Review of ‘Archaeology of Oceania: Australia and the Pacific Islands’ edited by Ian Lilley

01st December 2006

Fullagar book review cover AA63Archaeology of Oceania: Australia and the Pacific Islands edited by Ian Lilley. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 2006, xx+396 pp., ISBN 0-631-23083-1.

Richard Fullagar

Department of Archaeology, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Building A14, University of Sydney NSW 2006, Australia

This book targets Oceania, a portion of the Pacific with much in common, from its modern human origins to recent colonial invasions. Twenty-four authors (with Australians dominating) based in at least six countries (Australia, USA, PNG, New Zealand, UK, France and her overseas territory New Caledonia) have produced 18 papers that range over near Oceania (Greater Australia and western Melanesia) and remote Oceania (Polynesia and Micronesia). There are broad sweepings of prehistory, some essentially situated far from the sea, and others up to the gunnels with oceanic voyaging, island colonisation and remote cultural contact. In keeping with undergraduate teaching objectives of this new series (Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology edited by Lyn Meskell and Rosemary Joyce), cultural chronologies for regional prehistories are spliced with political, indigenous and colonial threads which bind archaeologists and cultural heritage managers to pasts and presents alike. The mainstay of this book is its accessible style, with overviews of theoretical approaches (mostly uncluttered by references and jargon) alongside the challenges of selected research programmes.

Following a magisterial synthesis from Lilley (Chapter 1), the book is divided into three parts: Australia, The Pacific and Politics. As Lilley points out, the volume does not claim to be comprehensive and there are gaps we have to have (e.g. linguistics, physical anthropology and significant research in key places – notably New Zealand). Rather, chapters provide snapshots of summary sequences and current directions with a mix of theoretical approaches, data compilation and methodologies. Places with deeper time depth tend to encourage broader sweeps, but not always. David’s approach, which examines archaeological time depth of recent Aboriginal Australian worldviews, shows how archaeological components can be unpacked and considered in the context of place, but on their own merits – in this case primarily with charcoal, ochre and rock art. His approach strikes a chord with the conclusions of Walter and Sheppard, who stress the importance of the ethnographic and traditional records in the last 1000 years of Island Melanesian history – in contrast, they suggest, with Polynesian approaches where processual models link social change with environmental variables. Ethnography with its strengths and weaknesses provides a common thread throughout the region, and Conte, well-known for his research on fishing techniques in French Polynesia, further explores ethnoarchaeology in the Pacific.

Stone artefacts are central to other discussions, notably by Hiscock who describes, in one of the clearest expositions around, theoretical links between technological strategies, risk minimisation and climatically-induced environmental change in Holocene Australia. Pavlides postulates continuities in lithic technology, indicating internal local developments. Her lithic database from a southern New Britain rainforest suggests long-term trends towards decreased residential mobility, decreased home range and more intensive land management. Her functional study hints that lithic assemblages are more than a subtle record of responses to risk; gradual accumulations of specimens, dropped, discarded or lost by stressed male hunters.

O’Connor and Veth revisit interpretations of Pleistocene settlement, subsistence and demography in northern Australia. Such discussions are severely hampered in large part because there are so few archaeological sites and so few artefacts earlier than about 35,000 years ago. What was once seen as late colonisation of deserts is now seen as early habitation prior to desertification, followed by abandonment as aridity increased with the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) with eventual recolonisation in the recent past. If a growing bunch of dates (harvested from northwest Australia) suggests sparse habitation, if not population abandonment in the desert by 24,000 years ago (and by 18,000 years ago in the west Kimberley), how different is human settlement prior to 40,000 years ago (a period for which stone artefact counts are also extremely low)? There is still much we don’t know about the nature of settlement during and before the LGM even in the arid zone, and the authors suggest the need for off-site, local palaeoclimatic records and excavation of open sites (cf. Ward et al. 2006). More debate is guaranteed on these topics, regional abandonment still a hypothesis and alternative reconfigurations of settlement begging to be articulated.

Rock art theory and methodology are canvassed for the Australian scene (David; McDonald and Veth; Clarke and Frederick) and for the Marquesas Archipelago (Millerstrom), with diverse approaches that invite comparisons as to how the subject matter of rock art is variously utilised by archaeologists as indicators of group identity, prestige, boundary markers, worldviews and cross-cultural contact. The Marquesas have the domestic and ritual architecture of megalithic structures and ceremonial complexes, in addition to the archaeological petroglyphs, pictographs and anthropomorphic sculptures (tiki). Millerstrom’s study illustrates the complexity of linking architectural and archaeological art. In another chapter, Rainbird argues that large monuments like Nan Madol in Micronesia, are not ‘the apogee of sociopolitical systems’ (p.315) as implied by culture-historical and processual approaches that see cultural change as a response to environmental change. Subtle aspects of environmental determinants are also taken up by McDonald and Veth in the Australian desert and the coast to explore arguments that link artistic heterogeneity with local intra-group identity and homogeneity with broader inter-group cohesion. No nice pictures of any rock art attest to the chapter’s theoretical bent!

Galipaud plays down the significance of decorated pottery of the Lapita Cultural Complex (again no nice pictures). Other papers further highlight problems with traditional views of directionality in cultural change and sociopolitical evolution (e.g. Leavesley in the Bismarcks; Rainbird in Micronesia). A clever study of Hawaiian territorial maps and boundaries by Ladefoged and Graves seems to most starkly distinguish Pacific island archaeology from far western Oceania (i.e. Australia). Perhaps Denham gets closest to arguments that might theoretically link Australia with Pacific prehistory. He examines early agriculture in the PNG Highlands and reviews theories on domestication, landscape use, and agriculture proposed by David Harris, Matthew Spriggs, Ian Hodder and others. Denham sees strengths in all three key approaches, and senses the ambiguities that arise from false dichotomies arising from the social construction of landscape and culture (see Head 2000).

The perceptions of, and contrasts between, natural and human environments or nature and culture shift uneasily from Rottnest Island (southwest Australia) to Easter Island; from the Roaring Forties to the Tropic of Cancer; and from Pleistocene to present. Should Australia really be in there, without more on Torres Strait and the Neolithic Divide that sets it apart? Is climate change a more powerful determinant of cultural change in Australia than elsewhere in the Pacific?

If there are major differences between Australian and Pacific prehistory, the politics that surround cultural heritage have much in common. Smith provides a case study of issues in the establishment of Levuka as a heritage site in Fiji. Indigenous perceptions of archaeological research in different parts of the New Caledonia are explored by several authors (Sand, Bole and Ouetcho; Cauchois; Gugay-Grist; Mandui). Training of indigenous people is a major need, and Herman Mandui is alarmed at the destruction of cultural heritage in economies driven by urban expansion and economic development.

The book certainly provides a good introduction to current research and issues in the region, with its common origin of human colonisation that has emerged in so many cultural directions. Although the coverage is uneven, key research questions are illuminated by current research with a clear, accessible style.


Head, L. 2000 Cultural Landscapes and Environmental Change. Arnold: London

Ward, I., R. Fullagar, T. Boer-Mah, L. Head, P. Tacon and K. Mulvaney 2006 Comparison of sedimentation and occupation histories inside and outside rock shelters: Evidence from the Keep River region, northwestern Australia. Geoarchaeology 21(1):1-27.


Richard Fullagar
Review of ‘Archaeology of Oceania: Australia and the Pacific Islands’ edited by Ian Lilley
December 2006
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