes, the building of chullpa was confined to the period
from about AD 1100 to the time of the Spanish conquest. The Rapanui
tupa most closely resemble those of the earliest period. The structures in
both places are assumed to have been for the display of the bones of the
dead. On Temoe Atoll, near Mangareva, there is a tupa-like marae called
Otupa. Otherwise, Rapanui’s moai and tupa-b\xi\ders appear to have had
no significant impact in Polynesia.
Society Islands tradition tells of a ‘prince from Rotuma’ who settled
on Bora Bora nine to fourteen generations before the mid-nineteenth
century and married into the royal family. Other outsiders in Society
Islands prehistory were castaways from the Spanish caravel San Lesmes,
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one of four ships that passed into the Pacific from the Strait of Magellan
on 26 May 1526. Six days later, the ships were separated in a storm and
the San Lesmes, with a complement of about fifty-three Galicians,
Basques, other Spaniards, Italians, Germans and Flemings, was never
seen again. In 1929 four ancient cannon were found on the reef of
Amanu Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Two have been linked firmly
to the San Lesmes. The caravel ran aground at Amanu by night, the crew
jettisoned their cannon, and they proceeded on a westerly course, seeking
a haven to make repairs. Their first stopping place was Anaa Atoll,
400 kilometres east of Tahiti, where some men left the ship. The rest
reached Opoa at the south-eastern corner of Ra’iatea, some 200 kilometres
north-west of Tahiti, where they began to repair the caravel or to
build another. When this work was finished, they headed for Spain by
sailing south-westward for the Cape of Good Hope, leaving some
Spaniards behind and carrying some Polynesian men, women and
Cultural diffusionists speculated that castaways from one of the lost
Spanish galleons of the Manila-Acapulco run were influential in the
Hawaiian Islands. The theory originated soon after Cook. Three
material items convinced several of his officers that Spaniards had
preceded them. These were the crested helmets and feather cloaks of the
Hawaiian chiefs, and several iron daggers. One officer, James King, saw
the helmets and cloaks as ‘a singular deviation’ from Polynesian styles,
and asserted ‘an exact resemblance’ to those of Spain of former times.
Hawaiian traditions recorded in the early nineteenth century supported
King’s supposition. One version told how seven white men landed at
Kealakekua Bay several generations before Cook. Their descendants, it
was said, were ‘distinguished by a lighter colour in the skin’ and
‘corresponding brown curly hair’. Doubts about the Spanish connection
grew in the twentieth century. One critic pointed out that the chiefly
Hawaiian helmets were quite unlike Spanish helmets of the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries. Nevertheless three Spanish galleons are
known to have been lost between Manila and Acapulco (in 1576, 1578
and 1586), and in the late 1950s two strikingly non-Polynesian items
were found in the burial casket of a deified chief that had once been
deposited in a cave at Kealakekua Bay. One was a piece of iron embedded
in a wooden handle like a chisel. The other was a length of
woven sailcloth. It has also been suggested that the Hawaiian helmets
were modelled on those worn by actors portraying Roman soldiers of
Biblical times in the passion plays of the Philippines.14
Another lost Spanish ship of the same period seems to have ended its
days on Ontong Java, a Polynesian outlier of the Solomon Islands. This
was the Santa Isabel, one of the four ships of the Mendana expedition
that left Peru in 1595, bound for the Solomons. The Santa Isabel became
separated from its companion vessels as they neared their destination
and was never seen again. In 1971 some shards of alien pottery and
other distinctive items were found at Pamua on San Cristobal, indicat-
14 These issues are developed in Langdon, Lost Caravel.
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ing that the crew and passengers had camped there. The presence of
many European-looking Islanders on low-lying Ontong Java has since
suggested that the Santa Isabel later ran aground there. Other Ontong
Java people of similar appearance have migrated to Honiara and to
Santa Isabel.15
Three other lost Spanish ships, and a body of mutinous men
marooned in the Marshall Islands, may have played similar roles in
Micronesia. In 1527, the Santiago and Espiritu Santo were lost on a
voyage from Mexico to the Moluccas. With a combined complement of
sixty, they appear to have ended their days on Fais Island and Ulithi
Atoll in the western Carolines. Almost seventy years later, the Santa
Catalina, a second ship of the Mendana expedition of 1595, probably
fetched up at Pohnpei in the eastern Carolines: leaking badly, the ship
was last seen near that island. Earlier, in 1566, twenty-seven men from
the San Jeronimo were marooned on Ujelang Atoll, the westernmost of
the Marshall Islands, after an unsuccessful mutiny
The full nature and extent of castaway influence will never be known
with certainty. This account allows for many more (and more varied)
castaways than most prehistorians do. Besides external castaways,
Melanesians drifted from one island to another; Polynesians and
Micronesians did likewise. Further research may reconstruct some of
these ‘invisible’ mariners: but such revelations would still represent a
mere fraction of the story of castaway involvement in the settlement
and peopling of the Pacific Islands.
Little research has been done on the maritime dimension of the region’s
history. Most works with a maritime theme address the initial
exploration and colonisation of Oceania.16 They focus on the nautical
and navigational technology of Oceania’s cultures at the time of first
encounters with outsiders, or isolated cultures of the present century. A
host of studies also consider the sea as a food resource. Recent enthusiasm
for cultural mind-sets and world-views has enriched Pacific
history, but tends to obscure other approaches. In particular, humanenvironmental
interactions, a focus of archaeology and human geography,
have attracted little attention from historians. Resource use has
a social and political context, while the environment imposes constraints
on social and political orders, and influences world-views.
Europe’s Atlantic and Mediterranean seaboards, the Indian Ocean’s
Swahili, Arabian and Indian coasts, island South-East Asia and southeast
China have all generated rich literatures, but the Pacific Ocean has
not received such detailed attention.
The Pacific Ocean can be envisaged as two distinct zones. Where the
lighter oceanic plates of the earth’s crust collide with the heavier
15 Ibid.
16 An important and recent exception is Hviding, Guardians ofMarovo Lagoon.
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continental plates of the western Pacific rim, the underlying molten
magma bursts through the fractures as dramatic volcanic activity. The
result is a host of volcanic islands, and atolls formed from the coral
remains of the living organisms that establish themselves in the shallow
waters above subsided volcanoes. About 80 per cent of the world’s
islands lie within a triangle formed by Tokyo, Jakarta and Pitcairn.
Outside this area the plates of the seabed tend to drift apart rather than
collide, so that the magma oozes out under much less pressure, creating
basins and gentle ridges. They do not break the surface or disturb a
huge area of ‘empty ocean’ in the northern and eastern Pacific.
Most historians present the sea as a uniform void between landfalls,
whose most significant features are surface conditions and wind
patterns which hinder or encourage voyaging. The sea has an equally
important vertical dimension, which influences marine life, and varies
in time and space. Historians have been slow to use scientific data on
oceanic food chains to supplement archaeological and historical data on
the marine resources available to Islanders. The range of species known
to have been exploited needs to be compared with the full range of
potentially useful species, in order to measure people’s reliance on
marine food and their ability to use it.
Use of the sea as a means of communication and as a food source
depends largely on people’s knowledge and perceptions. Many sea
cultures perceived a close affinity between humans and dolphins,
dugongs, seals and sharks, so that people neither feared nor hunted
those species.17 Attitudes and activities, rather than coastal residence
alone, distinguish sea cultures. Sea communities are not at all uniform.
Scholars of Oceania, among others, note the distinction in all sea
cultures between the restricted group of sailors and navigators who go
to sea, and the land-based majority who do not. Outside Oceania, many
communities became sea people because of military or environmental
constraints on land. Sea-oriented cultures are seldom self-sufficient, and
require relationships with larger, land-oriented communities to supply
their deficiencies. Trade, raiding or political subordination were the
usual mediums for such relationships, and piracy and residential
mobility were common side-effects. Archaeological theory in Oceania
emphasises the influence of environmental constraints on small islands,
but the notion of marginalised sea peoples relative to land-based
polities is notably lacking. The relatively small size of many islands and
polities should not blind us to the possibility of distinctions and
tensions between land-based and sea-oriented communities, such as the
seemingly symbiotic relationship between seagoing Motu and landbased
Koita on the Papuan south coast.
Living on a coast exposes a community to influences from across the
sea. Pacific history has led the way in examining the cultural logic
behind the exchange of items and ideas when cultures meet. Island
beaches are portrayed as transformative processes where objects, ideas
and individuals move between cultures, mediated by power relations
17 See, for example, Sahlins, The Stranger-King, or Dumezil’.
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and acculturation.18 This approach has much to offer the utilitarian
explanations which pervade much writing elsewhere, but we should
not ignore the economic utility which underlay many such exchanges.
Explanations for claims of external origin for ruling groups show a
similar dichotomy. In Oceania such scenarios are explained as social
constructions to rationalise the relationship between the raw violence of
power and the controlled violence of authority. Power is always
usurping and external, while authority is always legitimate and local.
Outside Oceania more emphasis is given to seeking historical bases for
such claims.
In general, Pacific scholarship portrays external contacts as having
limited significance in the development of island societies from initial
colonisation until European contact. Scholars focus more closely on
population growth and the resulting pressure on the environment, and
competition for status through warfare, or the intensification of
production for redistribution to forge social or political obligation.
Recent scholars criticise the tendency to focus on single island groups
or even single islands, pointing out that island communities were
connected ‘in a wider social world of moving items and ideas’.19 Local
traditions, the distribution of cultural traits, and observations by literate
outsiders all attest to inter-island voyaging within most archipelagos.
Long-distance voyaging between archipelagos was also still apparent in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in central East Polynesia
(centred on Tahiti), West Polynesia and Fiji (centred on Tonga), the
coasts of south-east Papua, and in much of Micronesia. Perhaps the
most extensive and coherent of all the long-distance networks was a
tributary and exchange system of 1100 kilometres linking many of the
atolls of the western Carolines to the high island of Yap in West
Micronesia.20 External contacts probably waxed and waned according to
circumstances, and so did their impact. For example Ian Campbell
observes that available evidence suggests that the period from about
AD 1100 to 1500 was one of significant upheaval and inter-island
movement in much of Oceania.21
Not all exchanges were peaceful. In essence, sea-power is the ability
to ensure free movement on the sea for oneself and to inhibit a similar
capacity in others. Such power is rarely achieved, and the massive
resources needed to build and maintain a battle fleet have exceeded the
means of all but a few polities. Even when they were raised, these fleets
conducted most of their operations near to shore because of technical
and logistical limitations. Naval battles have been rare for the same
reasons. Most naval operations have been lower-level harassment of
enemy shipping or raids on coastlines. In both cases the seaborne
aggressors enjoyed the advantage of surprise and mobility, but their
actions rarely resulted in political dominion. Without clear naval
18 For example Dening, The Death of William Gooch.
19 Irwin, Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation, 204.
20 Lewthwaite, ‘Geographical Knowledge of the Pacific Peoples'; and Parsonson, The
Settlement of Oceania’.
21 Campbell, A History of the Pacific Islands, 36.
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hegemony, the ease of such operations has made the sea world
dangerous. These characteristics may not, of course, apply in Oceania.
The Pacific environment of islands with relatively small populations
and resource bases, often separated by open ocean, may well have
generated quite different configurations of power. A number of islands
merit further investigation in this regard. Small island polities with
limited populations—such as Bau in Fiji, Manono in Samoa, the Ha’apai
group in Tonga, and the Roviana Lagoon in the Solomons—exercised
political influence on their archipelagos because of their naval strength.
On a larger scale the ‘Yapese Empire’, the influence of Tonga after
unification, and Tahiti under the Pomare dynasty rested, in part, on seapower.
All deserve investigation as possible thalassocracies, a concept
hitherto neglected in Pacific studies.
Archaeological research has been pursued since the late nineteenth
century, with current centres at the Australian National University,
University of Auckland and University of Otago in New Zealand, and
University of Hawai’i. Most archaeological work is published in
regional journals such as Archaeology in New Zealand, Archaeology in
Oceania, Asian Perspectives, Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association,
Hawaiian Archaeology, JPS, and New Zealand Journal of Archaeology.
Antiquity also reports Pacific discoveries. Other relevant journals
include Australian Archaeology, journal de la Societe des Oceanistes, Man
and Culture in Oceania, Micronesica, Oceanic Linguistics and Pacific
Linguistics. Monograph series include three from the Bernice P. Bishop
Museum: B. P. Bishop Museum Bulletins, Pacific Anthropological Records,
and Department of Anthropology, Departmental Report Series. UHP
publishes the Asian and Pacific Archaeology Series and the Department of
Prehistory at ANU publishes two series: Terra Australis and Occasional
Papers in Prehistory.
There is a vast literature on the emergence of modern humans. The
main opposing viewpoints are represented by M. Wolpoff (regional
continuity) and C. B. Stringer (replacement). Both have papers in
Mellars and Stringer (eds), The Human Revolution: Behavioural and Biological
Perspectives) and in Brauer and Smith (eds), Continuity or Replacement.
For the Pleistocene archaeology of Australia, New Guinea and
Island Melanesia, see Smith, Spriggs and Fankhauser (eds), Sahul in
Review. An older but useful review is Allen, ‘When Did Humans First
Colonise Australia?’. Specific topics are addressed by Allen, Gosden
and Peter White, ‘Human Pleistocene Adaptations in the Tropic Island
Pacific: Recent Evidence from New Ireland'; Bowdler, ‘Homo sapiens in
Southeast Asia and the Antipodes: Archaeological vs Biological Interpretations';
Bowdler, ‘Sunda and Sahul: A 30K yr Culture Area?’ in
Smith, Spriggs and Fankhauser, Sahul in Review; and Groube et al.,
‘A 40,000-year-old Human Occupation Site at Huon Peninsula, Papua
New Guinea’.
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Radiocarbon and thermoluminescence dating techniques are discussed
by Roberts et al., ‘Thermoluminescence Dating of a 50,000-yearold
Human Occupation Site in Northern Australia'; Hiscock, ‘How Old
are the Artefacts in Malakunanja II?'; Bowdler, ‘50,000-year-old Site
in Australia—Is It Really that Old?'; and ‘Some Sort of Dates at
Malakunanja II: A Reply to Roberts et al.’.
Navigation and early settlement are reconstructed in Irwin, The
Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific. Specialist studies
include Davidson, ‘The Chronology of Australian Watercraft'; Rowland,
‘The Distribution of Aboriginal Watercraft on the East Coast of
Queensland'; Bowdler, ‘Offshore Islands and Maritime Explorations in
Australian Prehistory'; and Birdsell, ‘The Recalibration of a Paradigm
for the First Peopling of Greater Australia’, in Allen et al. (eds), Sunda
and Sahul.
Recent summaries of Pacific prehistory are contained in Jennings
(ed.), The Prehistory of Polynesia; Kirch, The Evolution of the Polynesian
Chiefdoms; Bellwood, The Polynesians; and Bellwood, Fox and Tryon
(eds), The Austronesians, which is also relevant for linguistics. The
distinction between Near and Remote Oceania is made in most detail by
Green, ‘Near and Remote Oceania—Disestablishing “Melanesia” in
Culture History’.
For Austronesian languages, see Tryon (ed.), Comparative Austronesian
Dictionary; and Pawley and Ross, ‘Austronesian Historical
Linguistics and Culture History’. For Non-Austronesian languages, see
Wurm, Papuan Languages of Oceania, and Foley, The Papuan Languages of
New Guinea.
Golson offers a clear overview of New Guinea agriculture in three
chapters of Denoon and Snowden (eds), A History of Agriculture in Papua
New Guinea (Boroko, n.d. [1981]): ‘Agriculture in New Guinea: The Long
view’, ‘Agriculture Technology in New Guinea’, and ‘New Guinea
Agriculture History: A Case Study’. Prehistoric plant use and the
question of New Guinea as an early centre of plant domestication are
covered by Yen, ‘The Development of Sahul Agriculture with Australia
as Bystander’. The classic 9000-year sequence from Kuk Swamp in the
New Guinea Highlands is explained in Golson and Gardner, ‘Agriculture
and Sociopolitical Organisation in New Guinea Highlands
Prehistory'; and Hope and Golson, ‘Late Quaternary Change in the
Mountains of New Guinea’. For prehistoric human impacts see Dodson
(ed.), The Naive Lands. Agriculture in Polynesia is analysed by Kirch, The
Wet and the Dry.
On the Lapita cultural complex see Kirch and Hunt (eds), Archaeology
of the Lapita Cultural Complex: A Critical Review; and Spriggs, ‘What is
Southeast Asian about Lapita?’. For Pre-Lapita and Lapita archaeology
of Near Oceania since 1985, see Allen and Gosden, Report of the Lapita
Homeland Project. Lapita pottery design is considered in Spriggs, ‘Dating
Lapita: Another View’.
The later settlement of East Polynesia is discussed by Kirch,
‘Rethinking East Polynesian Prehistory'; and Spriggs and Anderson,
‘Late Colonization of East Polynesia’. There is no available synthesis of
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Micronesian prehistory, but recent archaeological work is summarised
in a special issue of the journal Micronesica (1990). The field of genetic
evidence is changing so rapidly that a perusal of recent journals is
necessary, but Hill and Serjeantson (eds), The Colonization of the Pacific:
A Genetic Trail, summarise the evidence to 1989.
Langdon’s sources are as diverse as his interests, traversing linguistic,
botanical and genetic evidence as well as a close study of early
written sources. The analysis of Polynesian religious systems was
pioneered by E. S. Handy, Polynesian Religion. Langdon’s own
iconoclastic publications include The Lost Caravel, The Lost Caravel Reexplored,
‘When the Blue-egg Chickens Come Home to Roost’, and ‘The
Banana as a Key to Early American and Polynesian History’.
The physical nature of Oceania is described by Thomas, ‘The Variety
of Physical Environments among Pacific Islands’, in Fosberg (ed.),
Man’s Place in the Island Ecosystem. Its exploration and settlement are
detailed in Lewthwaite, ‘Geographical Knowledge of the Pacific
Peoples'; and Parsonson, ‘The Settlement of Oceania: An Examination
of the Accidental Voyage Theory’. Anderson (ed.), Traditional Fishing in
the Pacific, describes its exploitation. The analysis of the beach is
developed by Sahlins, ‘The Stranger-King, or Dumezil among the
Fijians'; and by Dening, The Death of William Gooch.
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What is loosely described as ‘subsistence’ production has a poor reputation
among economic planners, and so has stone technology. In 1975,
for example, a World Bank mission to Papua New Guinea tied both
concepts together to dismiss the whole pre-colonial record:
the original stone-age tribes have lived unto themselves in conditions of
primitive isolation . . . [Modernisation] began among a people who had no
alphabet and hence no writing, knew neither the knife nor axe nor any form
of metal, used only stones for cutting, hunted and killed with bows and
arrows and clubs, knew neither wool nor cotton, used only pounded bark as
cloth, and used no bullock, ox, horse or cow in their subsistence agriculture.
Subsistence agriculture is relatively easy and has bred an agricultural labor
force that has not had to acquire disciplined work habits . . .
This critique is unusually crude, but its elements are widely accepted—
stages of development, the stagnation of isolated communities, denigration
of stone technology, a sharp dichotomy between subsistence and
market production, and subsistence as a school of idleness. These
assumptions impede appreciation of the systems of production which
Islanders refined over centuries, the strategic alliances they created and
maintained, the environmental imperatives they accommodated, and
the threats they averted. Many planners assume that all pre-colonial
production and consumption can be described as subsistence, and that
trade and exchange were incidental. They also imagine that subsistence
has not been modified to meet changing needs, and that it demands
little labour, expertise or planning. (‘Primitive affluence’ or ‘subsistence
affluence’ was a popular colonial explanation for Islanders’ irritating
refusal to work for low wages.) There are many objections to this argument,
but here it is sufficient to describe the environmental constraints
and the production systems which Islanders developed, and to assess
how far they created reliable ways of surviving and prospering.
Natural hazards abounded. Bennett quotes the opinion of South
Malaitans about infertile Uki Island:1
1 Bennett, Wealth of the Solomons, 11.
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Uki with its oily yam mash
Its flying sands
Uki of the sandy shore
Disappear in the coconuts
Net fish with yells
Uki where yam sets die.
Better-favoured spots were attended by other risks. The New Guinea
Highlands and most of New Zealand suffer frost today, and lower
altitudes were affected at the end of the Ice Age. At the other extreme,
low-lying tropical islands endure such heat that labour is possible only
in the early morning and late afternoon. There is little protection from
other hazards. Aneityum in the New Hebrides endured thirty-one
hurricanes in sixty years from 1848. For people who relied on taro and
breadfruit, the effects could be devastating. During a hurricane in
January 1858 (in the Coral Sea hurricane season) the winds Taid fences
everywhere prostrate, blew down houses, and broke and uprooted
trees; and as only about half of the breadfruit crop was collected, the
remaining half was completely destroyed’.2
Consequences were especially severe for atolls. Lamotrek’s population,
for example, increased until about AD 1400. Thereafter there was
a general decline, possibly related to warfare, but more likely to
typhoon damage and food shortages. Contrarily, late wet seasons
quickly depleted food reserves in the dry parts of western Fiji, the west
coast of New Caledonia and the Papuan south coast. Even the lush
islands of Hawai’i were sometimes evacuated when drought struck,
although such high islands created their own rainfall. In islets too small
to affect cloud formation, drought was frequent, especially close to the
equator. The southernmost of the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) endured
thirteen over 120 years, compounding the problems of a marginal
environment. During the 1938 drought, it seemed to Harry Maude that
the lagoon ecosystem was determined to combine with the terrestrial in
ousting man from the scene; for at the height of the drought, when the flora
was dead or dying, the prolific fish population deserted the lagoon . . .
Gilbertese felt.. . that the food of the fish was no longer there . . . even in
normal times many of the human inhabitants of such islands as Nonouti and
Tabiteuea were habitually hungry, despite the efficient use of the ecosystem
and often drastic population controls, the resources of the island being
insufficient to maintain the density of population.3
Earthquakes and tidal waves were common in the western islands
near the unstable junction of tectonic plates. Aneityum experienced
three in seventy years following 1848. During one (in 1875) ‘large blocks
of overhanging rock were rent off, and precipitated to the valleys below.
On other parts where large boulders were lying half buried on the
surface, they were upheaved and shaken out of the earth/4 Kosrae, a
high island in the eastern Carolines, suffered massive depopulation late
2 Inglis, 9 April 1858, cited in Spriggs, ‘Vegetable Kingdoms’.
3 Harry Maude, in Fosberg, Man’s Place in the Island Ecosystem, 174.
4 Inglis, 1887, cited in Spriggs, ‘Vegetable Kingdoms’.
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Duff Is \Taumako
Reef Islands .”*
Santa Cruz Islands
$ Utupua
Solomon Islands
Cherry v
o Tikopia
• Mitre
\ Torres Islands
Vanua Lava f\
Santa Maria Q
Banks Islands
(New Hebrides) ^ ,
Port Vila
6 Aniwa
Tanna V > « Futuna
O Aneityum
**S. (Anatom)
New Caledonia
100 km
Map 7 Vanuatu and New Caledonia
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
in the eighteenth century, despite a salubrious climate and high fertility.
Outsiders thought that Kosrae could easily support many more than the
3000 people they found—something like the 40,000 inhabitants of Yap,
roughly the same size. The decline was evidently due to civil war and a
typhoon. A survivor explained that ‘their houses were swept away, their
breadfruit and coconut trees were broken down, and consequently a
famine followed which swept away thousands of people. The stores of
breadfruit that they had underground were soon exhausted and those
that survived lived on fish/5 Such eventful environments made food
security imperative.
The pioneers who colonised the western Pacific found immense forests
and rivers fed by copious rain. Bone and shell were readily available for
tools and useful stone cropped up widely, so that trees could be felled
for canoes, drums and shields, and for houses, thatched with palm.
Catching fish and marine animals and collecting shellfish presented no
problem to people already skilled in these arts, but hunting was complicated
by the absence of pig and buffalo which abounded in South-
East Asia, so birds, bats and rats were consumed. Outside a few rainshadows,
vegetation was dense, diverse—and some of it edible, including
pandanus, nipa, galip and okari nuts, and a range of green vegetables.
Along the coasts, mangrove could be processed in emergencies,
coconuts flourished, and sago offered a staple in swampy sub-coastal
regions. Agricultural systems were created partly around these cultigens,
but South-East Asian plants were added. The distinction between
‘hunting and gathering’ and ‘agriculture’ is a matter of emphasis. Even
when people adopted cultivation, they also collected vegetables from
the bush, caught fish, collected shellfish, and hunted birds or animals.
Natural stands of sago may have fostered the earliest ‘wild plant management’.
Weeding and thinning increased yields and—where population
mounted—shoots were planted beyond their natural habitat.
The pioneers developed systematic agriculture first in coastal New
Guinea, then in the Highlands and later on smaller islands where
natural resources would not sustain hunters and gatherers. The commonest
system which developed in large islands was swidden, often
based on dryland taro. Vegetation was slashed, allowed to dry and
usually burned. The ashes nourished crops for about a year until they
leached away. Gardens were therefore cultivated for one to two years
until grass and pests invaded. The plot might lie fallow for over twenty
years. A short growing period and selective weeding of the fallow promoted
woody regrowth. Yams were often grown in a similar manner,
but some farmers devised a different system for growing ‘long’ yam
(Dioscorea alata from South-East Asia), digging a hole up to 3 metres
5 L. H. Gulick, ‘A Visit to King George of Kusaie [1852]’, quoted in Ritter, The
Population of Kosrae at Contact’.
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deep and filling it with topsoil. Most yams respond badly to flooding,
but water-tolerant varieties were selected for the flood plains north of
the Sepik River. Throughout the Sepik region, in the Trobriand Islands,
and wherever else yams were a staple, people composed incantations as
the core of rituals to ensure a great harvest. Given the effort required to
fell the forest, farmers usually cleared gardens from secondary regrowth.
The system is not without risk. Too brief a fallow allowed open
grassland—where swidden is difficult—to displace forest. The same
hazard attended the hunting of animals with fire.
Some coastal New Guineans were committed to agriculture more
than 9000 years ago, probably growing taro, yam, sago, bananas and
coconuts. Only taro flourished at higher altitudes. Highland settlers
cleared forests, and embarked on large-scale drainage and irrigation in
wetlands where, over several thousand years with digging sticks and
paddle-spades, they devised systems of continuous cultivation. What
began as water control then revealed the advantages of subsoil to
increase fertility between ditches, and this mounding technique permitted
the farming of grassland. A common consequence was the
domestication of pigs, since shrinking forests could no longer sustain
feral pigs or other fauna to complement a starchy diet. Since these practices
produced substantial surpluses, and as pigs sustained exchange
systems, these centres of intense production were probably the sources
of the spectacular public exchanges described below.
By 5000 years ago the forest was being cleared apace, and this invasion
continued for a thousand years more, until people developed farming
methods which allowed the forest to stabilise and regenerate. Fastgrowing
casuarina trees were introduced into the grasslands as fallow
and for timber. Continuous agriculture was well established when, three
or four centuries ago, the laborious farming of wetlands abruptly ceased.
The arrival of sweet potato (Ipomea batatas) from the Americas had
profound effects across the region. In Okinawa (the Ryukyu Islands) it
eased a transition to agriculture from fishing and regional trade. From
the Philippines tubers passed through innumerable hands to New
Guinea, then inland, to transform production and social organisation.
At first kaukau was popular in proportion to altitude, where it had
decided advantages over taro. In parts of the Highlands, for example,
although taro retained ritual importance, sweet potato became the
staple. In the Balem valley of Irian Jaya, people developed subtle and
spectacular production, recognising over seventy varieties of sweet
potato. The dense populations of the alluvial plains dug irrigation
ditches with fire-hardened wooden paddles: ‘From time to time a man
will set his paddle aside and reach into the ditch for smaller lumps of
mud which he plasters against the side of the reshaped canal. This soon
bakes dry in the sun and gives to these gardens a look of permanence
and tidiness which lasts until they are abandoned to fallow/6
On the hill slopes, sweet potato cuttings were planted in prepared
beds, while minor crops grew in odd corners. A Dutch scientist judged
6 Gardner and Heider, Gardens of War.
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that ‘The Balim native exhibits a sound understanding of the problems
of slope cultivation and the principles of soil conservation through
erosion control. In the sweet potato, on which his agriculture is based,
he has a most efficient erosion-resistant crop, which forms a ground
cover within a few weeks after planting/7 The crop was not, of course,
‘his’. Men dug ditches, but women planted, tended and harvested
crops. When sweet potato was adopted, land could support more
people or more pigs—or both. Since it yields more food than taro for the
same labour, and especially in poor soil, it continues to expand to the
present day.
Lowland farmers also intensified their cultivation. Kolepom
Islanders (off the south coast of Irian Jaya) elaborated a system to cope
with such heavy rain that most of the land is inundated each wet
season. They built islands in the swamp, with layers of reeds and clay
from ditches. Mud was used for manuring and (with drift grass) as
compost. Island beds, 2-3 metres wide, stretched to hundreds of metres.
Islands built to different heights (to regulate moisture) were devoted to
coconut and sago, to moisture-sensitive yam, to taro, and more recently
to sweet potato.
When they tackled the remoter islands a thousand years ago, Lapita
colonists combined very different plants, animals and skills. Their
domestic animals were pigs, dogs and chickens; their crops presumably
included taro, breadfruit, bananas and yams; and their sustainable
practices (see chapter 2) included irrigated fields of taro on the larger
islands and taro pits down to the water table on atolls. Agriculture
could then support dense populations wherever water was abundant
and controllable. The Rewa and other Fijian deltas probably sustained
the greatest productivity and the densest populations of the region.
Continuous cultivation of taro supported stratified societies centred on
fortified towns. By the nineteenth century Rewa was probably the
wealthiest and most powerful town in Fiji, its alleys intersecting several
hundred houses within elaborate fortifications, attracting ambitious
people from Tonga as well as Viti Levu, and deploying twenty large
double-hulled canoes for its defence. Equally intensive farming developed
in other islands of the central Pacific, and in New Caledonia,
where (again by the nineteenth century) the whole grande terre was
cultivated, except the mountainous and arid south and west.
Between AD 1000 and 1500 East Polynesia was transformed by population
growth and agricultural expansion and intensification, increasing
the variety of cultivation. In Hawai’i, whole forests were cleared for
dryland fields of sweet potato, taro and breadfruit. On O’ahu, the
traveller Archibald Campbell described Ewa as ‘an extensive and fertile
plain, the whole of which is in the highest state of cultivation. Every
stream was carefully embanked, to supply water for the taro beds.
Where there was no water, the land was under crops of yams and sweet
7 L. J. Brass, ‘Stone Age Agriculture in New Guinea’, in Whittaker et al. (eds), Documents
and Readings in New Guinea History.
8 Campbell, A Voyage round the World from 1806 to 1812.
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Europeans often became lyrical about continuous cultivation. Maori
horticulture in the 1830s was extolled, not for its ingenuity or productivity,
but because it looked rather like European practice. An English
observer rejoiced that: ‘The ground is compleatly cleared of all weeds—
the mold broke with as much care as that of our best gardens . . . In one
Plott I observed these hillocks, at their base, surrounded with dried
grass. The Arum is planted in little circular concaves, exactly in the manner
our Gard’ners plant Melons/9 Such correspondence was accidental.
It was also rare, and Europeans were often baffled. When Magellan’s
expedition reached Guam, for example, one of his crew was struck by a
sense that ‘these people live in freedom': ‘They do not go to work in the
fields nor stir from their houses, but make cloth and baskets of palm
leaves.’10 Breadfruit—from the Solomon Islands eastward—amazed
foreigners with its easy abundance. Its long harvest period provides
year-long sustenance—if people select varieties with different harvesting
periods, cook it and store the surplus. It was especially important in
Micronesia, which possessed even fewer natural resources than other
groups. On Pohnpei, Yap and Kosrae, yams were grown with intense
care; elsewhere they were harder to grow, and bananas, coconut and taro
varieties, together with breadfruit, were the essentials of survival.
Europeans imagined primitive simplicity. Unable to speak with
Islanders, they could be impressed only by visual evidence. In swidden
agriculture, however, tubers grew amid tangled vegetation. Apparent
disorder belied the siting and excavation of atoll taro pits, the selection
of yam varieties, the inter-planting of species, or the mulching and
irrigation which suited particular environments. Bafflement arose also
from differences between temperate and tropical practices. European
farming was typically bound by defined seasons and relied on grain
and pasture, whereas Islanders relied on tree and root crops, in seasons
demarcated by wet and dry. Dependable transport and money allowed
European farmers to specialise. Reliance on a single crop in the Islands
would have been dangerous, since crops were difficult to store and
emergency supplies unreliable. Strategies were developed instead,
which involved inter-planting (untidy to Western eyes) or exchange
relations with people in other environments (invisible to casual
observers). Pigs and cassowaries made different demands from cattle or
sheep. Compounding the enigma, Islanders amassed skills in their
heads, not in their tools; and they expressed that knowledge in the
language of magic, observing that correct spells were as vital as
appropriate soils.
Tools—the repository of European competence—were not visually
impressive, but this did not inhibit their innovative use nor the
manufacture of artefacts on a large scale. On the atolls, tools were made
from calcified shell; cowries were used to scour breadfruit; and lime-
9 Peter Adams, Fatal Necessity: British Intervention in New Zealand, 1830-1846, cited by
Janet M. Davidson, The Polynesian Foundation’, in Oliver and Williams (eds), The
Oxford History of New Zealand, 21.
10 Antonio Pigafette, Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation,
in Hezel and Berg, Micronesia: Winds of Change.
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stone was often used as mortars. Islanders on Rapanui, with very few
resources, contrived the immense stone figures which still astound observers.
Marquesans, like other Polynesians, created stone-paved me’ae
to support elaborate wooden spiritual centres, and the feather cloaks of
Hawaiian oli’i found their way into countless museums. The great
double-hulled canoes which carried Islanders across the ocean evolved
into a variety of designs, different again from the cargo vessels carrying
bulky goods around New Guinea. Spades and gardening paddles were
wooden, as were the towering haus tambaran and other sacred structures,
so that carpenters were the most respected artisans in the towns
of Viti Levu. Almost all buildings, and shell and bone decorations, were
made by stone tools, which underpinned most production systems.
New Guinea Highlanders, including the Rungi, worked quarries for
Two old people went into the forest, hunting for marsupials. [Afterwards
they had intercourse.] The old woman felt something stick into her back . . .
So they looked and found that the blade of a kumbamon axe was just
showing above the ground. [They found many others.] When they reached
home they said that every man, old and young, should assemble . . . Then the
two old people showed them the axe blades and said ‘Let’s now go into the
forest and hunt marsupials for the axes. When we’ve killed some, we shall
make sacrifice to the spirit of the axes.’
When the present people go to make axes, so do they first hunt marsupials
and sacrifice them to the two old people . . . Then they climb down into
the pit and burn torches, which they impregnate with resin. With these
torches they light the way. When they have found the veins they drive in
wedges and make axes.11
Technical ingenuity, religious awe and social relations were so intertwined
that it is misleading to isolate the ‘economic’ meaning of multidimensional
From the late nineteenth century, shell flooded in from the coast and
exchanges proliferated, provoking well-placed communities to intensify
quarrying. All adult Tungei men, for example, were mobilised whenever
stocks of axes ran down and peace prevailed. They secluded themselves
from women, to be ritually pure when they confronted the female
spirits of the quarry. There they worked for three to five months. Unlike
other Highland masons, they did not use fire: hammer stones were
smashed against the rock-face. Later, individuals shaped the blanks into
axe blanks. In 1933 an early colonial patrol observed this scene north of
the Sepik-Wahgi divide:
This district seems to be neutral ground, the axe-makers being left in peace
by all their warlike neighbours to pursue the useful art. We saw many
natives engaged in working the axes, sitting by waterholes and patiently
grinding away at them with sandstones, stopping every few moments to dip
the stones in water and to sight with a craftsman’s eye along the tapering
blades, so slowly taking shape. Each beautiful axe must have required many
days of patient work.12
11 Burton, ‘Axe Makers of the Wahgi’, 255.
12 Ibid., 164.
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Admiralty Is’ ‘• .• Lou
Bismarck “^chipej
Trobriand Is
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Map 8 Papua New Guinea
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
Most production was local, since stone was widely available, and warfare
and sorcery discouraged travel. Formal trade links were seldom
required, and few axes travelled further than 20 kilometres through the
mountains. However, some niche processes evolved: tree oil for body
decoration, palm for bows, mineral oil and vegetable salt, string bags,
tobacco, bone daggers, decorative feathers, coloured ochres—and even
edible earth tonics for pigs.
Stone working was not always sophisticated. In the Bismarck Archipelago,
Lou Island obsidian may have been quarried by ‘day-trippers’
with little skill. It is likely that whole blocks were exchanged, whose
owners engaged masons elsewhere. Techniques and labour relations
varied immensely, but Burton’s analysis of Highland quarries persuades
him that:
non-ranked, non-hierarchical societies can organise themselves for largescale
productive ventures when a range of conditions are met .. . [This
organisation is] very cheap, but also very volatile—liable to disappear or be
unusable if the conditions change . . . By comparison, the bureaucratic
structures needed by hierarchical or industrialised societies . . . are very
costly, but they are less dependent on serendipitous circumstances and have
the capacity to reorganise themselves to fit different conditions.13
This dichotomy may be overstated. Women built pots to precise
patterns in such places as Mailu Island off the Papuan coast, where they
had suitable clays, trade routes intersected, and men enforced a regional
monopoly. Mailu women produced for export, and refined their production
through an early period of diverse patterns and shapes, to a
more recent period in which pots were mass-produced and virtually
uniform.14 Further north-west, Motu potters enforced a similar
monopoly through the hiri trading network to the Papuan Gulf. Shell
valuables were also mass-produced in many Islands. Commonly these
were small shells ground to a standard size and linked in strands of
standard value. In quality, quantity and consistency, some production
was at least equal to the later quarrying of minerals under foreign
direction, which Europeans treated as development.
Hierarchical societies sustained a greater division of labour. Some
men became masons and carpenters. Demand for mats (commonly
produced by women) was almost infinite, from the simple mats which
sufficed for Hawaiian commoners, to the stacks of thirty or forty fine
mats on which high chiefs walked and slept. Most work was ‘gendered’.
In Samoa, for example, He toga (fine mats) were the principal form of
woman-made wealth, complementing ‘oloa, the food, canoes and tools
produced by men. Women beat pandanus leaves into wafer-thin strips,
which were plaited together into mats. This was mass production, yet
the finest mats acquired a silky sheen over generations of exposure to
dew—and their own names and genealogies. It was not only their
intrinsic qualities which gave them value, but the social meanings
13 Ibid., 88.
14 Irwin, ‘The Emergence of Mailu’.
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invested in them. Pottery was always a female craft, and weaving (with
back-looms) was almost always women’s work in Micronesia.
Land tenure arrangements are often described as ‘traditional’ or
‘customary’, but tenure practices on ‘customary’ land often differ
greatly from practices described by early observers, land commissions,
or in recorded oral history. Today’s ‘traditional’ arrangements are often
greatly simplified or modified versions of what was customary in the
nineteenth century or earlier. Early accounts yield evidence of many
features of land tenure which are broadly common to many parts of the
region, to specific environments, to particular agricultural systems, or
to particular social structures. Many traits stem from the needs which
all tenure arrangements must meet. The users of land need security, at
least long enough to harvest their crops. For tree crops, this period may
span decades; for other crops, only a few months. Some means are also
needed to transfer ownership or usufruct rights as needs change, such
as the relative size and power of social groups. Different interests in one
piece of ground must be accommodated. People may require rights of
way across the land of others, to reach their own. All members of a
community may need access to a resource such as a fresh-water spring.
Different individuals or groups may hold rights to the one area for
different purposes such as cultivation, hunting, or gathering wild
produce. One person or group may own the trees on a plot while
another owns the root crops growing beneath them. ‘Almost invariably
there are many different rights in any one parcel of land and they are
often held by different parties.’15
In most Pacific Islands, fulfilment of a community’s needs required
access to several ecological sites, scattered throughout the island or
even across several islands. Most families produced most of their
regular needs, and few specialised in a narrow range of produce. They
also had to provide for times of hardship. Land tenure arrangements
within the territory of each community usually reflected every household’s
need to hunt, gather food and collect building materials, and to
have access to different types of soils for a variety of crops, to freshwater
sources and areas of lagoon and reef for fishing and gathering
shellfish. Access was controlled by rules governing the use and
retention and disposal of the land or resources, and how and to whom
land might be transferred.
On many high (volcanic) islands the sequence of ecological zones
extends from the reef and lagoon, inland across a beach and sandy area
backed by swamp, to fertile soils at the base of steeper slopes rising to
the central and often forested ridges of the island. Access to the range
of sites by each lineage could be achieved by tenure patterns like those
15 R. G. Crocombe, “Land Tenure in the South Pacific’, in R. Gerard Ward (ed.), Man in the
Pacific Islands, Oxford, 1972,220.
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in Lakeba, Fiji, where groups hold wedge-shaped portions of land from
the coast to the highest part of the interior. Many other high islands
exhibit similar divisions, including Moala in Fiji, O’ahu in Hawai’i and
Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Similarly, the raised almost-atoll of Atiu,
in the Cook Islands, with its encircling ring of rough coralline limestone
(makatea), inner circle of swamps and fertile soils, and core of central
ridges, was divided into seven wedge-shaped districts with boundaries
radiating from the centre to the outer edge of the fringing reef. Districts
were further subdivided, again with boundaries running from the
centre to the coast, and highly valued land was further subdivided
among much smaller groups. In Tahiti, each valley system includes a
coastal strip at the valley mouth, fronting lagoon, reef and offshore
waters, all backed by a wedge-shaped segment containing the island’s
major resources. I t appears all Tahitians had access to the valley, coastal
and marine resource zones contained in the particular valley system in
which they lived’ and ‘there is . . . some evidence that each system, and
its inhabitants formed a single political unit within large tribal groups’.16
In Samoa the land of each village normally extends from the reef to the
central ridge, again giving the community a cross-section of resources.
On larger islands with more interior settlements, this pattern was not
practical, but communities still tried to incorporate ecological variety
into their lands. Social networks and exchange arrangements provided
other ways of obtaining essential products.
In atolls where land areas are small and elongated and where the
balance between resources and people is delicate, land-holdings generally
take the form of a slice across the island from lagoon to ocean. On
the islets of an atoll, the ocean shore provides different resources from
those of the lagoon. Each household needs access to dry sites for housing
and for coconuts and other tree crops, to wells which tap the freshwater
lens below the centre of the islet, and to those areas where the
water table lies close enough to the surface to be reached by pits in
which swamp taro can grow. Thus throughout the Marshalls, ‘each
parcel of land is a transverse section of the islet’ which provides the
land-holding unit with access to most of the resources, including marine
life, coconut and pandanus trees and living site on the lagoon strand,
and a strip of the interior for breadfruit trees. In Kiribati, boundaries
generally ran straight from lagoon to reef. The same was true in the
three atolls of Tokelau. Tokelau kin groups, like those in the Marshalls
and the Carolines, also had rights to lots dispersed on different islets
around the atoll, which increased the chance of access to at least one
productive area at any time.
Each household or kin group grew most of their own food, gathered
their own firewood and caught their own fish. To grow all the crops
necessary for a satisfactory diet and to cover the risks of pest damage
and drought or storm, most households had a number of scattered food
gardens and tree-crop plots using different soils. They commonly included
a grove of coconuts near the shore, some breadfruit trees and
16 Finney, Polynesian Peasants and Proletarians, 16.
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Tongareva r~
Rakahanga *
0 Manihiki
tl Pukapuka (Danger Is)
• Nassau
^ Suwarrow
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} Aitutaki
t» Manuae
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0 100 km
Cook Islands
Atiu o
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Map 9 Cook Islands
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
bananas in a more sheltered site with moister soils, a patch of swamp
land reshaped for beds of taro, and yam gardens on fertile and drier
soils. These plots were often interspersed among those of other households.
Each household also needed the right to use, but not exclusive
ownership of, the forest or savanna land for firewood and building
materials, hunting and collecting wild foods.
Tenure arrangements generally involved some control by the maximal
lineage or the residential community over a broad territory. All
member groups could gather produce in uncultivated parts of this
territory. Such land, held in the name of the whole community, was a
form of commons. When land was cleared and cultivated, its crops were
generally recognised as the property of the planter or their immediate
kin group, and the land remained under their control so long as the
crops stood. With inter-cropping of root crops, bananas, and shrubs
such as kava (Piper nethysticum), this period might last for several years.
Once yields declined, under the swidden system the gardens reverted
to fallow for some years. Previous cultivators’ rights would gradually
‘grow cold’ as the fallow period lengthened. Once the former users had
ceased to express an interest, moved away, or been forgotten, others
could clear and take the land into gardens. Thus changes in the relative
size and needs of lineages were accommodated with clearly sanctioned
transfer of usufruct rights. Tree crops might remain in production and
under the control of the original planter long after the ground-level
crops had disappeared and an understorey of shrubs had regrown. In
time, the land below the coconuts might be cleared and planted by
someone else. Thus a food-crop garden might have a different owner
from that of the coconuts sharing the same land.
A great deal of labour was needed for some improvements, constructing
pond fields or irrigated terraces or mounded gardens. With
such wetland cultivation the soil could be used almost permanently,
with nutrients supplied by irrigation water, and top dressing with mud
or mulching. In places as far apart as the southern Highlands of New
Guinea, southern Irian Jaya, and the Rewa delta of Fiji; and in the taro
terraces or pond fields of Aneityum, southern Vanuatu, and Vanua
Levu and Moala in Fiji, the long-term use and high investment of labour
often resulted in such plots being regarded almost as the permanent
property of those responsible for construction. Similarly, in many
societies house sites were also considered the property of the specific
Apart from the transfer of control of usufruct (or eventually ownership)
which could result from a new planter clearing and cultivating
fallow, landowners could alienate their land by customary practices in
virtually all communities. In some societies people with certain kinship
relationships to a landholder had strong grounds for seeking a gift of
land. People marrying into and coming to reside in a community might
be given land (and assigned a communal affiliation) which could eventually
grow into clear ownership (and community membership). Land
might be given to reward service to a chief or landholder, or group.
Refugees might be given protection, shelter and land, and eventually
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‘•*• Rotuma
Wallis te4TT
Q ‘Uvea
Wallis and Futuna
Futuna °Alofi
. Ovalau
VitiLevu l ^ v u k a .
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Map 10 Fiji and Wallis and Futuna
absorbed into the community. Land and other property could be seized
or surrendered in warfare, or as punishment for transgressing rules.
Above all, communities could divide after internal dispute and either
divide their land or occupy new territory.
All land tenure arrangements were flexible and pragmatic. Since they
were never codified, ‘customary rules are subject, to a marked degree,
to pressure of circumstances and dominant interests’.17 Authority to
exercise those interests ranged from societies in which hereditary chiefs
or elected leaders were responsible for acting on behalf of their community
(and could sometimes turn that role into personal fiefdom), to
those in which control, and the authority to dispose of particular areas,
was clearly acknowledged to be in the hands of specific individuals.
17 T. G. Harding, ‘Land Tenure’, in P. Ryan (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Papua New Guinea,
Melbourne, 1972.
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Communalism and reciprocity were core principles. Farming operations
which had to be performed quickly required more labour than one
family could provide. For example, forest clearance was laborious, but
co-operation in a work group made the task feasible. Working on the
margins of the community, a group was also safer than an individual,
as well as more congenial. House building was commonly handled in
the same way. Although the immediate kinship group was usually the
basic production unit, the help of others could be obtained on the basis
of reciprocal obligations. Group work could also be an expression of
common community interests even when it was not a technical necessity.
Communal garden work did not make the produce communal
property. Conversely, the control by individuals and their immediate
families of the fruits of their work did not enable them to reside outside
the community or to ignore the obligations of membership. Apart from
labour, special services or needs—such as canoe building, herbal or
spiritual intervention—had to be reciprocated. Most important was the
need for protection. Neighbouring communities, often hostile, were
organised in the same way. Inevitably the individual’s interests were
best served by participation.
Since social and economic organisation, the control of land, spiritual
beliefs, and the hierarchy of authority were interlaced, land was pivotal
for the society’s well-being. Land was and remains a vital component of
the cosmology of most Islanders, and respect for ancestors or their
spirits may require care, attention or acknowledgment to the land they
occupied. Land and people were often said to be two parts of the same
Marshall Sahlins, adapting Marx, describes land as ‘the inorganic body
of the people… Hawaiians could refer to their ancestral lands as kula iwi,
the “plain of one’s bones”, just as they knew themselves as kama’aina,
“children of the land” which had nurtured them.’18 A wealth of proverbs
conveys these ideas, and words for ‘land’ have wide and rich resonances.
As Ravuvu points out: ‘the Fijian term, vanua [land], has physical, social
and cultural dimensions which are interrelated. It includes… the people,
their traditions and customs, beliefs and values, and the various other
institutions established for the sake of achieving harmony, solidarity and
prosperity . . . It provides a sense of identity and belonging.’ The concept
of vanua is therefore ‘the totality of a Fijian community’.19 In this wider
sense it appears in the name Vanuatu, given to that country on
independence. ‘Cultural identity in Melanesia [and Polynesia] is a
geographical identity that flows from the memories and values attached
to places. Membership in a clan or social group, individual or collective
identity, is inherited through a network of places, the sum total of which
constitutes a territory.’20 Individual, as well as collective, identity is bound
up in land in ways which are sometimes very explicit, as in Yap, and in
Tanna, where a child’s first name is also the name of its land. Land use
18 Sahlins, Anahulu, 31.
19 Ravuvu, Vaka i Taukei, 70; and Ravuvu, The Fijian Ethos, 15.
20 Bonnemaison, The Tree and the Canoe’, 117; see also his The Tree and the Canoe.
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
involved not only secular activities but also sacred rituals. Practices for
land control and allocation, therefore, are often core elements of social
identity. In recent years they have been used as symbols of national
identity. In Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu,
clarification of land issues was a prerequisite to adopting modern
constitutions. In Vanuatu, the constitution is an instrument of land tenure
reform, bringing all land back into the realm of custom.
Complementing most people’s attachment to particular pieces of land
was an equally profound commitment to social relations which rested
on (and reinforced) trade and exchange. It is tempting—but misleading—
to interpret trade, bride price, mortuary payments and compensation
simply as ecological adaptations to maximise material
benefits. In the New Guinea Highlands ‘exchange is so fundamental a
feature of Huli cosmology and society that it resists abstraction. The
Huli universe is itself constructed upon a notion of exchange between
living humans and ancestral and non-ancestral spirits.’ Knowledge and
skill were valued just as highly as material items, and exchanged just as
eagerly. Seeps of mineral oil were ‘critical nodes within Huli sacred
geography, in which the oil itself represented a substance crucial to the
survival of the Huli universe’. The oil had scant intrinsic value (pearlshells
were equally ‘unnecessary’ to the Highlanders who treasured
them) but the Huli made it central to the logic of their trading relations.
People did not foster relations merely to facilitate exchanges, nor did
they exchange merely to build alliances, since they drew no such distinctions
between ‘economic’ and ‘social’, profane and sacred. Huli
trade can only be understood in terms of their sacred geography.21
Once committed to agriculture, every society aspired not merely to
survive but to produce a surplus with which to sustain exchange
partnerships. Typically these relationships were intensely competitive:
gifts imposed obligations, which must be acknowledged at almost any
cost. A party of missionaries on Murua Island in Milne Bay observed a
drought in 1849 and 1850, which reduced the Muruans to walking
skeletons. When their trading partners arrived, Muruans rationed
themselves. They received pigs’ teeth, whale bones and cassowaries,
which might seem a poor exchange for food, but to do otherwise would
brand them as ungenerous and break the bonds: so starving Muruans
welcomed their partners with a feast. The inhabitants of several
resource-poor islands in Milne Bay often enjoyed higher standards of
living than their better-resourced neighbours, so long as their trading
partners maintained the flow of food and material in a system of
‘trading subsistence’.22
21 Ballard,’ “The Centre Cannot Hold”‘. Bonnemaison, The Tree and the Canoe, describes
similar ‘sacred geography’ in Tanna.
22 Martha Macintyre and Jim Allen, Trading for Subsistence: The Case from the Southern
Massim’, in Yen and Mummery, Pacific Production Systems.
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The rhetoric of giving was often profoundly aggressive: Michael
Young describes such contests as ‘fighting with food’.23 On Tanga Island
in 1933, for example, Buktom of Tenkuien village organised a twelveday
feast. The first presentations passed smoothly, but required
Buktom’s constant attention, for example when Sumsuma, from a rival
clan, swaggered in and proclaimed that he was returning with interest
a pig which Buktom had presented on a previous occasion. Tension
mounted as gifts accumulated. When the chieftain Tambau arrived with
twenty-two animals and was welcomed, he responded, ‘I chew you up,
as the victor eats his victim!’ Tambau’s unexpected intervention posed
an appalling dilemma. Buktom could repay pigs or provide a feast—but
not both. Fortunately ‘Buktom’s close friend and “brother” Kospui
came to the rescue with a present of thirty well-matured pigs which he
had been reserving for an important series of rites which he planned to
celebrate at the conclusion of the next planting season.’ Buktom
probably had a hundred pigs owing to him and owed almost as many.
Nobody was ever allowed to forget a debt, and ‘the matter of debits and
credits . . . occupies hours of argument and discussion’.24
Ceremonial exchanges reached their most lavish expression in the
New Guinea Highlands—moka among the Melpa, and tee among the
Enga. By the late nineteenth century at latest, surpluses of sweet potato
sustained massive production of pigs, the main exchange items. These
exchanges continued throughout the brief colonial era, but the approach
of independence made some Big Men wonder whether they would continue.
Confronted by changing political structures and social mores, the
Melpa Big Man Ongka made his final moka, and took the trouble to explain
its dynamics and rationale to Andrew Strathern, quoted here at length.
Ongka’s Last Moka25
Now let me talk again about how I make moka. On ceremonial ground
after ceremonial ground I have done this. I have given war-compensation
payments to many different clans, starting a long time ago, in
the days when we did it all with pearl shells, laying them out on rows
of fern and banana leaves. I have given them kng enda, too: this is when
we give a number of pigs without calling out the names of individual
exchange partners and without receiving big solicitory gifts in advance;
we give it to all the men of a group together as a payment for a killing
we have inflicted on them or they have incurred in fighting for us as
allies . . . On these occasions I wore special decorations—the big plaque
of multi-coloured feathers set on a backing (Koi wal), and the pale-blue
crest feathers of the King of Saxony bird (Koi ketepa). I made these moka
gifts along with the men of my own clan, the Mandembo, at different
times and in different years. Sometimes we did the dance in which we
bend our knees and make our long aprons sway out in front of us (the
23 Young, Fighting With Food.
24 F. L. S. Bell, The Place of Food in the Social Life of the Tanga7, Oceania xviii (1947), in
Whittaker et ah, Documents and Readings in New Guinea History.
25 Ongka: A Self-account by a New Guinea Big-man.
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morl dance); sometimes we did the stamping dance in which we move
round the ceremonial ground in a procession (the nde mbo kenan dance).
We did all this many times, until it was all completed, and I was tired of
it. On ceremonial ground after ceremonial ground I had done this again
and again, and on these same sites the cordylines planted at their edges
grew old and grey, the special round houses at the head of the grounds
tumbled down, weeds grew up . . . It was close to the time of selfgovernment,
and Parua had become, since 1972, our Member for the
national House of Assembly. The times had changed, and I thought to
myself that I would take off my bark belt, my cordyline sprig rearcovering,
and my apron, and I would follow the new ways.
It seemed to me that we no longer had men of the old style who
could do the hard work of rearing pigs or the women to make the strong
netbags for harvesting the sweet potatoes, or to make the pig ropes and
fasten them on the pigs, and so, if I waited much longer, we would not
be able to make another moka in the good old way. We used to speak of
those women of the old times as wearing long straw-coloured aprons
with short pig-ropes tucked into them. Over their hair, which they wore
in ringlets, they placed a piece of barkcloth, and on top of this they
carried their large working netbags. These were the kind of women who
could do the work to raise pigs, and now there were none like that left.
Such women could raise many, many pigs, sows and barrows. The pig
herd would cluster at her house door in the early morning, squealing
for their feed of sweet potatoes. There were enough pigs to use for many
different things . . .
I decided, ‘Well, if the old ways must go, let’s at any rate do something
as our last big show/ So I called on all the men from each small
group inside our three clans to come to my place at Mbukl, and I said to
Our fathers were true big-men, but their sons are wearing long trousers and
drinking beer and are really rubbish men now. Our mothers were strong
women, but their daughters have gone light-headed. The edges of the big
gardens we used to make are covered with weeds. Self-government and
Independence are here, and the old ways will disappear, but let us do one
thing before that happens, so that all the groups around and all the white
men too will say The Kawelka put on a little show, we saw it/ Now the old
ways will be shaken off as we shake clods of earth from a stump of a tree,
and we will take on the new ways. Everything’s crazy now, so let us just do
this one thing before it all happens. Listen to what I say and go . . .
Go to all your relatives and friends and ask for gifts, make the initiatory
gifts to them and prepare to pull in the returns in order to make a big moka.
We will give all the things which are customary, cassowaries, decorating oil,
all kinds of valuable shells, cattle and special farm-raised pigs (which have
become available since the white men came). We will also give some things
that others have never given before, in order to make our name. In the old
days, when our fathers gave moka, they made their name by giving large
cassowaries from the place Kora in the Jimmi Valley where stone axe blades
were manufactured in the past; or by giving kum kokop, special little pearl
shells with magical power which they hung from the back of their heads. We
Kawelka made our name in the past too by giving away a woman in maka as
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a wife for the Kitepi clan leader, Kuri, father of Parua. People spoke of our
doing this and asked others ‘Have you done that?’ Now, so that our sons in
turn may be able to say that their fathers did something notable, let us give
now what others have not given.
I spoke like this to them without revealing exactly what I meant.
Parua was elected as our Member of the national House of Assembly.
However, because of a car accident and the death of a driver from the
Nengka tribe, Parua was attacked . . . Parua was very sick in Port
Moresby hospital for a long time. When he returned to our area, he . . .
gave us four sets of eight pigs, to be distributed among all the Kawelka,
because we had cried for him and had felt pain on his behalf when he
was wounded. He added a cassowary, which we cooked and ate. So I
called all our people together and said to them
See, these gifts have come to us. We do not have women now who will raise
pigs for us the way women used to do. Our women used to rear pigs for us
men, I built men’s houses, I paid death compensations, I gave away pigs in
moka. But now what do they do? The modern girl goes off to the stream with
her towel, soap, and comb, she washes herself and powders her neck, and
then she goes out to smile at men and look for money. Those women of the
old times, they put on girdles at their waist, covered their hair with a headnet,
carried sweet potatoes in huge netbags. Today’s girl walks out and about
and lets the weeds grow over the sweet potato garden, she won’t rear pigs
any more. Self-government is close at hand, and the whole place is turning
silly. I am calling this meeting for all of you men of our different clans; each
man should go back home and think about it. Go back to your places and
rear pigs, talk to your exchange partners from other clans, and prepare
yourselves. Let your women put on the old-fashioned working clothes and
tend their pigs. I am a man who built men’s houses and lit the ritual fire in
them, who laid out new ceremonial grounds, who paid compensation for
killings, who cooked pigs, who gave live pigs away. Now I have paid for the
government tractor to come and expand our ceremonial ground, and
straighten it out, to pull out tree stumps and level its surface . . . Remember
this was not done to make a private garden for me, it was for our moka.
Look what is happening to our men nowadays too. It is not only our
women who are going crazy. In the old days a man grasped his spade and
dug the ground, he cut down the tall stands of wild canegrass, he turned the
soil and made tall bananas and sugarcane grow from it, tending and binding
them till they came to maturity. Then he had food for his family and enough
for his wife to cook for visitors as well; but men don’t do that kind of thing
now. Our young men wear long trousers and sun-glasses, drink beer . . . In
the old days young men would shoulder netbags of sweet potatoes to help
the women, but now they walk around idle, fancy free and easy. In the old
days they would do the work to make ceremonial grounds and to dig out the
pits for earth ovens, but now they refuse to do all that . . . Now selfgovernment
is close, let us just do this one thing before it all goes quite crazy.
Before, when we Kawelka gave moka to the Tipuka we did something which
made our name for us. The usual gifts are pigs, cassowaries, shells, pork,
decorating oil; but no-one had ever given what we gave, a woman, the
Kawelka woman Nomane, at the Mbukl ceremonial ground. We gave her as
a wife for the leader Kuri, and so we ‘won’ and increased our prestige. She
became the mother of Parua, and now in turn he has brought four sets of pigs
and a cassowary to us. What shall we do? Each one of our clans has its place
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in the moka. We plant our stakes to which the pigs are tied in separate rows
on the ceremonial ground, we plant these again and again until they reach
well out beyond the ceremonial ground. But these are for the gifts which
everyone knows. What new thing can we give now? Let us give a car.
. . . At our big moka we [also] gave away as many as 20 cattle as extra
gifts. We purchased 20 commercially raised pigs and added these to our
own home-reared ones. We gave 40 cassowaries. As for our own pigs,
how could you possibly count them?
At the head of the row of pigs I put my own pigs . . . As extra gifts I
myself bought two cows and gave them away. The car too was
purchased as a result of my persuasion: we all contributed to its price.
They spoke of me and said, ‘He should have stayed at home and made
his own gardens so as to eat food, but instead of that it’s as if he’s
burning up his money in a fire, what is he doing?’ It was all done as my
last big show. . . .
[I said,] ‘See how many things we have given, pigs which are our own
and ones we have bought with money; cassowaries; decorating oil;
cattle, a motorbike, a car, and money as well. If anyone thinks he can
match all of these things, let him take the knotted cordyline leaf from me
as a sign now.’26 No-one took up the challenge. So I finished my show
after very many years of planning, after holding several small moka in
preparation, after saying so many times that I would do it. In the end I
did bring it off, I wrapped all the strong things of men and women from
the past and laid them in their grave with my last big moka.
Other Exchanges
Mervyn Meggitt, observing the Enga tee exchanges, concluded that Big
Men kept the system going
by paying off those supporters whose aid is essential to them but also
retaining for themselves whatever resources they can abstract at the expense
of the weaker and poorer members of the group . ..
Now, this tempered rapacity is not simply a casual attribute of individual
Big Men. Indeed . .. many Big Men regard it as both a diacritical mark and a
privilege of Big Men as a category, and frequently they overtly or covertly
manipulated exchanges . . . to their mutual advantage.27
By hectoring their clients, they sustained heroic production of crops to
fatten the pigs which were, in effect, the store of harvest surplus. The
great ceremonies not only sharpened rivalries: they brought communities
into frequent relations. On the surface there is little value in forever
exchanging the same pigs, but good managers prospered and inspired
productive efforts, and everyone’s chances of survival increased.
More obviously functional were exchanges of specialist goods. In
the Torres Strait at the end of the nineteenth century some Islanders
depended confidently on canoe-borne trade to supplement their
26 As a sign that his group would be the next to make a moka and it would be comparable
to Ongka’s.
27 Meggitt,’ “Pigs Are Our Hearts”‘.
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agriculture: items from the Papuan mainland included stone and bone
tools, bows, arrows and stone weapons. According to an early colonial
report, canoes were the most important items, ‘and some of the tribes
engaged in the traffic did not even regard each other as friends’.28 Nor
was this an isolated cluster. Mailu and Motu villagers exchanged pots
for basic foods which grew scantily on their own arid land. By the 1880s
Motu villages were despatching twenty multi-hulled lakatoi on each
year’s hiri expedition to the Gulf of Papua, carrying about 26,000 pots
and returning with perhaps 500 tons of sago. By then New Guinea was
surrounded by inter-linking trade routes, at many points drawing in the
produce of inland people, usually in exchange for shell—which was
then traded through countless hands to the distant Highlands. At the
western tip of New Guinea, trade had a more sinister element: the
sultanate of Tidore, in Maluku, was the focal point of trade in Papuan
slaves as well as birds of paradise and baked sago, which served as a
South-East Asian equivalent of ships’ biscuits.
Long-distance trade and exchange relationships were, according to
Hau’ofa, fundamental to Islanders’ way of life:
Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Rotuma, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Futuna and ‘Uvea
formed a large exchange community in which wealth and people with their
skills and arts circulated endlessly. From this community people ventured to
the north and west, into Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New
Caledonia, which formed an outer arc of less intensive exchange . .. Cook
Islands and French Polynesia formed a community similar to that of their
cousins to the west; hardy spirits from this community ventured southward
and founded settlements in Aotearoa [New Zealand], while others went in
the opposite direction to discover and inhabit the islands of Hawaii. And up
north of the equator one may mention the community that was centred
on Yap.
Evidence of the conglomerations of islands with their economies and
cultures is readily available in the oral traditions of the islands concerned,
and in blood ties that are retained today. The highest chiefs of Fiji, Samoa and
Tonga, for example, still maintain kin connections that were forged centuries
before Europeans entered the Pacific, in the days when boundaries were not
imaginary lines in the ocean, but rather points of entry . .. The sea was open
to anyone who could navigate his way through.29
Exchanges were central between—and within—stratified societies,
where obligations to chiefs validated the extraction of products from
commoners. Samoan ali’i (chiefs), who depended on powerful tutafale
(orators) for the acquisition of paramount titles, had to present fine mats
to secure their support, to reward them at installation, and to reinforce
possession. To the early missionaries, it seemed as if chiefs were forever
on circuit, presenting food and exacting fine mats and bark cloth.
Underpinning these courtly exchanges were innumerable men growing
food and women beating bark and weaving pandanus, far beyond the
amounts required for mere survival.
28 Appendix to British New Guinea Annual Report, 1905.
29 Hau’ofa, ‘Our Sea of Islands7, 9.
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Map 11 Palau, Philippines and eastern Indonesia
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Similar structures of value and authority also sustained clientage
between Pacific Islands. Atoll populations relied on the patronage of
high islands. Having few resources except shell, atoll-dwellers depended
on high islands for many items of daily use. High island patrons could
succour their clients in the event of drought, cyclones or other calamities
decimating an atoll’s trees—or even its people—while the high islands
were less affected. The nexus included intercession by high island priests
to avert disaster, such as the hegemony of Yapese priests over atolls in
the central Carolines. ‘Each year dozens of canoes streamed into Yap
from other islands to present what looked like tributary gifts to certain
chiefs, even though Yapese warriors never ventured out to these places
to assert their overlordship.’30 Carolinian ocean-going canoes travelled
along named sea-lanes, relying on sailing instructions memorised by one
generation after another. In the 1720s, one crew from Woleai Atoll was
cast away on Guam, where they described and located a host of islands
which had eluded Spanish ships. Such encyclopaedic knowledge was
essential to survive natural or human disasters.
The most important form of tribute was banana-cloth textiles made
by women. More widely known today, however, are gau (strings of shell
crafted from Spondylus). Interdependence also connected high islands.
Yap’s relations with Palau evolved through the trade in raay (calcium
carbonate discs), half a metre in diameter, with a central hole. (The
better-known and colossal discs, several metres across, were quarried
only from the nineteenth century when larger vessels could carry them.)
From about the seventeenth century, Yapese from south-western districts
of the island sailed regularly to Koror in Palau. Payment for
quarrying rights was made by the chiefs of the two Yapese villages to
the chiefs of Koror and Melekeok, and chiefly control helped to solidify
the power bases of chiefs in both island groups. There they offered their
labour for the privilege of quarrying. Mining absorbed immense labour,
before the Yapese ferried raay home on frail rafts across hundreds of
kilometres of ocean.
Many exchanges amounted to tribute or barter, in the absence of an
agreed ‘currency'; but Langalanga, the artificial islands to the north of
Malaita in the Solomons, were one of several centres for manufacturing
shell. Mass-produced by women (here, gardening was the province of
men), they found their way throughout and beyond the Solomon
Islands.31 Among the best-known forms of wealth were the great
looping fathoms of tambu shell which represented wealth for the Tolai in
New Britain. Whale’s teeth performed much the same function in other
islands. In Fiji, for example, the little island of Bau projected its power
far beyond its horizons, across the islands to the densely populated
Rewa delta of Vanua Levu, through its chiefs’ access to tabua (whale’s
teeth) (see chapter 5).
Like other shells, raay were a store of value, more highly esteemed
than gau. Rates of exchange fluctuated. Ownership passed from village
30 Hezel, First Taint of Civilization, 264.
31 Cooper, “Economic Context of Shell Money Production in Malaita7.
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? Babeldaob
D Angaur
Farallon de Pajaros
,., Maugls
• Asuncion
Northern • Agrihan
Guguan *
‘ Sarigan Mariana
* Yap Is
• Sorol Pigailoe Ulul-
‘ Hall Is
Palau Woleai.-;
• Sonsorol
• Merir
Tobi- . Helen
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• Pulap
Satawal •• • *’•.” Chuuk (Truk) Senyavin Is
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(Ponape) Caroline Islands
Federated States of Micronesia
130 Mapia Is
.;•> Mortlock Is
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% Kapingamarangi
Map 12 Northern Marianas and Federated States of Micronesia
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to village even when raay were irretrievably sunk. Like any other
currency, raay provoked political contest, attempts at monopoly and
much ingenuity—while accumulated wealth buttressed the holders of
political power. Unlike Western currency, however, raay was not
anonymous: the discs retained the personality of those who quarried,
ferried and owned them, in the form of stories told about them. The
same distinction applies to other forms of wealth, including the He toga
fine mats of Samoa, with individual qualities and narratives. It follows
that wealth could be amassed only in a social and political context.
People possessed wealth—but not capital. Tambu represented wealth for
the Tolai: but tambu became ‘capital’ only when relations were commercialised
in the nineteenth century. Until then the convention which
distinguishes the (economic) production of wealth from the (political)
accumulation of power makes no sense of Island experience. Wealth
and authority were two sides of the same raay.
These exchanges are often described as ‘traditional’, but they were
not as inflexible as that term implies. As demand changed, so did
production and the exchange networks. Palau aragonite production
languished until about AD 1400 when Yapese settled near the quarry:
export trade evolved much later. Sweet potato transformed production
and exchange in the New Guinea Highlands. The later expansion of
quarrying responded to a flood of goods from the coast, though neither
the masons nor traders recognised the connections. Polynesian exchanges
quickly accommodated European commodities, just as the
moka embraced manufactured imports.
Underpinning all other relations were a host of relationships between
women and men, in production, consumption and exchanges. Throughout
this book we warn against the conventional division of the Pacific
into three ‘culture areas’, to explain commonalities and differences. On
a purely descriptive level, however, some regional generalisations can
be offered about male-female relations and the gender division of
labour. In most Melanesian societies women played a greater role in
agriculture and food production than did women in Polynesia.
Polynesian women’s primary work was to manufacture mats and cloth
for domestic and ceremonial use. In most of Melanesia, male dominance
was more explicit and more extreme than in Polynesia, and was often
buttressed by ideologies warning of female danger and pollution.
Polynesian cultures varied widely in the content and force of their ritual
prohibitions, but most associated women to some degree with notions
of taboo and sacred spiritual power. Yet Polynesian women were the
equals of men in genealogical status and social rank. They not only produced
cultural valuables, but wielded formidable personal and political
authority as kinswomen and chiefesses.
By contrast, Micronesia presents a wide range of environments. The
social and political range was equally diverse, from stratified chiefdoms
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to localised extended-family organisation. Cultural solutions did not
necessarily correlate with environmental conditions, and even within
the same sector of islands the division of labour could vary radically.
The men of Chuuk Lagoon, for example, gardened while men in the
western isles of Chuuk District believed that gardening was women’s
work. Regional patterns are of course relative, and there are always
exceptions. While in Highland New Guinea women did most of the
productive work, in the matrilineal societies of Island Melanesia
women owned and passed on the land, and both sexes worked in the
gardens. But matrilineal descent did not ensure that men respected
women, nor that women were equal decision-makers. There is no
apparent relation between the rule of descent, the division of labour,
and the esteem accorded to women.
Statements about the division of labour should also be nuanced by a
distinction between production and exchange. In some societies women
contributed little to subsistence, but produced domestic necessities and
valued exchange goods, and played active roles in exchanges. Further,
women’s contributions to subsistence did not correlate with high public
esteem: witness the extreme male dominance and denigration of
women in certain New Guinea societies where women produced most
of the staple foods and, in contrast, the high cultural valuation of
Polynesian women, who primarily manufactured cloth and mats. Age
differences were another source of variation: boys and girls often had
quite different work expectations from adults, whose duties differed in
turn from those of elderly men and women. Samoan girls in the 1920s
weeded and gathered plant foods, as well as helping to prepare family
meals. In the Trobriands, men were the primary yam producers and
women produced cloth goods, but women might plant and tend their
own yam gardens on lands of their matrilineage. The distinction
between men’s work and women’s work should not, in other words, be
viewed as a categorical exclusion. In most societies there were no ritual
prohibitions restricting economic tasks and, particularly in agriculture,
men and women often helped each other when needed. Highland New
Guinea was a notable exception, however, with its ritualised sexual
segregation and pollution beliefs.
This brief reconstruction begins with societies in which women
contributed significantly to food production. The discussion proceeds
to women’s manufacture of domestic necessities and ceremonial valuables,
as well as women’s roles in exchange. These descriptions are only
as sound as the sources on which they are based. In many areas of
Melanesia and Micronesia, pre-European activities persisted well into
the era of modern ethnography and may still be practised today in
modified form. In Samoa, Tonga, and many smaller Polynesian islands,
the subsistence economy has been well documented, and inferences
about the pre-European division of labour can be substantiated with
first-hand observations. For most of these societies, twentieth-century
monographs contain data on gender roles. Such material is not always
easily accessible or consolidated, however, and female activities are
rarely given equal treatment. For highly ‘acculturated’ societies,
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conclusions must rely on ethnohistorical sources. Nearly all were
Western men whose biases led them to ignore or denigrate Island
women and their activities.
Our focus is not so much the proportion of women’s contribution as
the question of male dominance: did women work for men? Did men
have decision-making authority over the products of women’s labour?
In most of Highland New Guinea they did, and this asymmetry is part
of a larger gender complex that has been called ‘sexual antagonism’.
Sexual asymmetry varied, but most Highland societies had institutions
that vaunted male superiority, notably male cults revolving around
men’s houses, arcane knowledge, and secret men-only rituals. A central
function of the men’s cults was to conduct initiation rites to mould boys
into warriors. Though this function has been abridged, male initiation
rituals continue in many societies. In these rites and in daily life men
explicitly and publicly denigrate women, and in some cases routinely
abuse them physically. Highland economies centred on sweet potatoes
and pigs. Many societies also emphasised the ceremonial exchange of
shell valuables. The sweet potato is considered a ‘female’ crop, in contrast
to ‘male’ plants such as taro, ginger and sugarcane, which are
cared for by men. Pigs are also categorically ‘female’ in contrast to dogs
and cassowaries, which are ‘male’. Since pigs eat sweet potatoes, men’s
ceremonies intrinsically depend on women’s work, and if men like
Ongka hold more feasts, women must work much harder.
It is difficult to compare the effort that women expend on cultivation
in different parts of Melanesia. Jill Nash calls the matrilineal Nagovisi
of Bougainville a relatively ‘low production’ society, especially by
comparison with the Highlands. Until the taro blight of the 1940s, the
Nagovisi grew taro as their staple crop, raised pigs, and supplemented
their diet with hunting and gathering. (After the taro blight, sweet
potato supplanted taro.) As an indicator of cross-cultural differences in
women’s work, Nagovisi informants told Nash that a Highland woman
who had married into the area worked much harder at gardening than
they did. By comparison with the Highlands, Nagovisi pig feasts
tended to be smaller and the Nagovisi placed much less emphasis on
winning competitive advantage in exchanges. Rather, they valued
‘reciprocity and balance’ in relationships. Though Nash rejects the
notion that women in matrilineal societies universally enjoy ‘higher
status’ than women in patrilineal systems, she reports that Nagovisi
men and women have relative equality in rights and control over
resources. She also vividly conveys the meaning of ‘work’ for women:
Though active, Nagovisi women do not give the impression of being overworked,
and rarely go to the garden more than three times a week . . . To
count ‘hours in the garden’ is misleading, for women by no means get down
to their tasks in a businesslike manner—they stop at villages en route to chat
and chew betel, and once in the garden, they cook snacks, tend to small
children, bathe, and so on. In other words, ‘work’ is not well differentiated
into a separate category.32
32 Jill Nash, ‘Gender Attributes and Equality7, in Strathern (ed.), Dealing with Inequality,
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Rather different arrangements prevail in the ‘sago complex’ of the Sepik
River area. In some Sepik societies men do most of the planting and
gardening, while women catch fish. Paddling out in canoes to set fish
traps, women supply most of the protein food. They also prepare sago,
cook, and have their own markets where they barter foodstuffs with
other women. Here as elsewhere, the division of labour is buttressed by
beliefs in the intrinsic qualities of each sex. Iatmul men believed that
they could not learn to cook sago pancakes, but among the sago-producing
societies of the Sepik there was much flexibility in performance:
few tasks were strictly reserved for one sex, and men and women
helped each other as needed. Both sexes worked sago, but men and
women customarily performed different phases of the process.
Sepik women also tended the pigs upon which men’s ceremonies
depend, and Bateson observed that ‘wives hold the purse strings very
tight’.33 Most of the literature on New Guinea emphasises female
subordination, ritual separation and male misogyny, but most ethnographers
have been male. Since the 1970s, some scholars have suggested
that women may have a different perspective, and even their
own alternative cosmology and gender ideology. We have few intensive
studies of female perspectives, but in the early 1960s, when the
Highlands were still minimally affected by Western contact, Paula
Brown recorded these contrasting statements from a Simbu (Chimbu)
woman and man:
What we women do is very difficult. 1) We cook for our family every day in
our life. Never rest. 2) Go to the garden every day of our life. 3) Clean the
grass in the garden and plant the food crops. 4) Look after pigs every day of
our life. 5) Look after our babies while we are doing the other jobs. So it is
very very hard. Men never help us . . . The work that men do is very simple.
It’s not very hard to them. They break firewood, cut grass or clear the bush,
dig the garden drains, build houses only. They do not do it every day. Men
spend most of their time doing nothing and talking. They just sit in the men’s
house discussing buying wives for young boys and about feasts and
We men worked hard for our own satisfaction and to serve our family. We
worked harder than the women because we thought we had more strength
and we worked extra hours. We show our strength by making fences,
building new houses, making new gardens, breaking firewood, helping our
wives to plant. Our wives worked the same as we husbands worked but they
worked a bit fewer hours than us men. They woke up early in the morning
to set the pigs free to look for their food. After that the women went to their
work and returned when the sun is about to set. When they prepare food for
the family it is extra work but it is the job of the women to serve the family.34
Women’s production of goods for men’s ceremonial exchanges is
becoming more widely acknowledged. In Pohnpei and Palau, women
are recognised as the key figures in family ceremonies, exchanges, and
33 Bateson, Naven, 148-9.
34 Brown, ‘Gender and Social Change’, 128.
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public feasts—events in which men are vitally concerned. In most
descriptions of New Guinea Highland exchanges, however, women are
largely absent. Since women are the gardeners, they also provide the
food for men’s gatherings. Among the Tombema Enga, women influence
their husbands’ political ambitions by virtue of their role as providers.
Women participate in negotiations over acquiring pigs. If a
woman left her husband, the result would be disastrous for his pig
herd—and his aspirations. Moreover, male exchange partners in the tee
are related through women: ‘Enga would not consider giving pigs to
persons without a female tie for there would be no guarantee of return.’
A man’s wife has direct say over distribution to exchange partners who
are not related to her, and the would-be recipients must ask her for the
pigs: ‘women are essential in shaping and defining the partnerships that
nominally belong to men’.35 Women’s roles in ostensibly male-centred
exchanges offer a new perspective on sexual polarity. Ideology is not
the be-all and end-all of women’s social position. Even where male
dominance appears absolute, the division of labour may temper the
conventional portrayal of unremitting female subordination.
In many societies women manufactured cultural valuables—things
that are stored as heirlooms, rarely displayed, and transferred only on
ceremonial occasions. Early ethnographers typically ignored the
significance of these articles. This neglect was an artefact of male bias,
but it also derived from the Western expectation that primitive peoples
were crudely materialist, largely concerned with filling their bellies.
They therefore tended to undervalue non-subsistence exchange goods,
even though Islanders viewed these as treasures. Annette Weiner,
working in the Trobriand Islands, calls these items ‘cloth wealth’,
because in many societies women’s ceremonial manufactures take
the form of cloth or mats. In Polynesia, bark cloth (tapa or kapa) and
pandanus mats are the highest cultural valuables. They were appropriate
gifts for gods and chiefs, and in some societies particular items
embodied the history of families and dynasties. In Pohnpei, women also
made cloth goods for exchange—skirts of hibiscus fibre, belts, headdresses,
and mats. In the Trobriands, women still produce banana-leaf
bundles and fibre skirts which are exchanged in funeral ceremonies.
Weiner judges that: ‘Oceanic societies with cloth traditions value such
wealth not only as a form of currency, but also as a major exchange
object, presented to others at births, marriages, deaths, and the inauguration
of chiefs.’36 Items of cloth wealth are never really alienated from
the families that produced them, and they embody kin group identity
as well as political authority.
The Trobriand Islands are best known in academic circles for the
inter-island kula exchange network, described by Malinowski in Argonauts
of the Western Pacific. Men travelled long distances in elaborately
decorated canoes to exchange armshells and necklaces with their
35 Feil, ‘Women and Men in the Enga Tee’.
36 Annette Weiner, ‘Why Cloth?’, in Weiner and Schneider, Cloth and Human Experience,
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trading partners. Malinowski largely ignored women and their activities,
including women’s mortuary exchanges which Weiner describes in
Women of Value, Men of Renown. Although women produce and own the
cloth wealth—banana-leaf bundles and skirts—and conduct the mortuary
ceremonies, their husbands have an abiding interest in proceedings.
When a ceremony is pending, a man ‘will work for months from
morning until late at night trying to accumulate as much women’s
wealth as possible for his wife’. At such times he will say publicly that
he is working for his wife, although he may denigrate women in other
contexts. ‘Behind every big-woman who distributes more women’s
wealth than anyone else during a mortuary ceremony stands a man.’37
Early European visitors failed to comprehend the value of Samoan
fine mats and siapo (bark cloth); missionaries and administrators discouraged,
regulated, and even prohibited fine mat exchanges on the
grounds that they distracted people from productive work. Samoans
repeatedly explained that their fine mats were the ‘gold and diamonds’
of their society. Large distributions were essential in public ceremonies,
and those who aspired to the highest titles had to garner certain old and
sacred mats that symbolised overarching authority. Importantly,
Samoan women participate equally in discussions with male chiefs over
which mats to give at a ceremony, and how many. Women may call on
their own extended family when their marital household needs more
mats for an exchange.
The role of cloth wealth in ancient Hawaiian society has been overlooked,
in part because the fine-quality mats and tapa were quickly
superseded by European items. Formal, public exchanges of cloth
wealth appear in any case to have been less prominent than in Samoa.
Even with voluminous ethnohistorical materials, the pre-European
division of labour can remain uncertain: few foreign visitors recorded
details of who was working in the taro patches, and when. The
nineteenth-century writer David Malo summarised the division of
labour with the formula that outdoor work was done by men, indoor
work by women.38 Men did most of the agricultural tasks, as well as
woodwork, stonework, and deep-sea fishing. Men felled trees, built
houses, made canoes, bowls and adzes, and fished from canoes at sea.
In Polynesia men also did the cooking; according to Malo, under the
gender taboos (the ‘kapu system’) Hawaiian men and women could not
eat from the same animal, the same dish, or the same oven. A man must
therefore prepare two ovens (imu), one for the men of the family and
one for the women.
Hawaiian women were occupied with making pandanus mats, bark
cloth, and feather ornaments, as well as reef fishing and marine
gathering close to shore. Observers noted that most of the mats and
cloth were made by older women, however. If contemporary Polynesian
societies are any guide, girls and younger women would have
been responsible for child-care, domestic duties, and assisting older
37 Weiner, Women of Value, Men of Renown, 14.
38 Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities.
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Kure Midway
& 1S . • Pearl & Hermes
Lisianski ‘
Niihau ^
Map 13 Hawai’i
women, effectively as apprentices. Hawaiian men were also the birdcatchers,
camping in the upland forests and harvesting the brilliant
feathers that went into chiefly cloaks and standards; their wives accompanied
them, however, and sorted the feathers. Early sources attest that
women made the feathered cloaks, insignia of high-ranking male chiefs.
Modern scholars tend to impute this task to men, largely because the
prevailing interpretation of the taboo system has been one of categorical
female-pollution and devaluation. Hawaiian gender taboos, which
mandated separation of males and females during eating, religious
rituals, and menstruation, have led some scholars to presume that
women were ritually prohibited from growing certain crops, such as
taro. While men performed most of the work with taro, there is no
evidence of a categorical exclusion. There are times in the growth cycle
when wetland taro requires frequent weeding, and it is likely that
women and children participated. A visitor to Hawai’i in 1798, when the
kapu system was still in effect, wrote that ‘the young women never work
in the field, but the old ones sometimes do’.39 The historian Samuel
Kamakau left us a curious summary:
All the work outside the house was performed by the men, such as tilling the
ground, fishing, cooking in the imu .. . This was the common rule on Kauai,
Oahu, and Molokai, but on Maui or Hawaii the women worked outside as
hard as the men … it was not uncommon to see the women of Hawaii
packing food on their backs, cooking it in the imu, and cultivating the land or
even going fishing with the men.40
In light of other sources associating women with sweet potato cultivation,
an archaeologist has suggested an explanation for Kamakau’s
39 ‘Extract from the Diary of Ebenezer Townsend, Jr., Supercargo of the Sealing Ship
Neptune on Her Voyage to the South Pacific and Canton’, Hawaiian Historical Society
Reprints, 4 (1921), 25.
40 Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs, 238-9.
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description: that dryland field systems, with sweet potato the dominant
crop, were more prevalent on Maui and Hawai’i islands. Dryland
cultivation required more constant and intensive labour for weeding
and mulching, and in these areas women’s labour would have been
particularly important.41
Still, women were busy enough with their primary duties. Bark cloth
is perishable and its manufacture labour-intensive—tending the shrub,
preparing the raw material, beating the bark with mallets to the desired
thinness, and stamping or painting designs on the cloth. Fine tapa cloth
and pandanus mats were also part of tributary offerings to the chiefs;
their delicacy and quantity indexed chiefly rank, and Hawaiian women
would have been fully occupied producing these valuables as well as
domestic items. The fine varieties of mats and tapa made their way into
chiefly gift exchange and religious rituals. Wrapping signified the containment
of divine power; offerings and images of the gods were
customarily wrapped in fine tapa and/or mats.
Recent ethnographers have explored the cultural logic of the gender
division of labour. In Polynesia, one typically finds thorough-going
complementarity, in economics, cultural symbolism and ritual status.
Men and women supplied categorically different, complementary
goods. In Pukapuka, in the Cook Islands, ‘men work on the periphery
and women work in the centre’.42 Women work taro fields in the atoll’s
swampy interior, while men tend coconuts on the encircling dry land.
In other contexts too, Pukapuka women are symbolically ‘wet’ where
men are said to be ‘dry’. Both sexes may fish within the reef but, as in
Hawai’i and Samoa, only men venture onto the ocean. In marriage
exchanges, men contribute the products of their gender—coconuts, fish,
and sennit fibre—while women give women’s things—taro and
pandanus mats. There is ample evidence for such complementarity in
other Polynesian societies, and in Pohnpei and Palau. A missionary in
Hawai’i described a tributary procession wherein a column of men
presented foods to a chiefess, followed by a column of women bearing
mats and tapas. Polynesian marriage exchanges typically entail gifts of
food and other men’s products by the man’s family, and cloth wealth by
the woman’s side.
Complementarity may be the one feature common to the gender
division of labour in Pacific societies, and perhaps in all societies. The
diverse cultural elaborations that characterise Island economies defy
simple explanations. Men may fish and women garden—as in Yap,
Palau, and Pohnpei—or vice versa, as in the Sepik. In Polynesia, men
typically produced most of the food, while women manufactured cloth
wealth. Where both men and women garden, there is a division of
labour by crop, and where both sexes fish, there is usually a distinction
between inshore and open-ocean fishing and/or a gender division by
marine species. While taro farming was largely the job of Hawaiian
men, some sources associate Hawaiian women with sweet potato. In
41 Kirch, Feathered Gods and Fishhooks, 224-5.
42 Hecht, The Culture of Gender in Pukapuka’, 186.
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matrilineal Palau, women were categorically associated with taro
patches and men with fishing; men were also associated with crops that
require little regular care—tree crops, sugarcane and arrowroot—as
well as tobacco and pepper vines. In Pohnpei, male wealth included
giant yams, pigs and kava, while women’s wealth consisted of cloth
goods and agricultural items such as sugarcane, sennit and coconut oil.
Because productive tasks can readily be divided into stages and phases
of preparation, tending, collecting, processing, and so forth, the division
of labour facilitates the enactment of perceived differences between
social categories—high/low, young/old, and male/female. Although
usually portrayed in broad strokes, the gender division of labour is
highly nuanced; it both derives from and continues to communicate fine
cultural distinctions between men and women.
We glimpse the population levels of the remote past only through
emotive debates about the depopulation which almost always followed
interaction with Europeans. For more than a century after white settlement
in Australia, the pre-contact Aboriginal population was taken to
have been about 150,000. White and Mulvaney now judge that 750,000
is more accurate. Later population decline in tropical Australia may
have been relatively slight: sustained contacts with Indonesian fishing
crews ‘may have produced greater immunity from some diseases, but
may also have acted to keep populations lower than they might
otherwise have been’.43 At the other end of the region, a similar revaluation
is being made. The first published estimate of Hawai’i’s population—
400,000—was by James King who sailed with Cook. King’s peers
proposed figures closer to 250,000, which was generally accepted until
1989 when David Stannard proposed at least 800,000. On the other hand
the observations of early European visitors persuade Andrew Bushnell
that some lethal infections were not immediately available in Hawai’i,
that the decline was slower, and the original population smaller than
Stannard proposes.44
In New Zealand, Maori numbers have been estimated between about
110,000, and five times that total. Similar uncertainty crops up across
Polynesia. A missionary census estimated 56,000 Samoans in 1839; after
seven decades of contact with Europeans; though the pioneer demographer
Norma McArthur preferred significantly lower figures. As for
Tahiti, estimates run from an implausible 8000 to 200,000: 66,000 may
be a fair estimate. Scholars differ most in Tonga, depending on the
credence they attach to a missionary estimate in 1847 of ‘about 50,000′,
declining to an agreed 19,000 by the end of the century. Similar disagreements
mark accounts of populations in the Marquesas and Cook
43 White and Mulvaney, ‘How Many People?’, in Mulvaney and White (eds), Australians
to 1788.
44 Bushnell,’ ‘The Horror” Reconsidered'; and the responses of Eleanor Nordyke and
Robert Schmitt, in Stannard, Before the Horror.
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Islands, where McArthur reckoned there were 20,000 each. Micronesian
estimates pose equally acute problems, since so many disasters and
epidemics occurred before any recorded estimates. Kosrae in the 1820s
may have been recovering from typhoon and civil strife and beginning
to regain its earlier population levels. If so, the recovery was aborted by
new diseases. Hezel estimates 3000 people on Kosrae, 10,000 on
Pohnpei and a similar number in Palau, 15,000 in the Marshall Islands
and 30,000 to 40,000 in the Marianas.45 The islands of today’s Kiribati
had a population of perhaps 30,000.
In Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands (as in most of Melanesia)
colonial record-keeping began only after a couple of generations of
interaction. Even painstaking research therefore offers only approximations.
Spriggs is fairly sure that there were 3500 to 4000 people on
Aneityum in 1854 when missionaries counted them. Numbers had
certainly fallen since 1830, but he cannot estimate that decline more
narrowly than a range of 17 to 33 per cent.46 Vanuatu as a whole experienced
at least 50 per cent depopulation in the nineteenth century, and
in some islands much more. In mid-century there were 3500 people in
Aneityum, 15,000 to 20,000 in Tanna, and 5000 in Erromanga.
McArthur reckoned that the Fijian population had been about
135,000 in the early 1870s, but by the 1879 census, only about 110,000
were counted. In the previous century some Fijians had survived a
pulmonary infection in 1791-2, acute dysentery in 1802-3, and a
measles epidemic of 1875, besides other episodes which left neither oral
nor documentary traces. Roux’s reconstruction of pre-contact agriculture
in the grande terre of New Caledonia leads to a persuasive
estimate of at least 90,000 people. For the Solomon Islands, reports
estimated between 100,000 and 150,000 people. Until the 1930s, neither
the Dutch New Guinea administration nor those of Papua or the
Mandated Territory of New Guinea was aware of Highland populations.
None pretended to know for how many people they were
responsible, but each suspected that depopulation was occurring. Some
New Guinea islands did experience decline—Ontong Java, a Polynesian
outlier, much of New Ireland, and the western islands in Manus
province. The first censuses were attempted in Papua New Guinea only
in the 1960s, suggesting fewer than 2 million people. In Irian Jaya, no
full census had been taken before the Dutch departed in the 1960s,
leaving a guesstimated 750,000 people.
Today Melanesians far outnumber Polynesians, and Micronesians
are many fewer than either. These numbers were probably closer to
equality in the fifteenth century, since (for reasons explained below)
many Melanesians were shielded from the worst effects of exotic infections,
and large islands were probably less exposed than small ones.
In a global perspective, however, even the most generous estimates
are remarkably low. Since New Guinea has been inhabited for 30,000
years, and most of Polynesia for at least a millennium (chapter 2),
45 Hezel, First Taint of Civilization, 317-18.
46 Spriggs, ‘Vegetable Kingdoms’.
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eighteenth-century populations were arrestingly sparse. Either there
were stringent constraints on population growth, or there had been
several episodes of drastic population loss. It is likely that both
scenarios were played out in different parts of the region.
More discoverable than quantity is the quality of people’s lives.
Europeans admired the health of Polynesians when they first met:
Bougainville likened Tahitians to Greek gods. There was much for
sailors to envy in the Islanders on the beach. All societies were protected
by the fact that many diseases require a population mass before they
can become endemic. Oceania had long been isolated from dense populations
and their infections. However, the closer to Asia, the weaker the
cordon sanitaire. Coastal New Guinea, like northern Australia, was
exposed to infections through South-East Asian traders: there was no
sharp microbiological break like that which separated Polynesia from
the Americas, although infections may have been limited by quarantine
systems.47 Distance and small scale protected most Islands from influenza,
leprosy, measles, mumps, smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, plague,
typhoid, whooping cough and venereal diseases. Judging by the later
effects of pulmonary diseases, many of these may have been absent in
earlier times.
Malaria (including falciparum, the most deadly variety) and filariasis
were endemic in coastal Melanesia. In the Solomon Islands, Bennett
estimates that coastal populations suffered from reduced fertility
through malaria and yaws, so that 40 per cent of babies died. Altitude
offered some protection, but that had to be weighed against the
inconvenience of food supplies. Although some people did reach old
age, few could expect to live beyond about thirty years.48 Yet there were
significant pockets throughout Melanesia where malaria did not
prevail. The New Guinea Highlands were the most significant, but
many smaller areas were also secure, if people drained or avoided the
swampy breeding grounds of anopheles mosquitoes. Over several
generations, exposed populations could acquire some resistance, but
European and Polynesian missionaries who moved into malarial
regions suffered acutely (which helps to explain the contrast between
Europeans’ lyrical accounts of Polynesia and their dread of Melanesia).
In a fresh population, malaria was lethal. It also depressed immune
systems, laying victims open to other infections. Malaria may have been
the most important barrier to the movement of people and technology
across Torres Strait. Few Aborigines who crossed the barrier to New
Guinea would survive, while any who settled in Cape York, and began
to cultivate, would have endured at least a generation of high mortality,
with no reasonable prospect of improvement.49 The New Guinea Highlands
may be conceived as a refuge, where population could increase
briskly. Any community driven from this refuge would be unable—
through sickness—to fight their way back. Mid-altitude societies were
47 Allen, ‘A Bomb or a Bullet or the Bloody Flux?’
48 Bennett, Wealth of the Solomons, 9.
49 Groube, ‘Contradictions and Malaria in Melanesian and Australian Prehistory7.
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therefore smaller, and less healthy, than their neighbours at higher
altitudes. Since Highlanders attributed illness to lower altitudes and
had little need for marriage partners from these parts, they enjoyed de
facto quarantine.
The evident well-being of most Islanders at first encounters can
support a sinister interpretation. In the Aitape area of New Guinea, for
example: The village environment favoured the reproduction and
spread of pathogens which selectively killed children and weaker
adults. Village populations appeared “healthy” to outsiders because
those who survived childhood were largely immune to the most
common infections to which they were exposed, and those who aged or
weakened, quickly sickened and died/50 It is reassuring that Cook’s
expedition observed deformed Hawaiians; and similar deformities
were observed elsewhere after the first euphoria. But the absence of
degenerative diseases was largely due to the fact that few people lived
long enough to develop them.
Little is known of indigenous therapies. Many communities developed
surgical skills to treat war wounds, but nowhere in New Guinea
has evidence been found of expertise in childbirth, and a woman in
labour fended for herself or relied on kinswomen. Father Rougeyron in
New Caledonia in the 1840s scorned the Kanaks’ reliance on divination,
but applauded their surgical skills and their use of bleeding, purging
and poultices;51 which suggests that Melanesian therapies were no
worse—but no better—than the folk-remedies on which most Europeans
relied. Well-being owed more to nutrition and isolation. Commentators
refer more commonly to spiritual than to ‘clinical’ healers.
Individual misfortune was widely read as evidence of social disharmony,
and efforts to identify ill-wishers were often more ingenious
than the treatment of the sick. In 1968 Raymond Kelly observed this in
a Highland fringe population in Papua New Guinea: ‘The Etoro themselves
say that they are dying out. They attribute this to internal witchcraft.
For each death a witch is named and a demand for compensation
(or execution) follows. In an epidemic year the level of social conflict
that is generated by this severely tests the social bonds which hold the
society together.’52 Melanesian witches tend to be older women, and a
society in which every grandmother may prove to be a witch must
endure acute anxiety, especially in times of epidemics.
Health was unequally enjoyed by Melanesian women and men:
women aged faster and died younger than their brothers. Although
men and women were roughly equal numerically in other islands,
Melanesian men outnumbered women by perhaps 110:100, and even
more in some communities. A Dutch colonial administrator in Irian Jaya
was surprised by this disequilibrium in the Marindanim population
during the 1930s. There were so many more boys and men than girls
and women that it was difficult to see how the community could
50 Allen, ‘A Bomb or a Bullet or the Bloody Flux?’, 228.
51 Douglas, ‘Discourses on Death in a Melanesian World’.
52 Kelly, Etoro Social Structure, 31.
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reproduce itself. Like some anthropologists in Papua in the 1920s, he
wondered if this was a short-term consequence of colonial attacks on
cultural practices; but whatever the cause, boys outnumbered girls in
every age group, including the new-born. Other scholars in New
Guinea noticed a tendency either to abandon or to neglect baby girls.
Although the sex ratio was fairly equal at birth, boys outnumbered girls
thereafter. During the 1980s a scholar in the Highlands of Irian Jay a
noticed that the population was increasing rapidly, but so was
masculinity, so that ‘the sex ratio may be rising even among an expanding
population’.53 This common Melanesian pattern may be
explained partly by differences in diet, whereby some (especially highprotein)
foods were either reserved for men or forbidden to women in
pregnancy or lactation, or after menopause; these restrictions expressed
pervasive evaluations of male and female lives. Women also risked
death in childbirth, in the absence of birth attendants.
One critical variable cuts across all others. Most Islanders practised
shifting cultivation, but in Hawai’i, in the river deltas of Fiji, in New
Caledonia and in the New Guinea Highlands, dense populations built
up around continuous cultivation. Natural hazards provoked many
Island peoples to limit population by abstinence, abortion, or selective
infanticide. Only in Hawai’i and some other parts of Polynesia could
the pressure of population be ignored. For these and other reasons, the
quality (and length) of lives varied immensely and often, and depopulation
was not unknown, from natural and human causes. Men’s
diets varied with rank, so that Big Men and chiefs ate much better (and
oftener) than ‘rubbish men’ or commoners. Living standards also varied
with climate. Coastal people enjoyed access to fish and shellfish.
Highlanders were isolated from sea resources—and from malaria. Least
fortunate were inland people on the highland fringes, who had access to
malaria but not to fish. Away from the coast, diets centred upon taro or
sweet potato, which must be eaten in bulk to yield adequate protein.
Even within these broad categories, well-being was uneven. Motu and
Mailu villages on the Papuan coast were sited in marginal environments,
but by producing pottery and controlling trade they could
usually ensure a flow of shells from Milne Bay, fairly fresh meat from
the mainland, and sago from the Gulf of Papua. Their greatest risk was
any interruption—natural or human—to trade.
Like other populations of the eighteenth century, Melanesians endured
high infant death rates—possibly approaching 50 per cent.
Mortality rates were especially high in the first year of life, and weaning
onto the high-carbohydrate diets of adults was the most dangerous
transition in anyone’s lifetime. Life expectancy was short, although we
cannot say how short. So widespread were practices of fertility control
that we may infer a common anxiety about food resources, long after
the environmental crises of the pioneering generations. Three conditions
permitted some communities to sustain dense populations. One
was plentiful arable land with reliable water—impossible in the atolls.
53 Gotschalk, ‘Sela Valley’, Appendix D.
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A second was the development of cultigens and farming techniques
which permitted continuous (or long-term) cultivation. A third was the
absence of malaria. Where all these conditions were met, life expectancy
could have been among the highest in the eighteenth-century world.
Magellan’s companions were mistaken in assuming natural abundance
and free consumption. Production always required intelligent
management, most environments demanded strenuous labour, and
natural hazards were compounded by competition which often spilled
over into hostilities. Survival was a significant achievement, and affluence
was both rare and precarious. By the ingenuity of their agriculture,
the determination of cultivators and quarrymen, the mass production
of pottery, mats and shell valuables, the confidence of their navigators,
and the maintenance of networks, Islanders struggled to contain
dangers and to transcend the limitations of their crops and tools. Over
time, land management improved, and disasters were endured and
mainly survived.
The sources on land tenure, production and exchange are listed in the
Introduction to Pacific Islands Bibliography at the end of chapter 1. So
are the leading sources on the gender division of labour, but see also
McDowell, ‘Complementarity: The Relationship between Female and
Male in the East Sepik Village of Bun, Papua New Guinea’, in O’Brien
and Tiffany, Rethinking Women’s Roles.
To estimate pre-contact populations is difficult and politically delicate.
Norma McArthur, Island Populations of the Pacific, is the essential
starting point. A recent regional summary is Denoon, ‘Pacific Island
Depopulation’. For Hawai’i, see Stannard, Before the Horror, and
Bushnell, ‘”The Horror” Reconsidered’. For Australia, see White and
Mulvaney, ‘How Many People?’, in Mulvaney and White (eds), Australians
to 1788. For New Zealand, see Pool, Te Iwi Maori; for French
dependencies, Rallu, ‘Population of the French Overseas Territories in
the Pacific'; for Vanuatu generally, Bonnemaison, The Tree and the Canoe;
for Aneityum, Spriggs, ‘Vegetable Kingdoms'; and for New Caledonia,
Roux, ‘Traditional Melanesian Agriculture in New Caledonia’. For other
islands, estimates are little more than guesses.
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Since at least the eighteenth century, European explorers and scholars
have been reporting their ‘discoveries’ in the Pacific Islands. Descriptions
of very different ways of organising social relations had a
profound influence on European intellectuals, broadening their sense of
social, political, cultural and economic possibilities. They assumed that
the discovery of Europeans had equally profound effects among the
Pacific Islanders who were simultaneously ‘discovering’ new ways of
living and thinking. This chapter examines a sample of early crosscultural
encounters, from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, to try
to grasp the ways in which some Islanders understood both the events
and their implications for their own lives and ideas.
Samoans and Tongans conceived of their islands as a complete universe
of sea and lands, contained by the dome of the sky and divided into
invisible layers containing the living places of gods. Below the sea was
the realm of Pulotu, entered by the spirits of the aristocratic dead
through an entrance under the sea, off the westernmost shore of the
islands. They called the strangers papalagi, meaning ‘sky bursters': when
the strange ships sailed across the horizon, their utter unfamiliarity
caused Islanders to suppose that they must have burst through the
dome of heaven. The modern equivalent of Islanders discovering
outsiders would be encounters with extra-terrestrials. The explorers’
ships, appearance, clothing and manners suggested that they had come
from another world.
The idea that the horizon delineated the edge of the world, beyond
which lived spirits and gods, was also widespread in Melanesia. Some
of this cosmology can be inferred from an encounter in 1930, when a
party of gold prospectors passed westward through the Goroka valley
in the eastern Highlands of New Guinea. Sole Sole and his fellow
villagers of Gorohonota knew that their ancestors were often in their
midst, and that dead people departed in that direction. Tearfully they
welcomed back their ancestors and the recently dead, and spread the
news in all directions:
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we gave them a pig and also one of our men stole a knife from them. We all
gathered around to look, we were pointing at them, and we were saying
Aah, that one—that must be . . / and we named one of our people who had
died before. That must be him/ And we’d point to another one and say that
that must be this other dead person . .. and we were naming them.
Gopie, from Gama village, was certain that one of the New Guinean
carriers was his cousin Ulaline:
My cousin had been killed in a tribal fight. When he came towards me I saw
half his finger missing, and I recognised him as my dead cousin. The reason
his finger was cut off was that [when alive] he’d had too many children with
his wife. His people had punished him by cutting off his little finger. When
he came towards me I said to him, ‘Cousin!’ And he raised his eyebrows. So
I knew it was definitely him.1
When Europeans and Islanders ‘discovered’ each other, the selfconscious
European explorers were fully expecting to grapple with
strange languages, customs and modes of living and thinking. Exploration
was a familiar European process, backed by centuries of
African, Mediterranean and American episodes. Islanders had many
fewer such experiences to guide them. This seeming absence of precedents
has gripped the imagination of many Western scholars, eager to
reconstruct the ways in which Islanders imagined their universe, and
how they conceived the extra-terrestrials who appeared, so to speak,
out of the blue.
Some research produces disconcerting observations. Some firstcontact
events, reconstructed from the records of ships’ logs, prove to
have left no durable impression.2 In other incidents the people were at
least equally impressed by other Islanders who played supporting roles
as servants and carriers for European expedition leaders. From the
nineteenth century onwards, most first-contact encounters involved
Polynesian missionaries, rather than the handful of Europeans who
organised the evangelising programs. The scholarly emphasis on the
very first cross-cultural encounters also tends to mask the fact that
‘contact’ was an extended process rather than a discrete incident. It is
possible that that process was already old before the celebrated voyages
by Cook, Bougainville, Vancouver and La Perouse in the late eighteenth
century. In chapter 2 and elsewhere Robert Langdon canvasses the
possibility of South-East Asian, Spanish and other strangers being cast
away on beaches throughout the northern and eastern Pacific. Similar
misadventures must have involved Islanders themselves. ‘First-contact’
encounters are so called not because they were certainly the first crosscultural
meetings, but because they occurred in an era of purposeful
European exploration by navigators, philosophers and scientists who
defined the events as historic.
Some encounters clearly deserve the attention lavished on them. In
Dening’s terms, they were ethnographic moments, when both parties
1 Quoted in Connolly and Anderson, First Contact, 36-7.
2 e.g. Ron Adams, ‘Nokwai—Sacrifice to Empire’, in Merwick (ed.), Dangerous Liaisons,
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found that their social and philosophical categories were inadequate,
and had to be expanded to comprehend new realities.3 The strangers
were usually invulnerable so long as they remained in their vessels, and
Islanders were relatively secure on land; but the beach was a dangerous
‘liminal’ space where new concepts as well as new people and baffling
behaviour had to be negotiated. And in trying to understand the Other,
each experienced painful new understandings of Self.
The scale of the Islanders’ known worlds varied. For some it was a
few valleys whose inhabitants considered themselves the only humans.
In the New Guinea Highlands, Huli people were unusually extensive
traders, who conceived of their closest neighbours as sharing a remote
but real common ancestor, whereas more distant people, albeit human,
were not related to them. For others, the world comprised a number of
nations living in different localities or on different islands made up of
people similar to themselves, but with different languages and customs.
The high islands of Polynesia and Micronesia were divided into often
mutually hostile chiefdoms, where common culture and language
created only precarious unity. The islands of Melanesia were a mosaic of
tiny, warring polities. Outsiders—whether kin or unrelated—were
divided into allies and enemies, with often only a fine dividing line
between the two. Throughout the Islands, interactions with outsiders
were mediated by careful protocol; alliances were usually made by gifts
of women and valuables. The creation of kinship through strategic
marriage alliances might offer some assurance of peace, but only
expediency separated enemy from friend.
The possibility of mysterious super-humans was widely entertained.
On the northern seaboard of New Guinea the legends of origin of many
people told of a roaming god who came from the sea. Fijians and many
Polynesian societies believed that, while common people belonged to
the land, their chiefs were demi-gods from the sea. The religions of most
Islanders contained beliefs about ancestors who became spirits after
death and manifested themselves in strange forms. Thus, just as people
today would interpret the sudden appearance of humanoids possessed
of remarkable technology as ‘extra-terrestrials’ in the light of contemporary
popular culture and imagining, so did Islanders construe
outsiders in terms of their own ideas. So too did they construct appropriate
ways to deal with them.
There are detailed accounts of how outsiders perceived Islanders as
savages noble and ignoble, of the impact of Tahiti on Western humanist
philosophy, and on the criteria by which Islanders were ranked in the
stratified order of humanity imagined by European intellectuals (see
chapter 1). But there is little evidence of Islanders’ perceptions, other
than the often baffled observations of the outsiders themselves. Except
for testimony contained in a handful of recent studies, we can only
speculate. What is clear from the written record, however, is that first
encounters from the sixteenth to the twentieth century were generally
tragic; they were fraught with misunderstanding born of different
3 Dening, Islands and Beaches and Mr Bligh’s Bad Language.
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perceptions, conflicting motives and mutual fears. Regardless of the
behaviour and intentions of the outsiders, or how their motives were
inferred by Islanders, or the assumptions of Islanders about the origin
of the outsiders and the context of their existence, the dominant pattern
was a ‘sickening cycle of friendly welcome, misunderstanding, sullen
retreats, occasional reconciliations, robberies and killings’.4 Oskar
Spate’s words apply not only to encounters involving Spaniards, but to
many later collisions.
In 1567 the Spaniards extended their quest for gold and souls from the
Americas to the Pacific Ocean when Alvaro de Mendana was
despatched with two ships to find rich islands. The Spaniards had in
mind the Biblical King Solomon’s mines of Ophir. Agreements between
Spain and Portugal blocked the expansion of the Spanish empire from
the Americas to the Spice Islands (centred on the sultanates of Ternate
and Tidore, based on islets off the coast of Halmahera, now eastern
Indonesia), which were claimed by Portugal and were acquiring a
separate colonial identity. Expansionist ambitions turned to the Pacific
and hopes of finding Terra Australis. Mendana’s expedition of two
ships with a crew of about 100 men, including Franciscan friars, set out
to search for gold while conducting God’s business of winning the souls
of ‘indians’. As Spate observed of conquistador ethics, ‘the Indians were
to mediate the gold to the Spaniards, the Spaniards to mediate the true
God to the Indians’.
After months at sea, Mendana’s expedition sighted a small island in
January 1568 (probably one of the islands of Tuvalu), but they sailed on
for three weeks until they came upon a large island which they named
Santa Isabel. Soon they found other large islands, naming them
Guadalcanal, Florida, New Georgia and San Cristobal. The archipelago
was named, optimistically, the Solomon Islands. The people of Santa
Isabel came out to greet Mendana’s ships and initially friendly relations
ensued; but what could the Islanders have thought of the songs and
rituals of possession, and the instructions in making the sign of the cross
and reciting the Lord’s Prayer? Were they returning ancestors or spirits?
What explanations did they propose for the strangers and their
motives? How did they try to verify their theories? People of the New
Guinea Highlands who first thought that white men and coastal people
were ancestral spirits soon discovered that these beings defecated like
men and that ‘their shit smelled as ours did’.5
After initial politeness, an exchange of entertainments in which
Islanders played their pan-pipes and Spaniards their guitars and fifes,
and Mendana and a chief exchanged names, relations soured. Islanders
began to hide from their inquisitive visitors, and to alternate harass-
4 Spate, The Spanish Lake, 129.
5 In Connolly and Anderson’s film, First Contact.
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Papua New Guinea
*$ Nissan Nukumanu .
O Kilinailu Is (> Tauu
(Mortlock Is)
L: X^N^Choiseul
^)Shortland\ \
Vella Lavella’Vy* Kolombangara
Ghanongga l^
Santa Isabel
Russell Is
Guadalcanal <JUlawa
San Cristoba
Solomon Islands
Map 14 Solomon Islands
ment with gestures of reconciliation, including gifts of human flesh. The
issue was food, which the visitors demanded insatiably, taxing resources
to the limit. On Guadalcanal the Spaniards’ quest for pigs—
among the greatest and scarcest treasures—led one man to ransack a
village and take hostages. The Islanders killed and ate nine Spaniards
in retaliation. In a counter massacre, the Spaniards mutilated the
corpses of Islanders they had killed, to balance the atrocity of cannibalism.
This cycle soon extended to San Cristobal. By August, five months
after their arrival, Mendana’s expedition departed; lack of food
impeded the search for gold. On their way home they came upon Namu
in the Marshall Islands but—famished and diseased—they did not
Similar encounters involved Portuguese navigators, from their East
Indian bases of Ternate and Tidore. Since most of the Pacific was
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deemed a Spanish domain, Portuguese exploration concentrated on the
westernmost islands, including some of the Carolines. They, too, sought
for gold or other precious metals. Typical of the frustrating search was
an expedition from Maluku to Sulawesi in 1525. It was blown off course
to an atoll which was probably Ulithi in the western Carolines. The
Islanders seemed delighted. ‘And, in truth, as shown by the assured
manner in which they went near the Portuguese, it appeared that they
were a people who had never received any harsh treatment or harm
whatsoever because they openly approached the strangers/ The
Portuguese showed them metal samples:
The inhabitants only recognized gold; by gesturing with their hands, they
informed the Portuguese that this metal was found in a high mountain to the
west of the island (possibly the Philippines).
They had large proas. But since the Portuguese did not see the islanders
use iron, they asked them how the proas were made. The islanders showed
them fish spines that they used for cutting and that were such that the
Portuguese were able to use them just like iron.6
The first recorded confrontation between Polynesians and Europeans
was briefer but no less tragic than the experience of Melanesians. It
occurred when Mendana and his lieutenant Pedro de Quiros set off for
the Solomon Islands again in 1595, undeterred by their experiences and
aiming to establish a Christian colony. Mendana took four ships and 378
men and women, including six friars. Their first landfall was a group of
islands which they named Las Marquesas de Mendoza. The Polynesian
inhabitants were much admired by Quiros, who regretted that such
attractive people were destined for an eternity in hell. The Islanders
welcomed them with celebration, but when they were invited aboard
they rushed about grabbing everything they could lift, and cutting
slices from sides of bacon and pieces of meat. The commander’s lady
fondled the heads of children on her visits ashore—the most sacred and
untouchable part of the Polynesian body—and no doubt other acts of
mutual cultural outrage occurred. The event quickly lost its friendly
character; guns were fired and an Islander who refused to leave was
wounded with a sword. His companions made threatening gestures
and tried to beach the ship. Shooting followed. By the time the fleet left
the archipelago two weeks later, Quiros estimated that about 200
Islanders had been killed.7
As the fleet crossed the Pacific, other islands were sighted, but luckily
for their inhabitants, Mendana did not anchor. Reaching the Solomon
Islands again, he landed on an island which he named Santa Cruz.
Some of its inhabitants greeted the strangers with arrows and received
bullets in return, but friendlier relations were struck with another
group, whose chief received them ashore and allowed them to begin
work on their settlement. These friendly relations deteriorated when
6 Barros, Terceira decada da Asia (1563), quoted in Lessa, The Portuguese Discovery of the
Isles of Sequeira’, and reproduced in Hezel and Berg (eds), Micronesia: Winds of Change,
7 Dening, Islands and Beaches, 9-10.
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disillusioned colonists began to kill Islanders. Quiros suspected that
they hoped to wreck the colony and force its abandonment. A bloody
struggle erupted and disease broke out among the settlers. Mendana
and other leaders died, and after two months the colonists withdrew.
Passing New Guinea, the fleet arrived starving in Manila in early
1596. Quiros was still determined to create Mendana’s Christian colony,
and to find Terra Australis—a land mass which European philosophers
assumed must exist somewhere in the far south. In 1603 he won royal
authorisation, two ships, 200 to 300 people with provisions for a year,
and seed and animals to establish a colony. The fleet sailed in 1605. Its
first brief but friendly landfall was Hao Atoll in the Tuamotus. The next
was probably in the northern Cook Islands, where they were received
with hostility, although Quiros reported some amorous encounters
between his men and Island women. They reached Taumako Island,
north-east of Santa Cruz, where they were received kindly with water
and provisions, but Quiros kidnapped four young men in order to save
their souls and to use them as interpreters—of whom three escaped
overboard as the ship rounded the island of Tikopia. In May 1606 the
ships reached a mountainous island in what is now Vanuatu. This
Quiros named La Australia del Espiritu Santo. Here he determined to
establish his New Jerusalem, but the people resisted from the first
moment. A reconnaissance party was met by a great crowd who drew a
line on the ground and indicated that both sides should lay down their
arms—but the settlers advanced and a battle broke out. After some
weeks, Quiros assessed the situation as hopeless and withdrew. The
ships sailed north past Butaritari in Kiribati and on to Acapulco in
This ill-fated venture had one more chapter when Luis Vaez de
Torres’s ship, separated from Quiros’s expedition, sailed to southern
New Guinea and the Philippines, through the strait between Australia
and Papua which now bears his name. Before entering the strait, the
expedition paused at Mailu, on St Bartholomew’s Day. They landed the
next day, and made signs of peace.
They responded by brandishing their arms namely lances and shields, which
was a sign of battle; notwithstanding this, we again made them signs of
peace and they replied with shouts brandishing their arms. Seeing that we
were losing time by treating them with further consideration we knelt down
and saying a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria, Cierra Espana [a war-cry], we
gave them a Santiago [an invocation to St James] and in that skirmish some
fell dead, and we seized their gate and pressed on, shooting them as they
fled. [After more skirmishing] we sacked the fortress and found a quantity of
cocoanuts and mats on which they sleep and fishing nets and very large
pearl shells; the pearls, because they are round and have no handles, they
throw into the sea.
These meagre spoils were supplemented by fourteen youngsters who
were captured, transported to Manila, baptised, and entrusted to the
church. The Spaniards compounded senseless violence by an equally
vacuous assumption of sovereignty over an island which they would
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never again locate.8 Torres’s voyage ended contacts between Spaniards
and Melanesians. No doubt the apparent absence of gold, the prevalence
of malaria, the belligerence of the people and their resistance to
evangelism convinced the Spaniards to look elsewhere for gold and
converts. They had found no resource to justify Melanesian exploration,
and the prospects for settlement were grim. We cannot know what
Melanesians thought when these violent, avaricious strangers disappeared
across the horizon, but we can assume that they were mightily
relieved. With hindsight it is clear that Melanesians were delivered (by
the anopheles mosquito) from a particularly rapacious era of colonialism,
allowing them to come into contact with Europe of the gentler latenineteenth
century, when the rights of indigenous peoples were gaining
at least some recognition. A few communities had been invaded,
harangued in a foreign language, and pressed into curious rituals. Some
young people had been kidnapped, and no convincing explanation
could account for this harassment. It had been impossible to predict the
strangers’ behaviour from day to day.
It was not, however, the end of a Spanish presence. Spanish
authorities concentrated on the more realistic project of exploiting the
trade of East Asia. As Spanish interest shifted north to the shipping
routes connecting Mexico to the Philippines, Japan and China, Micronesians
were involved in a long era of interaction, beginning in 1676.
Guam had been claimed as part of the Viceroyalty of Mexico in 1565,
but a century passed before an administration was established there, to
victual galleons for the annual expedition between Manila and Mexico.
These little islands had no intrinsic value to Spain, but regular supplies
were ensured by subjecting the Islanders to the same discipline which
was imposed in the Philippines—Christian conversion and iron control
by religious authorities. Encounters with the Chamorro were first
peaceful and based on the mutual desire for trade, but from 1668 an
alliance between Spanish Jesuit missionaries and soldiers and
Chamorro chiefs and leading landowners led to the creation of an
oppressive hierarchy, which then provoked wars between sections of
Chamorro and Spanish soldiers throughout the 1670s and 1680s. The
Spaniards could not always impose their will, but in the Marianas the
weight of Spanish numbers overwhelmed the Chamorros.
By 1695 the Spaniards had crushed resistance on Guam and on other
islands of the Marianas, and the population was greatly reduced by
‘pacification’ campaigns, resettlement from scattered settlements to
crowded villages where they were vulnerable to new infections—including
smallpox. For Islanders on the galleon route, foreign contacts
involved not only compulsory conversion and resettlement, but also
exposure to the ruthless exactions of governors who sought to recoup the
cost of purchasing their offices. Soldiers were seldom paid, and survived
mainly by looting. Once the Chamorro rebellions failed, even conversion
to Christianity offered no protection against institutional rapacity.
8 Relation Sutnaria of Captain Don Diego de Prado y Tovar …, cited by Barwick, New Light
on the Discovery of Australia, 154-7.
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Most Islanders quickly discovered that the strangers brought disease
and death. An especially gruesome narrative concerns the impact of
strangers on Yap. In 1843 the trader Andrew Cheyne, anchored off Yap
awaiting permission to land, put ashore a feverish sailor. He soon
recovered—but ‘the Influenza has broken out among the natives at
Tomal, and they are very much alarmed, never having had any disease
like it before’. As Yapese died, their priests advised the chiefs that the
strangers were responsible, and as the Islanders prepared to attack his
ship, Cheyne decamped.9 The full extent of Yapese casualties, from this
and other introduced infections, cannot be known; but the population
shrank from about 30,000 or even 50,000 to 7500 by the end of the
century, and to 2500 by the 1940s. Similarly, the Islanders of Tanna drew
the obvious conclusion from the fact that dysentery followed the first
missionaries and smallpox the second.10 In the eighteenth century many
sailors carried tuberculosis, which was endemic to Western Europe but
absent in the Islands, whose inhabitants were therefore highly vulnerable.
Ships’ captains were more alert to the risk of venereal infections,
and sometimes tried to prevent infected sailors from contacting Island
women; but some captains were casual, their inspections were inconclusive,
and the sailors had usually spent many months yearning for
female company. Some unfortunate Islanders learned that Spanish
settlers did not possess enough food and provisions to sustain themselves,
so that they resorted to pillage. Many Islanders also discovered
that sailors would exchange almost anything for sex, and organised
themselves accordingly. The circumstances of the first interactions—
with both sides wary—limited these risks but did not eliminate them.
During the seventeenth century Spain’s dominance of the Pacific
began to be eroded by English and Dutch assaults. In particular the
Dutch began to explore the Pacific from their trading bases in what is
now Indonesia, seeking not gold and souls but new lands. Like the
Spaniards, they sought Terra Australis, hoping to expand their East
Indian realms. When Jan Carstensz (1623) found the arid west coast of
Australia, it was not what he had hoped. Generally the Dutch had
briefer contacts than the Spaniards and were less likely to interfere,
since they wanted neither to evangelise nor to colonise islands with
scant resources. However, violent incidents still occurred. Isaac LeMaire
and Willem Schouten and their men were attacked by Islanders in the
Tuamotus, who tried to disarm a party of sailors. They were attacked
again by Tongans of Niuatoputapu, when a visit from a chief turned
into a skirmish: LeMaire offended his hosts by refusing to take kava with
a welcoming party.11
Most of these meetings took place on shipping routes. It was only in
1642 that the Dutch captain Abel Tasman called at Taitapu (Golden Bay),
at the north end of the South Island of New Zealand. Sighting the ships,
the Ngaati Tumatakokiri conferred anxiously on what sort of waka
(canoes) these were, and what sort of beings were on board. Two canoes
9 Shineberg (ed.), The Trading Voyages of Andrew Cheyne.
10 Bonnemaison, The Tree and the Canoe, 53.
11 Howe, Where the Waves Fall, 79-80.
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approached the vessels that evening, carrying (Salmond suggests) some
of their bravest warriors, to ‘inspect the ships more closely and to
challenge them with incantations and ritual blasts of their shell
trumpets. It is possible that they have decided that these were spirits of
some sort, since . . . they commonly blew trumpets and shouted to
frighten them away.’ The Dutch drove them away with cannon fire. The
next morning, a canoe returned and the Dutch offered them gifts and
tried to persuade them aboard. An old man called out to the visitors in
what was probably a haka (war chant) provoked by the exchange of
challenges the night before. The Dutch tried to interpret the message,
using a vocabulary given to them in Batavia, but since this contained
Tongan rather than Maori, it was of little use. More canoes gathered.
The Dutch held a council, sending a small boat between the ships for
this purpose. On its return trip, a canoe rammed the boat at high speed,
then attacked the occupants, killing four. The Dutch fired on the canoes
while they rescued survivors, then sailed away.12
If Tasman expected other meetings to proceed in the same violent
fashion, he was disabused. He was welcomed by Tongans on Tongatapu
and observed that no one carried weapons. His barber and surgeon
observed that some women ‘felt the sailors shamelessly in the trouser
front’ and clearly ‘desire fleshly intercourse’. A similar encounter to that
of Tasman at Taitapu occurred between Jacob Roggeveen and Samoans
in 1722. Roggeveen’s first contact in the western islands of the archipelago
was civil, but when he called in at Tutuila in the east, a party of
his men was ambushed and murdered. The killers had apparently come
to Tutuila from the western islands and their actions may have been acts
of revenge for some earlier insult.13 In view of the radically different
expectations which strangers and Islanders brought to the same encounters,
such violence was only too common, and impossible for either
party to predict.
The image of the South Seas as islands of ferocious savages was
transformed by accounts of Tahiti by the French explorer Louis-Antoine
de Bougainville.14 His rhapsodic depiction of an island paradise was
quickly taken up by philosophers, influencing European ideas about the
condition of humankind in a ‘state of nature’. Polynesians must have
perceived Europeans as equally exotic, and their views of human nature
were similarly challenged by the strangers on their shores. Tahitians
(like other Polynesians) were fastidious about cleanliness and personal
hygiene, and abhorred hairiness, carefully shaving and plucking
unwanted facial and bodily hair. Stunted, bearded sailors stinking of
sweat and infested with lice must have revolted them, provoking them
to wonder how such uncouth beings came to possess such enviable
technology and materials. The strangers had no women, and—judging
by their lust—felt that deficiency acutely. While many Polynesian
women were barred from open-sea fishing, women obviously must
have travelled on voyaging canoes. Tahitians must have been perplexed
12 Salmond, Two Worlds, 77-82.
13 Gilson, Samoa, 1830-1900.
14 Thomas, The Force of Ethnology’, 30-1.
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Motu One
Marquesas Eiao
Islands Nuku Hiva c
. Hatutu
Hiva Oa
uata”*-“”Mohotani —
0 Fatu Hiva
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French Polynesia
Map 15 French Polynesia
by the all-male complements of these expeditions. Indeed the absence
of women might have reinforced the misconception that the strangers
were supernatural. Polynesian gods were not always virtuous or heroic:
many looked and behaved strangely, malignantly and lasciviously.
Tahitians first met Europeans when the English naval captain Samuel
Wallis (1767) moored off the east coast and he was greeted by a hundred
canoes filled with men waving banana-leaves and orating. Some of
those in the canoes went on board after further speeches and throwing
their leaves. The sailors gestured that they wanted pigs and chickens,
offering beads, knives and ribbons. On board ship, the Tahitians
responded in much the same way as the Marquesans in 1595, helping
themselves to everything they could find, and removing nails from the
ship’s structure—adding weight to Howe’s contention that the accepted
protocol for strangers was to hand over their possessions:
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castaways or weary travellers could usually expect a welcome, provided that
they posed no obvious threat. They would be met with long speeches and
other customary greetings. The newcomers then surrendered what possessions
they held, such as their canoe, fishing gear, and any remaining food to
their hosts as a sign of humble acceptance of and token compensation for the
food and shelter they would be offered. If later they wished to leave, they
might be supplied with a canoe and provisions, and given a send off. Such
rites of reciprocity and the guests’ acknowledgments of their hosts’ authority
were never understood by European explorers.15
The sailors repelled the Tahitians with gunfire. According to Howe,
‘from the Tahitian point of view, this was an outrage. Their welcome
had been abused, and the newcomers were acting as enemies rather
than submissive friends/ The conventions of greeting in Polynesia were
certainly conditioned by common understandings, and encounters with
markedly different cultures were rare. Most greeting rituals were
designed to assure hosts that the visitors came in peace, acknowledged
by the giving and receiving of gifts, the exchange of speeches of introduction,
and the removal of alien spirits which might have accompanied
the visitors. Hosts assumed an obligation to treat guests
honourably. It is likely that first encounters with European explorers
produced anomie, in which conventions were quickly suspended or
abandoned due to mutual incomprehension. In any event expectations
may not have been as clear, or as universal, as Howe’s description of
them, and it is unlikely that all Islanders in all circumstances observed
all rules. Until European ships anchored in island bays, however, most
chance arrivals would indeed have been powerless castaways, with
little choice but to throw themselves on their hosts’ mercy.
Wallis’s vessel anchored off Matavai Bay, and tense trading ensued.
On several occasions his crew opened fire on Tahitians who came too
close. A few days later, groups of naked young women were displayed
in what appears to have been a ploy to distract the crew, because as
soon as the sailors began looking at the women, men threw stones,
provoking musket fire and cannon balls. This was followed a day later
by gestures of apparent submission by the Tahitians who once again
gathered in hundreds, again bearing banana-leaves, which the English
construed as emblems of peace. The Tahitians later attempted another
attack, to which the British retaliated with further cannon fire, causing
many deaths. The Tahitians then began to offer women. Howe explains:
Tahitian chiefs, intimidated by British firepower, had discovered an
effective way of placating the strangers . . . some women of low birth
were ordered to prostitute themselves as a political strategy. Not only
did this ensure the goodwill of the English, it also brought considerable
economic advantage to the chiefs.’16 When Bougainville called nine
months later, his ship was immediately surrounded by canoe-loads of
young women, most of them naked, and by the gestures of the men the
French understood that the women were being offered for sex. Cook,
arriving soon afterwards, received much the same welcome, as he did in
15 Howe, Where the Waves Fall, 85.
16 Ibid., 88.
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Hawai’i. The alacrity, indeed determination, with which Polynesian
women offered themselves to seamen has made a major contribution to
the legend of the South Seas as a libertarian paradise. While some
observers interpreted their actions as evidence of the exploitation of
females by their menfolk, others commented on the apparent independence
of Polynesian women in trading their services.17 Not at once
apparent were some inevitable consequences; not only venereal infections,
but the stealthier progress of tuberculosis. In the extreme case
of the Marquesas, the population fell to less than 5 per cent of its
eighteenth-century levels in the first hundred years of interaction.
Material considerations undoubtedly influenced women to offer
themselves and men to abet them. The strangers seemed to possess
everything except women, and at once exhibited sexual enthusiasm and
willingness to exchange the objects coveted by their hosts. But at first
there may have been other motives. It is likely that the strangers were
believed to be supernatural. Polynesians believed that aristocrats were
distinguished from common people by the divine mana of the gods from
whom they traced descent. Accordingly, chiefs often exercised a kind of
droit de seigneur with women of lesser rank. Sahlins points to the
Hawaiian custom of wawahi (to break open) by which virgin daughters
of commoners were offered to a ranking chief in the hope of bearing his
child. Such children were welcomed by the woman’s eventual husband
and accorded the status of a punahele (favourite child). Such connections
were useful to commoner families. Sahlins points to:
an incident that took place when the British left Kauai for the second time, in
March 1779, some thirteen months after the original visit. A number of men
and women came out to the ships in canoes; and while the women remained
alongside, the men, following their instructions, went on board and
deposited the navel cords of new-born children into cracks of the decks.
Commenting on the incident, a modern Hawaiian authority on traditional
customs observed: ‘Cook was first thought to be the god Lono, and the ship
his “floating island”. What woman wouldn’t want her baby’s piko [umbilical
cord] there?’18
Maori recollections of Cook’s visits also suggest that the first explanation
was supernatural. Horeta Te Taniwha described his childhood
when I was a very little boy, a vessel came to Whitianga (Mercury Bay).
. . . We . . . were there according to our custom of living for some time on
each of our blocks of land, to keep our claim to each, and that our fire might
be kept alight on each block, so that it might not be taken from us by some
other tribe. We lived at Whitianga, and a vessel came there, and when our
old men saw the ship they said it was an atua, a god, and the people on board
were tupua, strange beings or goblins . . . As our old men looked at the
manner in which they came on shore, the rowers pulling with their backs to
the bows of the boat, the old people said, ‘Yes, it is so: these people are
goblins; their eyes are at the back of their heads . . . ‘ When these goblins came
17 Chappell, ‘Shipboard Relations’, 131^8.
18 Sahlins, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities, 40-1.
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on shore we (the children and women) took notice of them, but we ran away
from them into the forest, and the warriors alone stayed . . . ; but, as the
goblins stayed sometime, and did not do any evil to our braves, we came
back one by one, and gazed at them, and we stroked their garments with our
hands, and we were pleased with the whiteness of their skins and the blue of
the eyes of some of them.
These goblins began to gather oysters, and we gave some kumara, fish and
fern root to them. These they accepted, and we (the women and children)
began to roast cockles for them; and as we saw these goblins were eating
kumara, fish and cockles, we were startled, and said, ‘Perhaps they are not
goblins like the Maori goblins/ These goblins went into the forest, and also
climbed up the hill to our pa [fort] at Whitianga. They collected grasses from
the cliffs, and kept knocking at the stones on the beach, and we said ‘Why
are these acts done by these goblins?7 We and the women gathered stones
and grass of all sorts and gave to these goblins. Some of the stones they liked,
and put them into their bags, the rest they threw away! and when we gave
them the grass and the branches of trees they stood and talked to us, or they
uttered the words of their language. Perhaps they were asking questions,
and, as we did not know their language, we laughed, and these goblins also
laughed, so we were pleased.
. . . There was one supreme man in that ship. We knew that he was the lord
of the whole by his perfect gentlemanly and noble demeanour. He seldom
spoke but some of the goblins spoke much. But this man did not utter many
words: all that he did was to handle our mats and hold our mere, spears, and
waha-ika [fish-mouth spears], and touched the hair of our heads. He was a
very good man, and came to us—the children—and patted our cheeks, and
gently touched our heads. His language was a hissing sound, and the words
he spoke were not understood by us in the least. We had not been long on
board of the ship before this lord of these goblins made a speech, and took
some charcoal and made marks on the deck of the ship, and pointed to the
shore and looked at our warriors. One of our aged men said to our people,
‘He is asking for an outline of this land'; and that old man stood up, took the
charcoal, and marked the outline of the Ika-a-Maui [the North Island].19
Te Taniwha’s account described events in November 1769, when the
Endeavour sailed into Whitianga harbour and stayed for twelve days,
while Cook visited settlements and Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander
searched for new species of plants and useful minerals. Salmond points
out that the term tupua (translated as goblins) refers to ‘visible beings or
objects of supernatural origin, regarded with a mixture of terror and
awe and placated with karakia (ritual chants) or offerings. If they took a
human-like shape, it was thought that they could not eat human
Much of the debate about Islanders’ perceptions concerns the character
of Cook. During his lifetime he was highly regarded as a navigator
and explorer, not only in his native England, but also among Europeans
and North Americans, who guaranteed safe passage to his expeditions
even when war prevailed. In death, he assumed legendary status
among Europeans. ‘In every corner of the earth there are wayside
19 Salmond, Two Worlds, 87-8.
20 Ibid.
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shrines to Captain Cook—cairns to say he was here, plaques to
remember the remembering of him there. His relics are in glass cases on
shelves, in safes of five continents/21 The difficult question is whether
Hawaiians saw him in the same light. According to the now-dominant
scholarly interpretation, in Hawai’i Cook was seen and treated as a god.
Both of his arrivals in 1778 and 1779 coincided with the makahiki festival
which celebrated the symbolic return of one of the principal gods, Lono.
During the annual festival, images representing Lono were paraded
round the islands. Taxes were collected by the highest chiefs and the
people celebrated the arrival of the god as a sign of the renewal of the
earth’s fertility in a period of leisure, feasting, sports and other
amusements. Cook’s first voyage approximated the ritual progress of
Lono, so that when he reappeared the following year during the
makahiki, he seemed to confirm the suspicion that he was the incarnation
of Lono:
Cook came from the sea, as Lono had promised he would, and Cook’s ships
had tall masts and white sails, shaped very like the upright sticks and swaths
of kapa cloth that were carried in the makahiki procession to announce the
presence of Lono. Cook’s course followed that of the main procession, which
always went around the islands in a clockwise direction, and he chose to put
in for a long stay at Kealakekua, the home of the chief whose exploits had
become part of the Lono myth and the site of an important heiau dedicated to
On this view, that misapprehension probably led to Cook’s death. A
cutter from one of Cook’s ships had been appropriated at Kealakekua,
and Cook went ashore with an armed party, intending to take the chief
Kalaniopuu hostage to secure its return. A hostile crowd gathered and,
after an altercation, Cook’s party was attacked and Cook was slain.
Gavan Daws, following Sahlins, describes the event as predictable in
terms of prevailing beliefs. The islands were divided into opposed
secular and sacred factions, and in the culminating phase of the makahiki
it was the practice for a challenge to occur between the warriors
escorting the priests of Lono and god’s effigy, and the warriors of the
ruling chief of the island, thus ending the period of the god’s
Howard and Borofsky propose another perspective—that Cook’s
reluctance to make liberal use of firearms contributed to his death. ‘A
less humanistic man, a person more concerned in demonstrating
Western weaponry, might have left the island alive, independent of
whatever ritual identity Hawaiians sought to place on him.’23 From a
Polynesian point of view, Cook, his ships and his men may have seemed
supernatural, but they were greatly outnumbered and presented tempting
targets. The attribution of supernatural powers did not necessarily
deny the possibility of attack and expropriation.
A more radical revision has been developed by Gananath
Obeyesekere, who argues that Hawaiians could not have mistaken
21 Dening, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language, 172.
22 Daws, Shoal of Time, 26.
23 Howard and Borofsky, Developments in Polynesian Ethnology, ch. 8.
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Cook for a god, in view of the many human failings exhibited by
him and his crew, and that his apotheosis as a European legend was
an intrinsic element of the justification of European imperialism.
This iconoclastic assault delighted the Hawaiian scholar Lilikala
Kame’eleihiwa, who grasped the rhetorical opportunity with both
The noted Hawaiian scholar Haunani-Kay Trask often dismisses Cook as ‘a
syphilitic, tubercular racist’, and when I teach that part of Hawaiian history
I relate to my students that he brought venereal disease, violence, and,
eventually, an unrelenting wave of foreigners, once his journals had been
published in Europe.
From the Hawaiian perspective, however, the best part about Cook’s visit
is that we killed him, as the mana (spiritual power) of his death accrues to us.
[Also] we can defend our honor by declaring that at least we killed Cook, and
having done so we rid the world of another evil haole (white man).24
Kame’eleihiwa’s review is more explicitly political than most, and the
argument is by no means resolved. Sahlins’s original analysis enjoys
support among those most familiar with the evidence. The debate has
since been revived by the publication of Sahlins’s book-length response.
Recapitulating the extensive historical evidence that the Hawaiians
believed Cook to be Lono, he offers a trenchant critique of the application
of politically expedient interpretations of the past, shaped by
‘bourgeois practical rationality’, which ignores the culturally specific
world-view of eighteenth-century Hawaiians.25 The waves caused by
this interchange do suggest the hazards of reconstructing Hawaiian
perceptions after two eventful centuries.
Dening’s study of the mutiny on the Bounty has generated one of the
most suggestive reconstructions of Islander perceptions. Tahitians had
to deal with Captain Bligh and his crew collecting breadfruit plants;
then, after they had sent Bligh and his loyalists on their way by open
boat, with Fletcher Christian and the mutineers; and eventually with
the Royal Navy hunting down the mutineers. Tahitian cosmology made
provision for receiving and domesticating powerful strangers from the
sea. From Wallis’s arrival onwards, Tahitians tried with varying success
to make the strangers conform to these rituals, whereby their alarming
power was rendered understandable, predictable—and to an extent
manageable. In this light we may perhaps grasp the significance of the
ritually powerful feather girdles, signs of the god ‘Oro, which were ‘the
currency of authority. They conferred title and rank.’ One such girdle
worn by Pomare of Tahiti (see below) transformed his raw power into
authority, and when Captain Bligh returned to Matavai Bay, in pursuit
of the Bounty mutineers, he saw this girdle and made a rough drawing
of it.
The Tahitians had sewn into the feather girdle a thatch of auburn hair
belonging to Richard Skinner, one of the Bounty mutineers . . . [and Bligh]
24 Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa’s review in Pacific Studies xvii: 2 (1994), 111-18.
25 Sahlins, How ‘Natives’ Think.
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was mystified that somebody as insignificant as Skinner should be remembered
in so sacred an object. . . Skinner was the ship’s barber. He had
astounded the Tahitians . . . by producing a barber’s model head and wigs
styled in the latest fashion from London. In Tahitian eyes, Skinner was
somebody special. As a barber, he had a special power to touch tapu places.
And his own head was red—tapu, as special as a parakeet’s feather. One
could wave a red feather to catch ‘Oro’s attention in prayer: one could
sacrifice it to Pomare’s sovereignty: one could do it with a lock of a
stranger’s auburn hair as well. ..
Bligh saw something else . . . a British red pennant sewn into the body of
the girdle, as a lappet or fold of its own . . . It was the pennant that [Wallis’s
crew] had erected on a pole on June 26, 1767, when he took possession of
Tahiti for King George III. The Tahitians had taken down the symbol of
English sovereignty and incorporated it into a symbol of sovereignty of their
Tahitians around Matavai Bay observed strangers intermittently
from 1767 onwards, and were alert to the divisions which led to the
Bounty mutiny and to the ruthless hunt for mutineers. Over a generation
they learned about the strangers’ sexual enthusiasms, and must
have noticed the disease and death which so often accompanied their
visits. They were awed by the military power which foreign ships
deployed, and Pomare tried with some success to harness that power to
his ambitions. The ritual incorporation of foreign symbols of authority
is suggestive: in the generation of random contacts, Tahitians saw no
need to overthrow their social and ideological categories. Both the
collective mana of Britain expressed in the red pennant, and that of
individuals like Skinner, could be accommodated within existing
One of the most persuasive attempts at making general sense of
Polynesian perceptions was developed by Pearson,27 who proposed that
responses conformed to three phases: outright hostility, then a caution
born of fear and perplexity, and finally ceremonial welcoming. Pearson
was less convincing in proposing that Polynesians shared expectations
about responsibilities between strangers and hosts. In his view, boats
and property should be handed over; hosts should sustain and protect
visitors, and equip them with boats and victuals for the next leg of their
voyage. Implicit in his argument is the assumption that Islanders either
had nothing like a European concept of private property, or operated in
terms of radically different beliefs about ownership. Campbell points
out several flaws in this explanation for the accusations of theft which
so often soured European accounts.28 Neither Islanders nor Europeans
regarded their first meetings as normal, and often behaved with
unusual restraint. Again, many (possibly all) Island societies had very
clear ideas about property: thieves were often severely punished, which
demonstrates that their actions were understood as theft, whether from
other Islanders or from strangers. Individuals who tried to appropriate
iron or clothing from visiting ships often exhibited signs of guilt or
26 Dening, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language, Act 2, 207-8.
27 The Reception of European Voyagers’.
28 ‘European Polynesian Encounters: A Critique of the Pearson Thesis’.
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embarrassment. These episodes are better understood as the breaking
of rules, than as culturally legitimate expropriations. Above all, there
were many instances when Polynesians made no attempt to appropriate
the foreign ships or their exotic cargo.
The sharpest insights come from studies of recent episodes in Papua
New Guinea, where mutual discoveries still occurred in the 1930s, and
where scholars have recorded the recollections of Papua New Guineans.
Schieffelin and Crittenden, who reconstructed these experiences in an
account of the Hides-O’Malley expedition in 1935, comment that
The arrival of the first outsiders is usually recalled as an exciting but deeply
unsettling event of apparently cosmological import. Strange Beings broke
into their world from outside its known horizons. Sometimes these Beings
were thought to be mythical heroes coming back to their lands of their
origins; sometimes they were thought to be ancestral beings returning. The
people were filled with astonishment, fear and wonder at these creatures and
sometimes feared that their arrival was the portent of dire world upheaval.29
The Hides-O’Malley expedition of forty-two men made a six-month
journey into the interior, passing through 1800 kilometres of country
unknown to Europeans and supporting large populations quite unlike
those of the coast. Hides and O’Malley were Australian officials leading
native police from coastal regions with long contact with outsiders.
They had peaceful intentions, yet about fifty people were shot, fending
off aggression, real or perceived.
On the Great Papuan Plateau, three peoples had not previously
sighted Europeans, but had been receiving steel tools through their
trading networks. These were accepted with mixed feelings. While
some welcomed their remarkable efficiency, other groups such as the
Onabasulu were disconcerted:
They suspected that these strange objects were things of Malaiya [a
legendary Origin place] . . . They were things that should not be touched or
used by mortal men. Now they were moving back towards their origin point
and many Onabasulu feared their owners . . . would soon follow.
In the anxious discussion during the days preceding the days of the
patrol’s arrival, one of the leaders . . . proposed a course of action. ‘Axes and
bushknives are their children/ he said! ‘They are coming to reclaim them.’
He told all those who owned these implements to bring them . . . [and] they
could be gathered and returned to the Beings when they arrived. Then
perhaps they would go away quickly, and disaster would be averted.
Otherwise they would search for them. ‘Do not try and hide these things in
the forest’, he warned, ‘for they will cry out, and their parents will hear them
and come after them. Gather and return them all at the same time.’ As the
patrol drew nearer, even people who had ignored or scoffed at the idea . . .
brought their axes and bushknives in . . . [and] laid them out in the main hall
of the long house, [pp. 68, 81]
29 Schieffelin and Crittenden, Like People You See in a Dream, 3.
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Hides was puzzled by the refusal to accept gifts, and by their hostility
and fear. The reaction of one elder was typical:
the patrol had emerged out of the forest virtually without any warning. ‘We
jumped [with surprise]’, he said. ‘No one had seen anything like this before
or knew what it was. When they saw the clothes on [the Europeans] and the
others, they thought they were like people you see in a dream; these must be
spirit people (kesame) coming openly, in plain sight.
When the expedition moved on to the Tari basin, it entered from the
direction of the enemies of the Tari, who feared the people of the plateau
as cannibals and witches. The Tari explained the strangers in terms of
their beliefs in ambiguous spirit beings called dama. According to one
On the afternoon of April 21,1935, he was weeding his garden. Glancing up
he saw a group of ‘strange’ men standing at the edge of the bush about 150m
away. Most of them had dark skins but their bodies were covered with
unknown material. A number of them held what appeared to be wooden
staves. Others carried regularly-shaped burdens, some on their shoulders
and others slung on poles .. . The most frightening feature of the group was
the two creatures who stood at the front. Their skins were so pale they
seemed to glow, and their feet and their lower legs were covered with
something. The only creatures Telenge knew of who was said to have pale
skins, were ghosts or powerful spirits. These creatures then must be Dama, a
conclusion also reached by other men who gazed in amazement from other
parts of the garden.
Telenge was so frightened by the apparition that had appeared at the
garden’s edge that he took his bow and arrows which Huli men carried at all
times, and hid them in some long grass. Dama should not be provoked.30
A prominent Huli leader sought to assert his authority over the dama,
bravely confronting them and making speeches apparently telling them
that their gifts of axes, beads and cloth were not wanted, and trying to
advise them which route they should take. His motive was apparently
to show leadership and win renown, by deflecting the patrol from
populated areas where they might bring disaster. In contrast, a younger
aspiring leader sought to befriend the patrol leaders, perhaps to win
status and spiritual gifts.31
Elderly Wola people also recalled their encounter with the expedition,
believing that its members were ghosts or ancestor spirits.
[Some] people, seeing the blackened teeth of the carriers and police (the
result of chewing betel nuts) thought they were confronted with malevolent
forest spirits; grotesque walking heaps of vegetation, with human-like limbs
and features, that lurk in dark regions of the forest to kill and eat the unwary:
‘We said there are bush spirits coming! their teeth are black like pyt berries.
Bush spirits are coming, their teeth like pong fruits, black, real black like pyt
fruits, they’re coming.’ Man-eating things, we said they were. We’d seen
nothing like it before.32
30 Bryant Allen and Stephen Frankel, ‘Across the Tari Furoro’, in ibid., 101.
31 Ibid.
32 Paul Sillitoe, ‘From the Waga Furari to the Wen’, in ibid., 150.
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Not all Wola agreed. One man believed that the spirit of his ancestors
had returned to seek revenge for past wrongs. Another thought that the
white men were deities who had fallen from the sky and were bringing
pearl-shells to share. And other explanations were offered, such as a
legend involving a dark-skinned and a fair-skinned brother, suggesting
that one of the white strangers might be the white brother returning to
the world. Many of the difficulties and violent incidents had to do with
the fact that the patrol became increasingly dependent on local food
supplies and, like Mendafia before them, overtaxed the resources of
their hosts. When people refused to trade, the hungry police helped
themselves, raiding gardens and killing pigs.
Western New Guineans discovered outsiders even later, and in even
more baffling circumstances. Until the twentieth century, Dutch authorities
made no move to interrupt the trade in sago, birds of paradise and
slaves from New Guinea to Maluku, and the traders had no cause to travel
beyond the coast. Dutch scientific expeditions between 1907 and 1913
tried to climb snow-covered Mount Trikora. With the resources of the
Dutch East Indies, these expeditions were much larger than Australian
patrols, and involved Dayak carriers and Dutch East Indian troops, led by
European scientists. The East Indian soldiers, as good Muslims, were
appalled when they were smeared with pig blood in a friendship
ceremony. Similar expeditions were mounted by British scientists, from
1909, to scale Puncak Jaya. The leaders had some interest in physical
anthropology. Once they reached the mountains therefore, they wanted to
measure heads, ‘an operation so appalling that large strips of cloth had to
be offered before they could be tempted to surrender their bodies to the
Inquisitors. Some of the older men, indeed, trembled so violently during
the process that they were hardly capable of remaining on their feet/
During the second British expedition, some mountain families came to
meet the strangers, and begged for food. The expedition could not feed
them all, and sent them home; but before they arrived home, thirty or forty
died. Whether they were killed by hunger or an epidemic, their confidence
in the strangers was remarkable—and misplaced.33
West New Guinea was a matter of indifference to the Dutch until
the end of World War II, when Indonesian nationalists seized most of
Indonesia, leaving only some eastern provinces under Dutch control.
During the 1950s a massive effort was mounted to explore, control and
‘develop7 the province, but the effort was much too late to detach it
from the rest of Indonesia. When the Dutch departed in 1962, they left
behind them an estimated 717,055 people, of whom a quarter had not
been brought under any administration. When West New Guinea
became the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, it was closed to most
research, and the last episodes of first contact have probably not been
Further east, in what is now Papua New Guinea, mountains and
heavy rainfall also delayed the advance of colonial frontiers until very
33 C. G. Rawlings, The Land of the New Guinea Pygmies, and A. F. R. Wollaston, ‘An
Expedition to Dutch New Guinea’, quoted by Ploeg, ‘First Contact in the Highlands of
Irian Jaya’.
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recent times. Telefolmin people’s first impressions of Australian kiaps
(patrol officers) could hardly have been worse. A patrol post opened in
1948, and a mission station two years later. In 1953 some men took
exception to sexual offences against Telefolmin women, and killed kiaps
and New Guinean policemen. Their first sustained exposure to the
intrusive culture was a ten-year prison term. Their Wopkaimin neighbours—
even less accessible by patrols—learned much from these encounters.
In 1957 a kiap reached Tumgunabip, and
everyone fled except our kamokim (leader). The kiap was accompanied by
policemen, carriers, and a Telefolmin interpreter. The interpreter told the
kamokim we had to build a rest house . . . Then the policemen demanded that
the kamokim kill his pig and arrange for other food to be brought to
Tumgunabip. They killed the kamokim’s hunting dog to demonstrate their
guns. The kamokim was frightened and angry and reluctantly gave away his
pig for some soap, matches, salt and cloth. Women brought taro while the
men fully armed themselves and secretly surrounded Tumgunabip. One
brave man joined the kamokim but they were unsuccessful in negotiating for
some steel knives for the food they presented to the kiap. Although the men
felt they had been treated unfairly, they in the end, hid their weapons and
peacefully returned to Tumgunabip because they were afraid that if they
attacked the patrol, the government would retaliate against them as harshly
as they had against the Telefolmin .. .M
Wopkaimin were ‘discovering’ very different outsiders than (say) the
Tahitians of the 1770s. These modern strangers enjoyed a vast predominance
in weaponry, and behaved as if they exercised legitimate
authority. A body of knowledge (the experience of the Telefolmin, no
doubt reinforced by the interpreter) informed their perceptions and
guided their actions. So different were the circumstances, and so
different were the participants, that they can scarcely be compared. In
one respect however the parallels are arresting. Within a generation of
this incident, the Wopkaimin world was transformed by the arrival of
gold-mining, just as surely as the Hawaiian world was reconstructed by
traders and permanent settlers.
In general, the self-conscious explorers and scientific investigators
were more baffling than their more mundane successors. They expected
Islanders to be exotic, so they were seldom disappointed; and they were
acting out dramas scripted by Europeans, for quite specific audiences.
Joseph Banks and the other naturalists wanted to be understood (and
acclaimed) by the Royal Society and other scientists. Nearly two
centuries later, the Leahy brothers—Australian gold prospectors in the
New Guinea Highlands—had the foresight to take colour film and
movie cameras, recording the expected puzzlement of Highlanders for
the entertainment of Australians. Whether the explorers measured
skulls or filmed New Guineans ‘discovering’ mirrors, they expected to
defy Islanders’ comprehension.
As often and as much as possible, Islanders tried to squeeze these
strangers, their commodities and technologies, and their bizarre be-
34 Hyndman, ‘A Sacred Mountain of Gold’.
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haviour, into pre-existing categories. One of the least understood encounters
is also one of the most revealing. A prospecting expedition led
by twin brothers with sixteen carriers marched through Huli country in
the southern Highlands of Papua in 1934. Unlike other explorers, these
adventurers resolutely deterred human contact. Their method was ‘to
come in like a brass band. You don’t beg your pardon at all. You walk in
as if you have been in the country for a hundred years.’ The party
camped in a fresh spot every night and flatly refused to engage local
carriers. They stole pigs and other foodstuffs, made no attempt to
exchange goods, and shot any owners who resisted. Huli witnesses
remember in great detail the killing of at least fifty of their kin.
How, then, did Huli understand these tragedies? At least three
categories might accommodate the killers. Huli and their neighbours
were construed as descendants of a common ancestor. Huli also
acknowledged distant peoples to whom they claimed no relationship.
Then there were dama spirits, related and unrelated, benevolent or
malign. At first sight the strangers fitted best into the dama category: the
wood which they cut down did not bear the marks of proper stone axes,
and their killing power was awesome:
I was at Pimbano when I heard that dama were coming. We had never heard
people actually saying this before . . . I went with a kinsman down to
Biangoanda. We were coming down a stream, near a house, when we noticed
a man standing in a ditch. His heart was hanging out of his chest… What
had killed him? We looked down and we could see footprints, but they had
no toes.
For a variety of reasons the strangers did not conform to any dama
stereotypes, any more than they conformed to human ones. Neither
then, nor now, could Huli reach agreement on explaining these
strangers. Almost all other strangers of the same vintage were quickly
classified—because they entered into relationships of exchange which
definitively made them humans. These homicidal visitors, who refused
all human relationships, created a riddle which was impossible to
In all these mystifying encounters, the first step was to accommodate
strangers into categories of kinship, social status, alliance or enmity, or
supernatural conditions which were the language of all human relationships
in the Islands. Only when strangers failed or refused to conform
to these categories were new forms of explanation required.
Missionaries, following in the footsteps of explorers, were often the
apostles of these forms of understanding the world.
Once Europeans had encompassed Pacific Islands in their maps, and
Islanders in their categories of humanity, rather different kinds of
35 Chris Ballard, work in progress.
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interaction followed. With the establishment of mutually beneficial
material relations during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,
Islanders came into contact with strangers whose interests were simpler
and more comprehensible. These were no less threatening. Whaling
ships found their way into the rich waters of the South Seas from distant
ports in the Atlantic, and later from Sydney. The great distances and
long periods at sea required these ships to seek provisions in the
Islands, so they carried trade goods. At first these were lengths of
flattened iron (used to fasten casks and barrels), fishhooks and nails,
axes and knives. Shineberg quotes the captain of a whaler in the Ellice
Islands (now Tuvalu): ‘It is astonishing to see in what weather these
poor unenlightened people will venture five or six miles from the land,
in their light canoes, to obtain a few pieces of iron hoop, a fishhook or,
the ultimatum of their riches, a knife/36 Later, Islanders also sought
cloth, beads, mirrors, scissors and firearms. People were prepared to
give in exchange their highly prized pigs, and yams, taro, breadfruit
and bananas, as well as the right to collect fresh water and to take leave
ashore. Coins were of no interest at first, although some chiefs wore
them as ornaments. Mariner, an English youth captured by Tongans in
1806, recorded his attempts to convince his chiefly captor Finau of the
uses of money. Finau was unimpressed:
‘If, said he, ‘it were made of iron, and could be converted into knives, axes,
and chisels, there would be some sense in placing a value on it; but as it is, I
see none. If a man’, he added, ‘has more yams than he wants, let him
exchange some of it away . . . Certainly money is much handier, and more
convenient, but then, as it will not spoil by being kept, people will store it up,
instead of sharing it out, as a chief ought to do, and thus become selfish;
whereas, if provisions were the principal property of a man, and it ought to
be, as being the most useful and the most necessary, he could not store it up,
for it would spoil, and so he would be obliged either to exchange it away for
something else useful, or share it out to his neighbours, and inferior chiefs
and dependents for nothing.’ He concluded by saying; ‘I understand now
very well what it is that makes the Papalagis so selfish—it is this money!’37
However, learning how money was used, Finau regretted that he had
not collected the dollars aboard the Port au Prince (Mariner’s ill-fated
ship) before burning it.
The prayer of a Rarotongan chief illustrates his desire to obtain the
new materials and marine technology: ‘O, great Tangaroa, send your
large ship to our land; let us see the Cookees. Great Tangiia, send us a
dead sea, send us a propitious gale, to bring the far-famed Cookees to
our island, to give us nails and iron, and axes; let us see those outriggerless
Material considerations encouraged Pomare of Tahiti to accept
responsibility for the first missionaries. In 1797 the Duj[f brought the first
London Missionary Society party, comprising four ordained ministers
36 Shineberg, They Came for Sandalwood, 15.
37 Martin, Tonga Islands: William Mariner’s Account, 155.
38 Cited in Shineberg, They Came for Sandalwood, 14
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
and twenty-five former servants, artisans and craftsmen, of whom five
brought wives and children. Three missions were planned: in Tahiti, the
Marquesas and Tonga. The party in Tahiti were received auspiciously
by ‘Oro’s high priest, and when the ship’s captain put his cannon on
deck, the unarmed party of Arioi (a special class of servants of the god)
who attended the priest assisted the captain to put them in position. It
being the Sabbath, no barter was permitted, to the astonishment of the
Islanders. A service was held and the Tahitians seemed charmed and
amazed by the singing. In the following days the missionaries were
received by leading chiefs and their consorts. However, missionary
advice on manners and morals (such as remonstrances against infanticide
and the transsexual mahu) were poorly received. After the Duff
departed, relations deteriorated further when the missionaries failed to
provide Pomare with goods and firearms, or to lend moral support for
his war and political ambitions. In the worsening climate, eleven men,
several with families, left for Sydney. In all these respects, the missionaries
were a grave disappointment. Unlike all previous Europeans, they
offered little material benefit and much unwelcome moral exhortation.
The two missionaries sent to the Marquesas also fell out with their
hosts when they rejected the gifts of bedmates, and were robbed. One
refused to stay, and the other left after a year. The small party in Tonga
also floundered. Their efforts to settle and preach were opposed by
chiefs and by beachcombers whom some chiefs had adopted. One
missionary, George Vason, ‘went native’. He was adopted by a chief and
incorporated into the chiefly class through marriage, and took to all
aspects of Tongan life, even becoming a warrior. Some unfortunate
missionaries were killed in the war which then raged, but the remainder
escaped to Sydney. The Tahiti mission limped along and relations with
Pomare gradually improved so that by 1808 he had promised to banish
‘Oro, and to ‘cast off evil customs’. New missionaries arrived and the
‘Society Islands’ became a Christian epicentre from which missions
evangelised the Cook Islands, Samoa and Niue.
Material considerations also influenced the decision of leaders and
followers to adopt the Christian faith. The missionary John Williams, on
his second voyage to Samoa in 1832, described the reasoning of Samoan
chiefs on the issue. The deciding consideration was that Jehovah was
the source of the superior technology and goods of the Europeans
whom they were meeting in increasing numbers. Jehovah was thought
to possess greater powers than the old gods.
The Chiefs of the different settlements held meeting after meeting to consult
upon the propriety of changing the religion of their ancestors & the case was
argued on both sides with a calmness that seldom characterises debates in
more civilised countries & with an acuteness that does credit to their senses.
On one of the occasions a chief of superior rank stated his wish that
Christianity should be embraced, saying Only look at the English people.
They have noble ships while we have only canoes. They have strong
beautiful clothes of various colours while we have only ti leaves. They have
sharp knives while we have only a bamboo to cut with. They have Iron Axes
while we use stones. They have scissors while we use the shark’s teeth. What
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
beautiful beads they have, looking glasses & all that is valuable. I therefore
think that the God who gave them all things must be good & that his religion
must be superior to ours. If we receive and worship him he will in time give
us all these things as well as them.39
In chapter 1, Linnekin argues that Williams’s commentaries were
influenced by the need to appeal to the businessmen who funded the
mission. However, if Williams exaggerated the materialist element of
Polynesian perceptions, he did not invent it, and his considered opinion
must carry some weight. Trade was an essential aspect of missionary
operations. Missionaries had to maintain some economic independence
from Islanders and to maintain their mystique as emissaries of a more
powerful God in their manner of living, in order to earn respect. There
was considerable debate among early missionaries about the proper
material style of living for missionary settlers. Living in poverty and
humility in the manner of Christ made a poor impression on rankconscious
Polynesians. There was also criticism by missionary leaders
of their brethren who did not try to stimulate interest in the amenities of
‘civilisation’, and for failing to influence converts to build houses in the
new, mission style with coral lime walls. Most of the Protestant
missionaries of this period were, in Gunson’s terms, ‘godly mechanics’
with middle-class aspirations; as the church became established they
exerted increasing influence on the technology and dress as well as the
religious practices of the Islanders. Many engaged in trade and some
left the church to set up in business on their own account. Tithes were
paid in coconut oil and arrowroot starch, which were exported to
England to defray operating costs.40
The islands of Melanesia also began to attract foreigners’ interest.
The trade with China led to a quest for commodities to exchange for tea.
Enterprising traders from the new entrepot of Sydney found two such
items in the Islands—sandalwood and beche-de-mer. Fiji offered both,
while Hawai’i, the southern New Hebrides, New Caledonia and the
Loyalty Islands were found to contain stands of sandalwood. In Fiji
trade was fairly orderly under the patronage of chiefs who provided
labour and safe passage in return for whale’s teeth, trade goods and
firearms (see chapters 5 and 6). The trade was far less orderly in the
New Hebrides and New Caledonia, where political authority was
limited to smaller areas, making it more difficult for sandalwood-getters
to organise systematic relations. The trade was therefore associated with
violence on both sides.
Shineberg notes that Melanesians bargained acutely, being eager for
trade and foreign goods and well aware of the value of the wood to the
Europeans. As in Polynesia, the initial demand was for metal and metal
tools, broadening into cloth, beads, tobacco and pipes, muskets and
powder. In some Islands, people demanded indigenous forms of wealth
such as pigs and shells, which traders were obliged to find and import.
The veneration or fear with which Europeans were first greeted was
soon displaced by hard-headed attitudes based on the calculations of
39 Moyle, The Samoan Journals of John Williams, 234.
40 Gunson, Messengers of Grace, 132^16.
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
material advantage. Traders who established sound economic relations
were generally tolerated and assisted in the quest for sandalwood, but
those who failed to do so were likely to be killed. Where traders
defrauded or antagonised Islanders, the people might exact revenge
on the next party. It is believed, for example, that the murder of John
Williams on Erromanga in 1839 was an act of revenge towards
foreigners generally. However, Shineberg is sceptical of historical
interpretations which explain all massacres in terms of revenge for
European atrocities. She acknowledges that Vengeance was a concept
firmly rooted in most Melanesian cultures; among some peoples it was
an obligation placed upon life itself. But many conflicts arose from the
desire to plunder.
Cutting and carrying sandalwood was hard work; when occasions arose on
which trade goods could be much more plentifully acquired simply by
killing a boat’s crew, it must have been an attractive alternative. A successful
attack brought, relatively speaking, vast wealth to its authors. A ship itself is
not a useful prize, and after everything removable had been carried off it was
usually burnt… A ship’s boat, on the other hand, even without its cargo,
was in itself an extremely valuable piece of property and one that the
islanders could not hope to obtain by barter.41
Shineberg also suggests that ‘the suspicion of sorcery’ motivated attacks
on traders as the early visits of the Europeans often led to strange
epidemics. It was undoubtedly believed that Europeans possessed
malign powers to cause disease and death, for which revenge would
have been sought.
In the early contact period, Islanders not only sought the goods of
outsiders but also their technical skills and knowledge. By the 1820s a
process was firmly established, by which chiefs recruited outsiders to
live with and serve them. Dozens of foreign men lived among the
people of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. They were mainly British, other Europeans,
and Americans, but some were Islanders who had joined foreign
ships, and a few Chinese, Lascars and Black Americans. These men
were mainly sailors who had jumped ship, but some were escaped
convicts from New South Wales and Norfolk Island. Many joined the
households of important chiefs, and were considered useful because of
their skills in using and repairing firearms and their command of the
technology for building single-hulled boats and other woodworking
techniques. They could also tell stories of the strange lands from which
they had come, and their religions. Some were desperadoes who clearly
inspired fear among their hosts, but since fierce warriors were highly
esteemed in some Islands, they were tolerated; however, those whose
violent ways became tiresome were killed. Most were of humble origin
but some were relatively well-educated men, such as the ship’s surgeon
Stevens, who interpreted for John Williams on his first voyage to
Samoa, or the young clerk Mariner, who was adopted by Tongan chiefs
after his ship-mates were murdered. Some beachcombers were the first
41 Shineberg, They Came for Sandalwood, 200-1.
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
Christian ‘missionaries’ in some Islands, although their teachings and
influence were later strongly opposed by the missionaries who arrived
under the formal sponsorship of Christian churches. Most eventually
left the Islands, but some spent the rest of their lives among their
adopted people.
Some beachcombers lessened their dependence on Islanders by
establishing themselves as traders, who could act as middlemen between
ships and Islanders. However, foreigners who chose to live
among Islanders or trade with them did so on terms dictated by
Islanders, and at their own risk. Traders who were killed by their hosts
or who were attacked and plundered generally had no redress. But in
the 1830s British and United States warships began to patrol, albeit
infrequently, and to defend or promote the interests of their citizens. A
US naval commander sought to arrest and try a Samoan chief for an
attack on US citizens. The Wilkes expedition had been sent by the US
government to conduct scientific research. Among Wilkes’s instructions
was to promote ‘commerce and civilization’, with special reference to
the interests of the New England whaling industry. Calling at Samoa,
Wilkes was asked to investigate an occurrence in 1834 in which the
village of Palauli had attacked the Nantucket whaler William Venn,
killing three sailors and stealing two boats. The chief held responsible
was Tualau Tonumaipe’a Popotunu, who held extremely high rank.
Wilkes decided to arrest and try him, but in vain. The chief took refuge
beyond his polity and his fellow chiefs declined to surrender him. This
experience led Wilkes to endorse British efforts to appoint consuls and
establish a code of laws wherever foreigners were active, to regulate
interactions with Islanders and thereby protect the interests of outsiders.
42 This was the first step towards changing the balance of power,
a transition which is taken up in the following two chapters.
There are several perspectives on contact between Islanders and
Europeans. Perhaps the most widely held view is the theory of ‘the
fatal impact’ popularised by Alan Moorehead’s book of that name
(chapter 1). This view dwells on the first Europeans in the Pacific, who
arrogantly believed themselves to be the lords of humankind. Convinced
of the superiority of their religion and culture, they nonetheless
committed iniquitous deeds and brought infectious diseases, resulting
in violent confrontations, epidemics, a loss of innocence and the destruction
of cultures. This apocalyptic view has distant resonances with
the social Darwinism which was gaining currency in the late nineteenth
century, and which assumed that native cultures—and the natives
themselves—must inevitably perish in the path of Western culture and
technology. Epidemics of influenza, venereal diseases, tuberculosis and
other afflictions did cause population decline and sometimes collapse:
42 Gilson, Samoa, 1830-1900,147-55.
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
in extreme cases, such as Kosrae or Rapanui, populations of several
thousands fell to a few hundred. Many European observers interpreted
these tragedies in somewhat mystical terms, as if they were witnessing
an accelerated manifestation of a natural law of the survival of the
fittest, rather than the physical consequences of micro-organisms on
non-immune populations.
The most sophisticated and erudite version of this approach is
presented by Dening, and it is well justified in the case of Te Henua, the
Marquesas Islands, where the culture and most of the populace
were obliterated between 1774 and 1880. Dening observes how little
light theories of imperialism throw in explaining why a remote archipelago—
with little to offer Europeans—should have been exploited so
There was no conscious conspiracy to exploit the Land [Te Henua], no
explicit philosophy of a superior culture’s right to destroy. The Men [the
Marquesans] were dispossessed nonetheless. The discrepancy between cost
and consequence in ‘a life for a nail’ in Cook’s day was constant in all the
cross-cultural history of Te Henua . . . Where there was no contract to
understand one another, there was death. Where there was no instrument of
government, men lived in a ‘brutish manner’. The beach itself was a savage
place, made so by the mutual contempt of those who stood across it from one
another. The savage was always the ‘other’, presumed to be lesser, known to
be without order to which he could be called. The winner made an island or
he made a desert. In the Land the winner made a desert. The Men were
totally dispossessed.43
Although outcomes were less catastrophic for most Islands, Dening
makes an important point about the early contact period and relations
on the beach—the absence of a ‘contract to understand one another’,
and the fateful consequences. In Island societies trade—the mundane
exchange of useful commodities—always took place in the guise of
social relations. For many centuries Tonga, where natural resources
were few, acted as a ‘middleman’ between Samoa and Fiji, the sources
of red feathers, timber for boat building, adze blades and fine pandanus
cloth. Tongan seafaring was far more extensive than that of Samoa or
Fiji throughout the last pre-European millennium. But this trade was
never conducted in the impersonal terms of the marketplace. Instead,
marriage alliances between chiefly dynasties provided intermittent
opportunities for ceremonial exchanges of valuables. Another celebrated
example, the kula centred on the Trobriand Islands, was described
by Malinowski in the 1910s, when he likened the Islanders to
adventurous Argonauts.44 Islanders embarked on perilous ocean
voyages to visit partners with whom they exchanged shell armbands
and necklaces. This exchange of items which were imbued with deep
symbolic and aesthetic significance but were strictly speaking ‘nonutilitarian’
was couched in the idiom of personal friendships, and
43 Dening, Islands and Beaches.
44 Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific.
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
ceremoniously masked the exchange of essential things such as pottery,
salt and adze blades.
Rights to interact with outsiders were sometimes inherited. The
island of Tanna was divided into polities whose inhabitants treated each
other as strangers and potential enemies. The right to communicate
across boundaries was inherited by individual men, and attached to the
names they were given by their fathers. These privileges were jealously
guarded, so that proper interaction might occur only through hereditary
spokesmen and messengers. Throughout the Pacific, contractual
arrangements prevailed between all groups who were known to each
other, whether as friends or as enemies, and these arrangements
prescribed how to interact and how to signal intentions. This style of
interaction stands in stark contrast to eighteenth-century Europe, where
impersonal trade was the norm and the driving force between communities
and nations. European trade did not require kinship, nor
fraternal partnerships between men, nor did their material interests
require ceremonies of affinity and friendship. These radically different
understandings of how material interests should be mediated underlay
the bizarre and tragic character of many early encounters.
In Two Worlds Anne Salmond explores contact between Westerners
and Maori, and places their actions, interests and perceptions in the
context of their cultures and mores. The brutal social inequalities of
Europe, and European practices such as witch-hunting and public
executions, are set beside the endemic warfare and cannibalism of
seventeenth-century Maori. From one perspective, their encounters
were merely ‘puzzling interludes':
The ships—floating islands, mythological ‘birds’ or canoes full of tupua or
‘goblins’—came into this bay or that, shot local people or presented them
with strange gifts, were welcomed or pelted with rocks, and after a short
while went away again and were largely forgotten. . . [From the vantage
point of] seventeenth and eighteenth century European chroniclers, the same
encounters were simply episodes in the story of Europe’s ‘discovery’ of the
world—more voyages to add to the great collection of ‘voyages’ that had
already been made. The genre of discovery tales was an ancient one in
Europe, with a well-worn narrative line—explorers ventured into unknown
seas, found new lands and named their coastal features, described exotic
plants, animals and inhabitants, and survived attacks by tattooed savages
(or worse still, cannibals) with spears. The stories . . . defined Europeans
as ‘civilised’ in contrast with ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’ to be found
elsewhere . . .
Today the myths of Indians and savages have been superseded by new
fables. Beautiful Polynesian girls and handsome youths wearing
flowers and grass skirts innocently practise free love on silver beaches
beside a turquoise sea under swaying palms. These myths are celebrated
in Western culture through songs, novels, poetry, films, advertising
and tourist promotions, so that they have permeated the Western
cultural subconscious. The images can be traced to romantic interpretations
of the sexual exchanges of the early contact period, and are
manifestly remote from realities. The Islanders’ motives in the earliest
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
encounters may have been based on religious preconceptions, or a
desire to create affinities with powerful strangers, or as tricks to distract
the strangers so that they could be overcome; but by the 1860s, in many
Islands, trafficking in women had become part of a flourishing commodity
trade. Whaling ships calling at Te Henua (the Marquesas) had
well-established rates for whoring:
captains like J. J. Fisher were willing to pay eight jaws of whale with three
hundred and fifty teeth and a gun, for a girl ‘eleven and a half years and
soft’, but the less fastidious had less costly pleasures . . . The vast profits of
the whaling industry to persons and nations was dependent on subordinate
and disadvantaged savages. It was a long chain linking coconut, sperm-oil
candle and whalebone corset but there was interconnection all the same.
The image of drunken, poxed European sailors debauching Island
maidens and introducing innocent Islanders to guns, rum and tobacco
has also become part of the Island legend, along with censorious blackcoated
missionaries forcing nubile maidens into Mother Hubbard
dresses, and prohibiting dancing. Such stereotypes are rooted in the
assumption that at least some Islands were in some sense a paradise;
that there was an innocence to be lost, and that islanders were always
victims in contacts with outsiders. This was seldom the case. Some
Islanders (assisted by the anopheles mosquito and rugged terrain)
terrified and repelled foreigners. Niueans, who earned their island the
foreigners’ name of Savage Island, sent men aboard visiting ships with
their faces blackened, their bodies smeared with ash, their hair tangled
and matted, shouting and gesticulating wildly. This strategy brought
about the speedy departure of many ships. At the other extreme,
Tongans adapted themselves rapidly to an influx of foreigners: the
remarkable Taufa’ahau Tupou I used the ideological confusion and
political instability of the era to conquer the archipelago and establish
himself as its monarch. The outcome of contact with Europe was
tragedy in the Marquesas, Hawai’i and many parts of New Zealand, but
in most Island groups the populace not only survived, but responded in
markedly different ways, and elaborated their cultures into the robust
and unique forms which they retain to the present day.
1405-31 Chinese expeditions, under Zheng He, through Pacific and
Indian oceans.
1494 Treaty of Tordesillas divides ‘New World’ between Spain and
1519-21 (Spanish) Ferdinand de Magellan (Magalhais), westward to
Guam and the Philippines and Maluku.
1515 Portuguese reach the Spice Islands, volcanic islets near
Halmahera in Maluku, the largest source of spices for export
to Europe.
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
1526 The Lost Caravel’.
1527-29 (Spanish) Alvaro de Saavedra Ceron, westward through
the Marshall Islands, Guam, to Spice Islands, then via
Manus, Guam, the Caroline Islands, probably Pohnpei,
Ujelang and Enewetak, returning westward.
1560s Philippines trade from Manila under Spanish control;
Maluku spice trade under Portuguese control.
1565 Beginning of regular galleon trade between Mexico and
the Philippines.
1567-68 (Spanish) Alvaro de Mendana, westward to Santa Isabel,
Florida, Guadalcanal, Malaita, San Cristobal.
1578 The first of many English and Dutch buccaneer assaults
on Spanish settlements and shipping.
1595 (Spanish) Mendana and Pedro de Quiros, westward
through the Marquesas, Pukapuka, Niulakita, Espiritu
Santo, to Guam and the Philippines.
1602 Formation of Dutch East India Company, but the
company was not securely based in Java (with its centre of
operations at Batavia) until the 1670s.
1605-06 (Spanish) Quiros and Luis Vaez de Torres, westward
through the Tuamotus, Santa Cruz, Espiritu Santo: Quiros
sailed back to America; Torres through Torres Strait and
southern New Guinea to Maluku.
1615-16 (Dutch) Isaac LeMaire and Willem Schouten, westward
through the Tuamotus, northern Tonga, Futuna, Alofi,
New Ireland, New Guinea to Maluku.
1623 (Dutch) Jan Carstensz, west coast of Australia.
1636 Ban on Japanese ships trading overseas; increasingly
stringent sakoku (seclusion) policy.
1642 (Dutch) Abel Tasman, from Mauritius to Tasmania, New
Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, New Britain, returning to Mauritius.
1644 (Dutch) Abel Tasman, from Batavia to West New Guinea,
north-western Australia,
from 1668 (Spanish) Jesuit Father Diego Luis Sanvitores in Guam
and Marianas.
1699-1700 (English) William Dampier, via Cape of Good Hope,
Mussau, Emirau, New Britain, returning to the Cape.
1722 (Dutch) Jacob Roggeveen, Rapanui, Bora Bora, Samoa,
New Guinea to Batavia.
1767-68 (English) Samuel Wallis, westward to Tuamotus, Tahiti,
Tinian and Batavia.
1766-69 (French) Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, westward to
Tuamotus, Tahiti, Samoa, Pentecost, Aoba, Malakula,
Louisiade Archipelago, Choiseul, Bougainville to Batavia.
1768-71 (English) James Cook (with Joseph Banks and other
naturalists), Tahiti, New Zealand, New South Wales, Great
Barrier Reef.
1772-75 (English) James Cook (with J. R. and G. Forster and
others), New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, Rapanui, Marquesas,
Tahiti, Tonga, Vanuatu, New Caledonia.
Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008
1776-80 (English) James Cook (with Charles Clerke and James
King), Tasmania, New Zealand, Tonga, Hawai’i, Northwest
Passage, Kamchatka, Kealakekua Bay.
1788 ‘First Fleet’ at Botany Bay: foundation of Sydney.
1786-88 (French) Jean-Francois Galaup de La Perouse, Hawai’i,
North-west Passage, Ryukyu Archipelago, Kuril Archipelago,
Samoa, Tonga, Botany Bay, New Caledonia,
1789 (English) William Bligh, Tahiti, Tonga, ‘mutiny on the
Bounty’. Mutineers pursued by Pandora, returned to
England 1792.
1791-95 (English) George Vancouver, New Zealand, Chatham
Islands, Tahiti, Hawai’i, North-west Passage, Hawai’i.
1797 London Missionary Society sends the Duff with four
ministers and 25 other men (five with families) to Tahiti,
the Marquesas and Tonga.
1815 The last galleon from Acapulco to Manila.
Later Expeditions in New Guinea
1907-13 Dutch expeditions to Mount Trikora in West New Guinea.
1926 Gold found at Edie Creek in New Guinea.
1927-28 Charles Karius and Ivan Champion cross New Guinea
from south to north.
1933 Prospectors Mick, Dan and Jim Leahy, and Jim Taylor,
enter the Wahgi valley.
1935 Jack Hides and Jim O’Malley cross the Papuan Plateau.
1938-39 Jim Taylor and John Black, from Mount Hagen to the


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