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The Evolution of Migration: the Case of Lapita in the Southwest Pacific

Abstract

Migrations have occurred across the history of the genus Homo and while the movement of pre-modern humans over the globe is typically understood in terms of shifting resource distributions and climate change, that is in ecological terms, the movement of anatomically modern, and specifically Holocene, populations is often explained by human desire to discover new lands, escape despotic leaders, forge trade relationships and other culture-specific intentions. This is a problematic approach to the archaeological and behavioural explanation of human migration. Here an evolutionary and ecological framework is developed to explain various movement behaviours and this framework is applied to the movement of human groups from the inter-visible islands around New Guinea to the widely dispersed archipelagos of the southwest Pacific about 1000 BC. Labelled the Lapita Migration, this movement is explained as a selection-driven range expansion. The development of evolutionary and ecological theory to explain human movement facilitates empirical testing of alternative hypotheses and links different histories of human movement through shared explanatory mechanisms.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I do not use the term “common sense” in a pejorative manner. By common sense I mean the often implicit, sometimes contradictory sense-making system we carry around in our heads as members of a society and which we use to make sense of our daily lives.

  2. 2.

    This is a contentious claim and deserves some elaboration. Carson et al. (2013) have proposed an often-cited argument that Lapita ceramics in the Bismarcks have their origin in earlier red-slipped and dentate decorated ceramics from Nagsaraban, Luzon, Northern Philippines. Carson et al.’s (2013, p. 17) abstract presents the argument clearly:

    Finely made pottery with a very specific decorative signature is found in multiple locations in the Philippines and western Oceania, constituting a shared cultural trait that can be traced, both geographically and chronologically, to a specific homeland. Especially important for human migration models, this decorated pottery is linked to a system of cultural origin, so the spread as a diagnostic tradition can be related to the spread of a cultural group. Even more important, this decorated pottery appeared with the first peopling of the remote Pacific Islands, thus providing a clear and datable chronicle of where and when people spread from one location to another. The pottery trail points to a homeland in the Philippine Neolithic about 2000–1800 BC, followed by expansion into the remote Mariana Islands 1500 BC, and then slightly later into the Lapita world of Melanesia and Polynesia.

    The date range of 2000–1800 BC for the earliest ceramics at Nagsaraban is, however, open to question. In Hung’s PhD thesis reporting on the pottery (Hung 2008, pp. 159–161), the dates in order of depth below surface for the silty clay pottery layer from excavation pit 9 are as follows: 800–740 BC (180 cm), 20–10 BC [a typographical error?] (160 cm), 3340–3000 BC and 800–510 BC (150 cm). Other excavation pits have similarly inverted ranges for depths and divergent ranges for the same depth. Carson et al. (2013, p. 19) address this by stating:

    As outlined by Hung et al. (2011 and supplementary data; see also Hung 2008), the early red slipped pottery was found within a thick deposit of silt that yielded basal dates of 2000–1800 BC and upper limits of 800–400 BC. Dating within the alluvial silt naturally is complicated by inter-mixing, but numerous portions retain integrity of large re-fitted potsherds and partly reconstructed vessels, indirect context with multiple cross-confirming radiocarbon dates. These identifiable masses within the larger silt unit are not always arranged in convenient vertical stratigraphic order, but each provides a datable sub-unit in its own right. Given these limitations, the earliest confirmable instance of the decorated pottery appeared about 1800 BC, yet conceivably it could have occurred as early as 2000 BC.

    In Hung (2008) and Hung et al. (2011), there are no refitting data, or stratigraphic descriptions to support the above statement, nor is it clear what “indirect context with multiple cross-confirming radiocarbon dates” means. Give the dates above, and the remainder presented in Hung (2008, Table 7.1), it is also not clear how the basal date range of 2000–1800 BC is derived, as no dated material returned this range. Mijares (2016) provides some depositional information noting:

    There was minimal bioturbation activity in the lower silty clay layer [lower ceramics layer] that could account for any movement of materials from above layer into the lower strata. These can be seen in the blocky structure of the sediment as oppose [sic] to a crumbly or granular structure normally associated with bioturbation such as faunal (worm) activity.

    Mijares’ description does not seem to support Carson et al.’s (2013) description of the same deposit as “complicated by inter-mixing” or containing “identifiable masses within the larger silt unit”. Another excavator of the site, Tsang (2007, p. 82) notes that the “stratigraphy is not complex”. Tsang also proposes dates for the lower pottery layer at Nagsaraban of 3700 to 2600 BP, although it is not clear why this date range is chosen from the data in the table of radiocarbon dates (Tsang 2007, p. 94), nor is contextual information for the dates given.

    Of course, Nagsaraban is only one site amongst many Island Southeast Asian ceramic-bearing sites currently dated prior to 3000 cal BP. However, reading Spriggs (2011, pp. 515–516) one might think that the Nagsaraban and other Northern Philippines deposits are unambiguously earlier than Lapita deposits in the Bismarcks as he states: “It is now well-established that dentate-stamping on pottery to produce at least some of the simpler motifs found in later Lapita pottery does have a chronological priority in northern Luzon over its rapid development in the Bismarcks to become the classic design system of Lapita (Hung 2008)”. However, Spriggs’ (2011, Table 1) table of dates includes only four of the over 20 dates from Nagsaraban, and many of the dates from other sites have not been critically examined in terms of context or association and dated material. In summary, the current state of knowledge better suggests a red-slipped dentate, incised and impressed pottery horizon throughout Island Southeast Asia, without any clear indication of an overall directionality for the spread of pottery or pottery-making ideas, or indeed, pottery-makers.

    In contrast, there is clear chronological priority for ceramics in Taiwan, with these appearing by perhaps 2700 BC. The earliest ceramics are buff to dark brown “globular jars with incised, everted rims decorated with wavy lines and short parallel strokes” (Kuang-Ti 2013, p. 614). Interestingly, at about 1500 BC, pene-contemporaneous with the appearance of Lapita pottery in the Bismarcks, a set of diverse pottery traditions arise in Taiwan with an increase in the number of archaeological sites (Kuang-Ti 2013).

  3. 3.

    A contrived example may help make my point. Individual and population-level Great Ape history and behaviour is explained using evolutionary and ecological theory including both cultural and genetic transmission, selection and other mechanisms (e.g., Prado-Martinez et al. 2013; Whiten et al. 1999; Whiten 2005, 2014). Suppose through the future invention of some sophisticated translation instrument we could talk to Great Apes with a rich and nuanced vocabulary, and we asked them “why did you behave that way, what was your intention or goal”, would their answers become the “real” explanation for Great Ape history and behaviour? Would evolutionary and ecological explanations of Great Apes then be viewed as incorrect or inappropriate? The answer is no, because the use of explanatory concepts derived from theory or derived from the intentional language of persons is a choice, not a requirement of the subject matter. However, the choice has ramifications for the characteristics of the knowledge we generate.

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Acknowledgements

The argument developed here was first presented at the 2015 Lapita Conference in Port Villa, Vanuatu, and I thank the organizers of the conference Stuart Bedford and Matthew Spriggs, as well as Glenn Summerhayes for his symposium invitation. The University of Auckland Performance Based Research Fund supported my conference attendance. Comments by Atholl Anderson, Robert DiNapoli, Thegn Ladefoged, Mark Madsen, Timothy Rieth, Peter Sheppard, Jim Specht, Matthew Spriggs, John Terrell and Michael Walker have improved the written work and I thank them. Three reviewers also provided helpful comments.

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Cochrane, E.E. The Evolution of Migration: the Case of Lapita in the Southwest Pacific. J Archaeol Method Theory 25, 520–558 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-017-9345-z

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Keywords

  • Dispersal
  • Lapita
  • Oceania
  • Migration
  • Range expansion
  • Selection