Professor Matthew Spriggs, 20 February 2019
LYNDAL HUGHSON: Good evening everybody, and welcome to the National Museum. My name is Lyndal Hughson and I work in the Development and Friends team here at the Museum.
On behalf of the National Museum of Australia and those present today, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians on whose land we meet today — the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri. I would like to pay my respect to their elders past, present and future, and further extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that are present here today.
It’s really wonderful to see so many of you here tonight for the first Canberra Archaeological Society lecture for 2019, and without any further ado I would like to hand over to Guillaume Molle — my pronunciation there might be a bit appalling, I apologise — from the Canberra Archaeological Society, to introduce our speaker and topic for tonight, and I hope you will enjoy it.
GUILLAUME MOLLE: Good evening everyone. Thank you all for joining us tonight and thanks to the National Museum for welcoming us again this year for this series of events.
I’m Guillaume, I'm the Vice President of the Canberra Archaeological Society, but first I would like as well to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and work, and whose culture is among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
It is my pleasure to introduce our first guest speaker of the year, my colleague Professor Matthew Spriggs. Matthew is a professor at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University, as well as honorary curator of archaeology in the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Port Vila. Worldwide recognised specialist of archaeology in Island South-East Asia and the Pacific, Matthew has carried out research in Indonesia, East Timor, New Guinea, the Bismarck, the Solomons, New Caledonia and Hawaii, and as some of you may be aware he also led intensive projects in Vanuatu where he and his colleagues are excavating the Lapita cemetery of Teouma.
His areas of interest span from archaeology and linguistics to subsistence systems, agricultural origins and human–environment interactions. Because this is not enough, he is also an expert in Cornish language history.
Matthew is currently leading a five-year project funded by the Australian Research Council Laureate Scheme called the Collective Biography of Pacific Archaeology. For this project he has been travelling extensively these past years to explore museum archives around the world, but he always comes back to Canberra at the beginning of the year to deliver the first lecture for the Canberra Archaeological Society.
So tonight Matthew will tell you almost everything you want to know about a very hot topic these days for archaeologists in the region, ‘Archaeology, Ancient DNA and the origins of the Pacific Peoples’. So without further ado, please let’s welcome Professor Matthew Spriggs.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: Right, right. Can you hear me? Okay, good. Can we do something with the door, there’s some horrible annoying noise out there. It’s probably some distinguished Australian telling their life story or something on a tape.
Now, I just flew back from Vanuatu about 48 hours ago, and I was very good in preparing my PowerPoint, but I kept having a nagging feeling there’s something I haven't done here, and then I realised what it is — I don't have any notes. So some of these slides will be as much a surprise as they will be to me, but hopefully that will not be a problem.
Okay, well, that didn’t work very well did it? Ah! There we are. Okay. Does anyone know who said this? Oh, that's a pity, because you would have won a prize of a bottle of wine if you — no, you'll find out later.
Okay, just to get us started, the timeline of ancient DNA, it really starts, in terms of full genome DNA — and the rest of it is kind of like pretty small beer compared to this — is 2010. And some of the stuff is kind of unbelievable.
You know, the full genome of a Denisovan — a type of human that no one’s ever seen anything except a finger bone of, but we have their full genome — was found around that time, and the discoveries keep coming thick and fast. It’s quite clear that this is a major revolution in our understanding of the past, and people have likened it to the invention of radiocarbon dating as an aid to archaeology.
Now, one thing about the invention of radiocarbon dating was a lot of archaeologists hated it, because they thought that, you know, ‘Oh, the scientists have taken over, and we’re just going to be, sort of, I don't know, technicians, or kind of people digging holes.’
That was obviously actually quite wrong. What radiocarbon dating actually allowed archaeologists to do was engage in far more interesting activities than developing elaborate typologies trying to link them to the Egyptian sequence based on written sources. And that is what archaeologists spent a lot of time doing — typology.
I'm sure some people enjoyed doing that, but it’s pretty tedious, really. So it freed archaeologists up to ask more interesting questions. My only real interest in this ancient DNA stuff is for precisely the same reason — it frees us up to ask more interesting questions. It doesn’t mean the scientists have taken over and we don't have anything to say any more and we’ll lose our jobs. So the scaremongering which you read quite often, I think, is simply that.
Now, I still feel a bit of a fraud because I actually gave a lecture on this very topic in 2017. So the only reason I can get away with giving not the same lecture in 2019 is that enormous amounts of things have happened in the field of ancient DNA, and indeed comparative work with modern DNA since then. And I just list here some of the things that have happened since I last gave this lecture, and some things which are in preparation at the moment, and I’ll let you read that, I don’t really like reading out these kind of slides, but they are informative.
Just where you see the two stars, this is basically all of the stuff that’s relevant to ancient DNA that’s happened since 2017 in the Pacific. The two stars represent the fact that there is at least some ANU participation in the particular project that we’re talking about.
As you can see, for most of these there are two stars attached. So there were people from the ANU, not just myself, but other colleagues from here — Marc Oxenham for instance, and Stuart Bedford, a colleague I work with in Vanuatu.
Now, the one about greater attention to Bill Wilson’s ideas has ANU involvement in brackets, and that's because I’m basically the biggest booster in archaeology for Bill Wilson’s ideas. Many other archaeologists hate them with a vengeance — great scholars such as Pat Kirch and others — but I think he’s really onto something.
Bill’s a linguist in Hawaii, and he’s got a totally different idea of how people got to eastern Polynesia. So I put it in brackets because I comment a lot on Bill’s papers. I encouraged him to publish his most recent paper — which I recommend to you all — in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, December 2018, and we’re kind of talking on a daily basis about the meaning of some of his research and its implications.
The hatchet job on David Reich that the New York Times did — my involvement was I was one of the people interviewed. I don’t think they used anything I said, probably because it wasn’t involved in doing a hatchet job on the Harvard geneticist David Reich. And there’s some stuff we’re working on right now, literally some of the stuff that I’m going to run past you today is from a response to a forum in the journal Archaeology and Oceania about our latest genetic work.
This is the response of our team — the Harvard, Australian National University and other institutions team. Literally, probably when I get home tonight, there’ll be another version of our 2000-word response — that’s all we’ve been allowed — circulating among us. So that’s some ideas I’ll be running past you.
Also we do have some new Vanuatu ancient DNA samples relating to the chief [inaudible] domain World Heritage site, and that’s yet to be written up, but I’ll give you a very brief preview of that.
At the moment I’m collecting — together with my colleague in Exeter Naomi Sykes — an issue of the Journal of World Archaeology which is called Ancient DNA: Blessing or Curse for Archaeology? And we’ve got some very nice papers in for that which are being reviewed, and we are hoping to get a few more papers in soon so we can fill up the issue.
Just to very briefly — and I did show this one last time — it’s really to show, yes, you know, we’ve all got a bit of Neanderthal in us. People in the Australian–New Guinea–Solomons area and further out into the Pacific also have a bit of Denisovan DNA mixed in with them. It’s really to show that the two groups that we’re going to be talking about are labelled here East Asia — represented by groups moving out of Taiwan, agricultural groups about 4000 years ago, 3000 years ago — and what are called here Papuans, who are basically the people who got to the New Guinea area, or northern [inaudible] it was at the time, about 50,000 years ago or maybe even more.
The Denisovan mixture that you see among populations who are descended from Papuan groups of 50,000 years ago, they are kind of different Denisovans than the ones in Siberia whose pinky we got the DNA out of. So the Denisovans are a more heterogeneous group of people than were the Neanderthals, whose DNA is much more homogeneous across the range that Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia.
Now, the thing I should have mentioned first is, I am not a geneticist. I do not even claim to understand what geneticists are talking about unless they talk extremely slowly and use simple words. So if you've got any burning questions about what an SNP is, or these kind of genetic terms, then get onto Wikipedia. I’m sure it’s in there. But I would not be able to answer your questions. I work with geneticists; I’m not one. Thank God.
Now, our story really starts with some facts which were found out a long time ago, which is that across much of the Pacific, the languages are all related. They are languages of the Austronesian language family, much of which is called elsewhere the Malaya/Polynesian family.
We believe that their proximate origin, and their spread out to wherever else in the Pacific and across to Madagascar, starts in Taiwan, because there are basically 10 linguistic subgroups of Austronesian. Nine of them are in Taiwan, and the other one is all the rest. So you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even a linguist, to suggest that perhaps the area of greatest diversity in this case is the place from which all these Austronesian languages spread.
Now, along with the spread of these languages is the spread of Neolithic cultures, and we can pick this up archaeologically very easily. Just very briefly, South-East Asia is not just a story of Austronesians. There are other farming groups moving down from mainland South East Asia and mixing in the island South-East Asian area. There are also influences coming from the independent development of agriculture in New Guinea which is spreading back into island South-East Asia. Some of the plants in particular.
So, South-East Asia is a bit of a melting pot in some ways, certainly culturally, because some quite important animals that spread out into the Pacific, the pig for instance, the genetics that has been done, and morphometric work on these pigs, shows that their origin is in mainland South-East Asia. So the pigs were not speaking Austronesian languages when they set off on their journey to go to Vanuatu and other places.
There has been some important work done on — this is modern DNA — and the main thing there really to show is that there were three main kinds of groups which are mixing in island South-East Asia.
I just want to draw your attention to Fiji and Polynesia — whoops, I’m pressing the wrong things — over there, which shows that both Fijians — perhaps representing in some way Melanesian groups — and Polynesians are in fact a mixture of two of these groups, the Papuan and one of the East Asian groups.
This is something we’ve known for a long time, but nobody’s really understood it until the ancient DNA started coming out. Now, in the Pacific the spread of Neolithic culture and of the Austronesian languages is represented by the Lapita culture, which spread out from, again, a proximate homeland in the Bismarck archipelago out as far as Tonga and Samoa, and is the first pottery-using culture in the region, and brings a whole suite of other cultural things with it.
This is the site of Teouma in Vanuatu [points to slide], which is the largest and earliest Lapita cemetery that was located by people from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre early in 2004, and which we excavated at between 2004 and 2010.
There’s some nice Lapita pots from Teouma. Most of the complete Lapita pots that have been found at any one site have come from Teouma. Because it was a burial context the material was not being moved around, as would happen in a domestic situation where pots break and get swept up and down around the village. An extremely distinctive culture.
There are direct links with South-East Asia through the obsidian, from the island of New Britain in particular, which is found across the Lapita realm, but is also found back into island South-East Asia. So we do have some direct connections with island South-East Asia and the Pacific.
Just a warning that I will be showing some skeletons. People in Vanuatu wouldn’t be at all phased by that, but in case anyone is here, they can shut their eyes.
This is one of the burials from Teouma. The burials, as part of the burial ritual, are all adults that had their heads removed and taken somewhere else. Some heads — either from Teouma itself or from somewhere else — we brought back and placed around the bodies of certain favoured individuals. So in this one there are in fact four individuals sitting on the chest of this burial, because the jaw of the middle skull and crania doesn’t belong to the cranium that it’s with.
Here’s another burial with three skulls between the legs, and some of these are the skulls from which the ancient DNA was extracted that we’ll hear about in a minute. Another one, the skull of a female inside a Lapita pot that we were able to reconstruct the pot afterwards.
The hero of the story of ancient DNA and full genome DNA is the petrous bone, which is a bit of your ear, really. It’s actually part of the temporal bone, but it’s called the petrous bone, meaning the stone bone, because it’s the densest bone in your body. This is where the ancient DNA is hiding.
People have tried forever to get ancient DNA in tropical climates out of teeth and bones and they never got anywhere. But it’s hiding in the petrous bone. In 2016 the team from the Harvard Medical School and colleagues here and in some other universities — the people in Harvard had been able to extract ancient DNA from three of the Lapita skeletons from the Teouma cemetery, and this was the first time that full genome ancient DNA had been extracted from anywhere in the tropical world. So it really was a pretty major advance.
It included 778 modern-day samples to compare with the extremely rare and valuable Lapita samples. We also had — and this is from the work of Geoff Clark of the Australian national University, and working with Frederique Valentin from Paris — we had another late Lapita sample from Tonga. So we actually had four samples at the time, and we were able to compare these with modern populations to see which populations they were closest to.
What we found out was that their closest living relatives were the indigenous Taiwanese tribes, Austronesian speaking, or the Kanakanavu, who are a northern Luzon agricultural group in the Philippines. And this is from Vanuatu, so it’s completely unexpected that you would get people who are basically almost unadmixed East Asians as the first inhabitants of Vanuatu.
There is a boundary within what we would call island Melanesia at the end of the main Solomons, and that is the boundary of settlement 50,000 years ago, or around about that time, in Neo-Oceania, New Guinea — obviously at the time joined to Australia — and the Solomon Islands, and the areas that were only settled by these Lapita people 3000 years ago. So-called Remote Oceania.
So these ancient Lapita skeletons were in fact the first people in Vanuatu. And if you ever go to Vanuatu, the people do not look like East Asians today, unless they are recent Chinese migrants. So something quite major has happened since they were there. Also Polynesians are not East Asians in any direct sense, so straight away there were implications for the settlement of the whole of the Pacific.
I won’t dwell on this, except to say that our model that we had by comparing the ancient and the model remains was that the first people across the Remote Oceania barrier into Vanuatu and into Tonga were in fact East Asian populations. As I said, not the same as, but their closest living relatives today would be aboriginal Taiwanese people.
Then later on there was a movement of people with much more of a Papuan genome coming out of somewhere in the New Guinea/Solomons region, who then essentially genetically swamp the original population, and the mixture of those two populations created the modern population of Vanuatu.
We can see here on the left [points to slide] — this is the amount of ancestry from this original group that various living groups have today. We decided — we couldn’t think of a snazzy name for this new group, so we called them First Remote Oceanians, which simply identifies where we found the remains from.
You can see that there’s a gradation — there’s no one in the Pacific today who has that percentage of First Remote Oceanian genes. The Polynesians tend to have more, and people in Melanesia less. Then people, once you move up into, say, the New Guinea Highlands would have essentially no First Remote Oceanian or East Asian genes.
But what it does show is that there isn’t a break in the sense that Polynesians are vastly genetically different than Melanesians. It’s a cline across the Pacific.
So we might be well advised to stop using terms like ‘Polynesians’ and ‘Melanesians’, which genetically have no meaning. It’s just a different percentage of the mixture between these two great populations — Papuan and East Asian — which occurred in the Pacific. Every indigenous Pacific Islander is a mixture of those two populations.
Okay, now, all sorts of things have been happening since. In July we got the first ancient genomes from mainland and island South-East Asia. I won’t go into this work. It did involve, at least in one of the papers colleagues of mine, Marc Oxenham for instance, Anna Willis, his PhD student from here, and various other people were involved.
This basically confirmed what the modern DNA evidence had shown, that there was a somewhat bit of a melting pot in island South-East Asia and various groups had come together. The key change is happening with the movement of agricultural populations out of mainland South-East Asia, and areas that perhaps today we would consider to be south China.
So this is a pretty major thing that happened in the middle of last year. Also there was a paper by Poogash et al, that came out in Molecular Biology and Evolution in April, and this was a very large sample of modern populations, but it did tend to confirm our original results, and also included material from the Santa Cruz group, which is actually visible from Vanuatu, although technically part of the Solomons. So again, a much bigger sample of modern DNA confirming some of the same things that we’d seen.
Here [points to slide], this shows an important fact that was kind of indicated in our original ancient DNA work as well, that the Papuan DNA — Papua is a pretty heterogeneous group, so that you can distinguish genetically the Papuan element in Solomon Islanders from the Papuan element of New Irelanders, from the Papuan element of New Britain people, from the Papuan element of the New Guinea mainland.
So when we say in Vanuatu, some time after — probably not very long after at all — the initial East Asian movement of these First Remote Oceanians into Oceania, the people who come and join them, the Papuan groups that come and join them came from New Britain.
They didn’t come from the Solomons. They didn’t come from mainland New Guinea. They didn’t come from New Ireland. They came from New Britain. And this is very interesting because the kind of Lapita base itself was in New Britain. The Lapita settlement of Remote Oceania was from New Britain, or from the Bismarck Archipelago perhaps more generally, avoiding the Solomon Islands and landing straight in the Santa Cruz group and then on to Vanuatu.
What we then find in the genetics of the Papuan groups, the second wave, is that they follow the same pattern. They’ve leapfrogged the Solomons to get to the Santa Cruz group and Vanuatu. That suggests very strongly to me they are using the same exchange/migration routes as the Lapita people, and the reason is they are Lapita people. They are people from New Britain, of a long genetic inheritance in that place, who have adopted or bought into the Lapita culture, jumped on Lapita boats towards the end of the Lapita period at least, and then come over to Vanuatu.
So, the pattern that we see in Santa Cruz there, that blue [points to slide], it’s very like the blue that’s very strong among groups like the Binings Papuan group in New Britain. So again, new evidence coming up from other studies, but which is showing really a similar kind of picture.
Then our own second articles came out in February 2018. Both of these articles — one in Current Biology, one in Nature, Ecology and Evolution — both involving Australian National University scholars and people from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.
I was on one of the papers. I wasn’t on the other one because it was a different project in Malakula which I wasn’t involved in. And people were saying, ‘Why are there two papers?’ Well, there’s two papers because all these labs need to boost their post-docs, and they couldn't agree which post-doc’s name would go first. It’s the politics of science today.
So yes, it would have been better as a single paper. We had discussions at one stage that it might become a single paper, but it came out as two papers. And no one has yet, in print — but we’re hoping to do so soon — really brought together the results of the two papers.
Because they’re both kind of partial stories. But when you put them together — obviously a bigger sample is always better — you get a much better sample of things. I won’t bother to read this, but the basic story is what we’ve been able to do in Vanuatu is we’ve been able to get a time sequence. So we start with our 3000-year-old Lapita people, First Remote Oceanians, and then we’re looking at the admixture that occurs once these other Papuan groups arrive, and when that admixture occurs and changes over time.
So this is, I think, the first time that there’s a kind of convincing sequence of DNA from the region. But, as I said, you need to kind of put the two papers together to really understand it.
Now, these are the samples from the two things. In the Lipson et al paper that I was involved in we particularly were looking to get a sequence in the Efate area, so we weren’t trying to get samples from lots of other places. The Post et al samples were from the Max Planck Institute in Jena in Germany, they were really trying to get any kind of samples they could get to flesh out things. So their samples come from a wider area, but they particularly come from Malakula in northern Vanuatu.
These are the pictures of what happens from both papers — basically saying pretty much the same thing, that there’s these two waves and they mix together. The percentage of First Remote Oceanians who are red in our diagram there — the first people are entirely First Remote Oceanian in ancestry. We have individuals at around 2500, 2300 years ago, who are unadmixed Papuans, also in Vanuatu. You get the replacement, essentially, of one genomic pattern with another.
But then towards the end of the sequence you’re starting to get what looks to be a slightly greater percentage of First Remote Oceanian ancestry. It actually is a signal of Polynesians from further to the east moving back into Vanuatu and setting up colonies, the so-called Polynesian outliers. These are islands where Polynesian languages are spoken, but they’re within geographic Melanesia, and we’ll come to them again in a minute.
Okay, I won’t really go into this, it’s just what I’ve told you, but putting the two papers together shows the process of admixture between these two groups. In the Post et al article they raise some other connections that kind of linked New Britain and Vanuatu, some more convincing than others. It is very interesting that various kinds of ornaments that pierce the nose are very notable in New Britain and they’re also notable in Vanuatu. Penis sheaths — which are so-called mambas in Vanuatu — a common form of polite dress, is also found in New Britain.
Head binding to produce artificially deformed skulls, again, found in New Britain and found in Vanuatu in parts, particularly in Malakula. Also, my favourite, the rearing of full-circled tusker pigs, where you knock out the upper incisor and the pig’s teeth grow around and around to form circles. Again, this is a very rare thing anywhere in the world, and New Britain is the other place, apart from Vanuatu, in Melanesia where you have it.
So, there are some cultural connections that the genetics is kind of perhaps giving us some clues to. Also there have long been suggestions that some languages of Vanuatu — they are Austronesian languages, but there’s another component in them which is often identified as being from non-Austronesian languages of the New Guinea general area. So my question is, is archaeology now irrelevant?
Okay, fair enough. Who digs up these blooming skulls that they’re all getting terribly excited about and getting their post-docs names as first authors on? It’s the archaeologists. Who provides the contextual evidence? It’s the archaeologists.
But as I said at the beginning, some of these who, when and where questions that archaeologists spend an enormous amount of effort to answer can now be answered by ancient DNA, radiocarbon dating and isotope geochemistry, looking at people’s teeth to see where they may have migrated from or what their diet was.
We’ve had 200 years plus talking about the origin of the Polynesians, and, you know, enough already. Let’s move on to some other questions. So I think sorting out some of these basic questions is good, because then we can get on to the things which archaeologists would really like to know about, which is how these societies worked, how these societies changed.
Some of the questions that I put up there are the kinds of things that really I’d much rather spend my time trying to answer than ‘How old is this skull?’ or, you know, ‘Did this person migrate from A to B?’
I think questions of what — for want of a better word — we might call ‘political economy’ are far more interesting things to learn about people in the past. Okay, now after our paper came out, Archaeology in Oceania, one of the great journals of the region, decided to have a forum. So Stuart Bedford, my colleague who was on both papers — the Lipps et al and the Post et al — he was asked to write a little sort of introduction. Then various people came in, all guns blazing, and it’s an interesting document.
Some of the people say, ‘Oh well, I said this years ago.’ Okay, fine, if you said it all years ago, great. Then some people have said, ‘Yes, it’s great.’ And then other people said, ‘Oh no, it’s terrible stuff, and these theories are all wrong and, you know, it doesn’t fit with the archaeology, and all sorts of things.’ So it’s a kind of interesting mixture of responses, some of which I was quite surprised with.
And various issues. Some people suggested what we are essentially suggesting is that you've got these initial Lapita people there, and they are essentially replaced by another group of people, and that this is some sort of dramatic turnover that happens very quickly. They said, ‘Well, why couldn’t it just be that people coming down from essentially New Guinea to the Solomons and into Vanuatu, they just keep dribbling down, and over time it just changes the genomes of the inhabitants of the place?’
There’s several things, and this is what we’re working with right now in our response to the issues raised in the forum that was published last year. Ni-Vanuatu are a pretty homogeneous population, and the Papuan component of their genome derives from New Britain. It does not derive from the Solomon Islands, which is the immediately adjacent archipelago that people are trying to suggest connections would have continued between, say, the Solomon Island and Vanuatu. If that was the case we would see it in the genes, and we don’t.
The people of Vanuatu, the Papuan component of their genes is from New Britain. The idea that for 2500 years, in the absence of any direct connections between New Britain and Vanuatu, post Lapita, that somehow only their genes are going to enter the Vanuatu gene pool is just quite ridiculous. And so it cannot be.
It’s a short time migration stream that is following the Lapita movement out and the Lapita exchange system. That exchange system does not exist post-Lapita, so how could genes only from a very far away place be getting into Vanuatu? And no genes from the Solomon Islands are getting in. So that’s an argument against the slow drip.
The pattern of leapfrog migration, as I said, exactly that of Lapita colonisation, which is why I associate the movement of these Papuan groups or Papuan admixed groups as happening at the same time. There’s very little archaeological evidence after 2500 years ago of connections between the main Solomons and the Santa Cruz and Vanuatu group. It’s a big sea gap, 300 kilometres plus, and it doesn’t look as those people very often crossed it until much later on.
Also, the Papuan genetic component among Polynesians is not the same. It’s coming from the Solomons or the New Ireland area. This would again suggest it’s obviously a separate migration. Again I would suggest this is a short time period injection of these genes into the region. So it’s a third wave, if you like, at some stage. And we don’t have the evidence to know exactly when at the moment.
Another question raised was people said, okay, you’ve only got three skulls — now we have four — from Vanuatu. There could have been groups that moved out at the same time or perhaps even earlier who basically had a considerable Papuan ancestry.
Now, a view of quite a few scholars, until our genetic work, was that admixture between Papuans and East Asian groups occurred in the Bismarck archipelago during the Lapita period, and some who were more admixed with Papuans came down to places like Vanuatu and others who were less admixed went to Polynesia.
It doesn’t work, because they’re not the same group. It’s not just a sort of cline of the admixture of that group, of one group of Papuans. It’s a different process to get people out into Polynesia than to get people out into Vanuatu as part of that second wave.
Now, you can’t say there weren’t these Papuan groups in Vanuatu and we haven’t found them yet. Well, you can say that they weren’t there before Lapita, because we have a whole range of archaeological evidence that suggests there was no one in Vanuatu before. I could go into that in questions if you’re interested.
So, if there are early admixed individuals we haven’t found them. Also, using the genetic tricks of the trade in dating admixture by comparing people from different time periods, looking at how admixed they were, you don’t get back to the initial admixture happening 3000 years ago. You get it happening 2500 years ago or less.
So this alone is another genetic line of evidence that would suggest that the admixture didn’t occur early. It didn’t occur early because the initial populations were exactly the populations we have found unadmixed, essentially admixed East Asians.
Another one: sampling issues. With only four Lapita samples you can’t say anything much. Now, more samples are always better, and also, we think that the Papuan groups are moving in some time between 2800 years ago and 2500 years ago, but we don't have any skeletons in that period yet. We don't have any DNA from that period.
So yes, we do lack samples. But there’s also something different about a DNA sample, because it’s not just your DNA, it’s also telling something about your parents’ DNA, and their parents’ DNA, going all the way back to our brothers and sisters in arms, the great apes. That’s all in the DNA of everybody in this room.
So one sample doesn’t sound like much, but it’s one sample which goes back and back and back and back, and tells you that ancestry. Also there are certain things with one sample that we can straightaway, say. There are individuals in Vanuatu 3000 years ago who are essentially unadmixed East Asians. We only need one sample to say that. And there’s no one in Vanuatu today, or anywhere in the Pacific, who has exactly that genetic pattern today. So straightaway, just with one sample, you’re saying something.
You’re also refuting the idea that the admixture occurred in the Bismarcks, because we’re not in the Bismarck archipelago, we’re in Vanuatu, and there’s essentially unadmixed individuals there. So you can say that with one sample.
Also, we’re comparing a small number of ancient samples, but we’re comparing them with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of modern samples that are also telling us something about ancestry. So it’s not just one sample or three samples, it’s actually a very large comparative base that we have to work with. So it’s not as bad as it sounds.
The fourth issue was a rather strange issue that was raised by one of the commentators, who said, you know, ‘Basically you’re going about it the wrong way. You’ve got to consider all possibilities’. Well, that’s not actually how science works.
There’s this idea, which is completely erroneous, that if you keep adding possibilities in the absence of actual evidence, that you get nearer to the truth. No. All you add is more and more possibilities for error. As a famous statistician George Box said, you know, all models are wrong, but some are useful.
So this idea that we should consider all possibilities — well, okay, aliens came from outer space and they’re in one of these groups — I mean, how far do you go? Nobody considers all possibilities. And I’m not going to read this out, as we’re a polite audience, but there is a brilliant paper in the journal Sociological Theory, which is saying, basically, keep it simple. Don’t be too subtle. There’s a lot of reasons why you shouldn't.
This leads me to the quote that I started with. Of course our models are wrong. But making them more complicated isn’t going to make them more right. Anyone can be complicated — simplicity, that’s hard. Now one of the great train robbers said that. I don’t know if any of you watched the wonderful mini-series that’s on 9Gem, The Great Train Robbery. It started yesterday, I’m sure you can find it on the web or something. But I was most struck when one of the great train robbers said that, because that is basically science, how it works. As far as I can see.
Running out of time. But I want to move on to another topic, which is, okay, we can get people out to western Polynesia and we can get them out to Vanuatu, but what about eastern Polynesia? Tahiti? Easter Island? Rapa Nui? Hawaii?
Well, the conventional story has always been, in the Lapita period people get out as far as Tonga and Samoa, and then there’s a long gap of 1500 years or something like that. Then about 1000 years ago they move out from Samoa and they head off and they find Marquesas and Tahiti.
Now, this is the view that you read in every textbook. However, a brilliant linguist called Bill Wilson in Hawaii has looked at this in detail, and he shows that this is simply, linguistically impossible. The whole model that people were going to Samoa and went to Tahiti and the Marquesas was originally entirely a linguistic model.
He has published a whole bunch of papers which it’s taken a long time for people to take on board. His basic argument is that the move is not from Samoa to the east, the move is from Samoa to the west and northwest, and this is the setting up of the Polynesia outliers.
You remember I mentioned those later Polynesian colonies of the last — however long it is, maybe 1200 years. His current idea is that the first Polynesian colonies are established in the area that’s labelled SSO, which is the Southeast Solomonic Outliers, places such as Tikopia, Anuta, Taumako and Rennell and Bellona. From there, probably they spread down and set up the outliers in Vanuatu, including Esfera in Port Vila harbour, and Mele, village nearby, where I was just the other day.
But also, importantly for this story, they spread north and set up the northern outliers. It is from the central northern outliers that a very long range migration occurs, and one which leads to essentially Tahiti and the Marquesan area. This is backed up with, in 2012, he had 73 uniquely shared linguistic innovations between the central northern outliers and eastern Polynesia. Uniquely shared, they’re not in Samoa. They’re in eastern Polynesia and they’re in those outliers, just off the Solomon Islands.
In 2014 he found 130 new shared unique innovations, not in Samoan, but in the outliers and in eastern Polynesian languages. Now that’s over 200 uniquely shared innovations. It’s one of the best defined subgroups in the Austronesian languages. In December he published an expanded hypothesis in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, which I highly recommend you read, with this idea. So it’s a very different way to go to east Polynesia than every map in every textbook or general work will show you.
He’s also had a go at the standard way in which Polynesian languages have been subgrouped. I won’t go into this, but he shows that the connection is not Samoan to eastern Polynesia, as in the old way, but it is from these northern outliers off the Solomons. So what’s going on?
Well, this is sort of what’s going on. Initial movement from Samoa to the west, the development of innovations in the outliers, and then a northern route, probably coming to ground somewhere near the Marquesas. But it also explains an enormous amount of information, including information that people have never known what to do with, but which was noted.
In the 19th century, people said, ‘How come Marquesan material culture, some aspects of it, look like they come straight out of the Solomon Islands?’ Well, the reason is they probably do. Because the central northern outliers in the Solomons were certainly in contact with the main Solomon Islands, and aspects of their material culture were diffused to the outliers.
People have always known that these kind of strange objects — you see them in the Marquesas, and you go, oh, just like the Solomons. And you just throw up your arms and you go, well, how can that be? It’s not possible. But it is possible now, with Bill Wilson’s ideas.
I don't know if you can really see that picture very well, but what it shows is that if you want to sail east, that the westerlies that will take you to the east. They are winds that are occurring north of Samoa. You can’t get there from Samoa very easily at all, if at all. But once you head north, you can catch those westerlies and head to the east. And where are those westerlies essentially originating from? Right where those central northern outliers are.
So the easiest way to get to eastern Polynesia from Samoa is not to try and head east — you go northwest, hit those outliers, and then you can head east to your heart’s content at certain times of the year. This was shown in some simulation work that was done by Alvira Montenegro and his group, who did not know about Bill Wilson’s work when they did it. So it’s an independent line of evidence that suggests that that very long distance movement from essentially just off the Solomons to Marquesas and Tahiti is actually a real thing.
Now, a lot of archaeologists are just in denial — including many good colleagues of mine — but most recently another publication has come out, it was officially published April last year, but it was online in January, and this is a study of complete genomes of modern Tahitian and other Tahitian groups, Tahitian people, and comparing them with other populations in the world.
Noting a particular link to one of those central northern outliers, Ontong Java, very large atoll, politically part of the Solomon Islands today, and showing some very strong and quite direct links with some rare genetic traits between Ontong Java and eastern Polynesia, that is, not shared with other Polynesian groups.
So, the genetics may be suggesting that Bill Wilson is right, as well as the linguistics, and I think an increasing amount of archaeology. Now, the other thing that happened is David Reich, who’s the guy who runs the lab at Harvard Medical School, so the Lipps et al papers, Skoglund — these were his students, his post-docs, sorry.
They’d done the most of this ancient DNA, throughout the world, in Europe and Africa and India, wherever, and he put together a doubtless premature book called Who We Are and How We Got Here. But it’s a good read, it came out last year.
And because he’s become sort of a big figure the New York Times magazine, various people including myself were contacted by them, and said, ‘Tell us about this ancient DNA.’ A journalist, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, came out to Vanuatu even, and came and talked to people, indigenous Ni-Vanuatu, he talked to archaeologists, some of whom were indigenous, some were me and Stuart Bedford, and he seemed to be writing what was an interesting article about this ancient DNA research, how’s it going, what’s it like, and all this sort of stuff.
Instead it turned into a kind of hatchet job on David Reich. It’s the classic sort of cut down the small poppies. And some of the article — it kind of started well, and then it just got worse and worse and worse. Essentially saying that the people who are doing this work are racists.
It says that Reich’s papers, by which he means the papers that we’re all involved in, seemed to blithely recapitulate discredited theories of Pacific expansion, making categorical claims not only about four individual skulls, but about the shape of human history, claims that were essentially indistinguishable from the racialised notions of the swashbuckling imperial era.
Now, you know, come on, guys. We can all have intellectual disagreements. I particularly don't like this discredited theory because in 1997, in my book The Island Melanesians, which remains to this day the only book which covers the pre-history and early historic period of the area from the Bismarcks through to Vanuatu and New Caledonia. I basically had all this in there.
I said maybe the first people into Vanuatu — and it wasn’t original to me, I think it goes back at least to a book by Keesing and Keesing, anthropologists in 1971. I said maybe the first people into places like Vanuatu were essentially Asian people, and then people came moving down following the same kind of migration routes. So, you know, it’s perhaps not the most popular view that was around being the ancient DNA came out, but it was not a discredited view. So I particularly took offence at that.
But it really is a hatchet job. Some of the people who were in the Archaeology and Oceania forum who were particularly critical of our work, I think, fed him a lot of great lines. But, you know, it’s the new charge. Oh, you’re a colonialist, or you’re an imperialist, or something. This is just a way of attacking ideas that you don’t like, or ideas that you’re afraid of, or ideas that are just outside of your comfort zone. I don’t buy it, I don’t buy it.
I think the evidence is out there. It’s a model. It’s got, to my mind, an enormous amount of supporting evidence behind it. And you don’t kind of come up with some other idea by trying to suppress it, or calling it colonialist or imperialist or racist. That shouldn’t be the game that we’re playing.
Sadly, in these kind of days of new media and all this stuff where everyone feels their opinion is incredibly important, and says what they want at any time — that’s kind of entering now into the New York Times, which I believe was once a quite well-thought-of journal.
Okay, the take homes. Sorry, I’ve gone on too long, I must stop. It’s worth noting that even the earliest populations show a tiny amount of Papuan admixture, but sadly the samples are such that we can’t say where it’s from.
These early people that I’ve been describing as essentially unadmixed East Asians — there is a Papuan component, two per cent. But modern day Ni-Vanuatu is, like, 90 per cent. And we have to remember that Papuan groups, Island South-East Asia was also full of groups that were essentially Papuan, before the spread from mainland South-East Asia and south China, of agriculturalists 4000 years ago.
So, if these people in Taiwan, or coming from Taiwan, or Northern Luzon, or wherever they’re coming from, if they had some admixture, where did they pick up that admixture? We can’t say at the moment. It could have been within Island South-East Asia, it could have been in the Bismarcks, we don’t know. But it is there, somewhere between Taiwan and the Bismarcks — they had had some admixture with Papuan groups. But it’s pretty small.
Papuan ancestry in Vanuatu is predominantly from New Britain, rather than the geographically closer Solomons, and this leapfrogging is the same pattern of colonisation as seen with the Lapita culture. This confirms the big study of modern DNA, Poogash et al, and fits with the late Lapita timeframe for Papuan ancestry entering Vanuatu. So they are also the Lapita people.
So I mentioned the Polynesian, or certainly the Tongan/Papuan DNA, is from a different source, closer to that of people in the Solomons and/or the Toli, who are a new island group that moved into New Britain recently. We don’t know when Papuan genes started affecting the first remote Oceanian groups in Polynesia. All we can tell at this stage, just because we don’t have a good sequence, is that it had to have happened earlier than 1000 years ago, or 1000 AD. The reason is, all east Polynesians are also admixed between east Asian and Papuan groups.
When people went out to eastern Polynesia they went out to some very remote places, and they already had these Papuan genes. So this is a big question that we want to know — when do these genes get into the Polynesian population? And I haven’t even mentioned Fiji — that’s going to be very interesting, because Fijians really are a great mixture of Polynesian and perhaps secondary migrations from places like Vanuatu — it’s going to be a very interesting story in Fiji, and in Polynesia in general.
This is our new work — that you get a sudden infusion of Polynesian genes into Vanuatu, and again the timeframe we don’t yet know. A lot of the evidence is only really relating to the last couple of hundred years, and on one of the Polynesian outliers we have populations who are just bog standard Vanuatu populations of the time, around 700 to 1000 AD.
So on the island of Futuna on Vanuatu, that Polynesian influence — and today a Polynesian speaking group, people look very Polynesian — that’s happened some time after 700 AD, but we’re not sure when.
We are starting to see what the real sampling problems are, which is not you’ve only got four skulls, it’s that you need the coverage from different places. Then, you know, these results are disturbing to some commentators. In New Caledonia, in the lead up to the independence referendum that was held late last year, there was a resurgence of an old view which is indeed racist, which is saying, ‘Oh, the Kanaks, the indigenous New Caledonian people, they’re not the first people who were there.’
You could see how some of these results could be used or misused to say, ‘Oh yes, that’s true.’ The whole point about these Papuan genes coming to Vanuatu, and presumably into New Caledonia as well, this is happening as part of the initial Lapita culture — it’s one culture — that is the first culture in Vanuatu, it’s the first culture in New Caledonia.
The people who participated in it, earlier on, were particularly of East Asian genetic inheritance, but later on in Lapita, we’re only talking a couple of hundred years at the most, they’re probably predominantly of Papuan genetic origin.
So you’d have to really try to be able to use that as part of your racist thing against the Kanaks. The Kanaks were not the first. But there is a big problem in Europe — and this is one we’re going to be canvassing in Naomi Sykes and my issue of World Archaeology, we’ve got several good papers, one by my colleague Kate Freeman, pointing out that the way that the ancient DNA research is being received in Europe, there are a lot of extremely unpleasant right wing groups that are reading it in a particular way to kind of enforce, essentially, ideas that we thought had disappeared with the Nazis.
That is a real problem of communication of this kind of material, because people are thinking it says something about who’s a pure European and who’s not. It doesn’t say anything like that, but it is certainly being used, and there is a big problem of how we communicate these results in an ethical and sensitive way, which I think we’re still grasping at, but I think it is an important thing that we need to do. Thank you.
My mouth is dry now, after all that. Anybody got any questions?
QUESTION: Is the pig still alive?
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: That pig? I didn’t kill him, but I expect somebody else did. You will notice his wonderful tusks, it’s an extremely valuable pig.
QUESTION: So, Matthew, it’s tantalising, the stuff you were saying about the Marquesas. Are there early skeletons there that might yield ancient DNA?
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: I think you’d have to ask Guillaume Molle, he could tell you that. He’s probably working with geneticists as we speak.
GUILLAUME MOLLE: Yes, I do. No, the earliest skeletons we have in the Marquesas are from the 14th century. So we have no skeletons for the first period of settlement in the archipelago. That’s the earliest burials we have so far in the Marquesas.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: So that’s, what, four or five hundred years after you expect people arrived there?
GUILLAUME MOLLE: Yes, yes.
QUESTION: Why do you think Fiji is going to be so interesting?
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: Well, when Dumont d’Urville, in 1832, made up the distinction between Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians, he couldn't quite get Fiji, and he said, well, Fiji, you know, they seem to be heavily influenced by the Polynesians, but they’re kind of Melanesian looking, or are they? The ones in the east look like Polynesians. So Fiji has always been seen as sort of the borderland between Polynesia and Melanesia, in using those kind of old fashioned terminologies.
There has been a lot of archaeological arguments that there are particular cultural changes, particularly changes in pottery style, which archaeologists have thought, ah, maybe this is a new group of people coming in. What the feeling has often been is that the first people in Fiji were more Polynesian-like, meaning, actually, not that they were Polynesian-like, but they were essentially — now we would say they were First Remote Oceanians. They were essentially East Asians.
Then the question is, do the Papuan groups come in a couple of hundred years later, as is the case in Vanuatu, or did they come in a lot later, like 1000 years later.
There are some cultural changes that occur around 1500 years ago that are pretty major in parts of Fiji, and there have been suggestions that perhaps this is a secondary movement into Fiji of people from Vanuatu. But we don't have any ancient DNA. If we had ancient DNA from skeletons 3000 years ago in Fiji, 2000 years ago, 1000 years ago, we’d be able to solve that problem.
Again, you only need one, really, who’s going to tell you the thing. If at 1500 years ago — if at 2,000 years ago you’ve got essentially a First Remote Oceanian genetic profile, and then at 1,400 years ago you’ve got a much more mixed profile, then you’d say it happened some time between — you only need two skulls.
You’d say it happened some time between 2000 and 1500 years ago. I mean, they can calculate when they think it happened using their own kind of genetic clocks, which I don’t fully understand, but you really want dated samples, directly dated. All of the material that we’ve presented — we have dated the skeletons directly. This is not on the association with artefacts.
So they really are that old. Rather than the archaeologists sort of say, well, it was kind of, seemed to be in that layer. You know, we’ve had so many problems like that over the years. So the Fiji thing could be quite different. And Polynesia could be different again.
Until we get some samples we won’t know. But what we do know is that the admixture of Papuans and First Remote Oceanians occurred in Polynesia before, 1000 years ago, because that’s when you’re going to get people out in New Zealand, Aoteroa, out into Easter Island, Tahiti and Hawaii, and they all, today, have that Papuan — roughly the same sort of Papuan component. About 25 per cent, 26 per cent of their genome.
But this also means that when people say — and sadly, some of the people in this Archaeology and Oceania Journal forum, said, ‘Well, you’re saying that the Polynesians are the direct descendants of the Lapita people.’ No, we’re not.
Nobody is a direct descendent unless everybody is. Because everybody in the Pacific is a mixture of these two populations. Long separated. East Asians and Papuans. So everybody in the Pacific is a mixture of those two groups. The only argument is it 25 per cent or 45 per cent. Yes, it’s a mixture, and it’s a cline across the Pacific as well.
Any more? Tristan, you should have got in first when you had the chance.
QUESTION: Thank you Matthew. I thought that was a really great synthesis of all of the really big issues that are happening around ancient DNA.
I’m going to ask two questions. The first is, if the genetics are essentially saying that they’re skipping the Solomon Islands group, what does the archaeology say in Vanuatu versus the Solomon Islands for that 3000 to 2000 period. Is there differences which would support, like you were saying, there’s other material culture and cultural practices which are transferred from the Bismarcks to Vanuatu?
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: Yes, absolutely. Because —
COMMENT: I haven’t finished.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: Don’t ask your second question because I'll forget what your first one was. Hold onto the mic.
Yes. There are no early Lapita sites in the Solomon Islands at all. There are late Lapita sites in the western Solomons, which suggests a move down from —
COMMENT: That’s part two of the first question.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: From New Ireland, but that’s happening at late Lapita times, and the pottery is quite distinctive. But, you know, in the main Solomon Islands there have been people there for 50,000 years, Papuan groups, for want of a better terminology.
When the Lapita settlement of Vanuatu happened, we don’t have any evidence that there’s anyone but Papuan groups in the main Solomon Islands. We don’t have any early Lapita sites, we don’t have any early patterns of the distribution of obsidian from New Britain.
So the original model of the leapfrog over the Solomons was formulated by an archaeologist who works in the Solomons, called Peter Shepherd, from Auckland. And he came up with this idea, and I have to say, at the time I said that’s just rubbish, you haven’t done enough work, there must be bloody Lapita sites all over the place. But the linguistics subsequently suggested a direct transfer from the Bismarcks to the Santa Cruz group, the eastern outer islands of the Solomons, across the Remote Oceania boundary.
So subsequent to that there’s linguistic evidence within the subgrouping of Austronesian languages that suggests that the Solomons is avoided. There’s archaeological evidence, and now there is — certainly the modern genetic evidence supports that as well.
QUESTION: So then you’re thinking that there is, at a later point in time, around two thousand-ish — broad time strokes here — interactions between Bismarcks, Solomons and Santa Cruz group which then moves out by the northern group and then has archaeological echoes in the Marquesas, which would then be considered the — could in the genetics it’s saying it’s a different Papuan group in Polynesia.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: Yes. But when that gets out into Polynesia we don’t know.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: We don’t know. The outliers have got to be established in the south east Solomons — when we say the south east Solomon outliers, some are on one side of the near Remote Oceania boundary and some are on the other. But the only one that’s well dated is Tikopia, Pat Kirch’s work.
There’s no evidence of Polynesian influence there before 800 years ago. Well, that’s too late, because you’ve got to get people from the south east — you know, that can’t be the homeland of the outliers, because you’ve got to get people up into the central northern outliers, and then about 1000 years ago you’ve got to get them over to eastern Polynesia.
But in Tikopia the first evidence of Polynesian influence, and it’s a very strong signal that comes in the material culture, it’s only 800 years ago.
But remember, Tikopia is, like, two square kilometres. It’s a tiny place. It already had people on it, and the Polynesians had to kind of get in there and take it over. My bet would be either a place where today there is no Polynesian language — we just haven't done any archaeology, because Solomons is the least investigated, probably, of the major archipelagos in the Pacific.
Or it’s got to be somewhere like Rennell Island, which is a Polynesian outlier, it’s the largest outlier, it’s a massive island. Or Bellona next door, which is another. The problem with Rennell is a linguistic one, which is that Rennell was certain inhabited, and the Polynesian population there basically committed genocide on the population that was there before. It’s in their oral traditions.
There were people there they call the Hiti, black people, and their traditions say we got fed up with living with these people and we just killed every one of them. But they lived together long enough that the Polynesian language of Rennell has what’s called a Hiti substratum, it’s a mixed language. So it’s a Polynesian language but it’s undergone all these things.
If people had got to Rennell, and that was the first island, then when they moved off into these other outliers they should have had borrowings from the Hiti language, but they don’t. It’s just on Rennell. So this is what I’m talking about, Bill Wilson, we’re sending emails every day. Where is this place that has to be earlier than about 1200 years ago, somewhere in the south east Solomons, from which you then get people to the central northern outliers.
But remember, nobody has ever done any archaeology at all on any of the central northern outliers. Ontong Java, Taku, Nukuria.
COMMENT: Your next big project, Matthew.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: No, I’m a recovering digger. My name is Matthew, I haven’t had a dig for one year, six months and three days and four hours, and everyone claps.
So I’m not going to do it, but it would be a fantastic project. I mean, Ontong Java has got to be the place where people go off to eastern Polynesia, because it’s a massive atoll. I don’t know how many islands are on it, but its lagoon is like 100-kilometres long or something. I mean, it’s enormous. So it’s the obvious place.
But where the homeland was before then, we don’t know. It may not even be in the Solomons. I said to Bill Wilson, ‘Why couldn’t it be Rotuma?’ Because Rotuma today is a language related to Fijian. It’s a central Pacific language, but it shows massive loans from Samoan, and massive loans from Tongan.
It’s a very old language. But what if there was a community that kept themselves separate, and they were first of all established on Rotuma, or some other island around there. We just don’t know.
That’s why when I — I think the real title of the lecture was something about, has the synthesis finally arrived? No. All we’ve done is opened up millions more interesting questions. No one would have ever bothered to go to Ontong Java to look for anything, it’s just an outlier, but now suddenly these central northern outliers become the place to do.
QUESTION: Okay, my second round of questions, if that’s alright. I’m really glad that you ended with the politics of ancient DNA, because I think that is something that the New York Times article picked up on for a number of reasons. I wanted you to, if you could, comment a little bit further, in particular about the Vanuatu samples, because the New York Times article seemed to be criticising, in particular, the lack of control communities have once the samples are gone, and then also the politics around the fact that this is such a hot topic.
You managed to get skeletal material as a post-doc, or as anyone, and you get it to Germany or Harvard, and you are, like, guaranteed Nature papers, and that sort of can bring you — like you were saying — there’s a lot of politics in academic circles about the prestige and being able to get more grant funding and job security and all of those sorts of things by landing your names in these sorts of journals and on these research teams.
So there seems to be a lot of pressure, potentially, on indigenous owners or cultural groups around ancient DNA, and that they lose control of it once it’s gone. I think that was something that the New York Times article illuminated on, and I thought you obviously have very strong personal relationships with people in Vanuatu. What were your thoughts on that, on how that was projected in the New York Times article, in particular.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: This problem will never end, because consent in one generation, as we know in Australia, is not consent in another. So it’s an intractable problem in many ways.
It may well be that in 20 years time, people will start jumping up and down and saying, ‘Yes, why did you bloody do this DNA on our ancient samples?’ And all you can say is, ‘Well, I spoke to all the people 20 years ago and they all said it was fine.’
There is a bit of a tendency today to kind of — people to run down their own parents and grandparents in this regard. This idea that people didn’t know why they were giving samples, or why they were allowing people to do this 20 years ago — people 20 years ago were just as intelligent as people are today. They had their reasons for saying yes at the time, which are different than maybe your reasons for saying no today.
So I think the politics will never end on this. It will never end until it kind of doesn’t matter. So I know at one level there’s lots of sensitivity particularly among Aboriginal groups in Australia about DNA and these vampire projects of getting everybody’s DNA. The same in New Caledonia, perhaps.
But on the other hand, there are many thousands of Aboriginal people who are voting with their feet, and they send their samples off to 23andMe and ancestry.com, just as anybody else in the world who is literate and interested in their past. So what is that telling us?
The trouble is, you know, people are sending their DNA off, these labs are taking up this DNA — but remember these are real labs. They’re not like these commercial labs — many of them are shonky, you know, and the stuff — people are paying $95 to be sold a bill of goods, frankly, a lot of these. At least this stuff’s being done by real people who aren’t doing it just for commercial gain.
The politics internally of genetics is — I thought archaeologists were bad at sniping at each other and stuff, but the geneticists are worse. The unfortunate politics of the way science works today is that there’s a lot of pressure for people to get into about three journals. There’s Science, Nature, and then there’s the other one, which people think stands for Paper Not Accepted in Science. PNAS. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But, you know, it’s considered very much the third.
Luckily we’re not under such pressure as they are in genetics. But surely there has to come a point where another two skulls from Vanuatu or from Ibiza or from anywhere else is just kind of so ordinary that science are going to go, like, this isn’t new. We’ve got 1000 papers on this.
And they must be getting close, because there’s papers in these journals on ancient DNA every week. Enormous numbers of papers. And you think in the end the journals are going to just say, okay guys, we’ve done that, let’s discover the cure for the flu or something.
So, I think it can’t last, but it is the hot sexy topic of the time, ancient DNA. The stuff that it’s throwing up in Europe is just wonderful, in some ways. But being wildly misinterpreted, but it really turns around a lot of our ideas of what the past of Europe was like, and it’s exciting.
QUESTION: I’d like a question. I’m not an archaeology background. Could you say a little bit about how skeletons are found in this part of the world, with the tropical environment, are you finding skeletons only in noted cemeteries, or how do you actually find the samples?
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: The preservation at the Teouma site is particularly good because Teouma, basically it’s an uplifted coral reef, and then some volcanic ash fell on top of it, formed some soil, and the bodies are dug into that. But the coral reefs are very alkaline, and it neutralises the acid in the volcanic soil, and so the bones are preserved.
In many parts of the world where the soils are very acid, particularly at Cornwall, where I come from, it’s all granite there. You never find skeletons in those kind of conditions, because the soil is too acid, it just eats the bones away.
So some parts of the tropics, volcanic areas, the bones do not preserve well. But luckily these countries are coming up like a drunk’s breakfast. In Vanuatu there’s earthquakes all the time, and so the land is rising, so the reefs are coming out of the ground, and so many islands in Vanuatu, the island fringe is all just coral, uplifted coral reefs and then soil had formed on top of those. And that’s good conditions for the preservation of bone.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: Wait for the mic.
QUESTION: Just following on what that lady asked — and I’m not an archaeologist — I just wondered if you targeted the skull sites, because I know in the Solomon Islands there’s ancient — supposedly ancient skull sites.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: These aren’t — I think the sites you mean are where there are shrines above ground and skulls in them.
COMMENT: Yes, yes.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: Which are there in the bush in many areas. No, the Teouma site was found because they were quarrying soil for a prawn farm, and all these bones started coming up, and the bulldozer drivers were worried spiritually about them disturbing some bones of somebody. Ancient bones. Also as well as these bones, big pieces of pottery this big [indicates size] were coming up, and that they were crushing with their machines.
So we were told about it. Actually a bulldozer driver told a friend of his who had been trained as one of our cultural centre fieldworkers. He told him over Christmas, he had souvenired a big piece of pottery. He said to this guy, he said, ‘What’s this then? You work with those archaeologists, what do you think this is?’ And he said that is a piece of Lapita pottery and Matthew Spriggs has never found one bigger than that. Which I thought was a bit unnecessary for him to say that. But it was half a pot.
He came and told the cultural centre people, and then they went out there and they could see that part of the site had been destroyed by the quarrying, but they managed to persuade the landowner to stop, and then we went in.
We went there initially just to salvage what would be left after this bulldozer destruction, but luckily we found that a large part of the site was still there, and we dug it over six seasons, going back for a couple of months a year. So it was serendipity that it was found.
QUESTION: So they don’t generally yield anything? I’ve got contacts — there’s a Skull Island, and those sites are recent are they? I guess they must be recent. The other question I’ve got — with your presentation, it was fantastic, very, very interesting — are your slides available?
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: No, because they come from a range of publications which are subject to copyright, and some of them aren’t published yet. Some of this stuff is stuff that we’re working on. I was very leery to have the thing recorded but I did relent this year. Last year I said no. This year I said okay, you can record it, but you can’t show any of the photographs. Because they’re not all my photographs, they are of various people, and so there’s copyright concerns.
COMMENT: Fantastic, thank you very much.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: But quite a few of them come from publications which are available through the Australian National University or wherever.
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: Okay, there’s one more.
QUESTION: You said earlier in the talks — you touched on evidence for — we knew that a certain island hadn’t been occupied at a certain age, and you said we could ask about it in the question time. I was just a bit curious about what sort of evidence indicates a lack of occupation?
MATTHEW SPRIGGS: The real evidence that shows that people weren’t there before is a certain pattern you get in sites. The shellfish are the size of dinner plates. Every time we dig these early sites the crew, who is generally people from the local village, and they say I’ve never seen that shellfish that big, because they’ve had 3000 years of people eating them, and they obviously get smaller because of the pressure.
Also, at Teouma, we were amazed to discover that the site is absolutely full of the bones of a giant extinct tortoise, which had a shell two-metres long. And an extinct species — there’s no tortoises in Vanuatu — and the site is literally carpeted.
People turned up and they said my god, these things, what fantastic food. They just ate them all. Within a couple of hundred years they were gone. So if people had turned up 1000 years before or 5000 years before, they’d have all eaten them all already.
Also there was, again, an extinct species of land crocodile. There are no land crocodiles in the world anymore, but there were, and there was one, it was about two-metres long, and one time some expert — and I don’t know if this is the current view — said that its diet, it probably foraged on the reef at low tide and it didn’t have sharp teeth. It had crushing teeth for crushing the shells of shellfish. So that its diet was that. Also there was a megapode, an incubator bird, not just a new species, a new genus, and about that tall [indicates size]. There aren’t any incubator birds that tall anymore.
So this range — when you get all these extinct birds, extinct animals, massive-sized shellfish — that’s the sign, across the Pacific, of people weren’t here before. So if you find a site with that kind of pattern in Tonga then you’re going to say that’s the early site.
The earliest Lapita sites on Tonga, they have exactly that. They don’t have the giant tortoises, but they have big lizards and things which aren’t there, and loads and loads of these birds which are extinct. And there’s a massive vertebrate extinction event that rolls across the Pacific as people reach each island group.
So, if people reach somewhere 3000 years ago, a couple of hundred years, everything’s gone. If they reach it 1000 years ago — New Zealand, the moa — remember, moa is just the Polynesian word for chicken. It’s a bloody big chicken. And again, a couple of hundred years, [inaudible]. They’re all gone.
That rolling wave of extinction as people colonised the Pacific is the greatest extinction event of vertebrates since the dinosaurs. And that is the signal of people arriving. It’s not just the people, of course. The people come with pigs, dogs, and rats.
The rats are eating the bird eggs. A lot of these birds, as you get out into the Pacific, beyond the main Solomons, there were no endemic rats. The only rat was the Polynesian rat that people brought with them on their canoes. So a lot of the birds had lost the power of flight because they didn’t need to fly away from anything.
So they were ground nesting, they couldn't fly, and a whole bunch of rats jump off a canoe, and dogs — it’s rat and dog heaven. So, many of these birds are not the birds that people probably ate. They’re sort of little songbirds and things. But — loads of them go extinct.
Also, in Vanuatu today I think there are two main species of bats, large-size bats. We probably have nine species at Teouma. We haven’t even yet done the work to see if they are bats that are known from other islands. But there was a big load of bats.
So basically the bio-diversity crashes when the people turn up, and that is the real signal of people arriving. Yes. And we dug endless, endless cave sites, which are in uplifted reefs — you pick the site. This was a site habitable 26,000 years ago, let’s go and dig it. You dig down the bottom of it, it’s 2000 years old.
Whereas somewhere like New Ireland, in the Bismarck Archipelago, where people got there 40, 50000 years ago, they’ve dug eight cave sites, I think it is. Seven of them have occupation older than 10,000 years in them.
In Vanuatu we’ve dug 80 cave sites, we’ve got nothing over 2000, 2500 years. So again, just the pattern of the archaeology. We think we’ve done enough to identify that it really isn’t there.
Okay. I'm getting thirsty. Must be time to finish. Good.
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Date published: 01 August 2019