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Controlled comparison and Polynesian cultural evolution

May 3, 2010

Kirch, P. V. 2010 Controlled comparison and Polynesian cultural evolution. In J. Diamond and J.A. Robinson (eds.) Natural Experiments of History. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Polynesian colonisation – ‘natural experiment’ in the development of different political systems/cultural change. Three case studies: Hawai’i, the Marquesas and Mangaia.

Methodology: archaeological, (ethno)historical, ethnographic records drawn from – triangulation. But comparison is tricky: must distinguish between shared cultural traits (homologies) and borrowed cultural traits (synologies), p. 19. Here phylogenetic (tree-like) model adopted.

Findings. From ancient Polynesian societies (APS) they evolved pre-contact into:

(a) Mangaia: limited resources, resource depletion, warfare, violence, militarism

(b) Marquesas: like Mangaia, plenty of competition & warfare; but unlike Mangaia here political fragmentation owing to isolation and geographic dispersion; economic differences as well – in Mangaia taro irrigation, here breadfruit arboriculture dominated.

(c) Hawai’i: social and politically changed away from APS origins far more than other two; archaic state emerging out of chiefdoms; divine kingship invented; keeping in check both warriors and priests.

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