Pacific Origins: Links

 Keith Rankin's Thursday Column

 Voyagers and Villagers

 13 July 2000

When crises of democracy such as those in Fiji and the Solomon Islands take place, I can do nothing other than try to understand the historical forces that are at work. I put on my macro economic-historian hat (as distinct from my macroeconomic historian hat), and like to delve a bit further into the past than most commentators do.

These two conflicts are being played out on a multi-millennial time scale.

The situation in Fiji has some important similarities with those in the south-west Philippines and Sri Lanka that I wrote about in May (Jolo and Jaffna). In each case there is a historical nation that is unified by a passage of sea, and sharing a large mountainous island with a separate people.

Outsiders looking at a map of Fiji tend to see an island - Viti Levu - surrounded by smaller islands, one of which - Vanua Levu - is quite large. The alternative view is to see a sea - the Koro Sea - surrounded by many islands. The Koro Sea connects the politically dominant divisions and confederacies of Fiji (Central and North Divisions, Lau Confederacy). The eastern side of Viti Levu, which includes the capital, Suva, is in the Central Division. (The capital of 'Old Fiji' was actually the Koro Sea island of Lavuka.) The disconnected region is the economically important Western Division, which includes the international airport and most of the resorts frequented by western tourists.

Fiji represents the geographical boundary of the old ethnic classifications of Melanesia and Polynesia. The indigenous people of western Viti Levu are ethnically like the people of Vanuatu, whereas the people of Lau are much more like those of Tonga. There is evidence that the Polynesians of Eastern Fiji are closer genetically to the Indo-Fijians than to the people of predominantly Papuan (ancient Melanesian) ancestry of Western Fiji.

If we see thus see the Fijian problem as one in which the "real" Fijians (who live around the Koro Sea rim) are outnumbered by a coalition of outsiders (Indo-Fijians and West Fijians) with commercial nous, then recent events become more understandable.

In history, we can broadly class the world's peoples into three economic groups: voyagers (generally warrior peoples including for example the Tatars, Mongols, Tutsi and Masai who roamed the steppes of Asia and Africa rather than the seas), independent villagers, and subject peoples (who paid rent to overlords of voyager ancestry). Fiji was a perfect habitat for voyagers who could live in large part by extracting rent from subject cultivators. The larger islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu had more potential to generate rental income than did the smaller islands of eastern Polynesia.

It is now generally accepted by anthropologists that 'Melanesia' is a misleading ethnic construct. Island Melanesia is in fact a bridge between New Guinea and Polynesia. Melanesia, however, remains a useful cultural concept. Melanesia's village culture juxtaposes Polynesia's expansive voyaging culture.

4000 years ago there was no Polynesia. But there was Austronesia that encompassed the archipelagos of Southeast Asia. And there was Old Melanesia, populated by Papuan 'village people' who had settled the Bismark and neighbouring Solomon Islands archipelagos many thousands of years earlier, mainly during periods of ice age when sea levels were lower. The islands were closer to each other then. Rising sea levels meant that these village people became increasingly isolated from each other.

At least two branches of the Austronesian (otherwise known as Malayo-Polynesian) population were voyagers, however. The eastern branch came to be known, through their pottery, as "proto-Lapita". The oldest proto-Lapita pottery found so far is from Taiwan. There are linguistic links between the Philippines, Taiwan and Fujien, the province of mainland China opposite Taiwan. (Fujien sounds remarkably like Fiji!) Proto-Lapita became Lapita when, after voyaging south, they reached the coast of New Guinea.

My interpretation of the Lapita story is as follows. I take the view that a voyaging people will always intrude upon a village people; rarely if ever will the reverse occur. The Lapita Hawaiki is possibly the island of Cebu, the central island of the Visayan (sometimes spelt 'Bisayan') maritime nation in the central Philippines.

The Visayan people have, in the 20th century, become the ultimate modern day voyagers. These are the people who, more than any others, crew the tankers, container ships and tramp ships that represent the sine qua non of modern international trade.

Proto-Lapita first voyaged north, in the millennia before 2000BC. By 2000BC, a proto-Lapita empire centred on Cebu would have reached to China, across the Sulu Sea to Borneo, and south to the Moluccan Islands of Eastern Indonesia.

The first contact between Papua and Lapita was in West Papua, to the immediate southeast of Halmahera. (Halmahera and West Papua are both major flashpoints today as the modern Indonesian empire verges on disintegration.) However, the clash with Old Melanesia that defines the classical Lapita period took place on the beaches of the Bismark archipelago (to the northeast of New Guinea, to the west of the Solomon Islands) at around 1500BC.

As usually happens when a group of voyagers successfully intrudes into a village society, the intruders will have become overlords. The hegemony of the Lapita in the Bismark region will have created a subject people, some of whom probably became slaves.

The Lapita, from their Bismark base, traded obsidian and other items throughout their empire. Soon though, a group of Lapita voyaged further to the east. Much further. By 1000BC they had settled in Fiji (and, soon after, Tonga and Samoa), with only one major staging post, the Santa Cruz Islands that are a part of the nation we call the Solomon Islands but are outside of the Solomons archipelago. From Santa Cruz they split. Some, instead of sailing east, voyaged south, to Vanuatu, and on to New Caledonia.

(In the meantime, back in the Philippines, the western Sulu-based people gained hegemony over what is now Northern Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, including the Visayas. Western Austronesian language forms replaced the proto-Lapita eastern variants throughout the Philippines. The Sulu mariners voyaged on to Palau, Guam and the Marianas at about the same time that the Lapita reached Fiji. 1000 years later, around 0AD, a group of western Malayo-Polynesians voyaged to Madagascar and made contact with southern Africa. Perhaps 500 years later [c.500AD] the descendants of the Lapita must have made contact with South America. In another 500 years, the settlement of New Zealand became the Lapita equivalent of the settlement of Madagascar.)

The emergent Lapita nation had four divisions: far western, western, eastern and southern. By 0AD the Lapita nation had become 'Island Melanesia' and 'Polynesia'. Ethnically, the Polynesians retained their Southeast Asian identity, picking up little more than an anti-malaria gene from the Papuans. The other parts of the Lapita "cultural complex" became much more mixed-blood, while retaining Austronesian language and culture. The economic contact between West Fiji and the other Lapita divisions ensured a much greater Papuan genetic presence in Lapita Fiji than in Lapita Tonga and Lapita Samoa.

A mercantile culture must have developed in the west of Fiji, while a predatory warlord/landlord culture predominated in the Koro Sea. Old Fiji must have had a number of Te Rauparaha-like warlords in its 2000 years of post-Lapita history, creaming the wealth of the Western Division. The Koro Sea was so feared by Europeans in the 18th century that Captain Bligh, having been kicked off the Bounty near Tahiti, deliberately avoided Fiji on his long longboat voyage to Timor and safety.

Fiji today is 21st century Lapita, the descendants of the first globalising people. It retains the same socio-ethnic tensions that would have arisen on those first fateful encounters between Austronesian voyagers and Papuan villagers 3,500 years ago.

How does Fiji differ from the Solomon Islands? The Solomon archipelago was largely 'leap-frogged' by the Lapita intruders. I guess that means the Lapita voyagers faced effective resistance. While the Solomons became an integral part of the Lapita economic and cultural complex that emerged, the Solomons' people themselves remained villagers. The sea passages that connected the Solomons in the eyes of the recent British, French and German intruders - the New Georgia Sound and Independence Strait - were dividers rather than connectors to the Island Melanesians who lived there.

The commercially minded Malaitan people however seem very similar to the West Fijians. They probably played a central role in facilitating Lapita-era trade. Living on an island lacking cultivable land, the Malaitans were more able and willing to build a nation around those sea passages. Honiara, on the eastern (Malaitan) side of Guadalcanal (and on Ironbottom Sound on the west of the Independence Strait), became a kind of western outpost of Malaita. The Guadalcanal villagers are resisting the Malaitan intrusion, exactly as they resisted the Lapita intrusion 3,000 years earlier.

In Fiji, the ingrained warrior-cum-ruler culture of the Koro Sea may never allow itself to become subject to the combined voting power of the villager descendants of slaves, servants and indentured labourers. Yet the Fijian generosity and economic inclusiveness, perhaps a Lapita cultural legacy, should lead to a rapid healing of the wounds (and another two constitutions!). The Solomon Islands on the other hand, lacking that history of constructive voyager-villager interaction, face a more uncertain road into the future.

published on Scoop at

Pacific Origins: Links

DNA questions Pacific origins, NZ Herald, 19 July 2000

Philippines Prehistory;   Philippines Prehistory Page;   Timeline

Austronesian Navigation and Migration

Austric Influence in India

The Lapita Peoples: Ancestors of the Oceanic World, by Patrick Vinton Kirch

The spread of the 'Lapita people': a demographic simulation, Anne Di Piazza and Erik Pearthree (Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation vol. 2, no. 3; 1999)

Sundaland and the Ice Age Aftermath

The legend of Lemuria and sunken Sundaland

Eden in the East : The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia, by Stephen Oppenheimer

Ice Age Timeline

© 2000   Keith Rankin

Thursday Column 1999-2002 archive

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