*Banua, *panua, fenua: An Austronesian conception of the sociocosmic world

By Dr. Sophie Chave-Dartoen, University of Bordeaux

The aim of this short communication is to argue that mobility is a founding principle of Austronesian languages, social ensembles, conceptions of land, country and landscape, all of which are signified by reflexes of the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian term *banua. The complex relationships encapsulated in this term should be carefully studied in their social, cultural, experiential and cognitive dimensions.

Most of Island South-East Asia and Oceania share some common cultural traits (ritual dyads, primogeniture, ranked siblings according to their age and gender, stranger-kings, house and canoe-shaped social organisations, and so on) generally linked with common ancient linguistic features that have been reconstructed as “proto-Austronesian”. The spread of the language is thought to be correlated with the movement of people who came a few millennia ago from southern China all the way down to Island Melanesia and, as a new cultural complex (Lapita), to Remote Oceania and Polynesia.

For almost two centuries, the relative cultural homogeneity one can still perceive in spite of the local variations made the Pacific Islands a focus for cultural history, evolutionary anthropology and human ecology (Spriggs 2008). Archaeology was one of the tools used to trace these migrations, using material remains such as pottery, basalt artefacts, obsidian flakes, bones, charcoal, pollen, and agricultural features. Kirch (1982) inferred that, at least for the Polynesian area, population has been sustained by an agricultural complex (techniques, seeds, animals) called a “transported landscape”, following Anderson. This proposal strengthened the materialist constraint-based hypothesis about migratory processes such as the quest for land and food resources or the quest for prestige goods (shells, whale teeth, feathers). Lately, a more cultural paradigm called “frontier ideology” has been proposed by Bellwood (1996): the young siblings of the chiefs would have been inclined to make their way to new islands in order to get political autonomy and establish their own dynasties.

These hypotheses may be valid, but probably underestimate the mobility of societies, many of which are still involved in wide and long lasting exchange networks (D’Arcy 2006). They also ignore other aspects of these societies such as their socio-cosmic organisation (Coppet 1990), which can be defined by the entanglements of the social world (the living, their social institutions and environments) with the cosmos (dead ancestors, the deities and the cosmos that they share with their human descendants). If the fertility of the land, the perpetuation of life and the efficiency of actions depend on the ancestors’ benevolence, conversely, the destiny and empowerment of the gods and ancestors rest on appropriately executed rituals. In this type of configuration – I personally studied the Wallisian case (Chave-Dartoen 2000) – rituals rule the life of the people and the order of the universe (Reuter 2006). In other words, the universe is made social, and social groups would not migrate without the “devices” (names, stones, plants or animals) necessary to transplant their cosmos to new islands, in part or whole. According to Blust (1987) the reconstructed PMP term *banua refers to this kind of conceptual entity: a fertile, life providing land, where a society (or part of a society) develops in mutual custodianship with the ancestors, a cosmos made social.

Different anthropological propositions (within the Austronesian world or outside it) may be useful in order to grasp the complexities of the multiple cultural and cognitive dimensions involved in such a concept. Fox (1997), for instance, traces a direct link between the way Austronesian languages locate things and events, personal and social experience. Ingold (2000) proposed that “landscapes” should be understood as an embodiment of the space, the practices and the temporalities that organize it for the people who experience it. Munn (1996) insists on the fact that, for Warlpiri Aborigines, the very presence of the ancestors is perceived in the landscape and organises practices and experience of it. Most ethnographies about the societies of Oceania agree that, despite the mutations of these socio-cosmic worlds and of their institutions, they perpetuate the condensed forms that *banua – and its reflexes designates. This term refers to the organization of the relationships between the living and the dead, the local society, its land, its cosmos, and the different levels (experience, language, ritual) of its environment’s internalisation, embodiment and expression.



BELLWOOD P. (1996) – Hierarchy, Founder Ideology and Austronesian Expansion, FOX J., SATHER C. (dir.). Origins, ancestry and alliance: explorations in Austronesian ethnography, Canberra, ANU E Press, p. 18-40.

BLUST R. (1987) – Lexical Reconstruction and Semantic Reconstruction : the Case of Austronesian “House” Words, Diachronica, 4, 1, p. 79-106.

CHAVE-DARTOEN S. (2000) – ‘Uvea (Wallis) Une société de Polynésie occidentale, étude et comparaison, Thèse de doctorat en Anthropologie Sociale et Ethnologie, EHESS, Paris, 846 pages.

COPPET (de) D. (1990) – The Society as an Ultimate Value and the Socio-cosmic Configuration, Ethnos, 55, 3-4, p. 140-150.

D’ARCY P. (2006) – The People of the sea. Environment, Identity, and History in Oceania. Honolulu, University of Hawai’i press, 292 pages.

INGOLD T. (2000) – The Temporality of the Landscape, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London and New York, Routeledge, p. 189-208 [publication initiale (1993) The Temporality of the Landscape, World archaeology, 25, 2].

KIRCH P.V. (1982) – The Impact of the Prehistoric Polynesians on the Hawaiian Ecosystem, Pacific Science, 36, p. 1-14.

MUNN N. (1996) – Excluded spaces : The figure in the Australian Aboriginal Landscape, Critical Inquiry, 22, 3, p. 446-465.

REUTER Th. (dir.) (2006), Sharing the Earth, Dividing the Land: Land and Territory in the Austronesian world, Canberra, ANU E Press, 385 pages.

SPRIGGS M. (2008) – Are Islands Islands? Some Thoughts on the History of Chalk and Cheese, Terra Australis, 29, (Islands of Inquiry : Colonisation, Seafaring and the Archaeology of Maritime Landscapes), p. 211-226.


“Bones and Sand”: Archaeology of the Dunes in Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia

By Dr. Guillaume Molle, University of French Polynesia

“Beautiful paradise shores”, is how they were described by the first western explorers who rediscovered, sometimes tragically, the Marquesas Islands from the 17th century (Dening 1980). But the true history of these island societies didn’t start, nor stop, at this moment. It began nearly eight centuries before when some canoes coming from the West landed on these same shores bringing small groups of Polynesians who settled and established thereafter in this archipelago a rich, though intriguing, culture.

Regarding the ecology and geography of the Marquesas, with its rugged topography consisting in deep valleys with no coastal plains, the sand dunes played there the role of interface between land and sea, and appeared to be ideal locations for a first human settlement as they provide easy access to both marine and terrestrial resources. Not only are they favorable places for fishing or shell gathering, dunes are also the spots for departures and arrivals of the canoe trips to other valleys and neighboring or distant islands which communities maintain relations with, for exchanging basalt adzes as well as going to war. For these reasons, they have been occupied throughout the whole of Marquesan prehistory and even beyond, until today. As such, the dunes are among the preferred locations for archaeologists because they offer long-term sequences that open windows on all the periods. Furthermore, their natural drainage favors a good preservation of the artefacts.

I came myself to excavate sand dunes when I started to work on Ua Huka Island, as part of my PhD in archaeology at the University of French Polynesia (Molle 2011). Located in the northern group, this small island proves particularly important because of Hane, a site that was excavated in 1964-65 by Y. Sinoto, a leading archaeologist of his time, which provided some old dates that were used to define a first colonization model of East Polynesia. Since the early 1990s, my colleagues and I have conducted more research, especially on the dune systems on the south shore, and over 20 years of intensive excavations, we came to document almost all of them.

Fig.1 : Map of Ua Huka showing the locations of the main dune systems on the South shore.
Fig.1 : Map of Ua Huka showing the locations of the main dune systems on the South shore.

One of the most interesting and challenging points to me here is to compare the different coastal sequences in order to reconstruct a global history of the island. It brought us to realize that the functions of these sites have evolved through time. Let’s take a look at a few compelling examples.

On the Hane dune site, the lowest levels we excavated in 2009 provided the oldest dates of occupation in the archipelago as well as in French Polynesia, proving now that the human colonization of these islands took place by the 10th century A.D. The coastal areas were then frequented by small groups mainly relying on the exploitation of marine resources. Later, by around 1200 A.D., the Marquesans started to build in the dunes’ areas some large stone dwelling platforms called paepae that supported houses built in perishable materials. It indicates, both in Hane and Manihina, the will to develop a long-term occupation in these coastal hamlets and as such, a shift in lifeways. Then, after a temporary abandonment of the dunes and the beginning of the settlement in the valleys, the groups came back on the shores but mostly to bury their dead. Manihina and Hane were thus turned into cemeteries between the 14th and 16th centuries A.D. (Conte and Molle, in press).

But other specific functions can be put into evidence. Located in the south-west, Hatuana Bay is known in oral traditions to be the soul-jumping off spot towards Hawaiki, the original and sacred land of the Polynesians, a symbolic importance also demonstrated by the numerous petroglyphs discovered in the vicinity. The area turned into a lookout to prevent enemies coming from Nuku Hiva from the 17th century, a period during which we see an intensification of warfare in the Marquesas (Molle and Conte 2011).

Fig.2 : Hatuana bay (photo G.Molle).
Fig.2 : Hatuana bay (photo G.Molle).

By giving us the opportunity to identify series of key-markers or events, the dunes provides us with precious information about the way people used to live, move, fish, defend themselves, pray or bury their dead. As they have been occupied almost constantly, dune sites constitute the best records of temporal changes in Marquesan culture and provide a useful framework for interpreting its evolution.

In the recent years, the Hane dune site became a sitting place for watching soccer games during week-ends, but the inhabitants were far from imagining what was lying beneath them, just a few centimeters under the surface: a giant sandbox encompassing the whole history of their ancestors. What’s better for an archaeologist than to play the game of History on these beautiful shores?


Conte E. and G. Molle, in press. Reinvestigating a Key-Site for Polynesian Prehistory: New Results from the Hane Dune Site, Ua Huka (Marquesas). Archaeology in Oceania.

Dening G., 1980. Islands and Beaches. Discourse on a Silent Land. Marquesas 1774-1880. Honolulu : The University Press of Hawaii.

Molle G., 2011. Ua Huka, une île dans l’Histoire. Histoire pré- et post-européenne d’une société marquisienne. Tahiti : University of French Polynesia, PhD Thesis, 2 vols.

Molle G. and E. Conte, 2011. New Perspectives on the Occupation of Hatuana Dune Site, Ua Huka, Marquesas Islands. Journal of Pacific Archaeology vol.2(2), pp.103-108.

April 2014 on Then Dig: Spatial Dynamics in Oceania


A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of attending a conference on the archaeology of “spatial dynamics in Oceania” at the Institut Nationale d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris, France. The conference was organised by Frédérique Valentin and Guillaume Molle on behalf of the ArScAn Équipe éthnologie préhistorique, and featured an international group of archaeologists from North America, Europe, and the Pacific Islands.

Presentations at the conference were all based in the region comprising Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, and ranged across a number of topics, including the circulation of stone tools, the evolution of agricultural techniques, the construction and use of monumental architecture, symbolic beliefs embedded in island landscapes, and more.

Archaeologists who work in the Pacific are often surprised that more people aren’t interested in what is happening in the region. Many people can immediately think of the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, pueblos in the American Southwest, and ancient ruins in Italy and Greece as places where archaeology “happens”. When it comes to the Pacific, though, most people simply imagine pleasant climate, pristine beaches, and grass skirt-wearing islanders. (Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is perhaps the one exception here, though even that island is mostly thought of in terms of its iconic moai, which are only a small part of the story).

What isn’t discussed is the fact that the dunes on those beautiful beaches often hold great archaeological treasures, especially for understanding the early settlements on many islands! This is not simply an academic issue, as people are much happier to bulldoze the dunes away in order to build yet another resort hotel when they don’t realize (or don’t want to acknowledge) that they are wiping away a major part of island history by doing so. Of course, many Pacific Islanders as well as archaeologists (in many cases the two labels can apply to the same person) are quite vocal in noting their awareness of this.

This month, we will present a selection of the many excellent papers that were presented in Paris earlier in 2014 as short-form posts to Then Dig. There were, of course, many more presentations at the conference that for one reason or another won’t make it onto this blog, but interested readers should look for a future edition of the Séances de la Société Préhistorique Française (link to the website here), which is an open-access publication that will feature papers in both English and French from the conference.

It is our hope that these posts on Then Dig will help to show how dynamic the work of archaeologists in Oceania is, both in terms of the interesting aspects of the past that we uncover, and our ongoing commitment to working closely with living Pacific Islanders.

Dr. James Flexner
The Australian National University
(Guest Editor for Then Dig, April 2014)