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The perfect island

Associate Professor Chris Ballard and Dr Nicola van Dijk

“Joy: I hear the word ‘Kiriwina’. I get ready; little gray, pinkish huts. Photos. Feeling of ownership: It is I who will describe them or create them.”

Bronislaw Malinowski’s diary entry for 1 December 1917 infamously describes his anticipation of what he and other anthropologists have referred to since as ‘the field’, and his sense of imminent intellectual control over the island of Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. Islands lend themselves to dreams of perfection: the perfectness of a bounded space; the completeness of its possession; or even the perfection of the self in the isolation of an island environment. Islands have been the classical site for colonisation and social and scientific experiments – from the ancient Greeks in the Mediterranean to Europeans in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and from Robinson Crusoe to Dr Moreau and Jurassic Park in fiction and film. Islands provide the perfect setting for fantasies of domination and total mastery. For researchers, they figure as ideal worlds in which everything is available to be discovered and it is possible to realise the dream of the complete survey or inventory. As Rousseau is said to have remarked, of the Ile d’Ouessant off Brittany, “A small island asks to be inventoried”.

“Islands, being discrete, internally quantifiable, numerous, and varied entities, provide us with a suite of natural laboratories, from which the discerning natural scientist can make a selection that simplifies the complexity of the natural world.”

The idea that islands can be treated like natural laboratories is now well documented. Libby Robin has shown how the complexities of life on a continent – including the processes of “dispersal, invasion, competition, adaptation and extinction” along with contamination from the outside world – are more easily controlled in an island setting. An additional attraction of the island is its potential for comparison. It thus seems available for experiment. As scientists Robert Whittaker and Jose Maria Fernandez- Palacios propose, “islands, being discrete, internally quantifiable, numerous, and varied entities, provide us with a suite of natural laboratories, from which the discerning natural scientist can make a selection that simplifies the complexity of the natural world”. Of course, the idea of the island as an idealised ecological world with minimal disruption to natural or primordial forms is not restricted to bodies of land surrounded by water. Island concepts and metaphors have recolonised continental biogeography, as they have our attitudes towards both deep sea and deep space.

Anthropology’s origins in natural history are particularly evident in its relationship with the island. Henrika Kuklick has shown how Alfred Haddon’s selection of the Torres Strait islands for his pioneering anthropological work in 1898 depended on the observations of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace that islands were places of distinction, secure in the isolation of their habitats.

Of all locations, islands were best positioned to deliver an understanding of the processes of natural selection and speciation (the formation of new species through evolution). Haddon, fellow British anthropologist WHR Rivers and their students fanned out across the Pacific and Indian oceans in search of islands in which archaic social modes had been preserved, as Haddon put it, “often in wonderfully pure form”. From the notion of isolation in island ecology comes the cultural isolate of anthropology and, in turn, the island laboratory in which archaeology reconstructs social evolutionary processes. As Elizabeth DeLoughrey has explained, it is only a short further step to the selection of islands for nuclear testing.

Susan Stewart’s writing on the miniature in her book On Longing helps us understand how the idea of the miniature enables certain forms of control. Her point of departure is the observation that the “miniature, linked to nostalgic versions of childhood and history, presents a diminutive, and thereby manipulatable, version of experience, a version which is domesticated and protected from contamination”. Like childhood, the island, as a miniature, can be imagined “as if it were at the other end of a tunnel – distanced, diminutive, and clearly framed”. The island is remote in both space and time. It requires the effort of travel but, once reached, it offers access to an arrested past, neatly bounded by its shoreline, available in its entirety for collection and possession.

But the ability to possess an island in this way contains a paradox: as with the doll’s house, the all-knowing observer can never truly inhabit this miniature world. The intensity of focus on the miniature arrests time, not just for the island but also for the observer. As Stewart asserts: “Its stillness emphasizes the activity that is outside its borders. And this effect is reciprocal, for once we attend to the miniature world, the outside world stops and is lost to us”.

. . .

Rather appropriately, Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher, Carleton Gajdusek, first saw the small island of Tongariki and its neighbour Tongoa in what was then the New Hebrides from an altitude of several thousand feet, aboard a domestic flight from Luganville to Port Vila in May of 1963. Laboratories and islands were among the few fixed points in Gajdusek’s famously chaotic travel schedules, but his published diaries are filled with the imagery of Apollonian vision. They reveal an aerial gaze that encompassed his world, along with the colleagues, Pacific Islanders and others who lived, ant-like, within its horizons. Travel and its way-stations defined much of Gajdusek’s professional life, dominated his diaries, and gathered and classified the results of his labour.

Gajdusek’s Tongariki project was inspired by the 1962 Geneva meeting of the World Health Organization’s Scientific Group on Research in Population Genetics of Primitive Groups. The project was part of an ambitious global program aimed at capturing the genetic profiles of what the Group referred to as “vanishing and primitive populations, perceived to be under imminent threat of cultural and biological annihilation”. Primitive populations were defined as “people living in small, isolated societies, characterised by simple economies”. The representatives of ancient populations, they were thought to be largely unaffected by the selective pressures experienced by more modernised groups. Isolation was the critical value.

No island is an island, or not at least in the sense desired by Gajdusek’s team. The dream of isolation crumbled in the face of sustained and intensive enquiry.

Another participant in the Geneva meeting, Jean Guiart, then the French government anthropologist in the New Hebrides, picked out Tongariki as a field site:

“…romantic in name and situation, where never a white man ever settled in any way because of the very difficult nature of the coast, Tongariki was a rather unknown piece of Melanesian freehold land that nobody from outside had yet touched.”

As he remarked in a 2016 interview, “It was a contained situation, un boule [a ball], something you never find”. Most importantly for Guiart and his colleagues, there was no hint of European genetic colonisation, as no planters or missionaries had ever settled there. Tongariki, small enough to be comprehended in its entirety but sufficiently large to permit some internal variability, was the perfect target.

The project assembled a substantial network of researchers and correspondents under the joint leadership of Gajdusek, Guiart and ANU human biologist, Robert Kirk. Operating under the logic of island biogeography, their goal was to document an island biography. The core team undertook two brief field trips, in 1963 and 1965, to the Tongariki community of some 600 people. They mapped social and genealogical relationships, took blood, saliva and hair samples, and shot anthropometric photos. They measured bodies, examined teeth and various bodily organs, took fingerprints, and performed otoscopies, ophthalmoscopies and pubertal evaluations. They checked for thyroid size, lymphadenopathy and variation in blood pressure, while they also sought evidence for hereditary abnormalities.

The expedition’s reports revel in the multi-disciplinary nature of its broader composition (which included geologists, agronomists, soil scientists, linguists, anthropologists and medical researchers) almost in wonder at their own capacity to bring resources and a network of such scale to bear on a remote Pacific Island. Samples and data from Tongariki radiated outwards across the globe to laboratories in Germany, Japan, the United States, Australia, India, metropolitan France, New Caledonia and the United Kingdom. Eventually they were consigned to various archives around the world. Much of the Tongariki material came to rest among Kirk’s archive in the basement of the ANU John Curtin School for Medical Research.

But no island is an island, or not at least in the sense desired by Gajdusek’s team. The dream of isolation crumbled in the face of sustained and intensive enquiry. Tongariki had long been engaged in traditional forms of circulation and exchange with close and distant neighbours. In addition, most of the island’s men had been out to work in places like Queensland and Fiji from at least the 1870s. When the Pacific Islander labourers of Queensland were forcibly repatriated between 1906 and 1908, a young Australian Aboriginal woman and her brother travelled with the returning Tongariki islanders, resulting in a large family of descendants. The apparent isolation of Tongariki in the 1950s was largely a colonial production, due to the controls imposed on traditional inter-island group travel. The notion of the hermetic island population was then given form in the census and other modes of official or mission description.

For all the investment in its planning and equipment, fieldwork, analysis and correspondence, the Tongariki expedition produced remarkably little: Kirk’s short report on the expedition published in the South Pacific Bulletin; a handful of publications on dermatoglyphics (the study of finger-print patterns); the discovery of Haemoglobin J Tongariki (the first new haemoglobin variant found in a Pacific population); and Gajdusek’s musings on kava as an inhibitor of fertility. Only Guiart published his findings in any detail, and these were more the fruits of his earlier labour rather than his participation in the project.

. . .

In December 2017, article co-author, Chris Ballard, travelled to Port Vila and Tongoa to meet with Tongariki leaders and their communities. He wanted to show them scans and copies of the materials collected half a century ago, and begin a conversation about how the community might now want to make use of this strange, intrusive archive. Older women and men recalled their previous visitors. Guiart’s genealogies were pored over and debated. Tears were shed as the photographs of family members circulated. The enthusiasm for these documents overwhelmed all involved, but everyone committed to working together to understand and determine how best to manage both the potential benefits and perils of this archive.

One of the principal challenges for outsiders in approaching this new project is recognising the risk of reproducing the desires of the original project. Are we drawn to the very neatness – the ‘islandness’ – of Tongariki and its community, along with the boundedness of the project itself and of its archive? We look to collaboration with the Tongariki community, and to the community’s visions of the archive and its possibilities, to resist the impulse to define boundaries for others and to disrupt any reinscription of the original intent of the collection.

“The trick”, as Beth Greenhough notes, “is not to stand outside the assemblage and trace its contours and composition, but to ask how we are already implicated within it and ask if we might (want to) use that involvement in politically productive ways”. Aware of the ways in which our own research mirrors and reproduces that of the original Tongariki project, our goal is not just to seek out a matching Tongariki history of the expedition. Instead, it is to engage in a dialogue that will result in a collaborative interpretation of the past, and a joint mapping of future possibilities. What would constitute adequate and effective repatriation or return of control over the archive to the Tongariki community? What would a truly collaborative program of reinterpretation entail? The first step, it seems, is to relinquish the idea of the island, and its dream of perfection.

Associate Professor Chris Ballard is a Pacific historian at ANU. He has worked for more than 30 years as an archaeologist, historian and anthropologist in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and eastern Indonesia, and recently completed two years at the University of French Polynesia. His present work focuses on Indigenous historicity, cultural transmission and disasters.

Dr Nicola van Dijk has a PhD in Biological Anthropology and Archaeology from ANU, based on field research in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu. She has since worked as a consultant with Indigenous communities in the Canberra area and the wider Pacific region, and has a particular interest in the repatriation of remains and cultural materials to Indigenous communities.

Header Image: Tongariki Island, at the centre. Chris Ballard (2017)


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team