Mariannes du Nord : Dig on Tinian pushes back settlement 3400 years

Radio Australia Pacific Beat

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An Australian team of archaeologists have uncovered evidence of human burials and early human settlement in the Northern Marianas.


The excavation on Tinian Island dates human habitation back 3400 years.

Discoveries of wooden house posts, a cooking hearth, pottery and other artifacts paint a picture of the island's earliest inhabitants.

Peter Bellwood is a Professor of Archaeology at the Australian National University and he says Saipan is important because it was one of the first places to be reached by colonizing human populations.

Presenter: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Professor Peter Bellwood, School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University

BELLWOOD: They started this work in 2011. This is their second visit to the site, The House of Targa site on Tinian Island. The site has been excavated before. I think originally before the Second World War or perhaps just after. This island of Tinian, of course, is part of the Marianas Island group, includes Guam and Saipan and many other islands in western Micronesia, north of the equator. It's important because it was one of the first places to be reached by colonising human populations, Micronesians, and, of course, a little further south the Polynesians, as well were also migrating at the same time. One of the first islands to be reached by these people who originating from China, moving through Taiwan and the Philippines. They probably reached Tinian from somewhere in the Philippines, roughly 3,500 years ago. We know from our excavations in the northern Philippines and in the Marianas that they lived in houses raised above the coastal tidal area on stilts like many people did and still do in parts of South East Asia. They made pottery, very beautiful red-coated pottery with finely impressed designs and the Micronesian pottery from Tinian is very similar to pottery in, in northern Luzon, in the Philippines, in particular. It's also very similar to pottery found in the western Pacific, south of the equator, in islands east of New Guinea, that pottery is called Lapita and it is thought to be part of the ancestry of the island Melanesian and Polynesian peoples much further to the south. So this Tinian excavation is all part of a very large migration of human populations about 3,500 years ago, from South East Asia into the Pacific Islands, of course, reaching places like New Zealand and Easter Island eventually and Hawaii, although those Polynesians didn't travel through Micronesia, they travelled as I've just said, further south.

And these populations were moving well, certainly in the area of New Guinea, they were moving through areas that were, of course, already settled. There were people in Australia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, possibly 40,000, 50,000 years ago, long before this. But these populations that reached the Marianas Islands were the first ones in their canoes, boats. They must have had quite good boats to start to move towards the vast open areas of the Pacific beyond South East Asia, beyond New Guinea, beyond the Solomon Islands.

EWART: So does the work that is going on in the Northern Marianas at the moment. Is it as it were helping to broaden the picture of the way the Pacific Islands were populated many hundreds of years ago? And are we learning things that we didn't know before? Is the picture changing?

BELLWOOD: It is, partly because the sites being excavated in the Marianas Islands are a little bit older than those in the south of the equator, in the Lapita region of Melanesia. They appear to be 100 or 200 years older. So this now looks like the first movement of these people from the Philippines, reaching the Marianas Islands across a very large area of sea. It's almost 2,300 kilometres across that passage. There is, at the moment, some debate as to whether they travelled directly or if they went through some islands further to the south, such as Palau or Yapp and we still don't know that, because similar materials have not yet been found in Palau or Yapp, so we only have this material at the moment from the Marianas Islands. But it looks like, yeah this could have been one of the first movements.

EWART: And how, how much longer will the current dig continue and would you intend to go back there on future occasions?

BELLWOOD: I think so, I have to say I've never been there. I haven't been to Tinian myself, so I, I would like to go eventually. My colleagues are working there I think for another three or four weeks and then they'll come back to Canberra. Yeah, and certainly we are hoping to acquire more funding from the Australian Research Council, and possibly the Chiang Ching-guo Foundation in Taipei to continue this research or at least, they will continue you it. Yes, hopefully in the next few years in other sites, including one, another location on Saipan Island that also has a lot of potential.

EWART: So do you, do you suspect that we haven't yet reached, as it were, a finite point as to when the population, the populating of the Pacific Islands began, that there may still be discoveries to come which will again change our whole concept of it?

BELLWOOD: Yeah, we will never know everything and there's always, and we'll always be discovering new things. But as I said before, the, the Western Pacific Islands, New Guinea and the Solomons. They were, of course, settled vastly earlier than the open Pacific Islands in Micronesia and Polynesia. We're looking at what I suppose essentially is the second great migration, that of the Micronesians, Polynesians, Fijians and other peoples scattered right out across the Pacific and, of course, we now know that some of the Polynesians possibly reached as far as South America. They didn't settle in South America, but they certainly had contacts right on the other side of the Pacific.

So we're getting closer to a date. Our dating methods, because this is pre-history. There were no written documents about this. We have to use scientific dating methods, like radio-carbon dating, and those dating methods always have ranges of error, statistical ones that we can't do anything about and there's always an element of roughness in the dating that we will just have to live with I think forever more. We can't solve it completely.