Peoples and cultures | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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People and cultures

People and cultures

Understanding diversity and its roots in Pacific Islands' history is essential for understanding and addressing current and future challenges for Pacific peoples and cultures. ACPIR researchers are engaged in unravelling historical complexities, including settlement patterns over three millennia ago and the navigation challenges confronted by ancient Pacific Islanders. Our research delves into the Pacific's past and present, considering not only the physical aspects but also the cultural belief and local knowledge systems that shaped communities. It holds significant relevance as we explore the Pacific's past to inform sustainable futures, emphasising historical insights in shaping the region's resilience and sustainability.

Ha'amonga 'a Maui - Tonga stone trilithon

Research projects

Tribes and customs are celebrated at the Hagen Show, Mt Hagen, Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea.

Project team: Dr Barnaby Dixson (Project Leader), Dr Georgia Kafer and Ms Maddison Garner

Funding: Supported by the ACPIR Summer Research Scholarship program


Forsyth, M., Losoncz, I., Gibbs, P., Hukula, F. and Kipongi, W. 2021. Sorcery Accusation-Related Violence in PNG Part 7: The Harm of SARV, In Brief 2021/7, Department of Public Affairs.

Understanding the role of diviners and traditional healers in witchcraft and sorcery accusations in the Pacific

With the United Nations Human Rights Council resolving to eliminate harmful practices related to witchcraft accusation and ritual attack, UniSC researchers seek to understand the role diviners and traditional healers play in witchcraft and sorcery accusations in Papua New Guinea (PNG). A multi-year study by researchers from the Australian National University and the PNG National Research Institute documents 298 incidents of violence across four provinces of PNG between 2016 and 2020, involving 546 victims. Despite ongoing eradication attempts by the PNG Government, sorcery accusation related violence remains prevalent.

While diviners known as glasman/glasmeri are frequently reported to contribute to sorcery accusations in PNG, there is limited empirical research on the phenomenon. This project involves conducting a scoping review to assess the available literature concerning the involvement of diviners and traditional healers in witchcraft and sorcery accusations throughout the Pacific. The project analyses a dataset collected by researchers from the Australian National University and the PNG National Research Institute to understand the role of glasman/glasmeri in sorcery accusations within PNG.


Football in Oceania: An investigation of football (soccer) communities positioned outside the sport’s mainstream culture


This project combines creative writing, sports heritage and community engagement practices to uncover and acknowledge histories related to two marginalised football communities in Australasia and the Pacific Islands. The project is the first to gather evidence, document, review, map and analyse overlapping fields within critical football studies related to: women’s football (soccer) in Oceania; and Beach Soccer communities in the Pacific Islands.

The project team negotiated appropriate strategies for enabling collaboration with Indigenous and Pacific Island communities and best practice approaches for community engagement. Through exploring archival research and conducting interviews with OFC Oceania Nations Cup 2022 tournament participants from American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga, and Vanuatu, the team aimed to develop new histories of women’s football and build better understanding of challenges and issues affecting marginalised football communities in the Pacific Islands. This research has led to publication of the first edition of the book Women’s Soccer in Oceania (2023).

Womens Football, credit: Kirk Corrie, Ridiqiulas Photography.
Credit: Kirk Corrie, Ridiqiulas Photography.

Project team: McGowan, L., Symons, K., Kanemasu, Y., Ellison, L. and Evans, E.

Funding: ACPIR, UniSC $4,800.

Reference: McGowan, L., Symons, K. and Kanemasu, Y. (2023) Women’s Soccer in Oceania Routledge: London.

Fijian people run to get shelter during a Tropical Cyclone
Residents run to shelter from a Tropical Cyclone in Fiji.

Authors: Professor Patrick Nunn and Roselyn Kumar

Reference: Scott-Parker, B. and Kumar, R., 2018. Fijian adolescents' understanding and evaluation of climate change: implications for enabling effective future adaptation. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 59(1): 47-59.

Culture and ecoanxiety

Many people in every part of the world are feeling increasing anxiety about the likely future impacts of climate change. An interesting research question, which can be answered by psychologists and cultural experts working together, is whether the same type and degree of ecoanxiety is experienced by individuals who are part of communal societies (as in most parts of the Pacific Islands region) compared to those living in smaller more nucleated contexts (as in most western societies).

Funding from the British Academy in 2021 has enabled researchers from the University of Nottingham (UK), the University of New England (Australia), the University of the Sunshine Coast (Australia – Patrick Nunn, Karina Rune, Roselyn Kumar), the University of the South Pacific, and Solomon Islands National University to collaborate to carry out such a study. In addition to a sample of adults, we expect to interview around 1000 adolescents in the Pacific to understand how they feel about climate change – and the degree to which personal anxiety might be buffered by communalism. This work builds on a preliminary study by Bridie Scott-Parker and Roselyn Kumar in 2016.

Cultural coping with climate change

In global forums, the voices of Pacific Island leaders are loud in explaining their nations’ vulnerability to climate change and the associated need for massive injections of funding to help them adapt. Yet in rural communities, a different narrative is common – one that frames climate change within people’s cultural-spiritual worldviews and often gives them the self-belief to act autonomously to adapt.

This project looked at communities on Ono, a remote island in southern Fiji that has been  affected by both sea-level rise and cyclones of apparently unprecedented severity in the past decade. We found that people on Ono exhibit “flexible attribution” of observed environmental changes, something involving their interpretation as both having a natural and a spiritual cause. This allows Ono communities to adapt effectively.

Interviewing in Narikoso Village, Ono Island, Fiji in July 2019.

Authors: Jalasayi Atkinson-Nolte, Professor Patrick Nunn, Dr Prudence Millear

Reference: Atkinson-Nolte, J., Nunn, P.D. and Millear, P. 2021. Influence of spiritual beliefs on autonomous climate-change adaptation: a case study from Ono Island, southern Fiji. In: Luetz, J.M. and Nunn, P.D. (eds). Beyond Belief: Opportunities for Faith-Engaged Approaches to Climate-Change Adaptation in the Pacific Islands. Cham: Springer Nature, 247-266.

Authors: Roselyn Kumar, Professor Patrick Nunn and Elia Nakoro

Reference: Kumar, R., Nunn, P.D. and Nakoro, E. 2021. Identifying 3000-year old human interaction spheres in central Fiji through Lapita ceramic sand-temper analyses. Geosciences, 11: 238.

3000-year old trade network revealed by ceramic mineralogy

The first people who lived in island groups like Fiji settled in various places and traded with communities elsewhere. By analysing the pottery they made, we can reconstruct some of these 3000-year old trading networks. Wherever the pottery was made, local sands (with a characteristic mineral composition) were used as temper. If the pot was then traded and moved elsewhere, we can reconstruct that journey by analysing its mineral composition.

Research at the Lapita settlement of Naitabale on Moturiki Island in Fiji involved the mineralogical analyses of 45 potsherds, of which 71% were made locally and the rest imported from the main island of Viti Levu (11%), the Lau group of eastern Fiji (11%) and the Kadavu Islands in southern Fiji (7%) where no independent discovery of early Lapita pottery has been made. Yet, thanks to this research, we know it exists there somewhere.

Volcano stories

In pre-literate societies, information is retained and communicated orally across the generations. In many cases from the Pacific Islands, details in such ‘myths’ have helped geoscientists understand the precise nature and effects of past catastrophic events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis, and even the abrupt disappearance of entire islands.

For example, in the southern Fiji Islands, the volcano known as Nabukelevu (or Mt Washington) last erupted about 2,200 years ago. Today, people in the volcano's surrounding communities can tell you stories about what happened during this eruption - how the god named Tanovo, furious because the growth of the volcano had obscured his view of the setting sun, fought Tautaumolau, the god of Nabukelevu. Their fighting caused soil, ash and rocks to fall to the ground. Elsewhere the earth shook as one god threw his spear at his rival, missing but causing a hole in the rock that can be seen today. When you scrape away the layers of embellishment – needed to make such stories memorable in oral traditions – it is clear that there are empirical cores to such stories that make them worthy of research.

Author: Professor Patrick Nunn, Loredana Lancini, Taniela Bolea


Nunn, P.D., Lancini, L., Franks, L., Compatangelo-Soussignan, R. and McCallum, A. 2019. Maar stories: how oral traditions aid understanding of maar volcanism and associated phenomena during pre-literate times. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 109(5): 1618-1631.

Author: Professor Patrick Nunn, Roselyn Kumar

Nunn, P.D., Nakoro, E., Tokainavatu, N., McKeown, M., Geraghty, P., Thomas, F.R., Martin, P., Hourigan, B. and Kumar, R. 2019. A Koronivalu kei Bua: Hillforts in Bua Province (Fiji), their chronology, associations and potential significance. Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology. DOI:10.1080/15564894.2019.1582119

Fiji’s Ancient Hill forts

Throughout Pacific islands, often on the highest peaks, are remains of hill forts that were mostly established around AD 1400 and abandoned about the time of colonisation in the mid-nineteenth century. While most researchers agree that the establishment of hill forts marked a shift from coastal to inland/upland settlements and a concomitant shift from peace to conflict, there is no clear agreement on the cause(s) of this conflict. Thanks to the generosity of the New Colombo Plan mobility grants, Patrick Nunn has led teams of USC students to Fiji since 2015 to work alongside Fiji Museum personnel to better understand Fiji’s ancient hill forts.

Known in Fiji as koronivalu, ancient hill forts have been studied recently in Bua and Kadavu districts. The highest and largest mapped to date is that of Seseleka (western Bua), the steep-sided summit, 420 metres above sea level, is the size of a football field and contains the remains of house foundations (yavu), lookout posts (valeniyadra) and artificial ponds (toevu). Radiocarbon ages of edible shell remains and pond muds suggest the Seseleka site was occupied by AD 1670. Oral traditions complement scientific details.