Thursday, August 14, 2014

Man's Conquest of the Pacific - Peter Bellwood

Man's Conquest of the Pacific: The Prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania was an impulse buy. I saw it in the history section of a local bookstore in Cape, and took a chance. In retrospect, I probably should have paid more attention to that "prehistory" in the subtitle, because it wasn't exactly what I was expecting.

I had figured on it being more like what I think of as a conventional history book. Talking about specific events, which happened at a certain time, involving this person or group of persons. Wars, diplomatic treaties, trading missions, things like that. But, perhaps owing to the nature of the cultures being examined, Bellwood takes more of what I'd call an archeological approach. He spends a few chapters describing some of the ethnic and linguistic groups of the region, then begins delving into what cultural evidence of the history there is. Meaning there is a lot of discussion of pottery, or blades and adzes, Sometimes, when such things have been found, he describes villages and homes.

In some cases there is oral history, or well-known family genealogies that can be used to devise at least some basic framework for the the settlement of an island, or the structure of a society. That was more along the lines I was expecting, and consequently, those are the parts that read best for me. At other times, I struggled to get through the lengthy descriptions of what was found at one excavation site or another. When Bellwood explained the conclusions he was drawing from what had been found, about how it suggested patterns of dispersal, or how a shift away from a particular form of pottery might indicate the arrival of a new dominant group, or a growing isolation, it would pick back up again.

The catch is, the book is 35 years old as I type this, and since I know less about Southeast Asia and Oceania historically than I do most of the rest of the world, I don't know how many of his conclusions are inaccurate, or how much new evidence they've found since then to clarify things. It was interesting as an introduction to some of the missteps and problems faced in the early days or archeology. In addition to the usual issues of people letting their biases influence their conclusions, or being too interested in quick (lucrative) results to carefully excavate, there was apparently a lot of "contamination". Information brought in by the first Europeans to reach some of these places, was then woven into the histories of the locals by the locals themselves. So they claim to have visited and traded with people and places they did not, but depending on what remains there are, it can be hard to tell fact from fiction.

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