Fire Caves of Nanumaga
Age (Australia), Monday 13 April 1987.
the northern shore of Nanumaga island in western Polynesia's Tuvalu island group last year, two scuba
divers investigating a local legend of "a large house under the
sea" found an underwater cave morethan 40 metres down the wall of a
coral cliff. Dark patches on the roof and walls and blackened coral
fragments on its floor suggest the use of fire by human occupants.
last time people could possibly have occupied the cave was during a time
of low sea level more than 8000 years ago, a date sharply at odds with the
view that the Pacific was settled just 6000 years ago. The evidence of
fire may be ambiguous, but the durable cultural memory of the cave's
existence is not so easily dismissed.
archeologists may have got it very wrong. In focusing on archaeological
evidence, they have been blind to a vital piece of climatic evidence - a
massive and continuous rise in sea level that began l8,000 years ago and
stopped 4000 years ago and probably drowned most of the evidence of much
earlier human migrations into the Pacific.
the Journal of Pacific History, Dr. John Gibbons of the University of the
South Pacific in Fiji wrote: “…trying to make sense of Pacific
prehistory may have been somewhat akin to the efforts of someone who
arrives in time for the second act of a play, and then attempts to work
out the plot without even realizing that the first act has already taken
Gibbons and his. co-author, Dr. Fergus Clunie, believe
the Pacific was colonised by waves of "boat people”, driven
from their ancestral coastal homelands in Indonesia and South-East Asia by
rising oceans. The known world of Pacific archaeology ends abruptly at a
temporal horizon 6000 years ago, the earliest date of distinctive shards
of Lapita, Ppttery. The pottery is found in coastal regions throughout the
south-west Pacific, from the Marquesas in the east, to New Caledonia in
the south and the Carolines in the north.
Lapita culture has been thought to trace its origins to coast-dwelling
fisher-folk from Indonesia and the Philippines, who mastered the art of
sailing and spread rapidly into the Pacific from about 4000 years ago. But
the archaeology clashes with linguistic evidence that some of the islands
of Polynesia, lying at great distance from Asia, had already been settled
at least 5000 years ago.
Gibbons and Dr. Clunie have offered a radical theory which suggests
skilled mariners were navigating around the Pacific perhaps 10,000 years
before the flowering of the great civilisations of Sumeria and Egypt.
point out that, from 100,000 years ago until today's sea levels were
established, periods of glaciation locked away huge volumes of water. This
caused the sea level to fluctuate between 20 and 45 metres lower than at
present. The sea reached its modern level only 4000 years ago, a date
corresponding closely to the age of the oldest Lapita pottery -- too
closely to be a coincidence.
Pacific archaeology will require scuba gear, or must shift to elevated
areas, like the site in Papua New Guinea that recently yielded a stone axe
with an indicated age of 40-45,000 years.
drove the first Pacific colonistst to migrate? The popular view of one is
opportunistic migrants, island-hopping when low sea levels created land
bridges and reduced inter-island distances.
Gibbons and Clunie suggest two other driving forces. Periods of very low
sea level more than 18,000 years ago disrupted coastal ecosystems and
ruined the livelihood of maritime
cultures. Then a period of migration, driven by rising sea levels, crowded
retreating coastal peoples into contact with their inland neighbors. The rising sea levels shrank the ancestral homelands of the
Pacific peoples to just a quarter of their former area, placing enormous
pressure on coast-dwelling peoples to find new living room.
because the ocean rise was slow, some cultures that practised primitive
agriculture would have been given time to make the transition to a fishing
economy and to develop sailing skills, setting the stage for later
eastwards marine migration into the islands of the Pacific.
preceding period, when disparate coastal and inland cultures were forced
together as land became scarce, may account for linguistic evidence of a
time of great cultural upheaval and mixing, pre-dating the oldest Lapita
fact, Clunie and Fergus believe the curiously diverse Lapita culture
resulted from a forced fusion of coastal and inland peoples. Its
practitioners were fishermen and sailors. Yet their pottery used clay that
was brought long distances from inland regions of their islands,
suggesting the art originated with earlier inland cultures.
and Fergus believe the Lapita culture was merely the modern tip of a
cultural iceberg and that people who had not yet developed the art of
pottey-making were sailing around the Pacific perhaps 10,000 years or more
before the Lapita peoples left their pottery shards to posterity.
first encounter, such a feat of marine technology and navigation stretches
credulity. But the colonisation of Australia by the ancestors of the
Aborigines is implicit evidence that men were making short sea voyages in
the Pacific some 50,000 years ago -- because at no time has the sea gap
between Australia and the eastern islands of Indonesia been less than 70
"big house under the sea” off the island in Tuvalu is not the only
hint that the Pacific was colonised much earlier than 4000 years ago. West
of Fiji, mysterious humps called "tumuli"
have been found on Ile des Pins in New Caledonia. They appear man-made and
have cylindrical ores of a type of lime concrete made of sea shells which
yield carbon-dated ages between 3000 and 8000 years.
a pre-Lapita people construct tumuli? Or did the rising ocean submerge the
roots of a much older Lapita culture one dating back some 10,000 years
it turns out, there are there are other lines of evidence, including
genetic markers and language, that point to much earlier colonisation of
the Pacific. A striking linguistic thread runs through the diverse ethnic
groups of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. They all speak languages
that derive from am early language that linguists have dubbed Austronesian,
which Clunie and Fergus believe may have been the Lingua franca of
communication and trade between early Pacific cultures, just as English is
for modern trade and comnmication.
simplified, Gibbons and Clunie's new scenario for the colonisation of the
Pacific suggests that more than 50,000 years ago, Australian and New
Guinea, then a single land mass, were colonised, possibly at a time of low
sea level. Sea gaps as large as 50-8O Kilometres still existed between
Australia and Indonesia, compelling the conclsion that these first
settlers sailed rather than walked, into the new lands. If, on the other
hand, the original Australoid peoples were driven from their Asian coastal
homes by high sea levels, the migration may have occurred as early as
60-70,000 years ago, when sea levels were very high.
15,000 years ago, waves of Papua-speaking invaders from the flooding
lowlands of Indonesia began displacing the original Australoid inhabitants
of New Guinea, some of whom retreated into the highlands. Australia had
separated from New Guinea, and the Austronesian-speaking Papuans did not
earliest Papuans probably used their new homeland as a launching point for
a further eastward migration into Melanesia -- including the Bismarck
Archipelago, the Solomons and Santa Cruz group and beyond -- at least
11,000 years ago, and possibly much earlier.
8000 years ago, with the oceans still rising, more South-East Asian
Austronesian-speaking peoples were displaced from Indonesia into Papua New
Guinea. A group which settled the north coast of the island followed the
original Papuans into the eastern Pacific, introducing their culture and
an Oceanic form of the basic Austronesian language into Melanesia.
Lapita culture may have arisen from the ensuing cultural mixing, and been
sustained by an extensive trading ring in the south-western Pacific. Well
over 3,500 years ago, Melanesians had crossed a very large oceanic gap to
settle Fiji, taking the Lapita culture with them.
Polynesia was settled some centuries later. The origin of the Polynesians
is still subject to debate, but by this time, marine technology was
presumably more sophisticated and much longer oceanic voyages may have
Despite a romantic view of Polynesians as the descendants of "high Asians", free of Melanesian blood, the more likely explanation is that they derive from a mixing between later, long-distance emigrants from South-East Asia and Lapita Melanesians. Their settlement of the Cook Islands, the Marquesas and, finally, Hawaii and New Zealand, occurred relatively late in the long history of human colonisation of the Pacific. The impact of the new theory of colonization of the Pacific advanced by Gibbons and Clunie cannot be predicated, but their pointed observations about the likely impact of weld-documented changes in sea levels upon Pacific prehistory will demand a reappraisal of some cherished ideas.