Object: Knife

E/1956/7/21
Admiralty Islanders: Knife
Melanesia: Oceania
20th century
Materials: Clay, Obsidian

This object is a knife with and incised and painted clay handle. The triangular blade is made from obsidian.

Melanesia is a sub-region of Oceania extending from the western side of the West Pacific to the Arafura Sea, north and northeast of Australia. The original inhabitants of the islands now named Melanesia were likely the ancestors of the present day Papuan-speaking people. These people are thought to have occupied New Guinea approximately 35,000 years ago (according to radiocarbon dating). They appear to have occupied these islands as far east as the main islands in the Solomon Islands. Along with New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands, the Admiralty Islands were first inhabited by the initial wave of migration out of South-East Asia that also populated Australia. This early society appears to have cultivated taro, and to have deliberately introduced wild animals from New Guinea such as bandicoots and large rats. Since antiquity, obsidian has been gathered and traded throughout the Admiralty Islands archipelago.

The region is one of the most geographically complex areas on Earth, with a diverse range of islands of varying age and development. The two main islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, New Ireland and New Britain, are mountainous, with peaks exceeding 2,000 meters. Several of the smaller islands in the archipelago are recent volcanoes, some still active. Habitats include coastal vegetation, mangrove forests, freshwater swamp forests, lowland rainforests, seasonally dry forests and grasslands, and mountain rainforests.

The East Melanesian Islands holds exceptional cultural and linguistic diversity. Vanuatu, for example, has 109 living traditional languages, more per unit area than any other country. The Solomon Islands, with 74 languages, is only slightly less diverse. Because many languages are spoken by only a few hundred people, they are dying out or mixing into Pijin-Austronesian-Creoles, leading to a rapid loss of traditional knowledge and practice.

Obsidian is the result of volcanic lava coming in contact with water. Often the lava pours into a lake or ocean and is cooled quickly. This process produces a glassy texture in the resulting rock. Iron and magnesium give the obsidian a dark green to black color. Obsidian has been used by ancient people as a cutting tool, for weapons, and for ceremonial purposes and is sometimes found by archaeologists in excavations.

Every volcano producing obsidian leaves a unique chemical fingerprint in the molecular structure of the stone. Because of this unique identity marker, obsidian stones can be traced to the source volcano. Analyses of obsidian artifacts from recent excavations in Borneo, Malaysia indicate the use of obsidian from multiple sources in Melanesia as early as the 5th millennium BC. The archaeological presence of obsidian, up to more than 3500 km from its source, is the surviving evidence of what was almost certainly the longest Neolithic trade route in the world.
[Debra Taylor]

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