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Ancient Civilizations of Australia and the Pacific

Bits about the house and garden: The 7 canoes

Episode 29: Lifeways of Australia and the Pacific

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

According to Benjamin, human beings first settled in Australia 50,000 years ago when Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania were still joined as a single continent. The first evidence of agriculture in Australasia dates back to 8000 BC in the highlands of New Guinea. Initially crops were limited taro and yams, but after sophisticated drainage channels were built around 5000 BC, residents were growing bananas, yams and sweet potatoes as well. According to archeological evidence they lived in small agrarian villages and engaged in art, religious rituals and warfare.

Indigenous Australians never adopted agriculture from their northern neighbors. As “affluent foragers,” they procured enough food via hunting, fishing and gathering. The Gunditjmara took an initial step towards agriculture by constructing ponds that entrapped eels. The aborigines in this region established permanent villages, social hierarchies and elaborate trade networks extending hundreds and thousands of miles.

In the Pacific, the Philippines and Solomon Islands were first inhabited around 40,000 BC. Around 2000 BC, people speaking Austronesian* languages began exploring and occupying other Pacific Islands. By 1000 BC, they had reached Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji with canoes filled with obsidian tools; sophisticated fishing technology; ceramic pots; domesticated dogs, chickens and pigs and 15 plant species, including taro, yam and bananas. By 900 BC they had reached Tonga and by 700 BC Samoa.

The settlement of the Pacific islands relied on the invention of the triangular sail (which enabled a boat to against the wind) and the single and double outrigger canoes. Extremely skilled at using stars and tides to navigate, early Pacific Island settlers established giant trade networks extending 4,000 miles.

Around 800 AD, they migrated further eastward reaching Hawaii, the Marquesas Islands, Society Island and Rapa Nui (Easter Island)** around 1200 AD. Owing to unfavorable prevailing winds, New Zealand was settled last in 1300 AD.

All these islands shared governance by hereditary chiefs and common religious and agricultural practices. They also share a common history of distant ancestors originating in Hawaitki (which Benjamin believes refers to Samoa and Tonga).

The South Island of New Zealand was too cold to grow the topical plants Māori settlers brought in their canoes so South Island Māori reverted to foraging. North Island Māori raised kumara (sweet potatoes), taro and other tropical plants. They lived in agrarian. socially stratified villages ruled by hereditary chiefs, grew taro, yam, gourd and ti pore (Pacific cabbage tree) and engaged in war.

When the first Europeans arrived, Aotearoa (NZ) had a population of about 100,000, most settled in the North Island.

Rapa Nui had an extremely wealthy agrarian civilization prior to its collapse from deforestation. Under the rule of powerful chiefs they constructed as many as 70,000 carved stone statues, some weighing as much as much as 80 tons. Prior to the collapse of their complex agrarian society (which led them to revert to foraging), they developed their own written language.

Hawaii also had a very successful agrarian civilization supported by pigs, intensive irrigation, terraced gardens and aquaculture ponds. Some of the Hawaiian kingdoms that emerged were as large a Sumer’s city-states.

Tonga and Samoa also evolved into complex hierarchical societies whose leaders built massive stone monuments and complex irrigation schemes. At one point Tonga reached a population of 40,000.

*The Austronesian language group is believed to have originated around Taiwan and spread first to the Philippines and the Bismarck Archipelago and from there to the more eastern Pacific Islands.

**Benjamin believes that early Rapa Nui settlers may have sailed their canoes 800 miles to Chile, explaining the presence of pre-Columbian sweet potato crops in Chile and Chilean chickens in Rapa Nui.

Can be view free on Kanopy with library card.

The Hidden History of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Hoa Hakananai'a, British Museum | Historia das Artes

The Spirit of the Ancestors: Journey to Bring Home Stolen Artifacts

Directed by Leonardo Pakarati (2015)
Spanish with English subtitles

Film Review

This documentary concerns the indigenous people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and their campaign to persuade the British Museum to return Hoa Hakananani’a to them. According elders, the enormous moai built by their ancestors were the embodiment of their protective mana. Many islanders believe Hoa Hakananani’a must be returned before their desperate living conditions can improve.

The film follows a trip to Europe by Rapa Nui to view artifacts stolen by French (France has an estimated 45,000 Rapa Nui works of art) and British explorers.

The first recorded European arrival in Rapa Nui was by Dutch explorer Roggeveen in 1722. After 1770, a steady increase in European visits brought new infections to Rapa Nui, which, owing to lack of immunity, decimated islanders. As on other Pacific islands, the forced enslavement of natives began around 1805 and climaxed in 1862-63, when two dozen Peruvian ships abducted about 1,500 people (half the surviving population) and sold them to work in Peru’s guano mines.

By 1877, Rapa Nui’s population had dwindled to 111.

In 1888 Chile took possession of Rapa Nui, which it “hired out” to a Chile-based Scottish company to administer. With the entire island becoming a sheep ranch, the islanders became virtual slaves. Confined to a single village, they became virtual slaves of the company. Meanwhile overgrazing by sheep, goats and horses caused soil erosion and eliminated nearly all native vegetation.

A 1914 revolt was put down by the Chilean navy.

Postscript to film: In 2017, the Chilean government granted the Rapa Nui people the right to self-administer their ancestral island. The following year their governor lodged a new request for the British Museum to return their stolen moai. The Museum responded with an offer to loan it out on a temporary basis. See

*In the culture of Melanesians and Polynesians, mana is the spiritual life force and healing energy that permeates the universe.

Film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

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