on 9 February 2009
Patrick Vinton Kirch is renowned for his faith in the multidisciplinary approach to understanding Oceanic and Pacific history and culture before European contact. On the Road of the Winds is his great synthesis on the subject to date based on that holistic perspective, drawing together information from the fields of archaeology, historical linguistics, comparative ethnology and biological anthropology, while emphasising that these disciplines are not bound to co-vary. This is largely a scholarly historical archaeological text (but with numerous photographs and tables listing sites with details replacing tedious description) and arises, as the author explains, as a result of the archaeological aspect largely being ignored until after the war. Anthropologists until then had been constrained by preconceived beliefs of Pacific cultures having been fairly recent and unchanging arrivals; nations without history. The emphasis of research had been placed firmly on ethnology using outdated - even racist - typology mingled with some good and some dubious linguistic analysis. Since then a fascinating narrative of rich historical cultures, some containing extraordinarily elaborate constructions and of complex social structures and hierarchies that we are only now beginning to understand, has been uncovered by archaeological excavations.
It is as well for the reader to familiarise his or herself with some basic concepts at the outset and these are largely outlined in an introduction. Unlike most simplistic nineteenth century anthropological classifications Dumont d'Urville's familiar tripartite categorisation of Pacific peoples into Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian still holds as a useful geographical reference when describing regional differences, though only the Polynesians can be considered a phyletic entity whose languages, cultures and biological similarity point to a common origin. Melanesians in particular are an astonishingly diverse mix of different cultures and linguistic groups. These three groups (Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians) make up the peoples of Oceania but exclude the islands of South-East Asia, notably the Philippines and Indonesia, even though the great Austronesian language family (found as far west as Madagascar) spans both regions. All Oceanic peoples except those on New Guinea and some islands nearby such as New Ireland and Bougainville speak Austronesian languages. There, the non-Austronesian or Papuan languages are more numerous and diverse than their Austronesian counterparts thus demonstrating the deeper time span of occupation of this region which is referred to throughout the book as Near Oceania. Near Oceania is a concept introduced to distinguish those long-settled islands (maybe 40,000 years) from those that were to be reached much later in waves of long distance voyages: Remote Oceania.
Human history is effectively the history of migrations. The author begins this odyssey by reviewing the archaeological evidence for the arrival of the first people into Sahul (Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea merged during higher sea levels) and Near Oceania (the islands around and beyond New Guinea) during the Pleistocene. This is the prehistory of "old" Melanesia and constitutes the first great colonising epoch of the Pacific. However, it was the appearance of a distinct ceramic-making culture known as Lapita about 1,500 BC, a culture that had most likely developed in situ in the region of the Bismarck Archipelago by a branch of the Austronesian peoples, that was to have the most profound effect on the region. The seafaring Lapita began to greatly expand their material culture, transform the cultural landscape of the region and to spread ever further eastward into Remote Oceania. This is archaeology's greatest contribution to Pacific research. The peopling of the islands of the Pacific by this new culture truly required a new vision of the world. These would not have been hunter-gatherers wandering in search of something to eat but horticulturalists, who, as populations challenged ability to supply, needed to seek fresh lands. Some of these lands could be seen from where they were living and, as the Lapita made vessels to transport them there, they would have seen more on arrival. Ultimately, planned voyages of expansion would reach as far afield as Hawai'i, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Pitcairn and finally New Zealand.
This book explores the origin and range of cultures throughout the Pacific by examining archaeological, palynological, palaeobotanical and faunal evidence and where appropriate calling upon linguistic and biological co-evidence. (There is some, but little, reference to the molecular genetic analysis of Pacific populations which is increasingly producing powerful new information, much of which backs Kirch's theories based on his archaeological research.) It asks questions about why some cultures built monumental structures, why others degenerated into warfare, and why still others became isolated and excluded from the great grid of trade routes that criss-crossed the ocean. It examines the nature of production and power, considers the pre-European contact demographics of islands and compares the different ecologies and pressures on the different islands, many of which at first glance appear to be very similar. It then puts into context the shaping of different and sometimes distinct cultural differences between these islands without inferring that their must always be an ecological explanation. For me personally, it was most important that the author reiterated throughout that race (human biological variation), language and culture are independent variables (given the sorry history of confusion and subsequent abuse), but he also rightly points out that it has been clear to some anthropologists working in different parts of the world that there is sometimes evidence of some covariance, e.g. in the case of the Polynesians.
This is a large and ambitious work but it was time for such a synthesis. It is a huge task to have brought together all the information and it is greatly aided by over seventy pages of notes and references. However, as the author points out, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge and understanding of Pacific human history and an even larger task remains ahead.