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Professor Patrick V. Kirch
Archaeological Research Facility
2251 College Ave.
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720

Background to Pacific Archaeology and Prehistory
by Patrick V. Kirch
available in.pdf format

The Pacific Region comprises roughly one-third of the Earth’s surface, and although the greater part of the region consists of ocean, there are no less than 7,500 islands dispersed across its face. These range from near continental-sized islands such as New Guinea and New Zealand, both of which have glaciated mountain ranges, to tiny islets such as Anuta (0.8 sq km), and to atolls which stand a mere 3 m above sea level.

Humans began to enter the western fringes of the Pacific realm at least 40,000 years ago (perhaps considerably longer), with the movement of small groups of people across Wallace’s Line from southeast Asia into the ancient continent of “Sahul” (made up of New Guinea, Australia, and Tasmania. These early hunter-gatherer populations quickly expanded through the Sahul and Near Oceania regions, reaching New Britain, New Ireland, Buka, and probably the main Solomon Islands by 35,000 B.P. Much later, beginning around 3,500 before present, a major diaspora of Austronesian-speaking populations resulted in the rapid spread of humans beyond the Solomon Islands into Remote Oceania.

The initial expansion of Oceanic-speaking populations beyond the Solomon Islands into Remote Oceania as far as Tonga and Samoa (Western Polynesia) is associated with the archaeological horizon known as Lapita. Marked by distinctive dentate-stamped earthenware pottery, sites of the Lapita cultural complex are distributed geographically from the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea to the Samoan Islands, and as far south as New Caledonia. One of the earliest and largest Lapita sites yet discovered, Talepakemalai in the Mussau Islands, was excavated by Prof. Kirch and the materials recovered continue to be studied at the OAL. The first major excavation of a Lapita site—indeed the type site of Lapita on the Koné Peninsula in New Caledonia—was by Prof. E. W. Gifford of Berkeley, whose collections continue to be curated in the Hearst Museum of Anthropology. These collections have been the subject of reanalysis at the OAL, while newly excavated pottery from this key site are the subject of an OAL project by Scarlett Chiu.

The Polynesian Triangle was the last sector of Remote Oceania to be explored and colonized by humans, between ca. 900 B.C. and A.D. 1000. The Polynesian cultures are of particular interest to anthropologists because they comprise one of the clearest examples of a phylogenetically related culture group, and hence lend themselves particularly well to controlled comparison. Much of the work of Prof. Kirch and his students and associates in the OAL has focused on various Polynesian islands, including Futuna, Niuatoputapu, Ofu, Mangaia, Mangareva, Mo’orea, Rapanui, and Hawaii. Essential to the application of such a comparative approach is the phylogenetic model and use of a triangulation methodology, as developed particularly by Kirch and Prof. Roger C. Green and the University of Auckland (New Zealand). Kirch and Green have developed their theoretical and methodological approach to historical anthropology in their recent book, Hawaiki: Ancestral Polynesia.

Polynesian and Pacific archaeology generally have developed largely since World War II. In the earlier half of the 20th century, historical anthropology in the Pacific was dominated by an ethnographic perspective, with archaeology limited to surface surveys of monumental architecture (see A Brief History of Polynesian Archaeology). After World War II, several field workers began to conduct stratigraphic excavations, including E. W. Gifford in Fiji, New Caledonia, and Yap, A. Spoehr in the Marianas, and K. P. Emory in Hawaii. These pioneering efforts revealed the presence of an archaeological record of culture change, and led to increased fieldwork throughout Polynesia and islands to the west. The advent of a settlement pattern approach (pioneered by Roger C. Green) in the 1960s, and the stimulus of new research agendas concerning ecology and subsistence systems, inter-island exchange systems, household archaeology, and the evolution of complex social systems have made Pacific Islands archaeology a lively contributor to international discussions and debates.

See An Introduction to Pacific Islands Archaeology for additional background material.
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Photos courtesy of Kathy Kawelu.