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Oceanic archaeology

Professor Patrick KirchProfessor Patrick Kirch

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and I'm here today with Professor Patrick Kirch from the University of California in Berkeley. Thanks for joining me, Patrick.

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

Oh, my pleasure.

Matt Smith:

You're an archaeologist but you specialize in oceanic archaeology. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

Yeah. That's the archaeology and pre-history of the Pacific islands. And I have worked over quite a few decades now from Hawaii down to French Polynesia and westward, as far as Papua New Guinea, on various different projects.

Matt Smith:

Did you get into that because you were born and raised in Hawaii. Is that right?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

That's true. My father was an orchid grower in Hawaii and I was raised there. And early on, I got fascinated by the Hawaiian-Polynesian culture, had some native Hawaiian friends. As a teenager, had a chance to get involved with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, which is a famous centre for research and archaeology. I kind of got an early start in this line of work.

Matt Smith:

And what sort of things have you noticed while doing oceanic archaeology?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

Well, I've done a number of different kinds of things. One, of course, has been trying to figure out where the Polynesians and other Pacific people came from, how they moved across the Pacific, what times, and then so on.

A lot of that work I did in the 1980s, actually with Prof. Jim Allen. So that was one stage in my career, working on the Lapita culture, as we call the early Pacific people in the first millennium BC who migrated out from Asia and interacted with people in the Papua area. Some of them moved on and settled the islands of Polynesia.

More recently, I have been working on a different line of research which is trying to understand how Pacific people interact with their island environments, and understanding how they modified ecosystems in the process had to adapt and change their cultures to the new kinds of environments they created. It's what I call human eco-dynamics.

Matt Smith:

Can you trace the movement of the Polynesian people?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

Yes, I think we've made big advances in the understanding, in the general sense, the movements of the people into and across the Pacific. We know that the process was generally from west to east, to the old theories of tow hair or about American Indians in the Pacific don't really hold up. Although it's clear that Polynesians got to South America. They made contact and brought sweet potato back.

Matt Smith:

Really?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

Yeah, that's an interesting discovery. But generally, the movements were from west to east in the area of course north of Australia and Papua New Guinea and the islands of the Solomons. People have been there, we know now, for at least 36,000 years. So that's the area which has a really deep time depth, long history. The Polynesia islands are kind of the late end of the sequence, with the Tonga-Samoa area being first settled about 1,000 BC. And then the most remote islands like Easter Island and Hawaii that actually didn't get settled probably AD 800 to 1000.

Matt Smith:

What things do these islands have in common? Have you noticed they have a lot in common with their culture?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

Many of them share a common ancestry, so things like they're agriculture-based. For example, the kinds of root crops they domesticated and carried out. And things like the use of earth oven in cooking were examples that come to mind. Other aspects of their culture like their social organizations, the kinds of lineage systems. But of course, as each subgroup put off and found a new island and settled it, cultures change and evolve. And so while there are a lot of commonalities that are owed to shared inheritance or ancestry, there are also innovations that occur so you get all this diversity that develops across the Pacific out of an original common ancestry. There are common relationships that we can see, but each culture has its own unique aspects as well.

Matt Smith:

You said the way that they interact with the ecology of the island. Have different islanders been doing things that changed the way the island ecosystems work?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

Right, well this is one of the things that fascinate me, especially in the islands of Polynesia which have a little bit shorter history which make it easier to try to understand human-environment interactions. Before the Polynesians discovered and settled those islands, they were completely pristine ecosystems and remote. I mean the only vertebrates that got out there on the land were basically birds.

So you really have this really quite unique, kind of natural biodiversity and so on. People come in, and of course the Polynesians were agriculturalists so they needed to clear land for their gardens. They used the birds for food sources. They exported fish and so on. So they began immediately to change the natural makeup of these ecosystems.

They did things that were very productive for them, like extensive gardens and irrigated fields. On the other hand from the point of view of the natural ecology, some of the actions were detrimental, reducing biodiversity and so on.

I don't want to imply that the Polynesians were intentionally destroying the ecosystem, but humans everywhere change environments as we live in them and interact with them. And a lot of these Polynesian islands built up large populations, high density levels. So we can kind of look at what happened in islands over, say, 500 to 1,000 years as a kind of model for what happens when people both have large population increases and developed intensive productions systems, and how does that change the natural environment.

One of the things that happen, for example, is sometimes, natural resources declines into quite a serious point. And so people have to adapt to that and produce the means of making a living.

Matt Smith:

What you said earlier about the sweet potato, ca you explain that a bit more? So Polynesians and people from the Pacific went to South America and brought sweet potato back.

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

That's what we think. We know that the sweet potato was domesticated in South America quite early on. And we know that the sweet potato was in Polynesia in 5000 AD. I actually dug up pieces of carbonized sweet potato from Horace in the Cook Islands back in the late '80s. So we have that fact to establish. Of course, the question is who did it? It's hard to know definitively but the Polynesians have these big double-hulled voyaging canoes and we know that they were going across the Pacific all the way out to the Easter Island. So it's very logical that they continued on exploring, hit the coast of South America., which they found are already populated by a completely different people and who were not very receptive to have the Polynesians suddenly take over their land.

So the Polynesians probably said, "To heck with this. We're going to go back to our nice islands." But they need to stock up their canoes with food supplies for another months-or-so voyage. And it would be logical they would interact or, say, trading with coastal people in what is now Chile or Peru. They would pick up on the sweet potato because it very much like their tropical yams and other root crops. They would understand that. If some South Americans showed them maize kernels, they wouldn't know what to do with them because they were not seed cultivators. They were root crop cultivators.

Matt Smith:

They were studying cultures before they had western interaction, really? How far down do you have to dig, metaphorically? How much do you have to get through before you get to that stage?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

Well, modern archaeology has become a very complicated business and we do a lot of collaboration with natural scientists. It's really become a kind of multi-disciplinary endeavour. So my current work on trying to understand human-environment interactions, I work with ecologists and soil scientists and experts in the identification of these bird bones that we dig up and the fish remains and all of this stuff. As archaeologists, we know how to find the physical remains and excavate carefully and date them and so on. But we need to interact with other scientists to put the big picture together.

Matt Smith:

What about just within archaeologists, do you have for example, war historians because I imagine there would be a lot of war relics out there from World War II?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

There are. That's a whole another kind of specialty in archaeology. It's what we call historical archaeology. And that's not my particular field but there is certainly a lot of work going on, especially World War II remains and so on. I am more interested in the period before Europeans got to the islands.

Matt Smith:

But I assume you'd get them in the same dig sites usually.

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

Sometimes, you do. Sometimes, you do. We were on island that was heavily impacted by the war then sure. That will happen. I tended to avoid those places. I don't want to run into unexploded bombs in my site.

Matt Smith:

So how much interactions did the islands have between each other? Have you found any evidence of that, of trade going on, of maybe marrying between cultures?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

We have, and that also varies over the Pacific. So in some parts of the Pacific, there were quite complex and regular interactions between the islands. There were very elaborate trade systems for example, in the area off the coast of Papua New Guinea and the area that we call the Trobriand Islands, a very famous network of elaborate trade in shell money and beads and also in food stuffs and all sorts of things. And that apparently can be traced back a long time back into pre-history. At the other end, very remote Polynesian islands, because they are so separated, the distances are very long, some of those have essentially completely isolated. After discovery, Hawaii was apparently out of touch with any other island for about 500 years before Capt. Cook got there.

Matt Smith:

The interaction with white society at that point, that would have changed the island totally, wouldn't it?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

When Europeans arrived in the Pacific, the interactions were, of course, often catastrophic. The introduction of disease, for example, because Polynesians and other Pacific islanders, for the most part, have no resistance against Old World disease; those diseases have evolved in Europe and they were resistant to them, the Europeans were. Just simple things like influenza, for example, but also smallpox and of course, STDs or sexually transmitted diseases and everything else. So there were major population declines on many of these islands often just devastating, within a few decades after contact.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that, in a way some of these islands would be better off today, ecologically speaking, if they were functioning as they were before?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

Well, there are lessons I think that we can learn from some of their ecology. Certainly, some of the agricultural systems and conservation practices in these islands, I think, were very clever or very innovative adaptations, very intensive kinds of fields and farming systems and irrigation systems. And I think there are some lessons to be learned there for sustainability and green farming, that sort of thing.

On the other hand, you can't go back ort you can't rewrite history. We live in a modern global world and none of the Pacific islanders I know want to be cut off from the world and go back to living completely in grass houses and wearing bark cloth. They want to have the Internet and all of that, too.

So I think we got to take the best of the past that we can but we live in the modern world.

Matt Smith:

How much archaeological evidence is there, of like a grass hut? What would you find in an archaeological site?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

In the tropics, we are mostly working in the tropics here, it's difficult for example, for a so-called grass hut or a thatched house. The post, the wooden post, when people put them in and they dig holes - we call them post holes - and even though the post may rot, the impression of the post is usually preserved. So a good archaeologist knows how to excavate, can usually find the perimeter or the outline of where a house was. Then for example, you find the hearth or the fireplace within that, the paving stones and the various tools and the detritus that people drop around the houses.

So all that builds up a picture of life, say, within and outside that house. Storage pits, for example. Sometimes, they would bury their dead under house floors. So even though the thatch or the wooden poles and so on may be gone, there is actually a lot of evidence if you know how to look for it.

Matt Smith:

What is one of the most interesting things were you able to find while you're on a dig?

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

People always ask me that question. I suppose one of the most startling finds was when I was excavating up in the Mussau Islands in the New Ireland province of Papua New Guinea. This was on a Lapita site dating to about 3,200 years ago or 1200 BC, if you want. And we were digging down. And this was a site that had been a stilt house over a shallow lagoon and then the shoreline had moved seaward and had left this area not exactly high and dry but we were digging down in a waterlogged deposit. That actually had the preserved bases of wooden posts because it was an anaerobic deposit, no oxygen. The wooden post bases were still there. That was interesting enough.

Excavating down between these house posts, we found a little bone object. It was a local guy digging with me or next to me. And it was lying face down. I wasn't sure what it was. And I could tell it was a piece of bone. He carefully exposed it and we recorded its position. And then he picked it up and turned it over and both of us kind of gasped because it was a beautifully carved human face design. And it must have been a very important object to these people. It, I think, may have been the head of some staff of some kind, perhaps a chief or a priest emblem. And it turns out it was carved of a porpoise bone, a marine mammal. So I could speculate perhaps it was representing the sea god or a sea deity or an ancestor or something like that. That was a really remarkable find.

Matt Smith:

Prof. Patrick Kirch, thank you for your time today.

Prof. Patrick Kirch:

My pleasure.