Studying the relations that people have developed with their environment, including how they have dealt with unexpected natural catastrophes, raises difficult and complex issues, which are important for understanding the social and cultural evolution of human societies. The careful study of the impact of recent hazards in underdeveloped areas can help to gain some idea, but these observations are partly biased by the level of disaster prevention and the relief programmes that are currently available for even the most remote place on earth.
In the following chapter I will attempt to show that much useful information can be learned about human responses and/or adaptation to disasters in the past by combining archaeological work with a careful analysis of oral history. As examples I will use two cases of natural hazards which have been recorded in oral history and also confirmed and dated by archaeology. They show that in Vanuatu natural disasters are perceived as social rather than natural events. These events are not feared but respected, and the environmental and physical risks are continually weighed and socially controlled.
The Melanesian tectonic arc contains many risks for permanent human settlement. The islands where people live are subject to violent seismicity and volcanism resulting from tectonic plate movements. This ‘belt of fire’ is also affected from time to time by related catastrophic events such as the tsunami which devastated the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea in July 1998 (cf. Chapter 3).
Within this wider region, the Vanuatu (New Hebrides) Archipelago, located at 16° S and 167° E between the Solomon and New Caledonian Islands chain (Fig. 9.1) extends over 1,000 km from north to south and comprises more than 80 islands totalling over 14,760 km2 in land area. Volcanic activity is important today: there are 12 active volcanoes, including 4 submarine ones. Seismicity, especially