The disease spread like fire among flax” (Thomson 1859). Questioning in the 21st Century the timing, magnitude and consequences of Pacific depopulation following European contacts

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Event details


Date & time

Monday 02 May 2022


Seminar Room G, HC Coombs Building


Christopher Sand


CHL Communicate

Additional links

Synapse Trans-Disciplinary Seminar Series by the School of Culture, History & Language

This event will be hosted face to face as well as online, via Zoom – register at Eventbrite for details on how to join.


Although acknowledged as an unquestionable historical event, the magnitude of the depopulation of Pacific Islanders following European arrival in Oceania remains debated. The concept of “fatal impact” proposed in the early 20th Century by relying on late 18th and 19th Century testimonies of massive population loss, is rejected since the 1960 by most Historical Demographers, following a detailed critique by N. McArthur. The “orthodox scenario” though considers that only a few Pacific archipelagos were severely depopulated. Yet, archaeological surveys across Oceania have demonstrated repeatedly over the last decades, the presence of densely settled pre-contact cultural landscapes, pointing to the possible presence of large numbers of islanders in the past. This presentation thus proposes to question anew the extent of indigenous depopulation, mainly by diving into the written sources of the early contacts period. The region-wide identification of a number of recurrent processes associated to decease introduction and deadly epidemics, challenge the conclusions of the “orthodox scenario”. The demonstration of a severe depopulation process, possibly starting as early as the 16th Century in some Islands, also compels to reconsider some of our analytical approaches to the cultural history of Pacific societies over the past 500 years.

About the Speaker

Christophe Sand, senior archaeologist for the New Caledonia Government, is presently based at the French Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) in Noumea, after three decades as the head archaeologist for the Archipelago. His work has concentrated on Southern Melanesia, Western Polynesia and more recently Western Micronesia. His main fields of interest are the first Austronesian settlement of the region related to the Lapita complex, the cultural dynamics of the Pacific cultures over the succeeding millennia before first European contacts, and the impact of Western expansion in the Pacific, with a special focus on indigenous cultural change and colonial dynamics. He has published widely on these topics, with a special interest at sharing information to the wider public of the Islands. He is president of ICOMOS Pasifika and member of a number of regional cultural organisations.

This is a public seminar and will be recorded.

The recording will be made available after the event through the Synapse Trans-Disciplinary Seminar Series page.

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