Investigating diversity in material culture and language

a sub-project of the OMLL Pioneers of Island Melanesia research programme

Matthew Leavesley & Tim Thomas (LCHES)

The history of diversity

The Pioneers of Island Melanesia project seeks to investigate the evolutionary history of the remarkable linguistic, cultural and genetic diversity exhibited by Island Melanesian populations.

There are about 200 different languages in this area of the world. Some are part of the Oceanic sub-branch of the Austronesian family, and are thought to have entered the region 3500 years ago with the appearance of an archaeological culture known as Lapita. Others are currently classified as belonging to the unrelated and poorly understood East Papuan group, perhaps deriving from languages spoken by pre-Lapita populations living in these islands for the previous 40,000 years.

A great deal of variation in material culture, social and technological practice accompanies the linguistic diversity. We know very little about how this was generated.

In order to understand the prehistory of this region we need to explain the way in which populations interacted and diversity was generated and maintained. This involves identifying and analysing the nature of boundaries and affinities in language and material culture. One aspect of this is determining an answer to the following question:

To what extent does material cultural variation parallel the pattern of language distribution and history?

Developing models: phylogeny and reticulation

Current thinking suggests two models for the generation of diversity:

1) The phylogenetic model – ancestral populations split into divergent parts through time, becoming gradually different in terms of language, artefacts and biology. Consequently, material culture and language co-vary in time and space, as a package accompanying identifiable and distinct population histories. In the Island Melanesia case we might expect that Papuan-speaking and Austronesian-speaking groups would have distinct material cultures, paralleling their linguistic histories.
2) The reticulate or ‘net-like’ model – material culture is independent of language, often transmitted between populations and across linguistic boundaries. Borrowing and exchange between geographically proximate groups creates distributions of artefacts that are unrelated to language. If true for Island Melanesia we would expect Papuan-speakers and Austronesian-speakers to have histories characterised by interaction and thus share material culture.

BUT: It has become increasingly apparent that each model, on its own, is an inadequate means of explaining the formation and nature of material culture boundaries. It is seldom a case of either/or in most parts of the world (Jordan & Shennan 2002; Welsch et al. 1992; Moore & Romney 1994).

We need a subtle methodology that allows for, and can explain, different patterns and proportions of variation and transmission, and is applicable at different scales and with different datasets. Our work seeks to achieve this, conducting a series of detailed quantitative and qualitative analyses of Melanesian material culture. The results of these analyses will be directly compared with the linguistic research produced by Pioneers of Island Melanesia collaborators.

Data selection: examining levels and kinds of between-group artefact variation

We intend to look at a range of data types – moving beyond single-class artefact studies. We expect that different artefacts, and different artefact attributes, will tell us different things about diversity. We will examine the following kinds of variation throughout Island Melanesia:

1) Presence/absence of artefact types;

2) Stylistic (attribute) variation within a single artefact type;
  a) Stylistic similarity but different meaning/use;
  b) Stylistic difference but identical meaning/use;
  c) Similar style and meaning, but with social result of group differentiation;

3) Manufacture sequence variation within a single artefact type;
  a) Complexity/simplicity of sequences – relatively long production sequences may promote vertical transmission of objects and/or resistance to borrowing. Complex sequences can be enclaved through specialisation, and ritual.
  b) Modes of learning/transmission – may or may not be lineage based.

4) Nomenclature;
Both objects and words are subject to processes that either promote or limit transmission. A comparison between the distribution of objects and related nouns will investigate the direction of transmission and the degree to which they co-vary or follow their own unrelated trajectories.

Shell Ring Exchange Media

Poata – New Georgia, Solomon Islands

Kiha – Rendova, Solomon Islands [Bakiha in Roviana, Solomons]

Hata ‘imu – San Cristobal, Solomon Islands
[Amfat in New Ireland]

Determining sources of diversity: the complex generation of patterning

Phylogenetic and reticulate models tend to simplify transmission into two directions: Vertical (time) and Horizontal (space). We need to break these down to achieve a more thorough understanding.

• History: much of the material conditions of people’s lives are transmitted generationally, and we can expect that some artefacts will exhibit continuity through time. Broadly speaking, people with different histories may have different material cultures.
• ‘Passive’ change: isolation, bottleneck effects, and transmission errors result in cumulative variation in material cultures, so that through time groups become different without really ‘trying’.
• ‘Active’ change: because material culture is a form of communication in its own right, certain artefacts can be utilised as boundary markers, expressing different forms of identity, domination, resistance etc.
• Functional and resource driven change: the patterning of natural resources and raw materials impacts the kinds of things people make and use.
• Trade and ceremonial exchange: material culture variation often reflects the purposive circulation of objects through space via networks of interaction.
• Borrowing, learning and skills transmission: the production of artefacts can be copied, taught, or learned from sources of innovation or intermediary parties.

Detailed Melanesian ethnographies, museum collections and archaeological surveys enable us to develop a rich account of these processes. We can map exchange networks, test for environmental correlations, and examine modes of production and learning. Ultimately this will result in a better understanding of what is meant by ‘diversity’, and how this relates to population histories.

Bokolo – Simbo, Solomon Islands
[Hokata in Roviana, Solomons]

Bakiha mendaka – Roviana, Solomon Islands

hinuili – Solomon Islands

(all artefacts from Auckland War Memorial Museum collections. Photographed by Tim Thomas)


Haddon, A.C. and J. Hornell, 1937 Canoes of Oceania: Volume II, The Canoes of Melanesia, Queensland and New Guinea. Bishop Museum Special Publication 28 Honolulu.

Moore, C.C. and A.K. Romney, 1994 Material Culture, Geographic Propinquity, and Linguistic Affiliation on the North Coast of New Guinea: A Reanalysis of Welsch, Terrell and Nadolski (1992). American Anthropologist 96(2):370-392.

Shennan, S. and P. Jordan, 2003 Cultural transmission, Language, and Basketry Traditions amongst the Californian Indians. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 22:42-74.

Welsch, R.L., J.Terrell, and J.A. Nadolski, 1992 Language and Culture on the North Coast of New Guinea. American Anthropologist. 94(3):568-600.

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