Understanding Pacific peoples and cultures enriches us all.
In an era where globalisation is forcing ever greater cultural homogeneity, the importance of understanding diversity and its roots in history and circumstance is clear.
The Pacific Islands are home to a unique degree of ethnic and cultural diversity. How people reached the Pacific Islands more than three millennia ago, how they survived on islands sometimes thousands of kilometres from continental shores, how they succeeded in crossing the entire Pacific from west to east before people in Europe even knew the Pacific Ocean existed, are all questions that excite ACPIR researchers. The relevance of such research to the future has never been clearer, as we sift through Pacific pasts to enable sustainable Pacific futures.
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.
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.
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