Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Micronesia's Breadfruit Revolution and the Evolution of a Culture Area

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Micronesia's Breadfruit Revolution and the Evolution of a Culture Area

Article excerpt


Micronesia was initially settled from at least three quite separate points of origin and comprises multiple cultural and linguistic stocks. It nevertheless manifests a striking uniformity in its sociopolitical organization. I argue that these shared aspects of Micronesian societies diffused out of the Eastern Caroline Islands as a consequence of a prehistoric sociocultural efflorescence driven at least in part by the hybridization of two entirely different breadfruit species. The characteristic form of Micronesia's dispersed conical clans was spread throughout the entire region, carried along with the economic successes conferred by productive new breadfruit varieties. Botanical, linguistic, archaeological and ethnological data are marshaled to substantiate this argument.

Keywords: Micronesia, social organization, subsistence, breadfruit, culture area


Although Micronesia constitutes a coherent geographic region, it is sometimes dismissed as having little or no validity as an ethnological concept. Archaeological and linguistic evidence make it clear that the eastern and western reaches of the area were initially settled by different peoples moving out of distinctly different homelands, probably at different times. It is primarily because of these disparate origins, as compared, say, to the relative homogeneity of the Polynesians, that the existence of a valid Micronesian culture area is denied, although other sociocultural differences have also been cited (Hanlon 1989; Kirch 2000: 5; Kirch and Green 2001: 63; Rainbird 2003, 2004; Clark 2003). But it can be argued that Micronesia is, at least for comparative purposes, substantially more significant than Polynesia as a culture area. This is so precisely because of its multiple origins; the differences between Micronesia's many societies pale before their similarities. These commonalities exist precisely because of Micronesia's characteristic social form, the dispersed matrilineal clan. Micronesia is defined not by matriliny, however, but by the fact that its societies are linked together by a common, shared network of matrilineal clans and the longstanding patterns of social interaction they facilitate, and it is for this reason that it is much more informative about, or at least more representative of, the sorts of processes that have historically gone into shaping cultural regions or areas.

This article argues that this shared Micronesian sociocultural core is primarily the consequence of an historical process of diffusion that was driven, some 6001200 years ago, by what might be called a 'breadfruit revolution'. This process had its genesis in the latter part of the first millennium AD in the high islands of the Eastern Carolines and then spread east and west, bearing with it a complex of cultural and social practices, including cultivation of hybrid breadfruit varieties, classic matriclan organization, and a range of political and religious cult practices. When Dumont d'Urville first described the region he called Micronesia, he was pointing to what were in fact the results of a long process of culture history, and not merely conjuring up a convenient but ultimately erroneous rubric.

Mieronesia's settlement and early prehistory

Despite the archaeological work conducted throughout Micronesia (Fig. 1) in the past few decades, the origins of the Micronesian peoples remain uncertain. As Irwin notes, "The source of eastern Micronesian settlement, somewhere between eastern Melanesia and West Polynesia, is as vague as that for western Micronesian settlement, somewhere in the Philippines or eastern Indonesia" (1992: 6-7). What follows does not review Micronesian prehistory, which has been ably covered by Rainbird (2004) but simply notes important points regarding the area's initial settlement that are critical to the main thrust of this article. …

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