Recent Archaeological Research in the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Recent archaeological research in the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia has added to our understanding of the region's culture history. Excavations at nine primarily rockshelter sites on the islands of Ouvea, Lifou, and Mare suggest that the earliest human occupation of the Loyalty Islands, as with New Caledonia, is attributed to the Lapita complex; there is no preceramic tradition evident at these sites. Along with dentate-stamped pottery, the Lapita age ceramics are associated with other forms of decoration that have not been described previously. The Lapita assemblage and assemblages from subsequent occupations at these sites produced pottery and lithic materials suggestive of continuous but diminishing interaction over time with the main island of New Caledonia. Several sites contain archaeological deposits that record the transition to recent history and the arrival of European voyagers and missionaries in the region. KEYWORDS: Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, Lapita, culture history, Melanesian archaeology.

THE PREHISTORIC CULTURE HISTORY of the Loyalty Islands (Fig. 1), located east of Grande Terre (the main island) of New Caledonia, is one of the lesser known among those of the New Caledonian archipelago of southern Melanesia. Indeed, few modern archaeological research programs had been conducted there before 1990. Oral traditions preserve stories about the islands' settlement by different human groups, the subsequent creation of chiefdoms, and the land divisions or places linked to major events (e.g., Dubois 1976; Guiart 1963, 1992; Illouz 1985). Although these stories often have a chronological frame and are intended to justify present-day social positions, they do not allow us to completely reconstruct past history, as has been done elsewhere in the Pacific (e.g., Kirch and Yen 1982). Since 1992, the Loyalty Islands Province, now responsible for its archaeological heritage, has initiated a program of archaeological surveys and excavations, including the first general study of the characteristics of prehistoric occupations. This program, also financed by the French state, has been conducted by the local Department of Archaeology.

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This paper presents some of the results obtained during these first surveys, especially the results of the first salvage excavations conducted between 1993 and 1995 on the three major islands. One of the characteristics of the studies undertaken by the Department of Archaeology has been to focus on the rockshelters discovered during the surveys in order to identify the remains of early prehistoric occupations at these sites, which have been less disturbed than cultivatable areas or sand dunes. This marks the first attempt to study rockshelters in the Loyalty Islands. The first part of this paper presents details about some of these sites and the discoveries made. The analysis of the materials obtained provides the basis for a first synopsis of the prehistoric chronology of the Loyalty Islands.

BACKGROUND

The Loyalty Islands archipelago consists of the three major islands of Ouvea (132 [km.sup.2]), Lifou (1196 [km.sup.2]), and Mare (642 [km.sup.2]), surrounded by a number of smaller islands of various sizes. Constructed on a basaltic platform, the islands are composed of uplifted coral platforms of varying elevations. Ouvea is an uplifted atoll on its eastern part, with a wide lagoon. Lifou and Mare are completely uplifted coral platforms, with a flattened central area corresponding to the former lagoon and higher cliffs related to the former reef. Some summits on Mare Island are over 140 m high. The shorelines can be divided between low areas, where quartenary sand dunes have sometimes formed, and high coral cliffs, showing the notches of former sea levels. No streams are present in the archipelago. Apart from Mare, which has a small source of easily identifiable basalt in Rawa, the Loyalty Islands are completely formed by coral lithology and no stone sources of sedimentary formation are present. …