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How Dare Our ‘Prehistoric’ Have a Prehistory of Their Own?! The interplay of historical and biographical contexts in early French archaeology of the Pacific

Emilie Dotte-Sarout


At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, France was securing its presence as a colonial power in the Pacific. Some of the early French settlers quickly began to take notice of relics: petroglyphs, monumental buildings, buried ceramics and human remains were those most commented upon. A rich and sometimes surprisingly detailed literature appears, describing these objects and their antiquity. In the interpretations proposed, a recurrent theme emerges: the apparent need to appeal to waves of migrations or cataclysms to explain traces of a prehistory and ancient ‘civilisations’ where ‘primitive’ people now live – even more so in the so-called region of Melanesia. In this paper, the ideas of three principal authors in the early archaeology of the region are presented: Gustave Glaumont, Marius Archambault and Jean-Baptiste Suas. The ways these authors conceptualised the past of the islands will be discussed in light of the complex relations between their own biographical histories and the intellectual context of the time. It appears that the colliding of the paradigms developed in the new field of prehistory on the one side and in regards to representation of Pacific peoples on the other side created a somewhat confusing intellectual situation for the first archaeologists of Melanesia.


Prehistory; History; Pacific; French; Cultural evolutionism

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ISSN (print) 1179 4704; ISSN (online) 1179 4712
Published with the assistance of the Department of Anthropology & Archaeology, University of Otago.
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