Prehistory in the Pacific Islands

In 1986 John Terrell, currently Curator of Oceanic Archaeology and Ethnology at the Field Museum of Natural History published Prehistory in the Pacific Islands under the moniker of the Cambridge University Press. The purpose of the book, as I read it, was to outline the orthodox view of Pacific prehistory. Principally, how Austronesian speaking peoples settled the Pacific. He then goes on to question some of the basic assumptions that underlie that view. The orthodox view is that there were two prehistoric waves of migrations. The first about 30,000 years ago brought the dark-skinned ancestors of the people of New Guinea and neighboring islands of Melanesia that spoke Papuan or decidedly non-Austronesian languages. The second wave about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago brought brown-skinned peoples from south-east Asia or Malaysia who spoke Austronesian languages. These Austronesians had more advanced “stratified” societies. They were sea-faring peoples who settled the coastal areas of Melanesia and quickly migrated out into what is now Polynesia and Micronesia. They were skilled in navigation and ceramics and everywhere they found clay, they left behind a unique form of pottery termed Lapita. Lapita pottery seemed to spread from the Bismarck Archipelago to Samoa. They may have traded it even further into the Pacific, but further archaeological evidence will be necessary to show this. They transported obsidian wherever they traveled. Archaeologists have found these Lapita pottery shards throughout Melanesia and Polynesia as far east as Samoa which is where the physical evidence of the Lapita people’s migrations currently  disappears. Nevertheless, the Polynesian languages and culture that these Austronesian speaking peoples spawned eventually spread in a straight line from Samoa 1,800 miles southwest to New Zealand and 2,500 miles northeast  to Hawai’I.

Terrell does not flatly reject this orthodox view of two migrations of two races of peoples.  Instead he uses a Socratic method of questioning it. “Is the diversity we see among the islanders in matters of race, language and custom ,” he asks, “ the result of migrations by already different races?” In Chapter two he builds models that seem so show that the orthodox view does not account for the “striking diversity of human biology, customs, and language seen among modern Pacific Islanders.” He suggests such diversity points to a longer period of gestation than the rapid expansion characterized by the orthodox view. In Chapter three he introduces another model that suggests that the distinction between Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages may have evolved in the Pacific during a longer period of settlement in Melanesia. He questions the very adage that “you can’t make a Polynesian from a Melanesian,” by discussing the cultural and indeed the biological similarities, and seems to question whether stratification by rank and privilege, a characteristic of Polynesian society, was in fact more “advanced” than the far more egalitarian societies of Melanesia. By “egalitarian,” Terrell means derived from the “big man” system of Melanesia characterized by drive and ambition being the primary path to leadership rather than birth. He gives examples of Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages residing side-by-side as well as Polynesian and Melanesian cultures doing the same with various degrees of assimilation.

Terrell asks the question, “Why are there so many languages in Melanesia?” There are more than 400 Austronesian languages spoken in Melanesia and another 700 Papuan or non-Austronesian languages. This totals two-thirds of the languages spoken in the Pacific. Further, he asks why dark-skinned Melanesians speak nearly half of these Austronesian languages? The islands of Buka and Bougainville in the northern Solomon Islands represent what is referred to as the “dark spot” of Melanesia. People from there have remarkably black skin. There are twenty different languages spoken on these islands. Twelve are Austronesian. The rest differ so much from these twelve that linguists have labeled them non-Austronesian. This does not seem to fit the orthodox model of light-skinned Austronesians settling in coastal areas and rapidly moving eastward? “Some said that resemblances between Melanesian and Malayo-Polynesian languages only meant that black-skinned peoples had borrowed words and linguistic conventions from their more ‘civilized’ fair-skinned neighbors. However, today almost everyone agrees that language borrowing cannot explain the linguistic ties between hundreds of the languages spoked in Melanesia and the Austronesian languages of Polynesia, Micronesia and Island Southeast Asia.” Only two causes can explain such diversity time and isolation. Is it possible there was only one slow wave of migration rather than two? Is it possible that modern Polynesian-speaking peoples originated from a small and genetically biased sampling of what were originally Melanesians? That they did not come from anywhere? That they instead became Polynesians somewhere in the Pacific Fiji – Tonga – Samoa triangle? Terrell ends his sixth chapter “we still do not know enough about the effects that the condition we call isolation can have on the evolution and differentiation of island peoples and island ways of life.

Though not as homogeneously extreme in their blackness there is another comparable “dark spot” in the Polynesian triangle. Why are Fijians dark-skinned while both Tongans and Samoans are usually of lighter complexion? The orthodox view would suggest that dark-skinned Melanesians were the first to settle Fiji followed many years later by lighter skinned Austronesians. However recent archaeological evidence points to the earliest settlers being Austronesian Lapita peoples. It looks as though Fijians and Polynesians alike share the same common ancestry. ‘Few linguists today seriously doubt that all Polynesian languages are historically far more closely related to the Fijian language and its dialects than they are to any other language in the world.” Polynesian cultures were stratified by class and privileges of inherited rank especially in Tonga, Hawaii, and the Society Islands. They divided themselves hierarchically into three more or less distinct classes, ari’I (chiefs) ra’atira (landowners) and manahune (commoners). The same as they did incidentally in the Marshall Islands. However, not all Polynesian cultures are or were highly stratified. At the same time, not all Melanesian societies are or were, egalitarian. Back to Bougainville, the Buin divide themselves by inherited rank and privilege while the nearby Siwai are egalitarian.

What were the effects of isolation, drought and catastrophic weather conditions on pacific settlement and consequently on language and cultural migrations? Were such migrations intentional or accidental? What about the “Polynesian outliers” west and north of Samoa?  These are islands in Melanesia or Micronesia where the language spoken is a Polynesian dialect. Terrell lists 21 such islands or groups. He discusses all these topics in the last chapters of his book without definitive conclusions and points to lagging archaeological evidence for the answers. “We clearly need to know more about what the islands located between east and west Polynesia have to tell us about ancient movements of people beyond Samoa.”

What does Terrell have to say about Micronesia? Surprisingly little other than pointing out that of the 2,000 to 3,000 islands of Micronesia most are “uninhabited or uninhabitable.” That their combined land area of only 2,700 square miles is less than a third the land area of Bougainville and Buka. That there are 300,000 people and thus 110 per square kilometer vs. 10 in the later. Finally, that natural disasters must have heavily affected these “small havens from the sea” leaving their way of life particularly flexible and adaptive. Not a word about where the Micronesians fit into either the orthodox view of Pacific migrations or otherwise. Not a word about Ponape or Nan Madol as an obvious center of activity and archaeological interest. One answer is that little is known or knowable about this topic until archaeologists and linguists tell us more than they have. Micronesia is obviously not Terrell’s area of specialty, so he has left this topic of discussion to others – fair enough. An obvious question for readers of my recent book Man Shark (setting Lae in the Marshall Islands) and its prequel The Forbidden Man (setting Nan Madol):When, during these thousands of years of prehistory does my story take place? The answer is not exact, but late in prehistory, probably around the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.

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