Land Tenure, Competition and Ecology in Fijian Prehistory

By Field, Julie S. | Antiquity, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Land Tenure, Competition and Ecology in Fijian Prehistory


Field, Julie S., Antiquity


Introduction

Indigenous oral histories and the journals of European traders and colonists record the prevalence of warfare in Fiji between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The importance placed upon warriors and weapons in Fijian culture and the occurrence of fortifications across the archipelago during this period also suggest that conflict and territoriality was deeply rooted in the society. Archaeological excavations indicate that fortifications and territories had developed by 1500 years BP, and persisted through later centuries as populations grew and inhabited other parts of the environment (Field 2004: 88-94). One way that the emergence and persistence of competition, territoriality and conflict can be explained is by hypotheses drawn from evolutionary ecology (e.g. Boone 1992; Durham 1976; Dyson-Hudson & Smith 1979; Halstead & O'Shea 1989; Rosenberg 1998; Smith & Winterhalder 1992). Notably, the hypothesis of 'economic defensibility' suggests that competitive and/or territorial strategies emerge in association with rich resources, as the cost of defending these resources is less than that of sharing, or foraging elsewhere (Dyson-Hudson & Smith 1979: 26).

Recent investigations of the distribution of ancient fortifications in Fiji showed that territorial strategies are also sensitive to variations in climate and consequent variability in resources (Field 2002, 2003; Parry 1977, 1982, 1987, 1997). In particular, the fluctuations in seasonal rainfall and the episodic droughts associated with the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) have been suggested as a primary factor in the development of conflict in Fijian prehistory. It continues to cause stress today. During the 18 months of the 1997-98 El Nino event, rainfall in Fiji was 22-42 per cent of normal, resulting in a national production loss for sugarcane of 50 per cent. The average income for subsistence farmers also dropped substantially, from F$3500 to F$1500 per annum (Kaloumaira 2000; Parry 1997; Terry et al. 2001).

Archaeological analyses also suggest that unpredictable perturbations in environmental productivity (e.g. droughts that vary unpredictably in duration or intensity, or unpredictable catastrophes such as severe storms or volcanic eruptions) serve to intensify a range of behavioural responses, in particular the escalation of conflict, migrations or the formation of extensive networks of co-operation and exchange (Bawden & Reycraft 2000; Ember & Ember 1992; Haas & Creamer 1993; Jones et al. 1999; Kennett & Kennett 2000; Raab & Larson 1997). These points are critical to understanding the context of competition, conflict and territoriality among ancient horticulturalists.

The distribution of fortifications is a primary indication of defended territory (Field 2004, and see below), but in the present case additional avenues of research were provided by social data derived from land tenure. In the twentieth century, anthropologists described the Fijian social landscape as having a 'patchwork' quality, in which the patrilineal descent groups, the mataqali, and their overarching ancestral lineages, the yavusa, were widely distributed throughout the archipelago. It was suggested that this distribution was related to conflict in Fiji's past, and the scattering of yavusa and mataqali was the outcome of many centuries of war-driven fission, migration and alliance (Capell & Lester 1941; Gifford 1952; Nadalo 1957; Nayacakalou 1955). This paper uses a geographic information system (GIS) to map the spatial distribution of fortified sites and the types of land tenure recorded for the Sigatoka Valley in the early twentieth century and then compare them with the topographic and environmental conditions as they prevail today. The results show that the pattern of land-holding relates to the degree to which it was disputed, and this in turn to its ecological and economic reliability.

The Sigatoka valley and its ecology

Located in the south-western corner of the island of Viti Levu, the Sigatoka valley covers approximately 1700[km. …

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