The Lapita series

In his acclaimed novel The Oxford Murders, the Argentinean writer and mathematician Guillermo Martínez engagingly shows how easy it is to hide the truth from others by getting them to think that a series of similar events—in this instance, a series of murders—is happening because, when taken in sequence, they appear to add up to a coded message that we are being taunted to decipher.

Similarly, there is something about Lapita pottery in the southwest Pacific that seems to be begging us, perhaps even taunting us, to decipher.  But as Martínez shows us, human beings are given to equating similarity with necessity. Are Lapita’s similarities of appearance necessarily similarities of cause?

Lapita has long been described as a “community of culture.”  But what is culture? 

The word “culture” is ambiguous for it is polysemantic. For example, some say it is about learned behavior; others prefer to talk about it as ideas.   

It would seem to follow that there are also alternative ways to answer the question What is Lapita?  Said differently, Lapita can be also seen as learned behavior or ideas.

Cognitive models of Lapita ((e.g., phylogenetic and linguistic models) tend to see Lapita as telling us important things about continuities in Pacific prehistory, about the origins of some but not all Pacific Islanders, and about local blood lines and descent defined in terms of genetics.

On the other hand, behavioral models of Lapita (e.g.,  computer simulations, human biogeography) focus our attention more on issues of adaptation to island environments, the roles of innovation and decision-making in human life, and the realities and unpredictable dimensions of historical contingency.

Nobody needs to invoke novelists to observe, however, that just as a finite sequence of numbers can be continued in a variety of ways, so too, there are many ways to explain the human settlement of the Pacific.

And as Martínez illustrates so effectively in The Oxford Murders, if stories are told cleverly enough, we may be enticed into thinking that placing one event after another actually explains the sequence pieced together.

What does the history of Lapita ideas—it is currently fashionable to call them the "lineages" of Lapita ideas—have to do with the histories of the people who held them?

Non sequitur —

The cryptic series in the 2003 novel The Oxford Murders (originally titled Crímenes imperceptibles) by Guillermo Martínez

The last two solutions shown here are not anticipated in Martínez’s story.

Just because things are found to have followed one another, one after the other, down through time and out across space does not necessarily mean that the chain of events and the flow of people as we can now distinguish them were rule-like and culturally predictable.
Even  in  the  most  deterministic  models  of  Lapita  as an historical phenomenon, it would be unwise to suppose that cause was entirely “inside the box.”

Text based on: 
John Edward Terrell  (2009).  Return to the entangled bank: Deciphering the Lapita cultural series, pp. 255-269. In: Sheppard, P. J., Thomas, T., and Summerhayes, G. R., eds., Lapita: Ancestors and Descendants. Monograph 28. New Zealand Archaeological Association, Auckland.

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Mark Golitko,
Nov 24, 2010, 12:49 PM