Friday, 25 March 2016

VANUATU: Trouble in Babel

Map: Google
"Florence Lengkon led a march through town and up to Parliament in which nearly a thousand people demonstrated their desire to see an end to violence against women," reported the Vanuatu Daily Post yesterday.

The trigger for this was an abduction and beating Lengkon received at the hands of bus and taxi drivers nearly a fortnight ago, following critical remarks she had posted on a community page on Facebook. She had called them arrogant and unprofessional for the way they had squabbled among themselves when trying to get business from visiting tourists (and for stoning a tour bus). Lengkon herself runs a helicopter business in Port Vila.

There are many facets to this story: risks in social media discussions, attitudes to women, the poverty that tempts men to misbehave when the chance to make some money presents itself, the great disparity between them and rich Westerners passing by in their floating castle, tourism itself in the form of a brief condescending gawp at other cultures, the question of how small Pacific nations should develop and sustain themselves, what will happen to them if there is a long global recession, etc.

For those who aren't involved, one aspect of the story that pops out is the fact that Lengkon's comments were written in Bislama, one of the three official languages of the Republic.

Bislama is a kind of pidgin English widely used there because the country has over 100 different languages and dialects: "Vanuatu is considered to be the country with the highest density of languages per capita in the world, with an average of about 2,000 speakers for each indigenous language; only Papua New Guinea comes close," says Wikipedia.

There is probably a connection to PNG: Vanuatu may have been colonised by Autronesian speakers as early as 4,000 - 6,000 years ago in the eastward expansion from what is now Papua, which itself saw the arrival of humans some 60,000 years ago, together with other movement into Australia.

Many languages of small communities are considered "endangered" - there was a UNESCO conference about this in 2008. But perhaps preserving them is a futile, Canute-like attempt.

Not to worry; in the far future, when our current energy-rich civilisations are forgotten, there will be isolation and cultural-linguistic variation again, just as island wildlife mutates to take advantage of local niche opportunities.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

VANUATU: Lavatory humour

Humour sells. Vanuatu and a church ministry from near Melbourne, Australia have launched a project with multiple purposes: sanitation, fresh water collection, tourism and economic development.

So, a loo with its own website. Any good toilet-themed jokes or headlines?

Sunday, 20 March 2016

AUSTRALIA: "First Film Made of Arnhem Land Natives"

"Table manners may seem crude but it is not very long ago that the people of Britain were eating with their hands."

 This film, "Primitive Peoples Part 1" by G. B. [Gaumont British] Instructional Ltd is careful not to condescend (1). Actor Peter Finch, already famous in Australia for his radio work, assisted with shooting as well as narrating (2).

The people shown are said to be of the "Miwai", though their territory as described is that of the Yolngu and one or two of the sub-groups named are recognisably in the Yolngu list in Wikipedia (3). The press article from the Melbourne Argus (23 August 1947) names the tribe as "Wongurris" and says they were paid with around a ton of food supplies (4).

The film crew's guide and liaison officer was Edward "Ted" Evans of the Native Affairs Branch in Darwin - he terms the tribe Wangurri in his 1990 memoir of Arnhem Land. Evans had become familiar with the area and its people at the end of World war 2, when the Royal Australian Air Force Base on Gove Peninsula was decommissioned and for some reason he and writer Bill Harney were left there for five months after they had finished stocktaking. "To me the whole 1946 Gove Peninsula experience was a revelation of the richness of the Aboriginal world, of the fascinating variety of wildlife on our doorstep and particularly of the depth of understanding and mutual respect that existed between Bill Harney and the Aboriginal people." (5)

So far I have not found Parts 2 and 3 of the film - according to Evans, the only copy in Australia was held by the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies.

Evans concludes, "In 1972, I acquired for the first time copies of the Gaumont British film made in 1947.1 took it out to Yirrkala, but as twenty-five years had elapsed and therefore some of those appearing had since died, I showed it first only to the elders to get their reaction before running it before the general community. Their reaction was one of wistful sorrow, followed by a request that I not show it publicly - not because of any taboo content of which there is none. but because'of the sadness they felt personally on observing the living activities of persons now dead. Of course, I complied with their request.

"I retired in 1976 almost thirty years after my first arrival at Melville Bay with Bill Harney. In that time I developed a strong feeling for Arnhem Land and a high regard for its people. particularly those of Yirrkala. This esteem still continues and I value the contacts I am able to make occasionally thereby maintaining a nostalgic link with a crowded, but fading past. I look back on my involvement with some pride and I trust that my humble efforts may have helped the people to face and cope with the dramatic, complex and fast-moving changes that were brought upon them over that span of years. Rarely in the history of mankind has a people, within the span of one generation, been required to make adjustments to their lifestyle which have impacted upon almost every vital element of their traditional world."

(1) - The film is dated 1950 but the press coverage (see 4 below) is from 1947

Saturday, 19 March 2016

HAWAII: Is sovereignty the wrong issue?

As the poster above for today's meeting shows, the debate over Hawaiian sovereignty is hot. Last month, a draft constitution for Native Hawaiians was agreed - behind locked and guarded gates - by an organisation called Nai Upuni. Although they are supported financially by the State’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, their claim to be representative of indigenous groups is vigorously opposed by another association called ʻAha Aloha ʻĀina(1). In response to a lawsuit and U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the proposed ratification vote has now been cancelled(2).

There are wrongs to be righted. The campaigning site Cultural Survival outlines some of the difficulties of the marginalised and exploited "first nation" Hawaiians(3). Many have had to move to mainland USA for a better life - there are some 90,000 in Las Vegas aka "the ninth island"(4). In their own ancestral lands, Native Hawaiians are now a minority - exactly how small, depends on how you define them; maybe 10% - 20% of residents. There is more than one reason for this: numbers of Native Hawaiians crashed after European contact in the late eighteenth century, as imported diseases swept through the population, but also there has been a large influx of Asians and Americans in modern times, especially since the illegal(5) annexation of the country by the US following a coup by sugar businessmen(6, 7, 8).

Even compensatory help for Native Hawaiians is limited, as Amy Sun explains: "In 1921, Congress passed the 'Hawaiian Homes Commission Act,' which [set aside merely] 3% of the total land for Native Hawaiians. [...] 'Native Hawaiian' is defined as a person who is at least 50% Native Hawaiian. So if you [have less than this proportion], you lose your right to homestead." Sun also notes that Native Hawaiians are over-represented among the State's homeless(9). The need for a collective voice is obvious.

But there could be as much danger as opportunity in seeking a separate kind of citizenship - the example of Native Americans is not heartening. Besides, as President of the Grassroots Institute Keli’i Akina commented, "This [constitutional exercise] represents a significant waste of funds that could have been better used on the projects that Hawaiians truly care about–like health care, job training, housing, and education."(10) In addition, sovereignty activists must surely be aware of the possibility of legal (or tactical) traps in constitutional processes - think of the 1959 Hawaii plebiscite, in which residents voted on whether to remain a territory or become a US State (11). Crucially, independence for Hawaiians was not on offer in 1959, and to have voted either of the two given choices could be taken as implicit abandonment of claims to national freedom. It's been argued that this subtle stratagem cuts across a UN Resolution made some years before, so perhaps international legal challenge is still possible(12).

Having said that, is it geopolitically realistic to expect the USA to relinquish its hold on the islands, especially at a time when China is forging closer links with one Pacific nation after another?

Irrespective of the machinations of empires, the status quo is not an option in the long term, for a far greater factor for change is involved: sustainability. This is a global issue, which impacts heavily on Hawaii. The State has a population of around 1.4 million; even without 50,000 military personnel and an average 200,000 tourists at any one time, there are well over a million permanent residents. Estimates of numbers in 1778 vary widely - between 200,000 and anything up to a million(13) - but whatever the actual figure, the lifestyle then was dramatically less resource-intensive per capita. How much longer can a large, high-burn civilisation last in Hawaii?

Take energy: despite having the third-lowest per capita energy use in the USA in 2013, Hawaii imported 91% of its needs in that year(14). The goal is to move to 100% renewable energy by 2045, but even now this is beginning to look like wishful thinking(15). Besides, the devices involved in renewable energy production imply a vast network of enterprises, just as with Adam Smith's 1776 example of pin manufacture(16)  - except that those modern enterprises also mostly consume non-animal/non-human energy. The foundation of the world's technological network is vulnerable.

Then there's food: again, 90% is imported and modern agriculture and food management is also highly energy-intensive(17).

How long have we got, to make changes for survival? "If the world continues to consume fossil fuels at 2006 rates, the reserves of oil, coal and gas will last a further 40, 200 and 70 years, respectively," said a survey in 2007(18). There's lots of ifs and buts in arriving at such an estimate, yet the message clearly is: not forever.

Does that 200 years of coal sound reassuring? Polynesians came to Hawaii at least 800 years ago. We need a perspective reaching beyond our own brief personal lifetimes. After all the desperate attempts at technical fixes, human societies will have to simplify their way of life and shrink their numbers. It is perhaps not too much to suggest that the successors of the tribes that today are oppressed, exploited, undermined, pitied, patronised and romanticised could one day simply be what is left of humanity, provided all is not consumed in some Rapa Nui-like madness. While addressing issues of social justice now, we must also plan for that great transition.

Traditional societies are not relics of the past: they are our ultimate future.
(5) See this interview with Professor Williamson Chang:
(11) Remaining a territory could have been worse: only this week, American Samoans - who are ruled by, yet not citizens of the US - have asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether they should be granted birthright citizenship:
(12) "One of the many obligations as stated in U.N. Resolution 742 in 1953 declares that one of the 'factors indicative of the attainment of independence or of other separate systems of self-government,' is 'freedom of choosing on the basis of the right of self-determination of peoples between several possibilities including independence.' -
(18) S. Shafiee & E. Topal, "An overview of fossil fuel reserve depletion time", University of Queensland - 

Friday, 18 March 2016

CULTURE: Traditional crocodile hunting in Australia

The footage below (from the Northern Territory in Australia in 1949) may be of the Malak (or Malak Malak) people, who traditionally live in the Daly River area


Posted by Blackfulla Revolution on Sunday, 21 December 2014

SCIENCE NEWS: Melanesians carry Neanderthal and Denisovan genes

"Scientists at Binghamton University in New York sequenced the genomes of 35 residents of the remote equatorial islands of Melanesia and compared them to DNA extracted from ancient remains of Denisovans and Neanderthals... The genetic overlap of between the ancient hominids and modern Melanesians measured between 1.9 and 3.4 percent... The latest evidence suggests modern humans and early human relatives interbred on at least three separate occasions."

Via UPI -

Full paper in Science Magazine:

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

CULTURE: A life lived heroically

How Israel Kamakawiwo'ole recorded "Somewhere Over The Rainbow":

It began at 3 in the morning. Milan Bertosa was at the end of a long day in his Honolulu recording studio.

"And the phone rings. It was a client of mine," Bertosa remembers. The client rattled off Israel's unpronounceable name and said he wanted to come in and record a demo. Bertosa said he was shutting down, call tomorrow. But the client insisted on putting Israel on the phone. "And he's this really sweet man, well-mannered, kind. 'Please, can I come in? I have an idea,' " Bertosa remembers Israel saying. 

Bertosa relented and gave Israel 15 minutes to get there. Soon, there was a knock at the door. 

"And in walks the largest human being I had seen in my life. Israel was probably like 500 pounds. And the first thing at hand is to find something for him to sit on." The building security found Israel a big steel chair. "Then I put up some microphones, do a quick sound check, roll tape, and the first thing he does is 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' He played and sang, one take, and it was over."

His brother Skippy died from complications of obesity, as had almost all of Israel's immediate family. He knew he was destined for a brief life... 

 "I was scared when I lost my mother, my father, my brother, my sister," Israel told de Mello. "I guess this is gonna sound kind of weird, but I'm not scared for myself for dying. Because I believe all these places are temporary. This is just one shell. Because we Hawaiians live in both worlds. It's in our veins."


"Brudda Iz was the common people's Ali`i (high Chief), and they came out by the thousands (at least twenty thousand) to pay homage to a person that touched their hearts and spoke their language and said what was in their hearts and minds. They came to honor someone who came from "humble beginnings", tried everything good and bad, then became a powerful spokesman against drugs, youth gangs, and promoted non violence and the pursuit of the Hawaiian Culture and Self-determination in the form of Sovereignty."


"Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono ["The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness"] has been a motto of Hawaii for over 160 years. It is generally claimed that it became the motto of the Kingdom of Hawaii when King Kamehameha III spoke the words on July 31, 1843. This was the day that sovereignty was restored to Hawaii by proclamation of Queen Victoria following a five-month-long rogue British occupation. "


Sovereignty is still a live issue:


October 2015:

November 2015:

November 2015:

- and there are activist blogs and sites running, e.g.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

NEWS: Auckland's South Pacific celebrations this week

Last weekend saw Auckland's annual Pasifika bash:

Programme here:

- and this coming Wednesday through to Saturday is the ASB Polyfest (

The Polyfest celebrated its 40th year in 2015 and included some impressive haka dances:

SCIENCE: 2016 solar eclipse, from Woleai

Recording of last week's (8 March 2016) total solar eclipse, seen live from a coral island in Micronesia:


Woleai (aka Oleai), eastern Caroline Islands, Federal States of Micronesia
Images: Google Maps / NASA

See Wikipedia on Woleai:

Saturday, 12 March 2016

ISSUES: Who owns Australia's Great Barrier Reef?

Image: NASA (from  UNESCO page:

The Australian Government's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority lists 45 tribes and groups that assert an interest in the world's greatest living natural formation:

MAP: Australian indigenous tribes

Original can be enlarged. See:

ORIGINS: Early Australians and Papuans - split or blend?

Here's one theory:

Mapping dispersion of early humans using mitochondrial DNA
"Regions coloured according to the gene pool: Australian lineages in yellow, Melanesians in pink and Filipinos in green."

Mauricio Lucioni Maristany, in Peru (21 January 2012)

At this time during the last ice age, Australia and Papua were one landmass. The migration coincided with the start of a wet period that saw central Australia much wetter and greener.

But looking at P3 and P4, there is another:

 "Modern human migrations in insular Asia according to mitochondrial DNA and non-recombining Y chromosome"
by J. Trejaut, J.-C. Yen, J.-H. Loo, M. Lin

  • Article
  • first published online: 20 OCT 2011 at

    According to this article, Papua and Australia were reached by different routes some 51,000 years ago and much later there was some limited genetic exchange between NE Australia and eastern Papua.

    When the seas rose again, the land masses separated and so did the subsequent migration histories.

    IMAGES: Dancing at Alice Springs

    "Tjitjingalla Corroboree performed in Alice Springs, 1901." 

    "The picture depicts one of the dance sequences of the Tjitjingalla as performed by Arrernte people at Alice Springs.

    Image: Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer
    Source: Museum Victoria"

    IMAGES: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

    Bikini Atoll, from space (19 August  2013)
    Image from NASA -

    The 1954 H-bomb crater is at top left.
    More about Bikini here:

    IMAGES: Bora Bora, from space

    Bora Bora, French Polynesia, 4 October 1994

    Radar image from NASA

    Saturday, 5 March 2016

    NEWS - Tahiti: new biohazard laboratory opened

    Friday, 4 March 2016: Tahiti News announces the opening of a new high-biosafety laboratory at the Malardé Institute in Pape'ete.(1)

    This is to help deal with the increased risk of infectious diseases that have spread to and from the Pacific region, such as Chikungunya (2), Zika (3) - which was first discovered in Uganda in 1947 (4), dengue (5), H1N1 influenza (6).

    An earlier article from FranceTV (7) explains that highly dangerous diseases need to be handled in very safe facilities, which up till now did not exist in French Polynesia. Previously samples would have had to be sent to other laboratories abroad, which cost precious time.

    The new lab on Tahiti is equipped to NSB3 containment standard. This is not the highest category - level 4 is for very high risk pathogens such Ebola, Lassa, Marburg etc and "other agents with unknown risks of pathogenicity and transmission" (8).

    The top biosafety rating includes germ warfare research facilities such as the UK's Porton Down, listed on Wikipedia (9). One obvious reason why the "space suit" level 4 isn't appropriate for Tahiti is the risk of destructive tropical storms like the Category 5 Cyclone Winston that crashed into Fiji last month, killing 43 people (10). French Polynesia is 2,100 miles further east but is still not immune: in 2010 Cyclone Oli hit Tahiti with gusts up to 120 mph (11), and in 1997 Cyclone Osea wrecked 95% of the infrastructure of Maupiti, 200 miles NW of the main island (12).

    So we needn't worry about an Andromeda Strain-type (13) accidental plague weapon release: it's not that kind of operation.

    (2) - very widespread globally
    (3) - also spreading via  mosquito in Samoa and Tonga, for example
    (5) - throughout S E Asia and the western Pacific
    (6) - spread around the world by air travel in months
    (7) - dateline 9 Oct 2014, updated 25 Feb 2016

    MIGRATION: Easter Island - how they came

    IMG: Google Maps
    It's said that early settlers came to Easter Island (or Rapa Nui) from the Marquesas. The dating is very vague:  as early as 300-400 CE, when some think (1) Hawaii was also first colonised, but possibly as late as 1200 CE - which would tie in with recent research suggesting the later time for New Zealand and Hawai'i (2).

    The most ancient depiction of the Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe is found at Easter Island/Rapa Nui, scratched into rock at Orongo (3).

    IMG: Herb Kawainui Kāne




    Thursday, 3 March 2016

    MAP: Papuans and Austronesians: the legacy in languages

    Papuan (red) and Austronesian (tan) languages distribution
    Author: By Kwamikagami at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

    MAP: Austronesian languages - distribution

    Austronesian languages in light pink (note Madagascar also)


    MAP: Polynesian ethno-cultural areas

    From Wikimedia Commons "Atlas of Oceania"