Polynesian Lexicon Online

I’ve been meaning to pimp this: POLLEX is online! Simon says:

I’d just like to announce that Ross Clark and I have placed the POLLEX (Polynesian lexicon) database online at http://pollex.org.nz. POLLEX-Online currently contains 55,183 reflexes with 4,746 reconstructions from 68 languages.

An awesome resource for anyone interested in the Pacific, comparative and historical linguistics, and Polynesian culture history. Databases are what will transform linguistics.

A game from 3000 years ago

I came across this great paper today*:

CONNAUGHTON, S. P., TACHÉ, K., & BURLEY, D. V. (2010). Taupita: A 3000-year-old Shell Game in the Lapita Cultural Complex of TongaJournal of Social Archaeology, 10(1), 118-137. DOI:10.1177/1469605309354400  [link]

Abstract: Recent excavations at the archaeological site of Nukuleka on Tongatapu in the Tongan Archipelago have yielded the largest Lapita collection of perforated Ark (Anadara) shells known to date. In this article, we focus on the unusually large collection of modified Ark shells from Nukuleka in an attempt to unravel the ambiguity that surrounds their functional interpretation. Former interpretations of perforated Anadara as shell net weights may only explain one possible cause of their construction. We proffer, through relational analogy, that we are witnessing a 3000-year-old Lapita shell game.

These shells-with-holes in the 3000-year old archaeological record for Lapita have long been thought of as weighting material for fishing nets. But! The authors describe how during the field season on Tonga the local field assistants would, in their breaks, play a shell-based game (Taupita) – and the “debris” from this game matched that of the so-called net weights. Some lovely experimental archaeology later, and while they can’t discount the idea that the shells were used as net-weights, it’s certainly just as plausible that they were the pieces in a ancestral game resembling Taupita.

From the paper: Left: Playing Taupita Right: Anadara antiquata shells

This is groovy. I often mention in talks that one of the reasons for using phylogenetic methods on cultural and linguistic data is for the purposes of “virtual archaeology” – being able to infer something about social life in the past in the absence of appropriate material culture from archaeology. But there are of course some aspects of human behaviour and social life that combine both of these things: they leave some trace through artifacts, but there are missing pieces of the puzzle in terms of cognition, communication, or other cultural/behavioural aspects that remain outstanding. Games are a really good example – and often overlooked by both anthropologists and archaeologists. In the discussion the authors say:

As a community of archaeological scholars in pursuit of ‘big’ questions and larger anthropological themes, we sometimes lose sight of the day-to-day aspects of a society, including leisure time games which are rarely mentioned (but see Culin,1975; DeBoer,2001). Games are a social mechanism that can provide a unique opportunity to develop a skill, educate, make a tool,and/or potentially create a better understanding of one’s self. Games are also fun and part of the human experience.

Pacific anthropology has pulled its weight here, I think (no pun intended) – from the earliest late 19th century descriptions games were frequently mentioned, and there were detailed descriptions of string figures in a number of classic Pacific ethnographies, many published by the Bishop Museum. Honor Maude’s wonderful book on Nauru comes to mind here. I’d love to see more comparative and historical work on games – let me know if you have suggestions.

*So great I wanted to blog about it straight away, causing me to deviate from the master plan for today … but at least now I won’t go and do unnecessary research for this post all afternoon?

South Pacific

Pohutukawa flowers on Orewa Beach, New Zealand

I’m watching the BBC series South Pacific on DVD at the moment, and I’m up to the third episode. The series has beautiful cinematography: astonishing ultra-slow-motion footage of waves breaking on Pohnpei was the centrepiece of the first episode, and I’m not going to forget the creepy carnivorous caterpillars in action in Hawaii or the tiger sharks eating the albatross fledglings.

But the series is very much suffering from being “thematic” in the way that many modern museum collections are: without historical or geographic context, a loose set of narratives on a theme is forgettable. Set-pieces become nothing more than passing fancy for the eyes, with only the shocking or unexpected being committed to memory. It’s a great shame – as someone who works on Austronesian cultural diversity and comes from Oceania, it’s always disappointed me that there’s not been a good television series on the natural and cultural history of the Pacific. This series aspires to be that, but it’s a string of anecdotes, lurching from zoology to weather to culture, picking out the amazing (vine-jumping Pentecost Islanders from Vanuatu) and the extreme (freezing Macquarie Island with its penguins and elephant seals), with no contextual background of what the biology of the region is like as a whole, or how the fascinating and complex human settlement history has shaped the social and cultural diversity of today.

Most disappointly, the anthropology has made me cringe. The series is narrated (albeit by the splendid Benedict Cumberbatch) rather than having interviewers or allowing people to speak, and it all comes across as terribly touristic and superficial. Anutans were glowing described as people living in mystical harmony with their tiny atoll environment, and contrasted with those rapacious Rapa Nui who used up all their resources. You would think there was no-one living on Easter Island today, because all we got were atmospheric shots of the moai.

I’m relegating it to the background now and just waiting for the bits about keas. Keas are cool. Here’s one walking up a snowy slope with its beak. Bet you can’t do that.

ARKive video - Kea walking up snowy mountain side - using beak

JPS online!

That’s the Journal of the Polynesian Society, if you were wondering.

It’s been a sad wrench for me at UCL, browsing the e-journals list of our library and always feeling a little empty spot in my heart right here:

The Society is only up to the 1930s, but seeing as the really good ethnographic stuff is mostly pre-1950, it’s a goldmine already.

JPS is one of my favourite journals. It’s regional, obviously, but its coverage within the Oceania remit is a real four-field anthropology, with history, sociology, economics, and geography as well. When I was an undergraduate nerd and used to actually go to the library and read journals I would invariably find at least one or two articles in JPS worth a read. They always seemed chatty and fascinating, especially the dusty ones.

paper: unexpected NRY chromosome variation in Melanesia

Unexpected NRY chromosome variation in Northern Island Melanesia
Scheinfeldt et al
Molecular Biology and Evolution, Advance Access

To investigate the paternal population history of populations in Northern Island Melanesia, 685 paternally unrelated males from 36 populations in this region and New Guinea were analyzed at 14 regionally informative binary markers and seven short-tandem-repeat loci from the non-recombining portion of the Y chromosome. Three newly defined binary markers (K6-P79, K7-P117, and M2-P87) aided in identifying considerable heterozygosity that would have otherwise gone undetected. Judging from their geographic distributions and network analyses of their associated short-tandem-repeat profiles, four lineages appear to have developed in this region and to be of considerable age: K6-P79, K7-P117, M2-P87, and M2a-P22. The origins of K5-M230 and M-M4 are also confirmed as being located further west, probably in New Guinea. In the 25 adequately sampled populations, the number of different haplogroups ranged from two in the single most isolated group (the Aita of Bougainville), to nine, and measures of molecular diversity were generally not particularly low. The resulting pattern contradicts earlier findings that suggested far lower male-mediated diversity and gene exchange rates in the region. However, these earlier studies had not included the newly defined haplogroups. We could only identify a very weak signal of recent male Southeast Asian genetic influence (<10%), which was almost entirely restricted to Austronesian (Oceanic) speaking groups. This contradicts earlier assumptions on the ancestral composition of these groups and requires a revision of hypotheses concerning the settlement of the islands of the central Pacific, which commenced from this region.

Have yet to digest this and its implications, will read it today and update. The emphasis is mine, as it is the intriguing part.

fishing, voyaging, and personality

Putting together cross-cultural information on the sorts of fishing that men and women did is interesting. Oceanic women were much more involved in fishing than I had realised. The typical pattern is for women to fish along the reef or by line/net in the lagoon. Spear-fishing, deep-sea diving, offshore fishing and other beyond-the-reef activities seem to be the province of men if these sorts of fishing are present.

Bengt Danielsson's "Work and Life on Raroia", a chatty ethnography of a Tuamotu atoll, mentions that torch fishing is not men's work, as on Ifaluk in Micronesia, but the province of both sexes. Called "rama", this is when fish on the outer reef flat are blinded by some form of lantern and then whacked over the head with big knife. Good times.

Discussing the difficulty of comparative studies and their further complications by individual variations within cultures (with respect to acculturation proceses, but the point is wider), Danielsson quotes Spoehr:

Amyone who has been in an outrigger canoe out of sight of land, with a tropical front approaching, knows that it takes a very particular personality type to cope with these conditions. We could very possibly reconstruct the personality type that was a necessary and sufficient condition for the migrations into the Pacific.

This is a neglected point to think upon, possibly because it drives you mad: the influence of individuals and their decision-making on the course of cultural differentiation. But, the Benedictine "culture is personality writ large" aphorism is kinda worth unpacking when thinking about Oceanic voyaging and the disappearance of the horizon. I don't know if there's a personality type that is necessary for long-distance voyaging–possibly more a type that's unsuitable and thus gets left behind–but there are quite likely to be a certain set of values and behaviours that predominate in a voyaging population. And possibly when the population lands and expands, and Boyd-Richersonian types of cultural processes like prestige bias etc are going to be active upon them.

Of course this is all idle speculation. Time for lunch.

PS: Fun interview with David Botstein in PLoS. His approach to the value of teaching is great to hear. 

Gavin Menzies rewriting Polynesian origins, neat!

Via Savage Minds, who have reproduced the article from the Dominion. Gavin Menzies (author of a book called 1421: The Year China Discovered The World–which I have not read) claims all sorts of interesting selective stuff about Chinese exploration of the Pacific (transcript of a speech, here) and most mindbogglingly, that the Maori were not actually Polynesians but result of "Melanesian slaves raping Chinese prostitutes".

Reading the speech linked above it seems clear to me that Menzies is relying heavily on selective-to-the-point-of-distorted interpretations of genetic work. Yes, East Asian lineages appear in Polynesian and South American populations. But this is because they share common East Asian ancestors a good, oh, 6000 years ago, in the case of the Polynesians, and likely twice that for South Americans. Not because they're descended from a Chinese/Japanese "fleet" from 600 years ago.

More from the speech above:

M. Hertzberg and Colleagues found an Asian specific delection of mitochondrial DNA in Polynesians – notably, Niueans, Tongans, Samoans and Maoris. Shinji Harihara and colleagues produce startling pie charts – it appears the Niueans, Tongans, Samoans and Fijians had ancestors from the Shizoka province of Japan. To this day Niueans share close linguistic similarities with Mainland Chinese.

I'd expect this in a second-year anthropological genetics paper (which I would subsequently give a C). The whole point about the 9bp deletion is that it tracks (roughly) the Austronesian expansion, of which all those Polynesian populations were the end result. I can't even begin to stop laughing at "startling pie charts" and hope one day to get a review which praises MY startling pie charts. And Niueans sharing close linguistic similarities with Mainland Chinese (uh, what are we calling Mainland Chinese?)… okay. I would like to see the statistical comparison there that demonstrates more cognates between Niuean and Mandarin than Niuean and Tikopian, or Niuean and Mekeo, or Niuean and freakin' MALAGASY, and then I might listen.

Yup. Might be waiting some time for that.

Back to the Dominion report:

Menzies said his book had been well-received around the world but had drawn hostile criticism in New Zealand — because academics were government servants out to protect their pensions.

"People just don't believe them any more. I think they live in boxes and their whole way of teaching history is fundamentally flawed, from the bottom up."

Well, it is always a big clue when the academic pension is regarded as the carrot by which scores of anthropologists/historians/biologists conspire to fraudulently rewrite history, and a lone voice carries the truth, right?

I am quite tempted to read this book as a bit of rage is sometimes quite healthy, but like Oppenheimer's Eden in the East, I fear it might sit nicely alongside a bit of Graham Hancock.

edited to add: A quick tour of 1421exposed and links therein reveals right-thinking folk have gone ahead and thoroughly demolished this rubbish. Well done, learned peeps. 

Have a more interesting link instead, (beautiful) photos of the Columbian Nukak

pasifika styles

Courtesy of Sheyne Tuffery, whose art I’ve recently discovered (and love), heads-up that the University of Cambridge Museum of Anthropology & Archaeology is holding an exhibition called Pasifika Styles from May, with artists, craftspeople, performing artists, and displays of the Museums collections.

I may have to revise my assertion that Oceanic cultural events are few and far between in these isles.

Also, the House of Taonga (taonga means treasures/property, but also accessory or equipment), a collective of Maori artists/performing artists. Fabulous webdesign–for starters–and a talented group of people with an admirable ethic.

virtual anthropological exhibitions

The UPenn Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology has a set of online exhibitions at World Cultures: Ancient and Modern. The celebrities choosing a favourite artifact was a bit gimmicky, but I really enjoyed:

Sailing the ocean without map or compass: Traditional navigation in the western Pacific. Navigation training and technique in the Caroline Islands. I’d love to get hold of the associated PBS documentary.

Eggi’s Village: Life among the Minangkabau. A matrilineal population in Sumatra, the Minangkabau speak an Austronesian language and are part of the set of cultures I’m studying.

commonwealth day

The Cuming Museum in Southwark is holding an exhibition entitled Mana: Ornament and Adornment From the Pacific. Polynesian decorative arts like tattooing and jewellery, which is like the confluence of all the things I love.

Today is Commonwealth Day, and I’m off to Westminster Abbey to partake of the observance in the presence of Chuck and Camilla. Least that’s what my ticket says. I have a feeling I’m a little underdressed for the occasion but it’s a freaking great big stone building and I don’t anticipate removing my coat.