Prehistory and Its Perception in a Melanesian Archipelago: The New Caledonia Example

By Sand, Christophe; Bole, Jacques et al. | Antiquity, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Prehistory and Its Perception in a Melanesian Archipelago: The New Caledonia Example


Sand, Christophe, Bole, Jacques, Ouetcho, Andre, Antiquity


Introduction

The origins of the populations of the Pacific islands have provided a puzzling question for Westerners ever since the first discovery of the region by European navigators. The Spaniards crossing the waters of Island Melanesia at the beginning of the seventeenth century were amazed by the ethnic as well as the cultural diversity of the groups they encountered from one island to the next (Spriggs 1997: 229). More than a century later, Captain Cook, having reached the three corners of the Polynesian triangle formed by Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island, concluded that its inhabitants shared so many cultural and physical similarities that they must have originated from a homogeneous culture (Beaglehole 1967). The geographical division of the Pacific in the nineteenth century into three cultural regions, Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia (Dumont D'Urville 1832), was supposed to paraphrase the complex cultural picture of this vast region, spanning over one-fourth of the planet. The diversity of Melanesia was attributed to very old prehistoric human settlement, while the homogeneity of Polynesia was supposed to derive from the recent settlement of the remote islands of the Central Pacific, a hypothesis thought to be confirmed by oral traditions (Kirch 2000: 12-27).

It was not until recent decades that archaeological research challenged these long-held views. The dates of initial settlement in the oceanic region now span over 30 000 years, from the first landfall on the Bismarck archipelago (east of New Guinea) over 35 000 years ago (Allen 1996), to the settlement of New Zealand by the Maori around 1200AD, only four centuries before its discovery by Europeans (Anderson 1991). Archaeological data show that the different parts of Melanesia as well as Polynesia were not all settled at the same time, and that major local differences existed during prehistory (Green 1993). Homogeneity and diversity are not only explained by different lengths of settlement, but also by a whole set of cultural mechanisms.

As an example of these prehistoric dynamics, we want to present a synthesis of nearly 3000 years of pre-European human settlement in New Caledonia, the southern-most archipelago of Island Melanesia (Sand 1995), and then go on to highlight the major consequences that European contact has had on the indigenous societies and the way their prehistory has been perceived. With islands of different sizes encompassing diversified landscapes, the New Caledonia archipelago offers a revealing example of the nature of the strategies for adaptation and transformation that 100 generations of Oceanic-Island populations have had to develop. As well as modelling these data, the latest results also reveal the challenges archaeology has to face today to serve the construction of a multicultural nation (Figure 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The setting

New Caledonia can be divided into two major parts (Paris 1981). its western region is formed by the Grande Terre, a continental landmass of Gondwana origin, of nearly 17 000 square km in size. The long geological history of this island, which is about 450 km long, is complex, leading to very diversified soils as well as the development of a unique fauna and flora: the Grande Terre has one of the richest biodiversities on earth (Flannery 1994:42-51). The west coast, part of the cast coast (Figure 2) and surrounding islands, are protected by a wide lagoon, over 1200 km in total length. The eastern part of the archipelago, by contrast, is of recent volcanic origin, and consists mainly of the uplifted coral platforms of the Loyalty chain, characterised by smaller islands ranking to a maximum of 60 km long, more restricted natural environments, no streams, and for the two major islands, no large lagoon formation, mostly replaced by cliffs falling into the sea.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Positioned around 20 degrees south, New Caledonia is the first Melanesian archipelago outside the present-day Malaria region, that expands along the rest of the Melanesian chain out to Island South-east Asia. …

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