printer friendly iconemail a friend icon
Ask the Experts
Photograph courtesy Atholl Anderson
Atholl Anderson
Atholl Anderson is a professor of prehistory, archaeology, and natural history at the Australian National University. Interested in the prehistory and colonization of the Indo-Pacific region, he has conducted fieldwork in areas such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Fiji, French Polynesia, and New Zealand.

Some attribute Pacific migration to luck, others to purposeful exploration using noninstrument navigation. What is your opinion concerning how Pacific travelers were able to colonize the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean?

Well, this is a huge question and, of course, is at the heart of most of the controversy and debate that goes on about the prehistory of the Pacific, and it's something that canvasses the areas that we cannot really know about very much at all. Was it due to luck, for example? Well, yes, luck and contingencies of all kinds must have played a part in the settlement of the Pacific where the people were caught out in a storms. Whether they had the necessary materials—plants, animals, and so on—in order to make a success of colonization on another island and so on would often have been primarily a matter of luck, one would have to think. Was it purposeful exploration? That, I think, is also a question on which opinions vary. In a sense, I suppose, it was purposeful, in that people did set out in canoes, large voyaging canoes, and they did take with them the kinds of necessary requisites for successful colonization, such as cultivable plants and the basic animals—pigs, dogs, chickens, and then probably rats by accident. But I'm not sure that people very often set out deliberately to seek another island in that way, so much as leaving their home islands because they were compelled to. And there are many stories in Pacific traditions which suggest that much of the migration took place because losers in battles between clans and so on were normally sent off to sea to go and seek another island. And that was the process that was going on right up until the 19th century. So to that degree, I suppose, it was purposeful. Noninstrument navigation has also been a subject of much controversy, but my own opinion is that now that we have had quite a lot of experimentation in this field, it does seem likely that Polynesians and Micronesians were able to develop a rough kind of astral navigation which would get them about the Pacific, providing they weren't seeking very small targets. That is to say, they could hit a big island perhaps extending hundreds of kilometers, as in the case of, say, the Cook Islands or the Tonga Islands, but they probably could not navigate toward something much smaller than that. Nevertheless, for their purposes it might have been quite sufficient.

What types of food and other items would the Lapita and later colonizers have carried with them from island to island?

We know that they carried most of the food plants that were recorded by the early European explorers. These were primarily the food plants like taro, bananas, coconut, breadfruit, yams and probably quite a number of trees of one kind or another, including quarterline—the tea tree—which is common throughout the Pacific. All of them food plants, although there were a few fiber plants like the paper mulberry, which is what they used to make tapa cloth. They brought with them also the four animal types which occurred prehistorically in the Pacific—the pig, the dog, the chicken, and Rattus exulans, the Pacific rat. We don't know, however, whether these were all carried together—that is to say, each migratory voyage carried the whole suite of plants and animals along with it—or whether they came over time in piecemeal to many of the islands. Part of the problem is that most of the plants are very hard to pick up in the archaeological record because they leave very few remains, even microscopic remains. In the case of animals, it's a bit clearer. There it seems that the full suite of animals came to most of the tropical islands, but as we got out into the remoter parts of the Pacific and particularly south towards New Zealand, only a few of the animals made it. For example, the rat and the dog got to New Zealand, but not the pig and the chicken.

In your opinion, why did an west to east migration continue for thousands of years across the Pacific? Were inhabitants pushed out because of shrinking resources, pulled by the lure of the unknown, or did they leave for other reasons altogether?

There were few alternatives to controlling population growth, and population growth could easily get out of hand on relatively small islands. So the usual sequence of events probably occurred: The population started to grow, there were tensions over territory and resources, there was warfare between family and clans, and then eventually the losers or those who suspected they were going to lose simply packed up and left. I don't think the lure of the unknown had anything to do with it. I don't think there was, as it were, an exploratory urge as such, unless it was driven by some other things, such as the need for resources. And one of the things that's interesting when you look at the islands is that—migrations through the islands—is that it occurred in a number of big phases, and within each phase it occurs very quickly. And what we see is that in the archaeology at the beginning of each phase we find the remains of extinct animals—normally birds, but also other animals as well, such as large lizards and iguanas, etc. And it seems that what happened was that as soon as people reached a new island they exploited very heavily the native resources, including the resources of the reef and shoreline. And they depressed the productivity and the size of those resources very quickly, so that within 100 or 200 years there were quite noticeable changes in the quality of the island environments in which they were living. And that in itself may well have been an inducement for people to say to themselves, "Well, things have been getting worse while we're here, and every time we've moved there's been another island, so let's go and find another one."