Review of ‘Pacific Production Systems. Approaches to Economic Prehistory’ edited by D.E. Yen and J.M.J. Mummery

26th May 2014

‘Pacific Production Systems. Approaches to Economic Prehistory’ edited by D.E. Yen and J.M.J. Mummery, 1990, Occasional Papers in Prehistory No. 18. Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, 277 pp. ISBN: 0-7315-1009-7 (pbk)

Review by J. Peter White

This volume consists of 15 papers some of which were given at the 15th Pacific Science Congress in 1983 and some of which are ‘essentially new’: which is which can only be guessed from the dates in bibliographies.

Of the four sections – Hunters and fishermen, Integrations with Agriculture, the Agriculturalists, and The animals, the plants – the last three deal entirely with the ‘traditional’ Pacific, whereas the first contains three papers discussing the Salish (and the Naskapi of Labrador!), the subarctic Pacific of Eurasia and Australian Aborigines.

All three hunter-gatherer papers are concerned with traditional, not archaeological, production systems, and in different ways stress the relationship between cultural constructions and economic systems. Rhys Jones’ paper, by far the longest, is a sustained polemic in support of the concept of a unique, Australia-wide, Aboriginal cultural pattern. He makes a passing attack on Butlin along the lines of if some or many Aboriginal cultural units were so badly affected by smallpox then the ethnographic records should show highly variable social structures as well as demographic characteristics unrelated to rainfall, which they do not. He feels thus able to argue that the structure of Aboriginal societies, along with their production systems, was the same throughout the continent despite enormous variations in population densities which were clearly related to water availability (following Birdsell). ‘Complexity’ in Aboriginal societies he sees as therefore independent of ecology or population density, as having been developed in the Pleistocene and remaining basically the same since then. Although, perhaps wisely, he does not explicitly discuss Tasmania in this context, this paper is a closely argued, elegantly written contribution. (I note, in passing, that he takes almost an exactly contrary view to Sutton).

Two other papers in this volume stand out. Bayliss-Smith’s discussion of fishing in Ontong Java demonstrates that on this atoll, as on some others, this activity is both highly and reliably productive and the factor limiting population is starch not protein. Nearly all fishing is done by men who are thus responsible for the staple, a situation with implications which Bayliss-Smith does not remark on. He also compares his findings from a detailed survey in 1970-71 with the archaeological data from Kapingarnarangi and Tikopia and concludes that not all atoll dwellers were as badly off as is usually supposed.

McCoy’s discussion of the peri-glacial adze quarry on Mauna Kea in Hawaii is an attempt to look at an archaeological production system from a broad anthropological perspective. Even if one does not entirely buy his view of the pilgrimagic context of the discovery and operations of the quarry, the paper displays a sophistication of archaeological and anthropological analysis that has rarely been seen in Pacific prehistory. Here are social landscapes in full bloom.

Somewhat less convincing, largely because of the poor archaeological sample, is Dye’s attempt to relate changes in the fish represented in the archaeological record of the Marquesas to social structural changes in the islands. He seems to me to push the data too hard and too far, but his argument is interesting.

These three papers, like Jones’ and Kirch’s on Hawaii, demonstrate that post-processualism is alive in the Pacific, though without the deep layer of verbal fuzz which blurs its usefulness in some other parts of the world.

The remaining papers are an f.a.q. crop, ranging from the straightforward surveys of Bourke and Ayres and Haun to more musings from Golson about what might have happened at Kuk. Overall the book does have a strong, if broadly defined, theme, even if I still want to know what constitutes a ‘production system’. And it’s good value at 8.9 cents a page.

Finally, the volume is a bibliographic curiosity. The title page has it edited by Yen and Mummery (and I wish someone had edited Yen’s own convoluted text), but the foreword by Golson says the volume is ‘an acknowledgment of the major contributions made by Doug to the study of cultivated plants and agricultural systems’. No one will deny the contribution, but who really edited the volume?

White, J.P.
Review of ‘Pacific Production Systems. Approaches to Economic Prehistory’ edited by D.E. Yen and J.M.J. Mummery
December 1991
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