chapter  5
21 Pages

Pacific ethnography, archaeology and the pattern of global prehistoric social life

WithMark Golitko

The islands and peoples of the Southwestern Pacific have long served as a prominent example for theorising about ancient exchange and intercommunity connections. Yet at the same time, the high level of biocultural diversity present in the region has suggested to some that, prior to European contact, isolated communities diverging in custom, speech and biology from one another characterised the region. Speakers of Papuan languages in particular are often seen as prototypical of non-complex social life, characterised by economic self-sufficiency and limited political hierarchy. Models based on these assumptions were at one time widely applied to the prehistory of other world regions, most notably the European Neolithic period. Yet much research suggests that the structure of inter-community social networks primarily patterns cultural diversity in the SW Pacific, and that these connections have linked diverse communities throughout the region for millennia. While archaeologists working in other world areas continue to treat the New Guinean ethnographic record as a set of timeless prototypes for cultural practice, Pacific archaeologists have long understood the changing nature of social life there, but must develop new models that allow for both high levels of interaction and the development and maintenance of cultural and linguistic variability.