Volume 91 1982 > Volume 91, No. 1 > Correspondence: Polynesian myth and the invention of Melanesia, by Jean Guiart, p 139-144
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- 139
CORRESPONDENCE
A POLYNESIAN MYTH AND THE INVENTION OF MELANESIA

I have been working with Peter Bellwood's recent publications, Man's Conquest of the Pacific and The Polynesians, History of an Island People, and they strike me as still carrying on the old Western idea that Polynesians are different from Melanesians. I should like to voice a word of alarm, as this notion seems to me to have been one of the greater obstacles to the advancement of anthropology in the Pacific. The white man came to the South Pacific area from the east to circumvent the Dutch prohibition on trade voyages coming from the west, designed to keep potential competitors out of Indonesia. The result was that British and French vessels, and later Russian and American, entered the Pacific through Polynesia. In Tahiti they imagined that they had found kings, nobles, commoners, priests and high priests. The quick-witted Tahitians soon found out that it paid to keep the white men happy with having discovered a lost civilisation which could be equated to that of the ancient Scots or the Hebrews of the time of King David. The romantic ideas of westerners about the Polynesian isles went a long way to protect them and free them from the type of brutal colonial administration which Melanesia was to know some decades later: mass murders, land grabbing and forced labour. The Polynesians have thus been party to the building of the legend describing Melanesian islands as peopled by a cruel, savage and black race. The myth was that Polynesians were relatively civilised, and could be easily improved, but that Melanesians were just primitives.

Anthropologists have not been very good at dispelling this fallacy. Most of them did not even notice that about half the Melanesians and New Guineans were as clear complexioned as Polynesians, could be as powerfully built, and showed a society as stratified as any classical Polynesian one. Nevertheless, the myth has held fast that prehistoric civilisation was Polynesian and could only have come through a Polynesian migration.

I was the first to make, in the 1950s, the remark that the fundamental logic of the societies in part of New Caledonia, in the Isle of Pines, and the Loyalty Islands, was not very different from the one on which the Fijian and Tongan societies were built. I added later the description of Efate and the Shepherd Islands, in central Vanuatu, of a system of land and social control very similar to the Samoan matai system. The model on which this system is based, insisting on - 140 collective choice as much as upon inheritance rights, is equally the basis of the mumi system described by Douglas Oliver on Bougainville, clumsily called “big man” from a very early European Pidgin translation. I have found this elective plus economic competition plus clientele system in south central Malekula, where the people claim it antedates the grade hierarchy (namanggi, Sukwe). This grade hierarchy is logically the formalisation of this mumi system, adding to it à hierarchy of bought ranks, from two to nearly thirty, efficiently organising the prestige competition which is one of the dynamic factors of life, as much in Melanesia as in Polynesia. In effect, little-known and little-recognised Melanesian systems of rank are only one or another of the multiple possible logical versions of organisational models of which Polynesia furnishes only some variants. As regards social structure, western Polynesia should be grouped not only with Fiji, but also with eastern Melanesia. They are in many ways the same people.

From this angle, classifying Lapita potters as proto-Polynesians is only a modernised version of the racial superiority theme underlying “the Vikings of the Sunrise”. The Lapita pottery wares are nice looking, even beautiful. So they cannot be Melanesian. I am sorry to say that I could not agree less.

The local tradition on the Island of Pines, south of New Caledonia, as I understood, is that Tongan double canoes came to get Lapita pottery there. Similarly, the inhabitants of the Loyalty Islands, as much in Lifou as in Ouvea, claim to have seen Tongan, Wallis Island, Futunan and Samoan double canoes coming and going over the centuries. Rarotongans came too, but they are said to have drifted and stayed. And there may be indications that there have been links between south New Caledonia as well as central Vanuatu, and New Zealand. If “the Fleet” did not exist, then canoes might have used more extensive knowledge than we are prepared to admit. We happily dwell on Tupaia's extensive information on the world seen from Tahiti. A little later and elsewhere the alliance between Government officials, missionaries 1 and boat captains managed to suppress interisland canoe voyages in a very few years. The expressed idea was humanitarian: canoes could drift at sea and people would get lost. The real reason was economic: to bring Pacific Islanders on board the white man's ship, who would pay for their passage in labour, food, or any other produce of the islands. Thus, nobody bothered to pick up what knowledge there was similar to Tupaia's, and only what was evident remained, because it could not be overlooked, that is the relations from Fiji to Tonga and Samoa. We must now obtain piecemeal what was destroyed often at the beginning of the last century.

The only thing people will agree on is that the outliers have been peopled from West Polynesia. This is only partly true, as one can see the evidence of a Micronesian trait down to central Vanuatu, but these canoe voyages are not the only ones which are brushed away as figments of the imagination. Canoes going from New Zealand could more easily get to New Caledonia and Vanuatu than to Rarotonga, and Tupaia's knowledge of islands west from Tahiti might be explained in this way. One knows today that traditional Pacific navigators worked their way so as to find themselves in the axis of a chain of islands before changing course and looking for the hoped-for landfall. No author recognises the existence of proto-Maori patu types in south New Caledonia, as well as - 141 stonework which parallels some forms created by moa hunters. There is still much to learn.

The Lapita pottery disappears at a certain time. Bellwood explains that Polynesians surely had a reason to forgo the use of boiled food for food cooked in the oven. I have been asking myself the same question for years. Why did the New Caledonians switch from making Lapita-type pottery to the type found at the time of discovery, and to what advantage? Except for normal change and the play of fashion, which seems to have existed everywhere, there is no straight answer if one thinks Lapita pottery was used for boiling food. Has anyone tried cooking food, in water, in a pot made according to Lapita techniques, and as small? I haven't, but have tried a Melanesian way of pottery cooking in central Espiritu Santo, where pots from Wusi on the west coast are traded, some of which are strongly reminiscent of Lapita shapes and decoration. I must say that many Santo pots are only circular bowls used for the making of coconut milk and are not normally put on the fire. Those which are have a wide neck and rim and are used only for cooking titbits, small pieces of meat, fish, shellfish, freshwater shrimp cooked in little water and coconut milk, so as to make a sauce. One dips one's taro tuber, cooked on the side in the oven, into the sauce for each mouthful. The fact is that none of these pots is big enough to cook enough yams or enough taro to feed even a single person.

In New Caledonia the pottery found at time of discovery came in many sizes, oval shaped, and could be used in the same way so as to cook titbits. But the bigger ones could be nearly one metre high and be used to cook yams. They lay on their sides in a sloping position, on the three stones of the hearth, and were closed with a stopper made of banana leaves. Inside, the yams, cut in pieces, cooked in the steam of a small quantity of water, even sea water, but were never made to boil in water. Later the early European iron pots were used in the same way, the heavy lid allowing for maintaining steam for cooking. The slanting position on the fire of the New Caledonian pot allowed the steam to hit the top side of the pot directly and thus was made, through the difference of temperature between the lower side in contact with the fire and the higher, to fall down in drops on the tubers.

If we take this into account, we have a technological advance explaining the changeover from one type of pottery to another. And if Lapita pottery was partly obtained through trade by Western Polynesia, we have a reason to explain its disappearance, Fijian pottery having followed its own specialised evolution. Elsewhere in Melanesia we note the same evolution towards larger pots allowing steam cooking of taro or yam tubers cut in pieces. This cooking in pots cut the time of cooking by two-thirds and was a technological advance allowing an easier life for smaller scale families. The cost of energy was less too, in terms of firewood. The open pit oven was then kept to satisfy the needs of a larger number of people, which happened often enough in the course of a year.

Another result is that large pots, such as those traded in the Hiri trade voyages between south-east New Guinea and the Papuan Gulf, were fragile and could only be transported at great risk in the open sea for the number of weeks of sailing necessary to get to Fiji from the Solomon Islands or from New Caledonia. Archaeologists seem to forget that pots were made by female potters, and not - 142 male, in villages specialising in this trade. These potters would have had to be transported to West Polynesia so as to introduce their trade. As we know, a cultural trait in Melanesia belongs to those who have inherited its use and nobody is allowed to take it away without having authority to do so. Apparently the move to Fiji and Tonga took place before women, and not men, introduced new technology in pottery making and subsequent cooking habits.

At the beginning of the historic period, Melanesians had possibly kept the habits of the Lapita period, such as in Espiritu Santo, due to the survival of the coastal pottery villages of Wusi and Nogugu, but Polynesians had lost pottery, probably because they did not journey as far as before any more, and were in some ways, in cooking techniques, more archaic than the Lapita potters had become, except that they had evolved numerous techniques of cooking in leaf packages or in bamboo, such as are also found in parts of Melanesia, being ports of call for Polynesian canoes (Loyalty Islands, Vanuatu). What everybody seems to forget is that the Lapita potters are still there, in the shape of their descendants, and that some pottery-making villages did not cease their trade over 3000 years at least. It is the case of the Lapita site itself, where local oral tradition states that there were still potters living there when the white man came in.

Another aspect of Lapita pottery is its insertion in ancient trade systems. We would have the passive Melanesian trading with the mobile Polynesians. As far as we know today, this does not fit the picture either. We cannot see through the eyes of Bronislaw Malinowski anymore, who, for the sake of a nicer picture, cut the Kula at both ends and never tells his reader that it goes on further, in the directions of the south-west towards the Motu area, along the north coast of New Guinea and towards the south-east in the direction of Bougainville. Seligman had said it, but is forgotten. The trade system observed and understood for the first time by the Russian Miklucho-Maclay, from the Rai Coast to the island of Bilibil in New Guinea, is known now as covering, in one way or another, not only the coasts, but also the interior of New Guinea, changing as it goes and carrying what valuables were most treasured by each of the trading partners. It seeps through the islands up to New Britain, New Ireland and the Admiralty Islands, building in each cultural area a sub-system of its own. Going east, it could be shown, from place to place, that the Melanesian trade system never stops and that it finishes only in the Island of Pines, at least as far as we know. South and central Vanuatu were linked with the Loyalty Islands and New Caledonia, and north Vanuatu with the south-east Solomons and even Tikopia. Evidently, Polynesian outliers played a role, being important joints in the grid, but only a partial role.

We need to know more about the grid of formalised exchanges between inherited partners which covered New Guinea and Melanesia. But its coastal and smaller island aspects bring forward the question of who invented double canoes. For a long time Polynesians had been said to be the inventors of this wonderful machine. It appears that ideas have changed and that the difference is not between primitive Melanesians using single hull outrigger canoes and developed Polynesians coming in with double canoes, but between two different techniques of navigation, so as to go against the wind, tacking or reversing direction. The lakatoi of the Motu speaking people of south-east New Guinea are multi-hulled sailing canoes, having from five hulls in the forward voyage to the other side of - 143 the Papuan Gulf carrying empty pots, to more than 20 on the return journey, full of up to 30 tons of parcels of sago.

One cannot say, then, that multi-hulled navigation is a Polynesian invention, or that the only people capable of long-term navigation were the most clear skinned and the most easterly. The Pacific Ocean can be very rough between the different chains of islands, currents between islands can be strong, and in Melanesia there were the technical capacities to go afar, even inside the Coral Sea. What is certain is that small island dwellers would have been greater seafarers than strongly entrenched people in the valleys around the coast, but this is a normal case among the general pattern of specialisation. The double canoes in New Caledonia went easily to the Loyalty Islands and up to central Vanuatu. They might have gone further. Who knows?

We now begin to see that the Lapita people produced not only decorated pottery vessels, but also three-dimensional representations of human or animal life. What has been discovered up to now is very close to the volcanic tuff or chalk pieces which were collected in early years and were the symbols of the initiation in the Iniet ritual among the Tolai of northern New Britain. Material ethnography being much more conservative than social structure, the Pacific Islands societies have kept up to now, as family heirlooms or under some other guise, pieces of their archaeological past. When the archaeological grid of digs has come closer and covered inland sites as well as coastal ones, we will know much more than today, when there are too many question marks.

The fact is that this trade system played on a two-gear mechanism. It went crisscrossing the larger islands but slowly, and appears more complex and swifter along the coasts and between the coasts and the smaller islands. In the same way as seafarers and small island dwellers off the coast of larger islands built the Fijian principalities, as we know them from the first half of the last century, their colleagues elsewhere have played the role of carriers of cultural traits and of symbolic systems. From this point of view, Lapita potters are the ancestors of these people, not of Polynesians as such, and they are only an aspect of a culturally very diversified Melanesia. A fraction of these traditional traders, masters in the art of canoe building, ventured further to the east, carrying with them only a portion of the potential genes existing in the Melanesian arc of islands. They took with them in the same way part of the original stock of cultural traits and thus specialised in physical appearance, and also culturally and linguistically. Distances this time allowed for less frequent relations, and less possibility of completing the stock of genes. Contrary to what the Western world has wanted to believe for two centuries, because it justified its colonial policies in Melanesia, Polynesia is only a specialised extension of the total complex of South Pacific peoples. The differences which put the latter aside are really a justification of the general unity of Oceanic peoples. If Polynesia exists, more or less, the truth is that Melanesia never existed. It has been invented by the white man to suit his own needs. The reality is that the South Pacific is one and that Polynesia is, and has always been, part of it.

- 144 Page of endnotes

1   Early Protestant and Catholic missions were linked by force with shipping interests. They could not do otherwise. Even mission ships had to try and recoup part of their expenses.