Them Dry Bones: Archaeology and Nation Making in Papua New Guineas [1]

Ian Lilley (University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia)


This essay has two parts. Both concern the practise of archaeology in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a former Melanesian[2] territory of Australia which gained independence in 1975. My purpose is to consider how archaeology articulates with PNG’s project of nation making.

In the first part of the paper I address the postcolonialist criticism that migrationist scenarios of Melanesian prehistory[3] necessarily denigrate all or large parts of PNG’s population. I suggest that those of us who favour migration in certain of our models would find such imputations easier to dismiss if we were less ambiguous about the nature of the social/ethnic identities we think existed in the region in the past. As Green (1992) has discussed, such identities are usually modelled in vague terms in Pacific archaeology. Moreover, while the conceptualizations being advanced have by no means remained static as we strive to accommodate new data, in many respects they continue to be described in language that is more appropriate to “an outmoded type of synthesis, the culture-historical, that is no longer acceptable to archaeologists of a processual, post-processual or other persuasion” (Green 1992:10). This makes it easy for critics to posit that a derogatory essentialist perspective on identity underpins all models of long-term change in the region which pivot on migration rather than local cultural development. As Allen (1996:12) has put it, “the notion of innovation and change being carried from superior cultures to inferior ones has been, and remains, a dominant model for reconstructing prehistory”.

Those of us who support migrationist explanations of particular events and processes in Melanesian prehistory should more explicitly advance a view of ethnic and other forms of social identity as dynamic, situational phenomena rather than primordial qualities which can be stereotyped as inherently ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’. If we did so we would be in a much better position to determine what sorts of cultural mechanisms were behind the “more interactive” patterns of past behaviour “involving interchanges between new arrivals and incumbent Melanesians” that are suggested by new Melanesian data (Allen 1996:12). In addition to helping cast light on such important substantive issues, this would also allow us to move beyond the prominent but increasingly unproductive exchanges regarding the relative ethical merits of indigenist and migrationist positions that mark Melanesian and wider Pacific archaeology. In an attempt to take a step in this direction, I outline a model of late Holocene developments in PNG’s Bismarck Archipelago in which the processes of identity formation form a central focus.

In the second section of the paper I build upon the first to address more directly the question of archaeology’s role in nation making. I focuss on the sort of part archaeologists might play in PNG’s nation-making project if they were actively to promote a situational view of ethnicity, which I think could help make archaeology more relevant than it is now to the construction of identity for Papua New Guineans today. While it may initially prove difficult, owing to the firm grip that essentialist conceptions have on lay views of social identity, such an approach might be the best way to advance our professional interests in the country over the longer term, given the hazards that history shows us can ensue from the political abuse of primordialist notions of identity.

Part One

In 1986, Papua New Guinean archaeologist Jo Mangi (1989) presented a paper entitled “The role of archaeology in nation building” at the inaugural World Archaeology Congress (WAC) in Southampton. He explicitly advocated the use of archaeology in forging a sense of nationhood from the astounding sociolinguistic complexity of his homeland. Many of Mangi’s ideas echo the proposals of his mentor, Les Groube. Three years before WAC, Groube spoke about archaeology and national identity in PNG at an Australian Academy of Humanities symposium that McBryde (1985) published as Who Owns the Past? In his chapter on the “ownership of diversity”, Groube describes how a strictly indigenist view of the nation’s ancient past would not only help foster national spirit, but would also avoid the pitfalls of the racial stereotyping that he sees inhering in migrationist models of the sort commonly used by archaeologists in Melanesia and other parts of the Pacific.

In Groube’s view, models that locate the origins of major developments in Melanesian prehistory in Southeast Asia or elsewhere necessarily afforded us a diminished view of Melanesians’ humanity and cultural capabilities. He argues that such models promote the racist idea that people from Southeast Asia, such as those conventionally thought by Pacific archaeologists to have moved through Melanesia and into the remote Pacific to become the Polynesians over the last few millennia, were innately superior to the descendents of the people who originally colonized New Guinea and the adjacent Bismarck and Solomon Islands archipelagoes 40,000 years ago or more. These last are thought to be represented today by groups such as the Highlanders of mainland New Guinea.

Interestingly in this context, the increasing amount that has been written about nation making in PNG in recent times mentions archaeology only in passing if at all (e.g. Errington and Gewertz 1995, Foster 1995a, b, 1992, Hirsch 1995, 1990, Jacobsen 1995, LiPuma 1995). This situation mirrors that in the wider community in PNG, which in my experience pays as little close attention to the profession and its results now as it did when Groube’s lamented the fact in 1983 (1985:49, see Spriggs 1992:271 for a similar observation). Indeed, although it is not concerned in any respect with archaeology, the clear implication of anthropological work over many years in one island group with which I am archaeologically familiar is that our endeavours may not just be seen as irrelevant but could in fact be viewed by particular interest groups as positively harmful to the national project (Errington and Gewertz 1995). This would especially be so where archaeologists were professionally involved in – or their professional activities were construed in unsympathetic quarters as – advocacy for one or more of the myriad sociolinguistic groups in the country.

As is now commonly the case in recently-decolonized and settler societies, archaeologists seem caught in an ambiguous relationship with indigenous people in PNG. On the one hand, ancestral heritage is granted special mention in the preamble of the nation’s constitution (quoted by Foster 1995a:26-27). On the other hand, the constitution refers to “worthy customs and traditional wisdom” handed “from generation to generation”, rather than a heritage revealed by archaeology. Moreover, there is no evidence that more that a few individuals in either the urban elite or at village level have any abiding interest in archaeology, or that those acquainted with the discipline are more likely to have a positive view of it than a negative one.

How ought we proceed if we wish to continue to cultivate favourable interest in the discipline in such circumstances? I would begin by examining in more detail some of the reasoning behind the Groube-Mangi propositions regarding archaeology and nation-making. This reasoning is consistent with much that has been written in more recent years about European perspectives on Pacific history (e.g. Terrell 1988 and Terrell et al. 1997 for archaeological treatments, cf. Kirch 1997:113-117). It contends that Melanesia has long been seen as the poor cousin (or worse) of Polynesia and/or Southeast Asia and thus, by extension, that migrationist perspectives unjustifiably condemn Melanesians in general to an inferior status. Within that inferior caste, migrationist perspectives are seen to priviledge Melanesians who speak languages in the Austronesian family, who, it is proposed, are held by migrationist scholars to be culturally and historically closely linked with the ‘more civilized’ peoples of Asia and Polynesia, while relegating speakers of non-Austronesian languages, and particularly Highlanders, to some lower rank of barbarism.

Critical stances such as these are common in throughout our postcolonial world, and have been theorized at length by Lightfoot and Martinez (1995) in the Annual Review of Anthropology. They posit that traditional “archaeological studies of frontiers and boundaries [of the sort PNG can be seen to form between Asia and the remote Pacific] are informed by a colonialist perspective of core-periphery relationships”. In essence, it is argued that these traditional postures adopt a “top-down” approach to culture change (Wolf 1982:23) and “treat frontiers as passive recipients of core innovations” rather than “active agents[s] in the transformation of culture” (Lightfoot and Martinez 1995:471).

While the critiques of Groube, Mangi, Terrell and others are directed against the use of migrationist models at any time after primary human colonization some 40,000 years ago, they apply most obviously to the Lapita phenomenon in island Melanesia. Strictly speaking, Lapita is the name of the site in New Caledonia where the first Lapita assemblage to be recognized as such was excavated. The term ‘Lapita’ is also used to denote the elaborately-decorated form of low-fired, earthenware pottery which characterizes such assemblages, which are found from the Bismarck Archipelago near New Guinea to Samoa in western Polynesia and New Caledonia in southern Melanesia in contexts dating between about 3300 and 2700 BP. The pottery is usually associated with a suite of other material and locational archaeological markers that conventionally are taken together to comprise the Lapita Cultural Complex. Harking back to Green’s (1992) comments about vague and confusing terminology, this cultural complex as a whole is also usually just called ‘Lapita’ by Pacific archaeologists.

Lapita in this last sense marks initial human settlement of the Pacific beyond the Solomon Islands. Its overall distribution is thought by the orthodox to reflect an extremely rapid movement from the Bismarcks into the remote Pacific of identity-conscious, Austronesian-speaking agriculturalists ultimately of Southeast Asian biological and linguistic origin. After a pause of about 1,000 years and the loss of Lapita and eventually all pottery, some of descendents of those ‘Lapita people’ who reached Samoa and Tonga in western Polynesia went on to become the first human inhabitants of the rest of Polynesia, in the vast area between Hawai’i, Easter Island and New Zealand.

Although they are not cast in explicitly postcolonialist terms, the alternative, indigenist models of Allen and White (e.g. Allen and White 1989, also Allen 1996) for the origins of the Lapita cultural complex would probably go a long way in Groube’s, Mangi’s or Terrell’s view towards salvaging the standing of late Holocene non-Austronesian-speaking populations in the Bismarck Archipelago. I think, however, that Allen at least recognizes that he has been fighting something of a losing battle, and that some culturally significant though not necessarily numerically substantial migration from Southeast Asia has to be admitted if all the historical evidence available to us, archaeological and non-archaeological, is to be explained. By the same token, orthodox migrationists have also made some effort to evaluate and accommodate the evidence and arguments for local continuity or input in the Bismarcks. Thus we see scholars such as Green, who originally proposed that the Bismarck Archipelago rather than island Southeast Asia is the immediate ‘homeland’ of Lapita (1979:45), continuing to outline strategies for deconstructing and regrouping all the various strands of the wide-ranging evidence now to hand (e.g. Green 1992, 1991). It would be fair to say that Bellwood (1995) maintains an uncomplicated culture-historical approach, and views Austronesian agriculturalists throughout their huge range (which also extends across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar) as an identifiable ‘people’. Like Green, however, other high-profile advocates of migrationist models such as Spriggs and Kirch explicitly acknowledge the complex fluidity of Lapita identity, at least after initial colonization of the Bismarcks by Southeast Asian Austronesian-speakers. Spriggs (1997:87), for instance, argues against “any simple ‘ethnic’ classification for later Lapita settlements”. He (1997:100) points out that while “there may have been a moment in the Bismarcks when there was a single people using Lapita pottery, genetically, linguistically and culturally distinct from their neighbours…this unity and distinctiveness would have been short-lived”. Similarly, Kirch (1997:117) notes that “Terrell is to be credited with forcing us to reassess fundamental assumptions and methodological approaches” and that when we ask “the question, who were ‘the Lapita peoples?’…we find [that the answer] depends on at what time and in what place one is referring to, for Lapita was a dynamic phenomenon”.

Despite such indications of support for situational models of social identity, these well-known migrationist researchers still appear to some of their colleagues – and especially Terrell – to cleave to a reactionary primordialist model of ethnicity. It is this perception of their scholarly approach to identity that leaves them open to the sorts of postcolonial criticism regarding neocolonialist attitudes and racist stereotyping that have been made by commentators such Groube, Mangi, and Lightfoot and Martinez in connection with migrationist perspectives on the human past.

In the case of Lapita there is a way forward that deals realistically with archaeological and other evidence for migration into Melanesia while paying more than lip-service to the evidence for significant local input and avoiding the pitfalls of an essentialist culture-historical approach. For some years, I have been developing a set of hypotheses with which to explain the nature and extent of the local, Melanesian developments that must have been involved in the Lapita florescence. I originally presented the ideas in a 1990 conference paper to expand upon Allen and White’s 1989 indigenist model of Lapita origins, but have since modified them to account for a greater acceptance on my part of the role migration played in the Lapita phenomenon. I now seek (e.g. Lilley 1999) to describe and explain in explicit terms the processes or mechanisms of interaction which might have produced a distinctive Lapita ethnic identity in the Bismarcks following limited Austronesian migration from Southeast Asia but prior to the dispersal of Lapita beyond the Bismarcks to become the founding human culture in Vanuatu and New Caledonia to the south and Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to the east. I do this by marrying Anthony’s (1990) insights regarding archaeological migrations with contemporary anthropological conceptions of ethnicity (see Jones 1997 for an excellent review from an archaeological perspective), through the application to Lapita of Cohen’s (1969, 1971) anthropological propositions regarding trading diasporas in West Africa (see R. Cohen 1997 for broader commentary on diasporas).

I will not discuss the details of Anthony’s or Cohen’s ideas at length here. With regard to their application in Melanesia, however, it seems obvious to me that local developments ‘pulled’ Southeast Asian people and culture into the Bismarcks as much as Southeast Asian events and processes (especially population increase linked with the expansion of farming) ‘pushed’ them in the way that researchers such as Bellwood (1995) argue. Precisely what the ‘pull factors’ may have been is difficult to judge as yet, owing to a lack of evidence from the immediately pre-Lapita period, but they might be glossed for the purposes of the argument as ‘emerging economic and political opportunities’ and contrasted with more limited horizons in Southeast Asia (cf. Goodenough 1996:6-9, Kirch 1997:63-66).

I think these opportunities centred on the distribution of obsidian. In 1988, Kirch (p. 162) made the aside that “it is not yet possible to rule out a model of expanding Austronesian colonists who may have ‘tapped into’ an older small-scale obsidian distribution network”. We now know that such a network operated in various forms for more than 15,000 years before Lapita appeared. It was centred on a single set of sources in the Talasea-Cape Hoskins region in central northern New Britain, one of the main islands in the Bismarcks. Evidence now coming to hand from Torrence’s work around Talasea (1994, 1992; see White 1996, White and Harris 1997 for additional pertinent discussion) suggests the operation of long-term trends of intensification in resource use in the obsidian source area prior to the appearance of Lapita. I hypothesise that long-distance distribution of obsidian was intensifying as part of this process, with far-reaching ramifications for coastal exchange networks at a time when Goodenough (1982, 1996) and Swadling (1995) suggest there was growing Chinese and/or Southeast Asian interest in products from northwestern Melanesia (see also Chang and Goodenough 1996:50-52).

Here the model can go either of two ways. The least migrationist and, in Groube’s and Mangi’s postcolonial terms, least offensive tack would be to modify Allen and White’s 1989 proposals to a minimal degree and suggest that local processes of intensification alone ‘pulled’ Southeast Asian interest into the Bismarcks. This idea was at the heart of an unpublished section of the aforementioned conference paper presented when I was first thinking in detail about the questions to hand. Immediately prior to the appearance of Lapita, however, there was a volcanic eruption of staggering proportions in the eastern part of the obsidian source area on New Britain. At the risk of revisiting what often tends to be an unproductive debate about archaeological change and volcanism, we cannot dismiss out of hand the role of an event of this magnitude in the developments in question. Torrence might still argue the point, but I think her data (see above) and Pavlides’s findings (1996, Pavlides and Gosden 1994) in interior New Britain indicate significant shifts in the nature of activity after the eruption. Lapita sites appeared suddenly and without precedent on the coast, occasionally in previously-occupied places, but most often in new localities. Obsidian artefact manufacturing technology changed and a highly-distinctive coastal tool-type vanished. There were changes in coastal and inland resource-procurement and settlement patterns as well. On this basis I favour the less indigenist, and thus perhaps in Groube and Mangi’s terms ethically more problematical position that cataclysmic volcanism created various technical problems of communication and control in regionally-critical, obsidian-dependent pre-Lapita exchange networks, problems that local mechanisms were unable to accommodate in the short term (cf Spriggs 1997:76). I also hypothesise that the appearance of Lapita was intimately connected with the process of recovery of these obsidian-dependent trade networks.

Such hypotheses do not imply that obsidian-dependent trade in the north New Guinea-New Britain region was on the verge of collapse owing to local Melanesian ineptitude or cultural inferiority. The idea is rather that such trade was confronted by sudden organizational difficulties that were not accommodated effectively by the acephalous, technologically-‘Neolithic’ local societies which must have been dramatically affected by an eruption of such magnitude. It is possible that some aspects of local people’s lives returned to normal relatively quickly even without modern disaster relief programs. In the absence of industrial technology and overarching political authority, however, disruptions to obsidian-dependent long-distance trade networks would have been much more difficult to reconstitute or reconfigure in the short to medium term, regardless of what the societies concerned may have been able to do in their local areas in the same time frame.

It can be hypothesized that these profound difficulties created perturbations that reached down-the-line through overlapping interaction spheres which reached from the Bismarks along the north coast of New Guinea into the eastern fringes of island Southeast Asia, from where highly mobile traders (or would-be traders) with interests that ultimately if hitherto indirectly reached into the Bismarcks departed to investigate the source of the problem. This is not necessarily to say they came looking for the source of a supply of obsidian that suddenly dried up. New Britain obsidian itself may not have reached very far west along the north New Guinea coast in appreciable quantities. Down-the line trade or exchange that did reach along the coast may have been critically dependent on obsidian in some of its easterly linkages however, and may thus have been thrown into disarray when the obsidian stopped moving to where it was required for all the linkages to function in the proper sequence.

The suggestion is that the interactions of small numbers of Southeast Asian ‘trader-scouts’ with each other, their home communities and perhaps also local people in the Bismarcks created conditions for renewed activity and growth in the obsidian source area and in exchange linkages which reached further afield. In addition to any benefits (or, indeed, disadvantages) this interaction may have had for existing Melanesian populations, being on-site rather than at a significant geographical remove would almost certainly have provided the Southeast Asian trader-scouts with economic and sociopolitical opportunities not available in their home communities.

Introducing Cohen’s acephalous trading diaspora model at this juncture is apt because it describes and explains a situation close to the one that I suspect obtained in the Bismarcks in the brief period from immediately before Lapita emerged to the time it began to spread beyond the archipelago and out into the remote Pacific. Specifically, it provides a mechanism which analytically and historically gets us from individual ‘trader-scouts’ penetrating the Bismarcks along individual trade ‘roads’ to the emergence in the same region of the fully-developed Lapita cultural complex that very soon afterwards spread with astonishing rapidity into remote Oceania. I hypothesize that this mechanism was the emergence in the Bismarcks of an ethnically-distinct trading diaspora that is reflected archaeologically in what Pacific archaeologists call Early or Far Western Lapita (e.g. Kirch 1997:71-72, Spriggs 1997:13).

I suggest that to survive and prosper, the original, far-flung ‘trader-scouts’ would have begun the process, possibly but not necessarily consciously. The most critical outcome of their activity in this regard would have been the creation of a form of society which “combines stability of structure but allows a high degree of mobility of personnel” (Cohen 1971:267), or as Gosden (1992:25) describes it, a social system that allowed them “to stay in motion and yet maintain balance”. In beginning this process, they laid the blueprint for the emergence during the Early/Far Western Lapita period of a fully-fledged trading diaspora, as economic expansion created by their activities, and information about it they relayed back to their home regions, encouraged a more significant (though not necessarily numerically very substantial) movement of population from Southeast Asia into the Bismarcks.

I will not elaborate here, but I think that a Lapita society created in the Bismarcks in this manner would comprise a social formation much like those in West Africa described by Cohen. I make this claim on the grounds that even though much of what we know or postulate about the Lapita cultural complex is heavily moulded by culture-historical theory of a sort I reject, it suggests that effort similar to that described by Cohen went into similar means of establishing and reinforcing ethnic distinctiveness, and for facilitating communication and maintaining authority among the communities scattered through the Bismarcks in the ways that were required for the diaspora to survive. I suggest that the most visible symbol of this effort is the unmistakable pottery we call Lapita. This idea is one way to make sense of the fact that while it is highly distinctive, decorated Lapita pottery can be poorly-fired and thus seemingly ill-suited to utilitarian use (e.g. Ambrose 1997). The pottery is not the only possible symbol, however: some or all of the Lapita innovations described by Green (1992) could perform a similar function.

I am aware of the apparent philosophical contradiction in my acceptance of culture-historically-oriented data while rejecting essentialist conceptions of social identity. However, empirical reality constrains theory as much as the other way around, so neither culture-historians nor anyone else can just make up whatever they like about the past. Sherratt (1993:127) puts it well: “[a]rchaeology’s materials…write their own plots, in the way the evidence offer itself already structured in buildings and tomb groups…”. Thus while I think culture-historians approach it the wrong manner, I believe that the way the evidence is structured indicates that there is an archaeological Lapita cultural complex that does reflect the migration of an social/ethnic group beyond the Bismarcks, albeit in a way that remains to be adequately articulated. As Edmund Leach has pointed out in another context (1984:99, cited in Spriggs 1992:292), “historical fictions can be true”.

In this regard, the connections Cohen makes between diasporas and ethnicity are particularly instructive. Together with the work of Barth (1969), they were critical to the development of contemporary anthropological conceptions of ethnicity as dynamic and situational rather than essentialist and primordial in the manner described by Geertz (1963) and others. Cohen argues that diasporas create ethnicity as much as ethnicity creates them. He (1969) refers to the process as “re-tribalization”, wherein factors promoting homogenization of internal cultural differences of diaspora members from different parts of the migration source region or different subcultures are minimized to strengthen group solidarity in the face of external competition. In this formulation, ethnic groups of the sort associated with trading diasporas are not survivals or transplants from the source area, as they tend to be portrayed by culture-historical models of Lapita. Rather, they are

new social forms…[which] have continuously re-created their distinctiveness in different ways, not because of conservatism, but because these ethnic groups are in fact interest groupings whose members share some common economic and political interests and who, therefore, stand together in the continuous competition for power with other groups (Cohen 1969:192, my emphasis).
Though obviously instrumentalist in tone, it must be emphasized that this formulation also unambiguously includes a role for a shared bio-cultural and historical background amongst the groups that create an ethnic identity in diaspora, and thus does not define ethnicity as a purely contingent or situational phenomenon. Rather, Cohen’s position acknowledges the importance of situational factors in a way that purely essentialist perspectives do not. This is the key which allows us to avoid the teleological problems of a wholly instrumentalist view. Our approach to ethnicity in Melanesian (and wider Pacific) prehistory should be more situational than it is, or at least significantly more explicit in the way it describes and theorizes situational identity, but should not dismiss shared history (and thus some element of primordialism) out of hand. In this way it would accord with efforts to have archaeologists think through a truly multidimensional approach to past social identity that sees ethnicity and variations through time and space in the strength of its assertion as a product of continual feedback (or an ongoing dialectic) between “situationally relevant cultural practices and historical experiences associated with different cultural traditions”(Jones 1997:100).

The details of the trading diaspora model sketched here may not withstand scholarly scrutiny in the end. In particular, the critical issue of the nature and role(s) of trade in Lapita society has yet to be resolved. When it is, the ‘trading’ aspect of the model may have to be revisited. The point to be made here, however, is that the effort involved in formulating and testing such models is warranted if it helps steer debate away from the increasingly unproductive focus on the supposed moral failings of perspectives on prehistoric social identity which have never been given any specific dimensions. The irony, of course, is that explicitly promoting a more situational persective on ethnicity would not bring us closer to nationalist views of archaeology such as those Mangi and Groube seek to encourage, insofar as these latter views depend upon and foster conceptions of ethnic identity that at root are profoundly essentialist. They may do so for politically strategic reasons, and thus be accepted as ‘good’ essentialism by those politically inclined to do so. Nevertheless, it leaves scholars who adopt such positions open to the accusation that they are more racist and neocolonial in the end than the migrationist model they contest (e.g. Kirch 1997:113-117). Aspects of this issue are developed further in the next section of the paper.

Part Two

To take the last issue a little further, I want to discuss more explicitly the relationship between the discipline of archaeology and the project of nation-making in Papua New Guinea. I noted earlier that in 1983 Groube bemoaned the lack of community interest in archaeology in PNG. I also drew attention to the fact that more recent works on the link between conceptions of the past and national identity in PNG rarely if ever mention the discipline or its findings. This situation arises because the pasts that archaeology can describe do not constitute an arena of significant sociopolitical action in PNG, unlike the situation in Australia (e.g. Langford 1983, Murray 2000). I find that such pasts are simply of no enduring interest to most people, if for no other reason than Papua New Guineans were not dispossessed in the way that most Indigenous Australians were, and thus they do not need to reclaim their pasts in the same way (cf. Thorley 1996). Some of the urban elite have a passing knowledge of archaeology, and sometimes even a genuine rather than simply polite interest in the discipline, having been exposed to it at school or university. If any past is important to most people, though, it is their local, ‘traditional’ mythic past, especially but certainly not exclusively in rural and remote areas, and it is versions of this past, rather than any pasts elucidated by archaeology, that are manipulated by politicians, the advertizing industry and tourist operators (e.g. Foster 1995b).

In my experience, this situation is always clear at the village level. Archaeologists are usually welcomed with open arms as visitors. When at work, though, they are regarded at best with good humour and not a little curiosity as yet another example of the utter eccentricity of expatriates. At worst, they are derided with varying degrees of hostility as fools who interfere with dangerous magical forces in the ground that they do not comprehend. In many ways, my experience in this regard parallels the one described by Thorley (1996) in northern Australia. He paints a familiar picture of a situation in which indigenous perceptions of the past and of appropriate ways to deal with knowledge about it reflect priorities very different from archaeology’s, even if “the value placed on relationships [with the archaeologist] may actually make it more difficult…[to] overtly challenge what the researcher says” (1996:10). In such situations attitudes towards a researcher’s presence may be pragmatically focussed on short-term social or economic benefits rather than on the abstract and perhaps quite unimaginable benefits of a Western scientific view of a locality’s remote human past.

This lack of real interest in archaeology and its findings is also clear at official levels beyond the village. I have always been treated with great courtesy and generosity in such contexts, but only rarely with an undoubted understanding or unalloyed enthusiasm for what I am doing. I believe that there is a danger that such a lack of informed interest amongst officialdom and the urban elite could turn to aversion and obstructiveness, if not outright hostility, if archaeologists, indigenous as well as expatriate, were to be seen as neo-colonial meddlers interfering with the real task of nation making.

These are volatile times for the nation-state. While I am not as pessimistic as some, I would agree that its future is by no means clear (e.g. Jacobsen 1995, Miller 1995), and that intellectual developments which challenge its standing will be resisted by those with investments in the status quo. In such circumstances, I think it would be relatively easy for archaeology to fall into official disfavour if archaeologists were thought to be harking back to a time of savagery and darkness, rather than helping to articulate what Errington and Gewertz (1995:95) describe as a vision of “a past transformed, left entirely behind, and of cultural roots truncated”, a vision which has become “crucial to a nationalist vision of a future Papua New Guinea, a developed nation, united and prosperous”, and, one might add, Christian. Rather than being seen to bolster the national project in the manner envisaged by Mangi, it might come to be thought that archaeology is implicated in neo-colonial attempts to cripple the nation and maintain control over its future by cultivating the view that benighted savagery is the timeless and thus lingering essence of the national spirit. As LiPuma (1995:36) puts it,

a ‘scientific history’ of a nation may be opposed by certain members of the bureaucracy and populace, not because the history is transparently false, but because it discloses and reminds everyone of historical realities erased in the official, ideologized history.
He goes on to cite Spriggs (1992), who, as he points out,

shows that it is not only possible to define alternative [regional] prehistories…but that each alternative has rather different implications for [autonomous regional identity], and thus each has its own political constituency
The implications for archaeology of such possibilities should be self-evident at a time when a great deal of political attention is focussed on the discomfort of expatriate workers and foreign investors in PNG in the face of continual crises in large-scale resource development projects and the more general ‘law and order problem’ in the country.

These claims may come as a surprise to some, in view of the ideas promulgated over the last few years regarding a recursive relationship between nation building and the development of our discipline (e.g. Kohl and Fawcett 1995). However, if we turn to standard references on national identity, we find that while “definite ideas about national history” (Foster 1992) are a critical element of an “international cultural grammar of nationhood” (Lofgren 1989),

In Papua New Guinea, as in other ex-colonial states throughout the South Pacific, agents promoting…[Western] models of…[nationalism] identify these models with modernity and juxtapose them to some version or another of tradition or custom. The perceived relationship between modernity and tradition is, of course, not singular. ‘Tradition’ might be advanced as a heritage to build upon, as values that are weakened, or as outmoded customs to reject out of hand (Foster 1992:44).
I believe the likelihood that the archaeological past will be permanently relegated to the last of these categories by the urban elite is closely linked to the involvement of archaeologists in the internal affairs of Papua New Guinea, as advocates on professional grounds for one or more of the 700-odd sociolinguistic groups in the country rather than for the nation-state. My experience in both the Pacific and Australia is that such involvement, or at least the perception of it, is most likely to arise in the course of heritage management projects. It seems that in such contexts archaeologists in Melanesia would find themselves staring down both barrels of the same ethical shotgun that confronts them just about anywhere else in the modern postcolonial world, and particularly in decolonized countries such as PNG and settler societies such as Australia. One barrel represents the dilemma, addressed in relation to PNG by anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt (1991), surrounding questions of advocacy for competing national and local interests. Like Meggitt, I believe that in the final analysis it is most important to foster the nation-making project. By this I do not mean we should promote a particular government, or even, up to a point, a particular form of government. I think, though, that the idea that Papua New Guinea can work as a nation-state with reasonably transparent and accountable liberal-democratic governance is an idea worth supporting, because I believe the alternatives would see ordinary Papua New Guineans abandoned to their fate with very destructive results. While notions of national integration may not yet be strongly developed at the local level (e.g. Ploeg 1991), which some believe is creating problems for PNG as a nation-state (e.g. Jacobsen 1995), the purposeful diminution of supra-local focus (to look ‘up’) and state-level authority (looking ‘down’) is in my view likely to see significant increases in unmanaged and perhaps unmanageable inter-group violence, even greater levels of uncontrolled exploitation of local community resources by transnational commercial interests than those that occur now, the dramatic widening of emerging socioeconomic and political inequalities and a complete breakdown of already hard-pressed health, eduation and emergency services (see, for example, Errington and Gewertz 1995:166-168, Meggitt 1991; also Miller 1995:183-195). In pragmatic terms, it is a matter of supporting a route which may not greatly improve the lot of ordinary people, but which in the end brings them fewer social and political disadvantages than its alternatives.

The other barrel of the ethical shotgun represents questions regarding the philosophical orientation of an archaeology which in the final analysis supports the nation-state over local interests. Should fostering the national project mean we must toe a strict indigenist line, in the way that would required by adherence to Mangi’s and Groube’s charter described earlier? I think not, even though the two are conventionally linked, both in the practical process of national making and in its theoretical justification, owing to their common essentialist underpinnings (see overview in Jones 1997:135-144). I support Meggitt’s stance (and thus, I think, the spirit if not the substance of Mangi’s and Groube’s position) because it recognizes that while indigenous people (like most of us in the modern world) are undoubtedly constrained to varying degrees by the machinations of international capital, in PNG local people are anything but “hapless victims first of the colonial intrusion and…[now] of an oppressive central government” (see also Errington and Gewertz 1995). To suggest otherwise is to deny them any degree of autonomy and agency and thus is as demeaningly neocolonial as the views Wolf (1982), Lightfoot and Martinez (1995) and many others have quite rightly called to account.

It is for similar reasons that I believe we should adopt and advocate a more contingent view of ethnic and other forms of social identity, such as the one underlying my consideration of the Lapita diaspora in the first part of this paper. To promote a predominantly primordialist conception helps lock people into categories of identity which quite probably developed in contexts far removed from those in which they find themselves now or will find themselves in the future. This limits the ways in which they can mould and remould their own and others’ perceptions of themselves to better fit their circumstances, which limits their prospects in an increasingly complex world. Adopting more dynamic and situational conceptions of identity would support people in their very obvious need to be Papua New Guineans in one context as well as, say, Melanesians in another context, or Islanders rather than Highlanders, Baining rather than Tolai or this clan rather than that one in yet another context again. Archaeological responses would see ‘alternative archaeologies’ like those described by Spriggs not supporting different and perhaps antagonistic constituencies in the way envisaged by Spriggs himself (1992:290-292) as well as LiPuma (1995). Rather, insofar as the same archaeological material underpins the different scenarios, they would demonstrate that there is in fact a significant degree of ‘unity in diversity’, and thus that it is perfectly possible for a nation-state to maintain its integrity and cohesiveness while allowing full recognition of the diversity of its citizens’ identities.

To paraphrase the conclusion to Alonso’s (1994:400) discussion of state formation, nationalism and ethnicity, archaeology in its postmodern condition has both emancipatory and reactionary possibilities. There are few things more reactionary and less emancipatory that archaeologists could do than to disengage from the way their work contributes to the construction of social identity. To my mind, that is a very large part of what the discipline is all about, whether we are talking about cultural, ethnic, national or human identity. As Ucko (1989:xiii) once said, issues of cultural identity are “one of the most – possibly the most – fundamentally important questions of archaeological enquiry and interpretation”.

By the same token, I do not think advancing ‘strategically essentialist’ positions of the sort implicitly required by Mangi’s and Groube’s calls to arms is particularly emancipatory either, even if I think their hearts are in the right place. Indeed, I think such positions are philosophically and, in the end, morally untenable. It is true that non-essentialist, primarily situational definitions of identity undermine the way most people think of themselves and identify those like or dislike them (see Jones 1997:142 for a summary). I must say, though, that contingent definitions sit much more comfortably than any largely primordialist definition with my experience of the way identity is constructed in the societies in question, as they do for many of the scholars who study such phenomena in detail (see, for example, Linnekin and Poyer 1990 on the Pacific).

On that basis, I think it would be preferable to endure the undoubted practical and conceptual difficulties of demonstrating to people how and why the integrity of their identity (at whatever level between the individual and the universal) can remain intact while being dynamic and contingent than to allow a poorer representation of observable realities to cloud their future, because that is what history tells me essentialist representations of identity will surely do. For archaeologists this means coming to grips with the material manifestations of something exceedingly slippery even in living societies (e.g Jones 1997 Chapter 6). As Hanson (1990) found out to his cost when he took a situationalist look at indigenous identity in New Zealand, it also means standing by views which might be exceedingly unpopular with some or all the people amongst whom one works. Such are the challenges of scholarship in the postcolonial world.


This paper is a reworked version of one presented at the 1996 Australian Archaeological Association conference. It benefitted greatly from audience responses at the conference, later discussions with Matthew Spriggs and my regular teaching of a course on Research with Indigenous People which is the subject of ongoing development with Michael Williams, Director of the University of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit. I remain responsible for any errors of omission or commission.


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[1] “Them bones, them bones, them dry bones” is a line from a well-known ditty of an origin unknown to me, but the title takes its meaning from Spriggs’s (1992:293) use of the line “Dry bones can harm no one”, a quotation from “What the Thunder Said”, in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

[2] “Melanesia” refers here to the islands in the southwest Pacific from New Guinea to Fiji, excluding New Zealand, and “Melanesians” to the indigenous inhabitants of those islands (except speakers of Polynesian languages, whose tongues bear witness to back-migration(s) from the more remote Pacific).

[3] Meaning that part of history without written records.