Review of ‘On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact’ by Patrick V. Kirch

13th November 2013

Reviewed by Stuart Bedford

Kirch 2000 book coverOn the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact‘ by Patrick V. Kirch, 2000, University of California Press, Berkeley, 446 pp. ISBN 0-520-22347-0 (hbk).
Department of Archaeology and Natural History, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia

This publication is the long awaited and much-welcomed successor to Bellwood’s classic of the time, Man’s Conquest of the Pacific (1978) published over 20 years ago. Its seems remarkable —that it has taken that length of time for the appearance of such a publication, particularly considering the extraordinary advances that have been made over that period in Pacific archaeology. But such an undertaking as an archaeological history of the Pacific Islands before European contact is no mean feat and it is perhaps because of the tsunami-like flow of information which continues to require modification of earlier perceptions and theories the task is made all that more challenging. There is no question that Kirch has the credentials for such a task.

The book is written in a style that is easily read, both accessible to more general audiences as well as undergraduates and graduates in archaeology. From the start Kirch outlines, in a somewhat lengthy caveat lector, the parameters and limitations that this study encompasses. The resulting publication is modestly referred to as one of many constructions that could be made from a considerable array of evidence from many fields—a contribution in the construction of multiple rather than single historical plots (xix). That the book is a personal view of what Kirch sees as the most interesting aspects of Oceanic prehistory, which in many cases are associated with direct personal involvement, is emphasised through the text. The structure and detail of the book is governed both by the current state of knowledge of the entire region and Kirch’s familiarity with a particular region or site.

The book comprises a total of nine chapters along with extensive footnotes, over 150 figures and 13 tables. The detailed footnotes provide a guide to further discussion and detailed references. From the Introduction through to Chapter 2, Kirch outlines the parameters of the book and establishes a platform from which to embark on the detailed archaeological component. Chapter 1 is a fluid and entertaining chapter which covers over one hundred years of Pacific research focusing on the personalities, methodologies and institutions which have made significant and lasting contributions. Chapter 2 characterises the biogeography of the region and the complex and ever-changing symbiotic relationship which has developed since the time of human arrival in the region some 35–40,000 years ago. Emphasised at the close of this chapter is the mounting evidence from across the region of the dramatic human-induced changes which have been wrought on the Island ecosystems.

Chapter 3 concentrates on the prehistory of ‘Old Melanesia’, effectively Green’s Near Oceania (1991) prior to Austronesian expansion. This chapter demonstrates clearly the extraordinary progress that has been made in research in this region over the last 20 years, principally deriving from the Lapita Homeland Project. Pleistocene settlement has now been confirmed across much of this part of the Pacific and with it the realisation that an extraordinarily complex archaeological record has only just begun to be investigated. Kirch summarises both the Pleistocene and early Holocene record emphasising that the evidence from the region at this stage is both thin and in some cases not fully analysed or reported. This leads to Kirch’s treatment of claimed 5000 year old ceramics in New Guinea (Gorecki 1992: Swadling et al. 1989) which I thought was somewhat generous. Although detailed site reports and ceramic analyses have yet to appear this issue has been addressed at length by Spriggs (1996), who would seem to have convincingly argued that the pottery is intrusive in the Holocene levels of the excavated sites. Moreover, Swadling et al. (1991) have reassessed their own claims for the Akari site. If as these excavators claim, that the ceramics demonstrate stylistic homogeneity over thousands of years, it would be one of the few, if not the only occurrence of such a phenomena anywhere in the world.

Lapita and the Austronesian expansion is the focus of Chapter 4 and this is when Kirch really hits his stride having previously finely tuned the format and arguments in his Lapita Peoples (Kirch 1997) and other publications. Combining archaeological, linguistic and biological sources Kirch uses his well-established formula to outline and explain this extraordinary episode of cultural change. Dating in Pacific archaeology is often contentious but its finer definition is all the more crucial as we try to pinpoint significant change over relatively short time periods. Kirch generally favours early dates for initial Lapita arrival in the Bismarcks and its expansion across to Tonga and Samoa and this is reflected through the text. However, much focus and reassessment of dates for this event tend to suggest slightly later dates than ‘those favoured by Kirch (see Anderson and Clark 1999; Bedford et al. 1998; Burley et al. 1999; Dickinson and Green 1998; Galipaud 1998; Sand 1997; Specht and Gosden 1997). This more recent focus has also highlighted the very short-term nature of dentate stamping at nearly all of the same sites. While dentate stamping may have continued for a longer period at some sites in the Bismarcks region, in remote Oceania several hundred years on any island is looking like a maximum (see references above). Both of the tables in this chapter (4.1 and 4.2) appear to be compilations of all dates from a number of selected Lapita and related ceramic sites. Many of the dates listed have since shown to be questionable and have been subject to revision (again see references above).

In a section on exchange amongst Lapita communities Kirch details those items which have been identified as exotic to various Lapita sites. Included amongst these are obsidian, chert, adzes, oven stones and pottery. Shell objects are also argued as having functioned as exchange valuables. Brief comment only is made here regarding contestable aspects of the exchange argument involving pottery and shell. While Talepakemalai might prove to be an exception to the rule there is increasing evidence that the vast majority of Lapita ceramics from other sites were locally manufactured (cf. Dickinson et al. 1996; Summerhayes 1996) rather than imported. The argument for the exchange of shell valuables was developed by Kirch some ten years ago (Kirch 1988) on the basis that while finished artefacts were widespread amongst Lapita sites evidence for manufacturing debris was rare. This may yet prove to be a reflection of the recorded sample up to 1988. Certainly there is no shortage of shell manufacturing debris that has been reported in sites throughout Remote Oceania (Bedford 2000; Poulsen 1987; Sand 2000).

In Chapter 5 Kirch moves on to ‘New Melanesia’, a geographical region spanning island Melanesia across to Fiji and restricted to a period post-dating the emergence and expansion of Lapita. The format is a region-by-region approach, from the west to the east. Summaries of these various regions vary greatly in relation to the detail of research making it all the more difficult to develop coherent arguments. Kirch, however, manages to hurdle these difficulties with some ease. Changes in ceramic sequences, (i.e. what happens after Lapita and more specifically the dentate stamped ceramics) is one of the major issues that Kirch focuses on in this chapter. Two aspects of this debate are particularly pertinent. One is the question of continuity from Lapita through to the later traditions and the other is the validity of a post-Lapita incised and applied relief tradition which through the mechanism of continued inter-archipelago contact demonstrated some level of synchronous change (Spriggs 1997; Wahome 1999). On the first, Kirch and most others, following increasing evidence, now favour the continuity argument. On the second issue there has also been a general acceptance of this entity known variously as an Incised and Applied Relief or Mangaasi-like tradition. Kirch is wisely cautious on this second aspect. He argues that changing ceramic decoration and form might have as much to do with independent development where decreasing frequency of contact encouraged localised adaptation to the changing social and economic roles of ceramics. This is a position that has recently been more firmly argued (Bedford and Clark 2001) using the increasingly refined sequences from Vanuatu and Fiji. It is a research question which Kirch highlighted many years ago (Kirch and Yen 1982) and one which is as yet far from resolved. As Kirch argues in this current book, it will be only through increased basic field and laboratory work, specifically focusing on the ceramic sequences of Melanesia, that these issues will be further addressed. But please let’s leave out the Mangaasioid!

Also included in this chapter is the familiar outline of Tikopian prehistory (cf. Kirch and Yen 1982). This outline and associated conclusions, some aspects of which have remained controversial, are largely unchanged since their first detailed publication. Some modification now appears warranted. Ward (1979) questioned both the proposed termination date of the Sinapupu ware (2100–750 BP) on Tikopia and whether it had been imported from northern Vanuatu. Certainly more recent research tends to further question a Vanuatu source for the Sinapupu wares. The Santo source which was originally suggested has now been ruled out (Dickinson 1997; Dickinson and Shutler 2000) and the redating of the central Vanuatu sequence now puts its termination date at no later than 1200 BP (see Bedford 2000 for a more detailed critique).

Kirch’s familiarity with agricultural production systems across the region is also brought to bear throughout this chapter. Detailing the parallelled, relatively late development of agricultural intensification in a number of areas, he argues that these were likely to be independent but convergent responses to common sets of pressures or challenges (164). While this may well have been the scenario in some regions, in the case of Aneityum and New Caledonia, interarchipelago communication is likely to have played some part. Both oral and artefactual evidence indicates that contact occurred during this period in at least that part of the Pacific.

The archaeology of Micronesia and Polynesia are outlined in Chapters 6 and 7. Establishing the chronology and form of initial colonisation and early settlement in both regions is outlined in some detail. Kirch favours earlier dates for the initial arrival of humans into both areas. In a number of cases he relies solely on palaeoenvironmental data rather than archaeological evidence, an approach which does have its dissenters (Spriggs and Anderson 1993). This issue continues to be vigorously debated and at this stage of research remains unresolved. Certainly both in Micronesia and areas of Polynesia archaeological sites associated with extinct fauna1 remains have proved difficult to locate. Much of the rest of the Micronesian chapter focuses, not surprisingly, on the spectacular megalithic architecture of the region and the associated complex sociopolitical formations. Other aspects of the Polynesian story (Origins and Dispersals) detailed by Kirch include linguistics, cultural sequences in the West, colonisation and settlement of the East and voyaging more generally.

Chapter 8 outlines explanations for the development of Polynesian chiefdoms and more specifically what archaeology has to contribute to the debate. Kirch again draws on lengthy experience involving both archaeological and theoretical aspects of this debate (Kirch 1984). He begins with examples of the less stratified ‘Open Societies’ (Mangaia, the Marquesas, Rapa Nui and Aotearoa) and progresses to the ‘Stratified Chiefdoms’ (Tahiti and the Society Islands and Hawaii). In all cases Kirch provides a general overview of the archaeology of these islands and archipelagoes which then leads into detail on sociopolitical transformation.

In the closing chapter, Big Structures and Large Processes, Kirch tackles the big picture. Specifics covered include voyaging, linguistics and biology, demographics including case studies outlining the cataclysmic results of European contact, human induced landscape change and finally the transformation of economic and social systems. This might seem somewhat of a daunting array of subjects but I found it one of the most coherent and well presented of all the chapters.

Patrick Kirch is a genuine rara avis in the field of Pacific archaeology. He has worked on a whole host of Pacific islands stretching from Mussau to Rapa Nui and more importantly has managed to publish in detail most of the research in which he has been involved. In 2001 alone we can expect to see two further Kirch inspired publications (Kirch 2001; Kirch and Green 2001). One of the goals of this publication was further elucidation of the Pacific’s longue duree. This would seem to have been admirably achieved. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another 20 years for a similar publication. With a solid platform now firmly established one would hope that further editions, in a Fagan-like vein, might well be achievable.


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Bedford, S., M. Spriggs, M. Wilson and R. Regenvanu 1998 The Australian National University-National Museum of Vanuatu Archaeological Project 1994–1997: A preliminary report on the establishment of cultural sequences and rock art research. Asian Perspectives 37(2):165–193.

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Bedford, S.
Review of 'On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact' by Patrick V. Kirch
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