Near Sigatoka, dunes become visible between the road and the sea-great mounds and crescents of yellow sand borne by the wind from sandbanks at the river's mouth. Until stabilized recently by the planting of tenacious grasses, these dunes moved year by year, century by century, in peripatetic dominion of the littoral.
Some of the earliest archaeological sites in Fiji have been found here and on Yanuca Island, seven miles to the west. An ancient pottery style known as Lapita was found with charcoal that yielded radiocarbon dates beginning at about 1200 B.C. and continuing through most of the millennium before Christ.
Lapita is a coarse but well-made ware of large jugs, bowls, and dishes, decorated with geometrical borders and impressions. Its distribution may have important implications for the earliest voyages of man in the southwestern Pacific. The art of making pottery was later forgotten in much of Polynesia, but resemblances between the Lapita decorative style and artistic motifs in other media found at the time of European contact have led prehistorians to suggest that the makers of Lapita pottery were the ancestors of the Polynesians, who eventually spread through the Pacific within a great triangle uniting New Zealand, Easter Island, and Hawaii.
All this, though plausible, is bold extrapolation from rather meagre evidence. It is far from clear what might have been the relationship between the "Polynesians" and the "Melanesians" who also populated Fiji. Fiji is often said to straddle these two cultural and racial spheres, but modern linguistic research and the abandoning of crude ideas about race have caused this old dichotomy, except in a geographical sense, to be questioned. (Micronesia, the region of many small islands to the north of Melanesia, has little relevance for the prehistory of Fiji.)
For one thing, it has been found that the so called Melanesian and Polynesian languages, once thought to be quite distinct, belong to the same Austronesian family-a vast group that includes languages of Malaya, Java, the Philippines, Fiji, and Hawaii. Outlying members are found in Madagascar and South China-tempting material for latter-day diffusionists but notoriously unreliable.
Historian, novelist, and essayist Ronald Wright is the award-winning author of nine books of nonfiction and fiction published in 16 languages and more than 50 countries. Much of his work explores the relationships between past and present, peoples and power, other cultures and our own.
On Fiji Islands, was published in 1983 to critical acclaim. He has graciously allowed Fijiguide.com to serialize his work for your enjoyment. We welcome your comments.
(For more information visit http://www.randomhouse.ca/newface/wright.php)
Lapita photos courtesy of University of the South Pacific/AP
©2011 Ronald Wright