A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Fifty years ago, the war in the Pacific over, America found herself the caretaker of more than 1,400 islands and atolls in the former Japanese mandated territory of Micronesia. And two events in 1947 shaped how an entire generation would think about the Pacific islands. In January, James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific was published. "I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific," Michener begins. "The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we call islands." Then, on April 28, the adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and five companions left Peru on an epic voyage they hoped would end in Easter Island. Though Heyerdahl and his crew wound up in Raroia in French Polynesia, the rugged Norwegian wanted to prove, contrary to established scientific opinion, that in ancient times Native Americans could have rafted successfully across the savage ocean to colonize Polynesia. "There has never been any agreement," Heyerdahl explained to his readers, "as to the origin of this isolated island people, or the reasons why this type is only found scattered over all the solitary islands in the eastern part of the Pacific." But life is not without its ironies. On February 24, 1947, the American archaeologist Edward W. Gifford and his wife left San Francisco on the Norwegian motor vessel Thor I bound for the Fiji Islands. While Gifford was not the first to practice modern archaeology in the South Pacific, he was among the vanguard of serious postwar archaeological investigators. As Kon Tiki headed toward French Polynesia, archaeology was about to sink any serious academic interest in what Heyerdahl had to say about the peopling of Polynesia.
Most experts in archaeology, human genetics, linguistics, and other fields agree today that Heyerdahl's thesis about Native Americans settling Polynesia is without foundation. Heyerdahl did, however, recognize that prewar ideas about the settlement of the Pacific were not much more than speculation. Stated simply, scholarly thought about Pacific prehistory after World War II was based on a belief in a shallow depth of time, reliance on an outdated cultural framework for research and interpretation, and an acceptance of isolation as the defining feature of life. In our current era of skepticism about science, the postwar research agenda in the Pacific no longer looks as sound as it once did. Instead of looking at the islands as remote, undeveloped human colonies scattered across a vast and empty expanse of sea, scholars are now discovering that the Pacific was an early sphere of human accomplishment, on land and sea, where the ocean was more an avenue for exchange and diffusion than a barrier to human affairs. So much is happening today in Pacific archaeology that only a few major trends can be noted here under four themes: time, colonization, voyaging, and survival.
Today just about everywhere archaeologists dig in Australia, New Guinea, and the neighboring islands in the southwest Pacific, at least as far as the northern Solomons, they are finding traces of humankind dating back to more than 30,000 years ago. Thermoluminescence dates from the Northern Territory of Australia suggest human occupation of that continent sometime between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.
In recent years, archaeologists have learned that the Solomon Islands formed the eastern edge of the inhabited Pacific until the end of the second millennium B.C. On current evidence, deep-sea crossings and colonization of the islands beyond the Solomons started only about 3,000 years ago. This expansion of human settlement in the Pacific was linked to the rapid spread of the earliest pottery so far found in Oceania, an ornately decorated ware called Lapita after an archaeological site in New Caledonia. The excavation of similar types of artifacts at different sites with Lapita pottery has led some scholars to conclude that this ornate ware was the product of an ethnically distinct "people" and that Lapita was a "cultural complex" carried into the Pacific by a migration of racially distinct newcomers from Asia. Some have likened the impact of these hypothetical Lapita people on life in the Pacific islands thousands of years ago to the impact of Europeans on the Americas. It is still anyone's guess what may finally have encouraged people with Lapita pottery to move away from home and risk sailing in deeper waters beyond the Solomons. Significant improvements in canoe-building and navigation, wanderlust, a sense of adventure, a pioneering spirit, and similar motivations have all been suggested.
Some experts have concluded that the domestication of certain kinds of plants and animals--chiefly those thought to be of Asian origin such as dogs, pigs, and chickens--somehow fueled Lapita's expansion in the Pacific. Lapita, they say, was based on early rice cultivation in Asia, which fueled a population expansion and resulted in migrations. This assessment underplays both the complexity of human subsistence practices and an awkward fact: as far as anyone knows, rice cultivation only made it to the Mariana Islands in western Micronesia only shortly before the arrival of Europeans in the early 1500s. In my own research area, the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea, we suspect that by the second millennium B.C., newly stabilized coastal lagoons may have reached a level of natural productivity great enough to support major human population growth fueled mostly, but probably not entirely, by wild foods (notably fish, shellfish, nuts, and edible starch from the pith of the sago palm). Based on pioneering research in East Sepik Province by Pamela Swadling and her colleagues at the Papua New Guinea National Museum, and our own work at Aitape in West Sepik Province, we now think that it was not so much the domestication of certain species, like corn in the Americas, that fueled prehistoric culture change in the Pacific after the Pleistocene, but the increasing abundance of wild foods, somewhat like the remarkable productivity of salmon runs in the rivers of western Canada and the United States. In a word, we now think the successes of the early Lapita colonists and others in the Pacific may have been based on a wide and varying spectrum of food resources, some wild and some, such as yams and taro and pigs and chickens, carefully managed--not just on a handful of recently domesticated species imported from Asia.
According to popular wisdom, islands are isolated places "entire unto themselves," as the Elizabethan poet John Donne wrote. European exploration and colonization after 1492 fostered a parochial perspective on people, prehistory, and human diversity "beyond Europe" that the anthropologist Alexander Lesser labeled 38 years ago as the "myth of the primitive isolate." This is the pervasive notion that ancient or primitive peoples lived in closed societies, each one out of contact with other human groups. Today this conception still reinforces the elementary claims in popular writings that our human world is a mosaic of distinct societies, cultural traditions, and ethnic groups; that prehistory was a time of isolation, fear, and remoteness; and that the world's cultural diversity is now doomed because television, soda pop, and the Internet are conquering even the most remote corners of the globe. The advances in Pacific islands archaeology and anthropology since the end of World War II are bringing these popular truths into doubt. Even the small island and atoll societies of the vast Pacific Ocean do not fit the comfortable old stereotype of the "primitive isolate." The peoples of the Pacific and their prehistoric past are showing us that the evolution and continuance of human diversity are not a consequence of isolation, and that our present cultural diversity is not doomed as we become ever more connected.
John Edward Terrell is an anthropologist at the Field Museum of Natural History.
Tsunami Destroys Villages In Papua New Guinea
On July 17, West Sepik Province on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, where author John Terrell has conducted field research since 1990, was struck by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. The bare facts of the event, according to the University of Tokyo's Earthquake Research Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey, are that the seabed suddenly dropped about seven feet (a little more than two meters) along a 24 mile (40 kilometer) fault line. The earthquake, 7.1 on the Richter scale, spawned a wave estimated to have nearly 50 feet (15 meters) high.
Residents of coastal villages on an exposed sand spit--Arop (population 2,500), Warapu (2,500), Sissano (2,000), and Malol (3,500)--had little warning and no chance of escape. The earthquake was accompanied by a loud bang, and cracks appeared in the sand on the beach. Then the wave came. "We are talking about a huge volume of water moving very fast--300 kilometers [180 miles] per hour would be typical," Australia's Monash University professor Joe Monaghan said in a newspaper account soon after the disaster. According to survivors, there were two strong shocks and three waves. The villages of Sissano and Malol were hard hit, but Arop and Warapu were completely destroyed. Estimates of the death toll were as high as 8,000. "It's silly to say you love one place on Earth more than any other," said Terrell in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, "but, for me, two of the places I love the best are gone. They simply don't exist anymore."