Anthropology Archaeology of Oceania
Ethan E. Cochrane
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0237


Oceania comprises the islands of the Pacific Ocean and nearby seas originally settled from Island Southeast Asia by variably related populations over the last 50,000 years. The region is commonly divided into Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, but much archaeological research also references the biogeographic regions Near and Remote Oceania. Near Oceania includes New Guinea and the neighboring Admiralty, Bismarck, and Solomon Islands, all inhabited in the Pleistocene and early Holocene, while Remote Oceania includes the remaining Oceanic islands to the north and east of the Solomons that were settled in two waves beginning approximately 3,000 and 1,000 years ago. Modern archaeology in Oceania has its roots in the comparative ethnology of the region at the beginning of the 20th century, an ethnology influenced by the accounts of European explorers and missionaries from the previous 200 years. This ethnological research described archaeologically relevant behavior, material culture, and landscapes, but it was not until 1947 that the first archaeological excavations were conducted—a late start on the world stage owing to the mistaken belief that there was little time-depth to Oceanic cultures. In the second half of the 20th century, the pace of archaeology in Oceania quickened, with research focused on the chronological sequences of various islands and archipelagos, the geographic origins of particular groups, and changes in political complexity over time. Archaeologists still investigate many of these issues, but the diversity of research topics has increased. Theoretically, archaeological research in Oceania is solidly processual (although additional frameworks are beginning to appear) and this is born out of a decades-old approach to islands as laboratories for comparisons of cultural variation and attendant explanatory processes, particularly evolutionary and ecological ones. More recently, historical archaeology and indigenous archaeology have become prominent perspectives.


Buck 1938 was the first modern treatment of ancient Oceania’s settlement and was based on Buck’s own and his colleagues’ ethnological research. It was not until the 1970s that significant books on Oceanic archaeology began to appear. Bellwood 1979 is an encyclopedic tome that covers both Southeast Asia and the Pacific, while Jennings 1979 is an edited volume of regionally focused and topical chapters. It became the standard text for essential overviews for the next twenty years. Terrell 1986 provides the first theoretically focused overview of the archaeology, ethnography, and language of the region, using biogeography, interaction, and ecology to structure arguments. Davidson, et al. 1996 is a massive Festschrift to Roger Green and summarizes the entire field of Oceanic archaeology and related disciplines near the turn of the century, while Sand 2003 and Lilley 2006 are edited volumes that provide overviews into the next decade. Rainbird 2004 is an overview of archaeology in Micronesia, and is the only book-length treatment of this region. The most widely used general treatment of Oceanic archaeology is Kirch 2017, an updated version of the author’s 2000 publication. While this book is aimed at undergraduates, professionals find much of use here as well. Cochrane and Hunt 2018 is a collection that summarizes the latest in Oceanic archaeological scholarship and provides a prospectus for future research.

  • Bellwood, P. S. 1979. Man’s conquest of the Pacific: The prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Summarizes the archaeology of mainland and Island Southeast Asia New Guinea, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, with a separate chapter on New Zealand. Also includes sections on subsistence, migration, and current theory (as of 1979).

  • Buck, P. H. 1938. Vikings of the sunrise. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

    Buck is also known as Te Rangi Hīroa and proposed that Polynesians originated in Island Southeast Asia and migrated from those islands through Micronesia to Polynesia, bypassing Melanesia. This thesis ignored much contemporary evidence and has been disproved.

  • Cochrane, E. E., and T. L. Hunt, eds. 2018. The Oxford handbook of prehistoric Oceania. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book of 21 chapters presents the latest scholarship on regions and research themes, with directions for future research.

  • Davidson, J., G. Irwin, F. Leach, A. K. Pawley, and D. Brown, eds. 1996. Oceanic culture history: Essays in honour of Roger Green. Dunedin: New Zealand Archaeological Association.

    A Festschrift for Roger Green, this volume contains 47 chapters from almost every scholar of Pacific archaeology and related disciplines such as historical linguistics. Chapters cover regions, methods, and substantive analyses.

  • Jennings, J. D., ed. 1979. The prehistory of Polynesia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    The chapters are by leading scholars of the time writing on the culture history of islands and archipelagos, as well as several chapters on research themes such as settlement patterns, voyaging, and language.

  • Kirch, P. V. 2017. On the road of the winds: An archaeological history of the Pacific Islands before European contact. Rev. ed. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Since publication of the first edition in 2000, this has been the most accessible overview of Oceanic archaeology, and it is the standard textbook for undergraduate courses.

  • Lilley, I., ed. 2006. Archaeology of Oceania: Australia and the Pacific Islands. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This edited volume covers Australia and Oceania and includes a section on archaeology and politics.

  • Rainbird, P. 2004. The archaeology of Micronesia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511616952

    This is the only book-length treatment of the archaeology of Micronesia. It includes discussion of anthropological and historical studies. The book is broadly post-processual in outlook, and seeks to move beyond cultural evolutionary typologies.

  • Sand, C., ed. 2003. Pacific archaeology: Assessments and prospects—Proceedings of the International Conference for the 50th anniversary of the first Lapita excavation, Koné-Nouméa, 2002. Les cahiers de l'archéologie en Nouvelle-Calédonie 15. Nouméa, New Caledonia: Service des Musées et du Patrimonie de Nouvelle-Calédonie.

    Based on the presentations at a large Oceanic archaeology conference, this volume contains chapters on a wide array of topics, from regional summaries, to niche analytical specialties, to relevant explanatory theory in Oceania.

  • Terrell, J. E. 1986. Prehistory in the Pacific Islands. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    First general overview of Oceanic archaeology to emphasize a consistent theoretical approach based in biogeography, ecology, and interaction. The book is structured thematically, not by regions.

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