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Fijian origins: Afterward

Dr Christopher Griffin
Saturday, February 16, 2013

I BEGAN these articles by critiquing media reports of Alisi Daurewa's work and did the same for Kolinio Meo's letters. Readers deserved better, I thought, and since then I've found further reason to query Meo.

To begin with, modern palaeo-anthropology (fossil-oriented) anthropology, as well as primatology (great ape studies), are quite clear about one thing.

All human beings (homo sapiens), modern hominids, had their origins in East Africa 100,000-200,000 years ago. This goes for modern day Inuit, Englishmen Australian Aborigines, Irishmen, Fijians, Cree, Croats, Indians, Basques and everybody else.

We are all one race (a biological concept): the human race. What separates us are our cultural identities.

Of course some people don't agree with this because it doesn't fit in with Genesis but don't let's go there. Suffice to note that this generally accepted 'out of Africa' fact is not what Meo is talking about. He would have us believe Fijians — or some of them — left Tanganyika in the 10th century AD.

At the risk of boring readers (especially those concerned with the price of fish at Laqere), let's note another thing.

Namely, that anthropological speculation devoid of testable evidence, similar to that which Mr Meo pushes, thrived in the last quarter of the 1800s when (not coincidentally) Fiji's Tanganyika story arose.

It's odd for example that earlier missionaries and the great missionary-anthropologist Thomas Williams (1858) made no reference whatsoever to an African legend, and that maybe why Meo mentions (F/T 23/1/13) a certain Dr. Faison (sic). Still, like Pi, the Irish, and not a few Fijians, Meo doesn't let truth spoil a good story.

Social Darwinism ('survival of the fittest' and notions of savage/primitive/civilised stages) abounded in those early days of Anthropology; the Rev, Lorimer Fison's days (1834-1910).

However towards the end of the 19th century and in the early 1900s social evolutionism was displaced by diffusionism. Diffusionist theory claimed similar looking institutions in different parts of the world (like pyramids) were spread by human migration from a particular source of origin; in the pyramid case, from Egypt to Mexico.

All well and good (for this sounds rather like globalisation), except there wasn't much evidence.

So, like social Darwinism, ever present in Fison's work, diffusionism was made redundant. What replaced both approaches was the extended fieldwork method of so-called modern social anthropology in which the anthropologist 'immersed' him or herself in the language and culture of the people before giving voice to theory, as indeed did Fison.

Now my second gripe. Meo's sources are two-fold: something called 'The Chronological History of the Tanganyikans (Tanzanians)', which he cites without details, and a publication titled Viti Makawa — again without detail. Added to this, as previously noted, he drops the name of Dr Faison (sic) as if to imply Fison's support for the Tanganyikan origins story. So let's look at this.

An Internet search reveals Meo's first document comes from the following website: It's a curious address.

One learns here that the site is "a proud participant in Gobal Village Homestays", a commercial touristic enterprise based in Australia specialising in maps, rare books, currency notes, old coins and African masks, as well coins from Fiji, and village home-stays both in Fiji and Africa. We also learn 'fijibure' is "a fully owned subsidiary of Dar-Es-Salaam (Pty) Ltd. Fiji". Curiouser and curiouser. At the risk of sounding glib this sounds like we have Tanzanians among us, and why not? Or are there iTaukei preferring a Tanzanian identity?

Understand, I am sure Global Village Homestays (and Dar-Es-Salaam, Fiji) probably provide a variety of very valuable services. What I am less sure about is using their site to draw serious conclusions about 10th century Fijian origins in Tanganyika, especially when the site reference is just a single sentence (in red) among a chronological list (in black) of events in Tanzanian history, a line that simply says the "fabled" departure of Fijians.

In one of my newspaper articles I said I was not familiar with Viti Makawa.

Yet returning since to Meo's mention (F/T 23/1/13) of Faison (sic) I was jolted to recall the Rev. Lorimer Fison's book Tales from Old Fiji, 1904, which sounds suspiciously like Meo's Viti Makawa, though I might be mistaken because nowhere in this book is there mention of Africa. There is, though, a Tongan tale about Napoleon about which in his Preface, Fison aptly remarks this just shows "how quickly a myth can establish itself".

Lorimer Fison (1834-1910) was a gifted Wesleyan missionary, a journalist, and superb anthropologist of the old evolutionist school.

He never took a degree but his writings on Fiji and Australian Aboriginal social systems eventually pre-empted the emergence of modern social anthropology. In this he was ever self-questioning and open minded on the theories (legends/ideas, explanations) of those he lived among, ministered to, and studied. This is clear from the very opening of his Preface to Tales.

'Apart from their intrinsic interest, the following legends need not be taken as having any considerable scientific value, except as an unpretentious contribution to our records of what has been well called "vanishing knowledge". They were not written for publication, but simply as matter for the reading of my near kinsfolk. Each one of them contains a genuine legend as its skeleton so to speak. For the flesh with which that skeleton been covered, the most that can be claimed is that it is of the native pattern.'

Readers can draw their own conclusion but I think the above is close to what I said previously about myth (F/T 26/1/13) and oral history.

Finally, one lesson if no other is now obvious: without clarity or 'transparency' all our research efforts are diminished.

Dr Christopher Griffin once taught sociology at USP. He has a first degree in sociology and doctorate in social anthropology. Before retiring to Fiji he lectured at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia, where he is an Honorary Senior Fellow.

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