FW: Book Review - On the Road of the Winds
FW: Book Review - On the Road of the Winds
From: Danny Yee [mailto:danny@...]
Sent: Wednesday, August 02, 2000 10:30 AM
Subject: Book Review - On the Road of the Winds
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TITLE: On the Road of the Winds
- An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Conquest
AUTHOR: Patrick Vinton Kirch
PUBLISHER: University of California Press 2000
OTHER: 422 pages, halftones, notes, bibliography, index
_On the Road of the Winds_ is a history of the Pacific islands that
combines a "big picture" overview (invoking Braudel and the _longue
durée_) with a feel for the "dirt" of actual excavations. It is both
a historical synthesis and, in so far as is possible in the space,
an archaeological survey. Kirch integrates the diachronic evidence of
archaeology with the synchronic evidence of linguistics, ethnography,
and biology to describe the human settlement of the Pacific and its
history down to European conquest. And along the way he summarises the
archaeological record, with details from key excavations.
Kirch writes for specialists (he merrily switches, for example, between
BC/AD and calibrated and uncalibrated radiocarbon BP dates), but for such
a broad range of specialists that the informed lay reader won't miss
much -- and unwanted detail about excavations and artifacts is easily
glanced over. With an effective selection of halftones, figures, and maps
complementing clear and incisive prose, in elegant and attractive physical
packaging, _On the Road of the Winds_ is an all-round outstanding volume.
Pacific archaeology has an intriguing history of its own, from voyages
of exploration and missionaries to modern academic research and cultural
resource management. Earlier thinking was bedeviled by now antiquated
racial typologies and a stress on the ethnographic present that in some
cases amounted to outright denial of history and time-depth. The power of
archaeology to uncover depth in Pacific prehistory is now unquestioned,
but much remains unknown and work in Melanesia and New Guinea is really
The Pacific islands are a unique and diverse environment, offering
unique challenges to human settlement. In twenty pages Kirch gives
a rapid overview of the geological origins and development of the
different islands (island-arc islands, high islands, atolls, and
_makatea_ islands), their climate (especially rainfall variation), their
biogeography and ecosystems, and the considerable impacts of indigenous
Pacific peoples on the latter. He also touches on the often neglected
microbiotic world, explaining how "the concentration and persistence of
disease-causing microorganisms in Near Oceania had serious consequences
for long-term human history" (with Remote Oceania in comparison relatively
Human settlement of Sahul (Australia and New Guinea, joined when sea
levels were lower) in the Pleistocene almost certainly involved repeated,
purposeful water crossings of some distance. It is perhaps no surprise,
therefore, that people had crossed the Vitiaz Strait to the Bismarck
and Solomon Islands by 35 000 years ago; scattered evidence reveals
tantalising glimpses of their lives. The early Holocene saw changes
in settlement and foraging patterns: in the New Guinea Highlands there
is evidence for very early agriculture, while the lowlands and islands
saw innovations in arboriculture and shell-working. Malaria may have
played a key role in limiting population growth in the region.
One of the central events of Pacific history (and one of the great human
migrations) is the spread of Austronesian speaking peoples from Taiwan.
Some groups travelled along the north cost of New Guinea and interacted,
starting around 1500 BC, with the indigenous occupants of the Bismarcks
to create the Lapita cultural complex. Around 1200 BC this jumped
across the gap between the southeast extremity of the Solomons and the
Santa Cruz islands, then rapidly expanded, reaching to Fiji, Tonga, and
Samoa by around 1000 BC. This reconstruction rests on a combination of
ethnographic, linguistic, and biological evidence.
Post-Lapita, the New Guinea Highlands saw increasing populations,
especially with the introduction of sweet potato by the 17th century.
Patchy excavations across the islands between coastal New Guinea and
Fiji leave it unclear to what extent these were linked, but there is
evidence for increasing economic specialisation, with trading networks in
the Massim and coastal New Guinea and islands specialising in ceramics.
There is also evidence for concentration of chiefly power (notably the
burial site of Roy Mata in Vanuatu) and for agricultural intensification
(with terraced, canal-fed irrigation systems on several islands).
Disruptive volcanic events may have played a significant role in some
Micronesia was settled from several directions: the Marianas and Palau
were settled by Western Malayo-Polynesian speakers, probably from the
Philippines; the Caroline, Marshall, and Kiribati archipelagoes were
settled by speakers of the Nuclear Melanesian branch of Proto-Oceanic,
probably from the Solomons or Vanuatu; Yap is something of an anomaly,
possibly reached directly from the Bismarcks in the second millenium
BC; and then there are Polynesian Outliers such as Kapingamarangi.
Kirch surveys the archaeological record of the region, covering the
Caroline high islands, limestone columns in the Marianas, terraces on
Palau, the Yapese "empire", and so on.
Culturally and linguistically "monophyletic", Polynesia is a unique
opportunity for studying cultural and linguistic change. Historical
linguistics and ethnography provide a fairly clear picture of Polynesian
origins and dispersals, starting with the Ancestral Polynesian region
around Tonga and Samoa and then expanding first to the Society and
Marquesas islands and thence to Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand.
Many of the details are still debated: the exact sequence and timing of
settlements in Eastern Polynesia, the nature of Polynesian exploration and
voyaging, and whether there was a "long pause" between the initial Lapita
occupation of Western Polynesia and expansion eastwards. Kirch outlines
the archaeological sequences in Western Polynesia and the earliest
settlements in Eastern Polynesia, with details from key excavations.
A second chapter on Polynesia looks at its subsequent history, at the
evolution of chiefdoms. Here Kirch uses a Traditional/Open/Stratified
typology, but only heuristically -- he argues that there was no
"standard progression" and that the various islands "are best seen
as a series of sometimes parallel or convergent, sometimes divergent,
historical trajectories, all ultimately springing from the common basis
of Ancestral Polynesia Culture". He presents case studies from Mangaia,
the Marquesas, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), New Zealand, Tahiti and the
Society Islands, and Hawaii, illustrating "the contexts, constraints,
and processes" behind sociopolitical transformation.
The final chapter of _On the Road of the Winds_ looks at "big structures
and large processes" in Oceanic prehistory: correlations between language,
biology, and culture; the role of demographic change and controversies
about pre-colonial populations; the environmental impact of human
settlement; the political economy of changing landscapes; intensification
and economic specialization; and transformations of status and power.
%T On the Road of the Winds
%S An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Conquest
%A Kirch, Patrick Vinton
%I University of California Press
%O hardcover, halftones, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0-520-22347-0
%K archaeology, Oceania
2 August 2000
Copyright (c) 2000 Danny Yee <editor@...>
Danny Yee's Book Reviews http://dannyreviews.com/
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