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Department of Geography


Agricultural intensification in Melanesia

Fifty years ago, when cultural geographers like Carl Sauer were constructing world models of agricultural origins and dispersals, it was assumed that the island of New Guinea was a backwater, with a prehistory that had been almost unaffected by economic and social developments in South East Asia and beyond. It was further assumed that until the arrival of the sweet potato, a South American crop introduced to the region via the Spanish and Portuguese, the New Guinea highlands was inhabited by sparse bands of hunter-gatherers. Today, the picture that we have of New Guinea prehistory is transformed, thanks to work by palynologists on Holocene deforestation and by archaeologists on sites of early agriculture, of which the Kuk site near Mount Hagen is the best known. New Guinea is now seen as a ‘hearth’ of early domestication (bananas, sugar cane, taro), and as a place with long history of agrarian innovation, environmental management, and long-distance exchange.

The New Guinea project involves collaboration by Tim Bayliss-Smith with Jack Golson (Australian National University, Canberra), Philip Hughes (also ANU) and others. It is an attempt to reconstruct the prehistorical geography of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea using archaeological data. Investigations in the 1970s by Golson at his team at the Kuk archaeological site involved the recording of ditches over many hectares of the wetland, classified into six phases spanning 9,000 years. Tim’s work has involved the reconstruction of the last three phases of drainage at Kuk during the past 2,000 years, and interpretation of the meaning of the observed changes in drainage effort. Topics include the response of highlands society to tephra fallout from volcanic eruptions, implications of agricultural intensification for gender relations, and links between production, exchange and warfare (Bayliss-Smith, Golson & Hughes, 2017).

Parallel work by Tim Bayliss-Smith in New Georgia island, Solomon Islands, collaborating with Edvard Hviding (University of Bergen), has involved the reconstruction of terraced fields and irrigation channels in areas that have reverted to tropical rainforest since 19th century depopulation (Bayliss-Smith, Hviding & Whitmore 2003). This intensive system generated surplus taro production, and has been interpreted as a symptom of growing social stratification and the elaboration of exchange systems between inland and coastal peoples. Even less than in the Highlands of New Guinea, simple Boserupian models of intensification cannot be applied to Island Melanesia. In a recent paper hyper-endemic malaria is identified as a key factor that, in the long term, has limited the growth of surplus taro production, population and centralised political authority in the western Solomon Islands (Bayliss-Smith & Hviding 2012, 2014, 2015). Despite the potential for agricultural intensification, because of malaria Island Melanesia remains a mosaic of cultures and languages with no evidence for stratified societies and centralised chiefdoms emerging that are comparable to those in New Caledonia, Fiji or the high islands of Polynesia.

By studying the social institutions for managing resources in these communities today, and through understanding the cultural meanings associated with particular plants and animals, we can throw light on the process of intensification. For example, Tim’s ethnographic studies on Ontong Java, Solomon Islands, show that variations in management practices for exploiting birds, beche-de-mer, root crops and turmeric reflect strongly the power of social institutions and cultural meanings (Bayliss-Smith & Christensen 2008; Bayliss-Smith et al. 2010; Bayliss-Smith 2012). The continuing cultivation and use of turmeric on Ontong Java atoll does not make sense unless we appreciate that this product is a key signifier for women of their status, fertility and sexuality, so that today turmeric production continues to have high perceived value in the new gender politics of modernity.

Figure: Reconstructed ditch systems at the Kuk site, Papua New Guinea, dating from Phase 4 (about 1200 years ago), Phase 5 (about 700 years ago), and Phase 6 (about 300 years ago).


Publications arising from the three projects include:

  • 1999: The meaning of ditches: deconstructing the social landscapes of New Guinea, Kuk, Phase 4 (T. Bayliss-Smith and J. Golson), chapter 11 in- C. Gosden and J. Hather (eds) The Prehistory of Food. Appetites for Change, London: Routledge, pp. 199-231.
  • 1999: Intensification in the Pacific: comment, Current Anthropology 40, pp. 323-324.
  • 2003: The archaeology and ethnohistory of exchange in precolonial and colonial Roviana: comment, Current Anthropology 44 (suppl.), pp. S70-S71.
  • 2003: Rain forest composition and histories of human disturbance in Solomon Islands, Ambio 32(5), pp. 346-352. (T. Bayliss-Smith, E. Hviding & T. C. Whitmore).
  • 2005: Archaeological evidence for the Ipomoean Revolution at Kuk swamp, Upper Wahgi Valley, Papua New Guinea, chapter 11 in C. Ballard et al. (eds) The Sweet Potato in Oceania: a Reappraisal, Pittsburgh: Ethnology Monograph 19, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh, and Sydney: Oceania Monograph 56, University of Sydney, pp. 109-120. (T. Bayliss-Smith, J. Golson, P. Hughes, R. Blong and W. Ambrose).
  • 2007: Understanding agricultural change: interpreting the archaeological record using insights from ethnography, in T.P. Denham, J. Iriarte & L. Vrydaghs. (eds), Rethinking Agriculture: Archaeological and Ethnoarchaeological Perspectives, London: UCL Press, pp. 126-148.
  • 2008: Comment on variable development of dryland agriculture in Hawai’i. Current Anthropology 49(5): 788-789.
  • 2008: Birds and people on Ontong Java atoll, Solomon Islands. Atoll Research Bulletin 262: 1-36. (T. Bayliss-0Smith and A.E. Christensen).
  • 2010: Managing Ontong Java atoll: social institutions for production and governance of atoll resources in Solomon Islands. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 31: 55-69. (T. Bayliss-Smith, K.V. Gough, A.E. Christensen and S. Kristensen).
  • 2011: Tahitians, Europeans and ecological exchange. Journal of Pacific History 56(2), pp. 257-260.
  • 2012: Irrigated taro, malaria and the expansion of chiefdoms: ruta in New Georgia, Solomon Islands. In- M. Spriggs, D. Addison and P.J. Matthews, eds. Irrigated Taro (Colocasia esculenta) in the Indo-Pacific. Biological, Social and Historical Perspectives. Senri Ethnological Studies 78, National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan, pp. 219-254. (T. Bayliss-Smith and E. Hviding).
  • 2012: Taro, turmeric and gender. In- R. Feinberg & R. Scaglion, eds. Polynesian Outliers: the State of the Art. Ethnology Monographs No. 21, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh, 109-138.
  • 2015: Landesque capital as an alternative to food storage in Melanesia: taro terraces in New Georgia, Solomon Islands. Environmental Archaeology 20(4), 425-436. DOI 10.1179/1749631414Y.0000000049 (T. Bayliss-Smith and E. Hviding).