Style and Function in East Polynesian Fish-Hooks

By Allen, Melinda S. | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Style and Function in East Polynesian Fish-Hooks


Allen, Melinda S., Antiquity


The concepts of style and function are theoretically defined from a neo-Darwinian perspective and the expected spatial-temporal distributions of each kind of trait outlined. Fish-hook assemblages from Aitutaki, Cook Islands, are examined using this framework and related to previously studied collections. Emerging stylistic patterns support notions of interaction between certain East Polynesian archipelagos around the 14th century Ad.

Traditional Polynesian fish-hooks, found in an array of sizes, shapes, and raw materials, have been used primarily for chronological purposes and to illustrate cultural affinities (e.g. Davidson 1967; Emory et al. 1959; Sinoto 1962; 1967; 1968; Skinner 1942). Fish-hooks may also inform on the process of adaptation, ecological relationships, fishing strategies and tool performance (e.g. Kirch 1980; Reinman 1970), but these issues have received comparatively little archaeological attention in the Pacific. Before fish-hooks can be reliably used to elucidate cultural patterns and evolutionary processes, stylistic and functional traits must be explicitly separated. Failures to do so in the past have too often provided ambiguous or inaccurate conclusions. This paper looks at Polynesian fish-hooks from a theoretical framework that explicitly defines the conditions which give rise to stylistic as opposed to functional traits and the expected spatial-temporal distributions of each. Traits hypothesized to be of one kind or the other are empirically evaluated against the theoretical model. Previous studies of Polynesian fish-hooks, and new data from the Cook Islands, are discussed in relation to this framework.

The model: stylistic and functional traits

The term 'style' is often treated in a casual and emic sense as characteristic features, artistry, or habits. As Neiman (1995: 29-30) observes, these abstract and poorly defined notions of style are problematic for systematic archaeological analysis and fail to consider the mechanisms responsible for stylistic variation. In the early- to mid-20th-century, culture historians used a fairly rigorous, but implicit, definition of style in developing the seriation method (Teltser 1995). They observed that certain kinds of artefact traits waxed and waned through time, displaying short-lived unimodal frequency distributions. These historical traits proved useful for establishing relative chronologies, provided that certain conditions were met, as formalized in the seriation model (Dunnell 1970; 1981). The mechanism underlying these distributions in time was identified as 'popularity', and in space as different forms of interaction, including diffusion, migration and exchange (e.g. Deetz & Dethlefsen 1965; Rouse 1939).

Dunnell (1978a) subsequently observed that stylistic traits have a decidedly stochastic character, similar to patterns generated during random clade simulations (see Gould et al. 1977). This led him to propose that stylistic forms could be defined in an neo-Darwinian framework as those which have no detectable selective value (i.e. are selectively neutral). While style in general may have a selective component, functioning as a reservoir of variability (Dunnell 1978a), or to mark social identities and boundaries (Meltzer 1981: 314), particular styles are not directly explicable by natural selection. If stylistic traits are not subject to selection, by definition, then their transmission is accounted for in probabilistic terms, with the rate and spread of change attributable to characters of the transmission systems, the frequency of interaction and the rate of innovation (Dunnell 1978a; Neiman 1990; 1995; O'Brien & Holland 1990).

Artefact similarities may also result from analogous processes, arising independently in response to similar environmental conditions (including similar raw materials). Archaeologists became fully aware of the importance and qualitative difference of functional variability in the 1960s (Binford 1973; Binford & Binford 1966; Jelinek 1976). …

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