Oceanic Rock Art: First Direct Dating of Prehistoric Stencils and Paintings from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia)

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Defining the history of pre-European settlement in the Pacific has been a subject of scholarly concern since Captain James Cook sailed these oceans in the eighteenth century. Archaeological research of the last 50 years provides a fairly clear picture of the successive stages of human expansion across a region covering a quarter of the world's surface. The western Pacific, comprising Australia, New Guinea and its eastern archipelagos, was settled during the Pleistocene, probably over 40 000 years ago (Kirch 2000). But south-east of the Solomon Islands excavations have failed to reveal a human presence until about 3200 years ago, when a diaspora of seafaring groups speaking Austronesian languages spread out through southern Island Melanesia, reaching what is now considered the western limit of Polynesia, over 4500km away in a couple of centuries (Anderson et al. 2001). The movement of these peoples can be traced by a distinctive type of decorated pottery called Lapita (Kirch 1997). Over the succeeding millennia, through internal differentiation and outside influences, the founding Lapita Cultural Complex spawned the cultural diversity of the traditional societies witnessed by the first Western explorers (Spriggs 1997).

Until recently, most archaeological research programmes in Island Melanesia (Figure 1) had been concerned with first settlement sites (mainly rockshelters and open beach sites) and ceramic change, often neglecting later prehistoric cultural developments (traditional dwelling sites, monumental and burial complexes, horticultural structures, etc.). But Island Melanesia is also renowned for its diverse rock art, comprising cliff paintings viewed by some as an 'Austronesian painting tradition' (APT) (Ballard 1992)--as well as engravings on boulders--forming an 'Austronesian engraving style' (EAS) (Specht 1979) (see Wilson 2003 for a summary). Studies of western Pacific rock art, some of it known for over a century, have been handicapped until recently by the difficulties of getting precise dates for the execution of paintings and engravings. As a result, this topic has rarely been incorporated into the wider picture of the region's history and the possible relationships between these paintings and the prehistoric occupation remain undefined (e.g. Kirch 2000).


The New Caledonia archipelago in southern Melanesia (Figure 1)--settled around 3000 years ago--is home to the eponymous site of Lapita and was one of the first areas of Melanesia to be investigated by archaeologists (Sand & Kirch 2002). Mostly defined by the evolution of ceramic types, the prehistoric chronology has only recently been expanded through the study of other types of remains, such as adze forms, settlement patterns, and intensified horticultural structures (Sand 1995; Sand et al. 2003). Although the archipelago has long been known for its wide variety of petroglyphs, which number in the thousands (Monnin & Sand 2004), early as well as more recent discoveries have also revealed a diversity of painted and applied parietal art on rock-shelter and cave walls. In order to place these representations into a proper chronological framework, we initiated in 2000 the first programme of direct radiocarbon dating of parietal New Caledonia rock art by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS). We report here the first results of this project, which reveal a considerable antiquity for the human use of caves and the decoration of their walls, as well as marked differences between the ages of different sorts of subjects.

The cave-site of Fetra-He

East of the main island (Grande Terre) of New Caledonia are the Loyalty Islands, the largest of which is the centrally located Lifou (1200[km.sup.2]). Preliminary excavations on the coastal sites of Keny and Hnaeo on the east coast, as well as at the rock-shelter of Hnajoisisi on the north-west coast, have shown that this island was first settled about 3000 years ago (Sand 1998). …