-- A new history of the Pacific islands before their discovery
by European voyagers buries forever the myth that Tahitians
and other peoples of Oceania were children of nature living
in the Garden of Eden.
first major synthesis of Pacific prehistory in 20 years, an
anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley,
shows that, before Magellan ever set sail in the Pacific,
human settlement and, in some cases, overpopulation on many
Pacific islands disrupted the ecological chain, sending some
island societies into collapse.
philosophers of the Enlightenment saw these islands, especially
Tahiti, as the original natural society where people lived
in a state of innocence and food fell from the trees. How
wrong they were," said Patrick Kirch, professor of anthropology
and director of UC Berkeley's Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
of the Pacific were densely populated by the time of European
contact, and the human impact on the natural ecosystem was
often disastrous - with wholesale decimation of species and
loss of vast tracts of indigenous forest."
he pointed out, Tahitian society was engaged in endemic warfare,
with ritual human sacrifice to a blood-thirsty god named Oro,
when French explorer Louis de Bougainville came for a two-week
trip in 1769 and thought he had arrived in paradise. Bougainville's
description of Tahiti became the basis for Jean Jacques Rousseau's
concept of l'homme naturel, the nobel savage.
synthesis brings together archaeology, linguistics, biology
and oral tradition to reach broad new insights about cultures
than spanned 5,000 miles of ocean. "On the Road of the Winds:
An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European
Contact," published this month, covers 40,000 years, from
the first movement of Southeast Asian people into the Pacific
to the consolidation of the Hawaiian Islands under King Kamehameha
in the 18th century.
however, that Pacific island peoples were no worse and no
better than any other human beings. "All humans transform
their environment. In the Pacific, there is no place that
humans haven't modified," he said.
recent research on islands from New Guinea to Hawaii establishes
that settlement of the Pacific was one of the fastest human
expansions of all time.
great leaps - the Lapita expansion around 1,500 B.C. to 1000
B.C. and the ancient Polynesian expansion about 1,000 years
later - agricultural voyagers settled the Pacific islands
in great sweeps outward from an original base, probably in
with them a Noah's ark full of domesticated plants and animals
- the coconut tree (found wild in only a few places), taro
and other crop plants, chickens, pigs, dogs, and a mouse-sized
rodent called the Pacific rat.
their whole world with them," said Kirch. "It was an amazing
expansion, one of the most rapid expansions in world history
prior to European colonization."
Lapita expansion, from the Bismarck Archipelago near New Guinea
to Samoa in the central South Pacific, was so fast it looks
to the archaeological eye as if it happened instantly, said
Kirch. Radiocarbon dates for settlement of different islands
fall within the error range, which is about 300 years, for
analysis, Kirch was able to tease out a small difference in
settlement dates. He concludes that the Lapita culture, an
antecedent of Polynesian society, settled numerous islands
across 2,500 miles in about 250 to 300 years.
Polynesian expansion, from Samoa to Hawaii and Easter Island,
occurred nearly as fast across much longer stretches of open
ocean, said Kirch.
could not have been driven by population pressures in such
a short time, he said. Very likely, it was driven by the custom
of primogeniture, the exclusive right of the eldest son to
inherit all wealth and property.
sons seek out new lands where they can found their own house
and lineage," said Kirch. He added that rivalry between older
and younger brothers is a frequent theme in Polynesian mythology.
evidence also backs up this theory. Construction of a Proto-Oceanic
language from existing languages shows that in the ancient
Lapita society, siblings were ranked and property passed to
the first-born offspring.
technology also aided the expansion, said Kirch. Polynesians
invented the catamaran, a two-hulled, two-masted ship capable
of carrying up to 80 people plus plants and animals, before
they undertook the voyage of 2,500 miles across open ocean
from the Marquesan Islands to Hawaii at about 400-700 A.D.
together evidence from all of the subdisciplines of anthropology,
Kirch has been able to reach new conclusions about the Pacific
past, especially the impact of human settlement on the natural
in vivid detail the social and ecological collapse of Easter
Island and Mangaia, plagued by overpopulation and depletion
of resources. People took to living in subterranean caverns
for protection from social terrorism, while the monumental
statues on Easter Island are mute testimony to intergroup
a rock shelter was discovered filled with nothing but charred
human bones and ovens. By contrast, the tiny island of Tikopia
in the Solomon Islands created a marvel of sustainable agriculture
on 4.6 square miles and for centuries maintained a large-for-its-size
population of up to 1,700 people.
like the people of Mangaia and Easter Island, originally burned
forests for crop planting. But around 900 A.D., they radically
altered course, creating multistory orchard stands of fruits
and nuts, among other ecologically-wise decisions, said Kirch.
believed strongly in zero population growth and used drastic
means, including infanticide, to achieve it. The result, said
Kirch, was a stable social system and a model of agriculture
that "is perhaps unparalleled anywhere in the Pacific."
experience poses critical lessons for the modern world," he
said. "These two outcomes - one disastrous, one successful
-teach us that we have choices. Nothing is inevitable or predetermined
about the consequences of human impact on the earth we have
island environments are laboratories to show us how to achieve
a sustainable relationship with our planet on a global basis."