I n late 2015, I got here for the 2nd time at a place called Orokolo Bay on Papua New Guinea’s south coast. The bay is a long grey-black beach, largely forested with hibiscus and coconut trees. As we approached by dinghy from the east, clusters of homes could be glimpsed fleetingly through the bush.
I had actually shown up with colleagues from PNG’s National Museum and Art Gallery to start an archaeological job in partnership with 2 town communities, called Larihairu and Kaivakovu. Working alongside regional professionals in Oral Tradition, I wished to utilize Western archaeological methods– studies, excavations, carbon dating, and analyses of product culture– to unravel new elements of the human history of Papua New Guinea’s south coast.
B ut in the weeks that followed, I ended up being aware that we were covering old ground. Our archaeological surveys were not revealing previously unidentified historical sites. Rather, locals presented us to their ancestral places.
M any of these locations bore surface traces of their forefathers’ lives, such as scatters of earthenware pottery sherds and shell middens, making it obvious how and why individuals were mindful of them. To my surprise, though, the residents also had an intimate knowledge of what lay beneath the ground. Through the day-to-day activities of cultivating crops (called “gardening” in the Pacific) and building structures, individuals in Orokolo Bay have been continuously digging up and interpreting proof of their ancestral past for generations.
T his type of unique archaeology– historical meaning-making by non-academic Native peoples and performed as part of day-to-day life– constantly breathes life into and sustains local Oral Traditions. The residents told us about how these cultural deposits, together with unique layers of dark sediment in the ground, mentioned the actions of their ancestors in recent generations and of a time when the Earth itself was formed in the cosmological past. All this gave me a new gratitude for the Oral Customs of Native peoples and how they may integrate not just memories however also physical proof of the past.
I n Orokolo Bay and other parts of the south coast of PNG, individuals remain in business of working with the land. When residents wish to develop a new garden, they discover a location where the sandy soil is well-drained and fertile. Whether the garden is brand-new or being remade, areas of vegetation and undergrowth are reduced and burned. Then holes are dug to plant the different and vibrant crops that grow so perfectly in the tropics, such as taro, yams, pineapple, sweet potato, and corn. In this process, the ground surface area is laid bare and the subsurface exposed. Activities such as housebuilding have comparable effects: Surface plant life is cleared, and structure posts are dug deep into the ground.
T oday the individuals of Orokolo Bay construct their gardens in cleared forest spots a couple of kilometers inland– a location that was once located on the shoreline. Throughout the human history of coastal profession in this part of the world, beaches have been proliferating southward at a rate of around 3 meters annually as river sediments pile up and extend the coast. Previous historical studies in the area have revealed that individuals moved their towns with the changing shoreline, preferring to live near the sea to access marine food and trade routes. For several years, the old inland websites have been overgrown with thick tropical forest. However within the previous 5 generations, individuals have cleared locations of this forest to establish gardens.
O n a Wednesday morning in September 2015, our archaeological group had simply completed the technical drawings of a website we had excavated. Kaivakovu town seniors– who had been busy with neighborhood meetings– got here to take us on a survey of their ancestral sites. Each at least 40 years my senior, the senior citizens removed at a stunning pace; they threaded a path through numerous called and storied places located on ancient beach plains and hillsides. Wherever we saw evidence of recent gardening activity, there were physical remains of the previous spilling out of the ground. At one website (called Maivipi), among the elders had actually just dug scores of banana plants into the ground. Each plant was now surrounded by lots of just recently disturbed pottery sherds. At another website, we saw once-buried shells and animal bones strewn throughout a large common garden area.
F or residents, these materials represent 2 things. The pottery sherds are tips of close social relationships with Motu individuals who live approximately 400 kilometers to the east. Up until the mid-1950 s, the Motu (from today’s Port Moresby area) would yearly cruise into towns such as those in Orokolo Bay, bringing with them tens of thousands of earthenware pots. They would go back to their families months later on with lots of food in the kind of sago palm starch, in addition to new canoe hulls made from giant wood logs.
S econd, the remains of pots and food are tips of the big, growing towns that the locals’ forefathers developed. Women utilized their pots to cook food for day-to-day sustenance and for common feasts. Fragments of the pots are suggestions of work and life in the village, and their existence shows where centers of domestic activity may have lain.
O f the ancient villages, a 1.3-kilometer-long place called Popo looms big in local and regional Oral Customs.
P opo is a legendary migration site for Orokolo Bay citizens and for many other clan ( bira’ipi) and village groups living in seaside areas approximately 125 kilometers further to the east. According to local Oral Traditions, the village was occupied by ancestors in between 16 and seven generations back, or approximately 400–175 years ago. (Western dating strategies put it at 700 to 200 years back.) Clan-based social structures, 15- meter-tall cathedral-like buildings called longhouses, and events were all developed there. Locals recount that the website was divided into estates or “residential areas,” which came from the different clans that today occupy the seaside villages. The place called Maivipi is among these estates. Popo is likewise a cosmological origin place; their stories tell how the entire world was made there.
I nterestingly, there is a strong connection in between the intensiveness of contemporary farming activity in various spots throughout Popo and the viewed antiquity of those sites. Estates where more land has been cleared and where people regularly experience pottery sherds or shell middens are typically viewed to be more ancient. The remains have also assisted residents to determine where the center of the town or the longhouse might have lain.
T his procedure can be seen around the world. Historical remains are most typically found incidentally during land cleaning or excavation for advancement, consisting of in well-studied cities like London and Rome. Where there are concentrations of websites or finds, western archaeologists tend to view these locations as especially ancient.
D uring our excavations at clan suburban areas called Miruka and Koavaipi, we discovered thin layers of jet-black sand. According to Western geomorphology, these are layers of iron-rich magnetite sand: sediment that was transported by rivers from PNG’s volcanic mountains into the Coral Sea.
B ut residents see their ancestors’ actions in the sand. Paul Mahiro– son of the famed Orokolo Bay historian Morea Pekoro— informed me that the black sand was laid by his forefathers when they were producing the land. Mahiro stated that 2 forefather beings traveled from the west in a wonderful sky-borne canoe at some point in the deep, cosmological past. “In their hand, they had … black sand,” he recounts, which they left at Popo and numerous other nearby seaside areas. When gardeners uncover these thin layers, they are reminded of their ancestors’ travels and actions.
O f course, Western scientific and regional methods of checking out the past do not always concur. For instance, our excavations and radiocarbon-dating program offer a different order of residential area facility at Popo than the Oral Traditions. A few of the youngest suburbs, according to Oral Tradition, are the oldest in our radiocarbon series. Similarly, according to Western science, the black sand layers formed in two reasonably recent events: one dating to around 650 years earlier and the other right before 200 years back.
T hese temporal contradictions do not always cause dispute. One night, while socializing in a house in Larihairu town, a younger community member asked me what I knew of the past. I responded that, as an archaeologist, I intended to investigate human history using the materials individuals left. He responded, “You just understand about the human story, however we understand about the mythical beings and spiritual beings.”
I got the sense that Western clinical chronologies do not position an existential risk to the mythical and spiritual pasts of Orokolo Bay. Within the Oral Traditions themselves, there are currently overlapping and interwoven chronologies, each of which serves a different purpose. Popo is understood concurrently as a migration site inhabited between 16 and 7 generations ago, and as a timeless origin place. Carbon dates provide another parallel chronology, which can assist position the website in a more comprehensive context and enable a contrast of the history of locations along PNG’s south coast. They can also be utilized by locals to serve their functions, for example to argue for government security of specific sites from mineral extraction or deforestation
T he Orokolo Bay example likewise has vital implications for how Western archaeologists comprehend oral Traditional Knowledge. Recently, there has actually been a lot of interest in millennia-old Indigenous Oral Traditions from North America and Australia that record information of ecological modifications and interactions with long-since-extinct animals. Aboriginal Oral Traditions from throughout seaside Australia describe a time in which sea levels increased dramatically, which Western science dates to a time from 13,000 to 7,000 years ago. Much more remarkably, stories informed by Gunditjmara people, Aboriginal Australians, may describe a series of eruptions that took location 37,000 years ago.
O utsiders who study Oral Customs often refer to them as “memories.” The word suggests that experiential details was given from generation to generation by word of mouth alone.
W hat if Oral Traditions are not only handed-down stories? What if they integrate Indigenous individuals’ knowledge of the historical and geographical features they dwell among?
I n Orokolo Bay, people check out the ancestral past in their landscapes. They determine stratigraphic features and relate these to the stories told to them by their senior citizens. They observe concentrations of pottery and weave their analyses of old town websites into the Oral Traditions their households curate. These interactions hint that Native archaeologies and other types of landscape understanding are important to how Oral Traditions are sustained and maintained across generations.
I t is time that non-Indigenous individuals reassess the amazing (and complex) ways in which Native peoples record and rebuild the past. I think outsiders will continue to be surprised by neighborhoods’ Oral Standard innovations and what they tape-record.