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Deep Histories of Inequality in the Pacific Islands: Current Perspectives from Archaeology


Glenn Summerhayes, Dylan Gaffney

Session presentation

Inequality has come to be a central concern in Pacific studies, intersecting a myriad of environments, identities, histories, societies, and materials. In this dialogue, it is useful to examine the archaeological evidence for long-term social trajectories of inequality. The deep histories of different forms of inequality are evident particularly in the differential access to material resources; an issue that archaeology is excellently situated to examine. For instance, emergent inequalities may be interlinked with innovations in agriculture, migrations of new social groups, or monumentality. The panel welcomes paper proposals dealing with how we identify inequality in the Pacific’s archaeological record

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Inequality from the archaeological record: A view from Lapita

Glenn Summerhayes (Otago University)

Identifying social differentiation from the archaeological record of Lapita societies of the western Pacific has been fraught with difficulties. This paper examines the role of trade and exchange of goods between 3200 year old Lapita settlements from the western Pacific, and the nature of society that facilitated such exchanges.

Entanglement, Abstraction and Power in Late-period Western Solomon Islands

Tim Thomas (University of Otago)

The late period archaeological record of the New Georgia archipelago consists of a rich landscape of domestic and ritual structures set within rainforest. Formed during a period of local political expansion and raiding, European encounter and economic imperialism, and subsequent reworking of social categories, this record is replete with examples of unequal power dynamics. Here I argue that fundamental assumptions about relationality and objectification governed regional power dynamics, and that these present alternatives to some evolutionary models of political organisation in the Pacific. At the same time they also reinforce the need for a consideration of power in discussions of the ontological.

Inequality in the Austronesian Archaeological Record: Views from Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Mariana Islands

Mike T. Carson (University of Guam)

Hsiao-chun HUNG

An examination of the deeper history of inequality could enable a new perspective of how it originated and developed into variable outcomes in different communities of the Austronesian world. Inequality could exist in many forms, including material manifestations in archaeological records of the categories and degrees of wealth that people had controlled in specific places and time periods. Here we examine those material records along the migrations routes of ancient Austronesian communities in Taiwan after 4000 BC, into the Philippines by 2000 BC, and farther afield into the Mariana Islands about 1500 BC. The results reveal how inequality operated in these different contexts, thus allowing us to identify the core values that were consistent multi-generationally and cross-regionally versus the aspects of inequality that evidently were open to variation.

Elite material culture in Pohnpei, Micronesia: An archaeological analysis of stone graves and clothing from the 19th and early 20th centuries

Helen Alderson (University of Cambridge)

The islanders of Pohnpei in Micronesia are well-known for their chiefly hierarchies. In the past, Pohnpeians built monumental stone structures which partly materialised chiefly power. Such constructions, including those at the elite centre Nan Madol, have been a focus of Pohnpeian archaeological research for decades.

In the 19th century, as Pohnpeians encountered non-Oceanians in large numbers, they radically changed elite grave styles. In the first half of this paper, I outline the results of a 2017 survey of 19th and early 20th century grave exteriors. I explain how Pohnpeians materialised emergent inequalities during a time of increased cosmopolitanism through differential access to material resources such as decorative glass bottles.

While archaeologists often examine graves and monumentality to assess emergent inequalities, we can complement our insights by considering other material culture types in parallel. Increasingly, archaeologists are turning to ethnographic collections to provide extra contextual information where temporally relevant. For example, while graves can indicate individuals’ statuses in death, clothing can illustrate their statuses while alive. Correspondingly, in the second half of this paper, I compare the design trajectories of elite graves with those of contemporaneous chiefly clothing. This section comprises an archaeological analysis of chiefly belts, fibre skirts and headbands from 22 museum collections in the Pacific, Europe, and America.