Anthropology Friday: Melanesia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re visiting Melanesia., but first I’d like to direct your attention to a new study by Westaway et al, “An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago“:

Here we reinvestigate Lida Ajer [a fossil site] to identify the teeth confidently and establish a robust chronology using an integrated dating approach. Using enamel–dentine junction morphology, enamel thickness and comparative morphology, we show that the teeth are unequivocally AMH. Luminescence and uranium-series techniques applied to bone-bearing sediments and speleothems, and coupled uranium-series and electron spin resonance dating of mammalian teeth, place modern humans in Sumatra between 73 and 63 ka. This age is consistent with biostratigraphic estimations7, palaeoclimate and sea-level reconstructions, and genetic evidence for a pre-60 ka arrival of AMH into ISEA2. Lida Ajer represents, to our knowledge, the earliest evidence of rainforest occupation by AMH, and underscores the importance of reassessing the timing and environmental context of the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa.

Back to Melanesia:

Polynesians–who settled Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, and Madagascar–are considerably more famous than their cousins over in Melanesia–chiefly Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. (The Australian Aborigines are closely related to Melanesians.)

“Polynesia” means “many islands.” “Micronesia” means “tiny islands.” But “Melanesia” means dark islands, not because they are actually dark, but because the locals have dark, high-melanin skin.

Dr. Henry B. Guppy was a British surgeon and naturalist stationed in the Solomon Islands. Confusingly, there is a species of gecko named after Dr. Guppy–the Lepidodactylus guppyi, endemic to the Solomon Islands.

Dr. Guppy also wrote a book, the aptly titled “The Solomon Islands,”:

Amongst the Solomon Islands the student of nature may be compared to a man who, having found a mine of great wealth, is only allowed to carry away just so much of the precious ore as he can bear about his person. For there can be no region of the world where he experiences more tantalisation. Day after day he skirts the shores of islands of which science has no “ken.” Month after month, he may scan, as I have done, lofty mountain-masses never yet explored, whose peaks rise through the clouds to heights of from 7,000 to 10,000 feet above the sea. He may discern on the mountain-slopes the columns of blue smoke which mark the abodes of men who have never beheld the white man. But he cannot land except accompanied by a strong party; and he has therefore to be content usually with viewing such scenes from the deck of his vessel. …

A Melanesian is always careful to turn his toes in as he walks, and the narrowness of the bush track causes him no inconvenience, but the white man is not so careful how he plants his feet and is constantly striking the numerous objects which lie by the side of the track or on its surface. Moreover, a native person keeps his hands by his side as he walks, whereas the white man does not know the necessity for care in the matter and he frequently hits the numerous obstacles with his hands, and some of the leaves on the edge of the track are studded with sharp thorns! Every Melanesian carries a “scrub” knife, and with it he cuts away the limbs that fall over the path, but he cuts them at his own height and in an immediate line with the path; this suits him well, but proves awkward for any person who is taller or less careful about his method of progression.

Naural blond hair
Two Melanesian girls from Vanatu

There is a great deal of interest in Dr. Guppy’s account, but for now we are going to leave him and turn to the Dictionary and Grammar of the Language of Sa’a and Ulawa, Solomon Islands, by Walter G. Ivens, 1918:

Several external characteristics of the Melanesian peoples serve to distinguish them from the Polynesians: (1) Shortness of stature, the average height of the males being possibly 5 feet 4 inches and of the females 4 feet 10_ inches; (2) a chocolate-colored skin; (3) bushy hair, frizzled and tangled and standing erect, owing probably to the incessant teasing of it by the native combs.

The languages spoken in Melanesia vary considerably among themselves, but on examination they are shown to possess common features and to have a very large underlying sameness. The external resemblances, however, between the Melanesian languages are much less than those between the languages of Polynesia; e. g., the external resemblances between Maori and Samoan are far greater than those between Mota and Florida.

Two languages have been separated for a long time will have become more different from each other than two languages that have been separated for only a while. For example, all of the Romance languages are quite similar to each other, and have only been developing since the age of the Roman Empire–about 2,000 years or less. By contrast, English and Russian, while both Indo-European languages that therefore share many characteristics, have far fewer similarities than the Romance languages, because they have been separated for far less time.

If the Melanesian languages have more differences than the Polynesian, then they have likely been separated for longer–and indeed, this appears to be true. Melanesians appear to be descended from one of the first population waves to reach the area (along with their neighbors, the Australian Aborigines,) whereas Polynesians arrived in the area from Taiwan much more recently. (In fact, the Polynesian Maori people only arrived in New Zealand around 1250-1300 AD.)

Dr. Codrington has shown in “Melanesian Anthropology” that there is a large general resemblance in the religious beliefs and practices, the customs and ways of life, which prevail in Melanesia proper, and further research on the lines indicated by him will probably reveal the presence of similar beliefs and conditions of life among the Melanesian peoples of New Guinea and the neighbouring islands.

A distinguishing social condition of Melanesia is the complete absence of tribes, if the word tribe is to be applied as it is to the Maori people of New Zealand, or as used in Fiji. Descent in nearly every part of Melanesia is counted through the mother and the people are everywhere divided into two classes which are exogamous. This division of the people is the foundation on which the fabric of native society is built up. …

Animal food is but rarely partaken of by Melanesians. Pigs they all have, but they keep them for great events, for death feasts or for wedding banquets. Opossums (cuscus) and the large fruit-eating bats and wood pigeons and the monitor lizard are often eaten as relishes with vegetable food. The coast people get large quantities of shellfish at the low spring tides, and on an island like Ulawa a great deal of fishing is done both from the rocks and also out of canoes. The people make all their own fishing-lines out of home-made string or out of strong creepers found in the forest, and in old days their hooks were cut out of tortoise shell or out of black pearl-shell. Even to-day the hooks for the bonito fishing are of native manufacture and the tiny hooks for whiffing sardines are exquisitely made.

Fishing with nets is followed extensively by the Lau-speaking peoples who live on the artificial islets off the northeast coast of Malaita. These peoples and the people of the Reef Islands at Santa Cruz live almost entirely on a fish diet. The flesh of the porpoise is much prized by the peoples of Malaita and regular drives of porpoises are much held, the animals being surrounded and forced ashore into muddy creeks, where they are captured. The main value of the porpoise lies in the teeth, which form one of the native currencies. …

Tambu-House on the Island of Santa Anna, Solomon Islands

The men and boys in the Solomons have club-houses, both in the villages and also down at the beach. In the club-house at the beach the canoes for bonito fishing are kept. Strangers are entertained in these club houses; the relics of the dead are kept in them and religious rites are performed in them. Women are excluded from the club houses. …

Bark cloth (tapa) is made in Melanesia, but it never figured as an article of clothing and its main use was to form a kind of shawl in which the baby was slung when carried from the shoulder. Before the coming of the white man clothing of any sort was very little worn by Melanesians. The people of Santa Cruz, both men and women, were indeed clad sufficiently to satisfy our European notions of decency, and in the southern New Hebrides and in Florida and Ysabel the women wore petticoats made of mats or of grass, but in very many of the islands the women’s dress was of the scantiest, and the men wore nothing but a section of a leaf of a large pandanus. In the southeast Solomons the men commonly were quite naked and the women wore but a scanty fringe, while on Big Malaita not even the traditional fig leaf was worn.

In Santa Cruz, where all women and girls are swathed in mats and are kept in strict seclusion, there is more immorality, and that of a gross and shocking sort, than in the Lau-speaking districts of Malaita, where the women wear no clothing of any sort whatever. Once the mind gets over the shock experienced at the idea of the unclothed body, it will be obvious to the unprejudiced person that the absence of clothing does not necessarily imply immodesty either of thought or action. A Heathen woman on Malaita knows no shame at the fact that her body is unclothed.

Fijian mountain warrior

Another point as to which incorrect ideas exist is the question of cannibalism. Doubtless cases of anthropophagy occurred in many of the Melanesian islands, but it was never characteristic of the people as a whole, and the man-eating propensities of the Fijian people could never be predicated of the whole people of any single group in the sphere of the Mission. So local and confined is the practice that, while portions of one island regularly follow it, other portions of the same island hold it in abhorrence, as in the case of Malaita.

Joseph Wate, of Sa’a, a reliable witness, assured me that the Tolo peoples of Malaita were cannibals, but his own peoples were not, nor were the shore peoples of Big Malaita. The latter were fish-eaters, and those who lived on a fish diet did not practice as a regular thing the eating of human flesh. Cannibalism is the regular practice on San Cristoval, but is held in abhorrence on Ulawa. Yet the belief in cannibalism is so firmly fixed that one reads in the reports and books of the Mission that the two Reef Islanders who were held captive at Port Adam in Bishop Selwyn’s time were being fattened up and kept for eating, whereas in all probability they were regarded as “live heads” (lalamoa mori) and kept for killing, should any necessity arise when a victim would be demanded, as, e. g., at the death of any important person in the place, or they might be sold to anyone looking for a person to kill. The bodies after death would be buried. …

Great care is expended in bathing small children and shielding them from the rays of the sun. A young mother is excused from all work and she has the best time in all her life when her first baby is born. Her whole time is given up to the child, and it is seldom out of her arms. Owing to the lack of nourishing foods children are suckled till they are quite large. The Melanesian baby seems to have no natural liking for water and one often hears the shrill cries of small children being bathed in the streams or being washed in the houses. In the latter case water is poured from a bamboo into one of the wooden bowls and the child is then washed by hand.

The children at a very early stage of their existence are freed from the authority of their parents. They have no household duties to perform; there is no set time for meals; in the morning they may be given something cold left over from the night before, or the mother may roast a yam on the fire, but as a rule there is no cooking done till the late afternoon, when the women return from their gardens. During the day, if the children are hungry they can get a coconut or a breadfruit, or shell-fish, or they can roast a yam or a taro, and a fire can be made anywhere. The boys can get themselves an opossum or an iguana and in the hill districts they even find grasshoppers to eat. One and all they use large quantities of areca nut and pepper leaf and lime. These seem to be as necessary to the Melanesians of the northern islands as is a pipe to a confirmed smoker.

One would expect that children freed thus early from any dependence on their elders would run riot and learn licentious ways and habits, but such does not seem to be the case. There is but little individuality in Melanesians, and they are not “inventors of evil things.” They are bound by traditional customs, by the laws of the elders, by those social restrictions that the people have evolved for themselves as a safeguard against the breaking up of their society, and free agents though the children may be, and lacking parental control from our point of view, yet there is no such thing among them as the organized following of doing evil, and the ruling moral ideas of the people are found as the guide also of their children. …

they have no means of preserving the welfare of themselves as a whole. They have no tribes, no kingdoms, no laws beyond the unwritten social laws relating to marriage, etc.; life is insecure, accusations of witchcraft are easily made, and death follows as a matter of course; infanticide is a common practice, big families are almost unknown, polygamy is a recognized thing. So Christianity comes to them as a means of insuring both individual and social vigor and only in so far as they become Christian will they be saved from extinction. …

There can, however, be no question of leaving them alone now, whatever may have been the case in past years; civilization, i. e., trade, is coming in fast and the inevitable consequence will be that the white man’s view of life will alter the old style of things. Experience has taught us that wherever a people without a settled state and a kingdom and the external power of law is invaded by any of our western peoples, with their vigor and personality, the less-developed people lose all their pristine distinctiveness, all bonds are loosed, and inevitable decay sets in; in other words, the white man destroys the black….

There is very little that goes on in a native village that is not known to most of the people, and things are very well discussed before any action is taken, and generally the whole village knows the doings and the intentions of every inhabitant. If the teacher did know beforehand the chances are that he could not prevent the wrong. Individual action is rare among Melanesians. …

The isolation of the peoples in most of the Melanesian islands has in all probability been largely responsible for the lack of concerted action thitherto among the Christians. Social life as such was not known in Melanesia before the advent of Christianity. In their pre-Christian days these natives do not live in villages or hamlets, but in isolated groups with two or three houses or huts in a group. With the exception of certain places in Florida and also of the artificial islets off the northeast coast of Malaita, where hundreds of people live on tiny rookeries of stone just raised above the level of the tide, there was nothing that was worthy of the name of a village in the whole of the Mission’s area in the Solomons. …

Each subdistrict had its own petty chief with a following of half a dozen men in some cases. Every man knew who his own chief was and would support him when called upon. Each main district had also its head chief and to him tribute was paid whensoever he demanded it. Even these head chiefs had no state or surroundings. Thus at Roasi, on Little Malaita, Horohanue was the alaha paine, the main chief, but he had no immediate retinue and lived alone with his two wives, the guardian of his ancestral spirits, ‘akalo, and with the skulls of his dead in the house along with him. …

The Melanesian attitude with regards to presents is peculiar. A number of women would come with yams in baskets for sale; one special basket would be reported as “not for sale,” its contents (often inferior yams) were a gift–but it would have been the height of foolishness to accept such a gift without making a corresponding return. On being discharged from hospital a man would ask for a present in that he had been cured! Where there is no sense of debt there can be no showing of gratitude, gratitude being a spiritual and not a natural gift, a sense of the need to try to make a return for favors rendered. A Melanesian knows nothing of social duties; his life is lived apart from that of his fellows; he has no social sense, no dependence on his fellows, no common bonds of union such as spring up in community life; he asks nothing from his fellows nor they anything from him; he owes them nothing, and in consequence his circumstances have never been such as would be likely to encourage the growth of gratitude. …

The average Melanesian is a person of few worldy possessions; his house furniture consists of a few wooden bowls, a mortar for pounding yams or taro, a supply of vegetables smaller or larger according to his energy, an axe or a cane-knife; also a little stock of native money and perhaps a canoe. Of clothes he has practically none and the missionary’s simple wardrobe seems to him to be lavish in the extreme; he therefore has no compunction in asking of what he knows the white man to possess. If a person has practically never owned anything at all and if all his fellows are in the same condition too it is almost impossible to get him to understand that he should feel gratitude towards those who give him anything, since from his point of view they have so much in that they have anything at all.

EvX: That is one man’s view, of course. I am not in a position to judge the validity of Ivens’s observations, so I offer them with little comment.

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