Natural Disasters and Cultural Change

By Robin Torrence; John Grattan | Go to book overview

3

Tsunamis and the coastal communities of Papua New Guinea

HUGH DAVIES


ORAL HISTORY AND TSUNAMIS

Tsunamis represent a rare, rapid-onset phenomenon, which present a hazard in many coastal areas of the world, in particular all areas of the Pacific, the Mediterranean basin, and in rare extreme cases the North Atlantic and the North Sea. The study of recent tsunami events, their impact and the subsequent communal response is vital if archaeologists are to construct robust paradigms by which to interpret and understand the influences that tsunamis may wield upon cultural development. This chapter explores the communal response to tsunami hazard and the degree to which knowledge of the hazard is incorporated in oral history. This chapter, by studying recent events in Papua New Guinea, sheds considerable light on cultural responses and the relevant decision-making process. On the evidence presented here, it appears that, unlike volcanic hazards, knowledge of these events does not play a major part in decisions to build or rebuild in particular areas.

If the last 150 years are a reliable guide, a major tsunami has devastated some part of the north coast of the island of New Guinea or the adjacent islands every 15-70 years. This is likely to have been the case throughout the tens of thousands of years of human habitation, given that the geological circumstances, the factors that generate tsunamis, have not changed in that time. If major tsunamis are such regular events, it is logical that they will figure in the culture of the coastal peoples. But just how prominently do tsunamis figure in the traditional cultures in this region? Do communities develop defensive strategies and do they maintain awareness? For example, will a community permanently abandon a site that has been devastated by a tsunami and move to a safer location? Or will they reoccupy the site? Will the warning signs of tsunami become part of the culture and will this knowledge be passed down from generation to generation? Or will the knowledge be dissipated with time? The catastrophic tsunami that struck the Aitape coast in July 1998 (Fig. 3.1) provided an opportunity to explore these questions through interviews with survivors and observation of resettlement trends.

In brief, I found that the people affected by the Aitape disaster did have an oral

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