The peopling of Oceania

The earliest ancestors of Oceanian peoples were probably living at least 75,000 years ago in South East Asia, which then consisted of a unified land-mass known as Sunda. The more adventurous of these peoples attempted, for the first time in human history, to navigate the open oceans to the east, probably using simple canoes to travel from island to island in the direction of Wallacea. By 50,000 years BP, they had reached the sub-continent of Sahul - which today comprises New Guinea and Australia.

This first peopling of the Sahul was more than just an expansion into new territory. The migrants discovered a “New World” that, in the true sense of this term, was occupied by strange animals and plants. Imagine the terror induced when people moving across the arid Australian outback first encountered the giant kangaroo Procoptodon goliah, some 3 meters tall, and the Diprotodon, weighing over one tone.

The difficulties faced by migrant groups as they encountered these new environments forced them to quickly adapt their traditions to local conditions. In the most arid areas, fire became a hunting tool used for chasing out animals from their places of refuge. In the tropical forests of northern Sahul, the desire to cut down certain plant species in order to foster the growth of useful food plants led to the invention some 40,000 years ago of the world’s first-known polished axes.

The discovery of the large islands in the Bismarck archipelago 35,000 years ago is seen historically as the first phase in the human penetration of island Oceania. It was a slow process and cannot have been easy, since distances to be covered became longer and longer, and ecosystems became poorer in species. This Pleistocene migration of families of hunter-gatherers seems to have stopped at the Solomon Islands. In the thousands of years that followed, each scattered group in the huge area comprising the Sahul and island groups in Near Oceania developed its own unique cultural traditions, linked in part to its adaptation to the local environment. Then, beginning some 12-10,000 years ago, the upheavals caused by global warming transformed, within just a few thousand years, the living conditions for the region’s inhabitants. Sahul separated into three large land-masses, and glaciers in the high plateau of New Guinea began to melt, giving rise to torrential flows of water and mud over the wide coastal plains. The first explorers venturing into the highlands on foot for several weeks at a time discovered vast landscapes of hills and valleys whose temperate climate was encouraging a re-colonization by flora and fauna.

By 7,000 years BP, some of the first inhabitants of these high plateau had begun to construct irrigation channels in a number of the humid valleys in order to cultivate tubers; at the same time, they invented several basic techniques of Oceanic horticulture.

The Lapita cultural complex and Austronesian expansion into Remote Oceania

Approximately 1,500-1,400 years BC, a new migration wave began to affect Papuan language groups that had settled along the north coast of New Guinea and in the Bismarck archipelago. The new colonists, originating in South East Asia, had a Neolithic culture, making pottery, bringing domesticated animals, and using more efficient outrigger canoes. They were linked to the great Austronesian linguistic family that had spread eastwards from Taiwan and the Philippines in search of the island groups of western Micronesia on the one hand, and the archipelagos of Wallacea on the other. The interaction of these two population groups in the Bismarck archipelago caused the rapid emergence of a new cultural complex, of which one notable trait was the custom of “tattooing” certain artifacts with dotted anthropomorphic or geometric designs. This ceramic tradition, known as “Lapita”, serves as the archaeological key to the spread of Austronesian groups in the South West Pacific. Its name is used to indicate the whole cultural complex created in the Bismarck archipelago.

Beginning in approximately 1,200 years BC, some of the Lapita people ventured out beyond the large islands of the Solomons archipelago into the unknown world of Remote Oceania. In less than 300 years, the bearers of this cultural complex travelled through over 3,000 km of unexplored ocean, discovering hundreds of islands to the south as far as New Caledonia, and to the east as far as Tonga and Samoa in Western Polynesia Their social, political, artistic, symbolic and religious traditions provided the basis on which all later traditional societies of Remote Oceania were constructed.

Much of the archaeological research in our region over the last 50 years has concentrated on the Lapita period, through the efforts of a number of French researchers. Studies show that over and above the basic features, it is possible to clearly distinguish a number of regional sub-complexes resulting from changes within the Austronesian societies originating from different colonising groups. The need to provide space for food gardens led to the gradual destruction of most of the primary forests, replacing them with secondary vegetation. Elements of the endemic fauna became extinct through hunting, fire and the introduction of rats. Landslides caused by fires gradually transformed the landscapes of many islands. Thus humans had a massive impact on the environment, both directly and indirectly, during this initial period of settlement. In some cases, this caused some populations to leave and search for new islands, leading by the end of the first millennium BC to the discovery of the central islands of Micronesia.

The peopling of the Polynesian triangle

At the beginning of the first millennium AD, new cultural characteristics began to emerge in the island groups of Western Polynesia, with the abandonment of pottery and the appearance of new types of curved axe heads and new forms of dwelling. Such traits were indicative of profound changes in social, political and symbolic structures, leading at this time to the creation in situ of specifically proto-Polynesian cultural traditions.

The bearers of these new traditions developed new navigation techniques on canoes that were easier to handle and could be used during a new phase of systematic exploration. It was they who discovered the island groups of Central Polynesia during the second half of the first millennium AD. Although the date of the first human settlement in this region is still debatable, being the focus of research by French experts operating within an international framework, the uniqueness of the peopling of the Polynesian triangle lies in the progressive increase in distances covered, representing several thousand kilometers.

By the end of the first millennium AD, a Polynesian canoe reached the most isolated island in the world, Rapanui or Easter Island. Another landed on the coast of South America and brought back the sweet potato. Another took a northerly route, reaching the Hawaiian archipelago in the middle of the North Pacific. In AD 1200, possibly making use of favourable winds during an El Nino cycle, canoes headed westwards from the south of the Cook Islands. After sailing for several weeks they reached the “Land of the Long White Cloud”, New Zealand - just less than four centuries before its first contact with European explorers. Still searching for new lands, some Polynesians ventured too far south and reached the ice sheets of Antarctica, from which they never returned.

While this great phase of the settlement of the Polynesian triangle continued its course in the Eastern Pacific, the internal evolution of societies in the Western Pacific led to the emergence of new traditions, often characterized by an intensification of land-use in the island environments and a restructuring of political and social functions. It is these systems, passed on through oral traditions, that indigenous Pacific societies perceive as their “ancient cultural traditions”, their cultural roots.

These “traditions of the past” have been profoundly affected by massive population losses resulting from the Europeans’ introduction of new diseases and in some cases from the exploitation of land and political reorganisation brought by the colonial period. Yet their traces are still visible - abandoned terraces for growing water taro, disintegrating walls of old fortifications, and floors of old houses covered by forest re-growth: all illustrate that recent events form just the topmost layer in a succession of strata indicating a long history that is buried in the ground.