Concept: Exploration


The first humans may have arrived in the Solomon Islands from the north thirty thousand years ago. Because they arrived when sea levels were low due to an ice age on earth, what they saw was fewer and much larger islands. Evidence for this long occupation comes from genetic studies in the Kwaio area on Malaita, and archaeological evidence gathered in the 1980s, on Manus, New Britain and New Ireland in the Bismarck Archipelago, and from Buka, the most northerly island in the Solomon Archipelago. During the geological Pleistocene Era-from a million until about sixteen thousand years ago-sea levels were as much as one hundred metres lower, which meant that many of today's Solomon Islands were joined, forming one island from Buka and Bougainville down to Isabel, Nggela and Guadalcanal in the south. Archaeologist Matthew Spriggs called this old landmass 'Greater Bougainville', and it has also been called 'Greater Bukida', but equally it could be called 'Greater Solomons'. The antiquity of the Buka and Bougainville and other north Solomons' peoples is evidenced by their darker skin colour. Genetically, the north Solomons peoples are a distinctive biological cluster, although linguistically they speak both Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages. Archaeologists have dated human habitation back thirty-three thousand years on New Ireland and thirty-two thousand years on Buka, which presumably means that early humans could have walked south or paddled along the coast to what are now Isabel and Guadalcanal Islands ten to twenty thousand years ago. Malaita, Ulawa and Makira would also have been easy to reach. These dates have been established from food remains. (Wickler and Spriggs 1988; Spriggs 1997)

Sixteen thousand years ago sea levels rose again and created the shapes of today's Pacific Islands. This took oceans to their highest point in the last seventy thousand years and permanently covered many reefs and coral islands. A deep strait always separated Malaita from 'Greater Bougainville' but the small Da'i Island shelf midway between the two lands made access easy. Very little research has been conducted on the prehistory of the central Solomon Islands, and there is no evidence that these early humans crossed over the strait at the southern end of 'Greater Solomons'. However, it seems unlikely that adventurous sailors did not make this short sea voyage ten to twenty thousand years ago. Some of the languages spoken in the eastern Solomons relate closely to those of New Guinea, which may indicate quite early migrations, although it is also possible that they arrived during later times. By way of comparison, the habitation date for Manus in the north of the Bismarck Archipelago, which could only be reached by a long sea voyage, is over ten thousand years ago. Malaita and Makira were the last large landmasses in what archaeologists call 'Near Oceania'. Beyond, there was a considerable gap before the Santa Cruz Islands, the beginning of 'Remote Oceania'. The ocean was never a barrier in areas when each island was visible from another. The ocean was a transport corridor just as useful to human migration as the dry land. In the Solomon Islands it is only south of Makira that the sea gaps are large and can be regarded as barriers: 'Near Oceania' ends at Makira and becomes 'Remote Oceania'. The flora and fauna of 'Near Oceania', while not as extensive as that of New Guinea, were plentiful and easily sustained these early migrants.

Sea levels stabilised at present levels around six thousand years ago, and only in the last 2,500 years has reef growth been sufficient to allow atolls and sand cays to develop, such as large Leli Island off east central Malaita. Presumably, the sites of the earliest human settlements are now under the ocean beyond the fringing reefs. The oldest evidence of human settlement southeast of Buka Island is at Vatuluma Posovi in the Poha Valley, Guadalcanal, where people used a small cave as shelter 6,400 years ago. There is no evidence at this site of domesticated plants or animals.

Early settlers were able to move easily between islands and did not require sophisticated sailing craft. However, once they reached Ulawa and Santa Ana they faced bigger challenges as long voyages were required to move further south. This changed about 3,200 years ago when new migrants arrived with sailing canoes, pottery and domesticated plants and animals. Many of the modern languages have their origins through these canoe-born 'Austronesian' migrations out of southern China and Taiwan that travelled through Southeast Asia five thousand years ago. These sea-travellers loitered for a long period in the Bismarck Archipelago, where they mixed genes and cultures with earlier humans, then moved south past the Solomon Islands into Vanuatu, Fiji and Polynesia. Add to this mix the Polynesians (who also speak Austronesian languages) who have lived on outlying Solomon Islands and atolls for at least three thousand years, and others who have back-migrated more recently. Outlying islands and atolls such as Tikopia (q.v.), Sikaiana (q.v.) and Ontong Java (q.v.) have a complex history, and they and other Polynesians must also have influenced coastal Solomon Islanders in various ways. Evidence of gardens and domesticated animals, including pigs and chickens, has been found from 3,200 years ago.

We know that the Austronesians travelled by canoes from the north, and carried with them domesticated pigs, dogs and chickens, as well as a range of nut trees and other domesticated plants. They also brought a distinctive style of pottery that archaeologist call 'Lapita', which may have evolved while they 'loitered' in the Bismarck Archipelago for a millenium. Lapita pottery has been found on Buka and in the New Georgia Islands in the north, and south of Malaita in the Santa Cruz and Reef Islands. Other pottery that lacks the distinctive Lapita dentate stamp and is probably post-Lapita has been found on Bellona, New Georgia and Isabel Islands. These early settlers were agriculturalists who also relied on marine resources and the fauna and wild plants. They possessed a set of strategies that enabled them to utilise and occupy the heavily forested islands. Today, many Solomon Islanders still rely on the same wild plants in times of crisis when gardens fail, particularly wild taro and yams. Indigenous fauna still supplement domesticated animals and birds in people's diets. (Spriggs 1995, 1997; Summerhayes and Scales 2005, Summerhayes 2006-2007)

The early migrants arrived in small numbers and were able to adapt to the new environment, with malaria always acting as a limiter on population expansion. Vivax and possibly malariae malaria only require around one hundred humans to maintain the disease, and would have become a population limiter soon after the migrants arrived, as would birth spacing-suggested to have been around four to five years-which may have been necessary for the physical and psychological well-being of mothers in malaria-prone areas. If we assume an initial few canoe loads of humans, and perhaps some later similar migrations both from the north and south, the population build-up would have been very slow. Initially they would have lived in small colonies around the coast, each quite autonomous, and sustained themselves by hunting and gathering until food gardens were established. The move inland and the differentiation between inland and coastal peoples would have come in much more recent times. (Spriggs 1997; Groube 1993)

Against this great time depth, contact with the further world is very recent, and Europeans, usually known as 'explorers', found an already established, very complex society when they ventured to the Solomon Islands beginning in the sixteenth century. The first to reach the archipelago were Spanish sailors from the Spanish colony of Peru in South America, headed by Mendaña (q.v.), nephew of Viceroy Castro of Peru. Mendaña's expedition sighted their first land in the archipelago at Isabel Island (q.v.), which they called Santa Ysabel, in February 1568. They spent six months in the Solomon Islands, built a small ship, and explored to the southeast through the group before returning to South America. Mendaña reported that he had found gold, based on a small trace of gold from the mouth of the Mataniko River on Guadalcanal, but he could produce no evidence and his exploits were belittled at the Court. He remained convinced of the value of the islands and called them the Isles of King Solomon to connect them with the biblical king's great wealth. His desire to return was not fulfilled for more than a quarter of a century, when in 1595 he led another expedition to rediscover the archipelago and form a colony with himself as its governor. On this occasion he did not reach the main Solomon Islands, landing instead at Graciosa Bay, Santa Cruz Island where he founded a short-lived colony. One of his ships, the almiranta Santa Isabel, disappeared off volcanic Tinakula Island (q.v.) which was then erupting. The other three ships reached Graciosa Bay on 21 September 1595 and began the colony, which was beset by sickness, deaths and disputes. Mendaña died on 18 October and the colony was totally abandoned on 18 November, the survivors heading for Manila. There is evidence that survivors of the expedition landed at Pamua on the north coast of Makira. Only two of the ships reached the Philippines. (Spate 1979)

Due to the vagaries of European navigation techniques, the archipelago remained isolated for another two centuries, except for a voyage by Abel Tasman in 1643 which reached Ontong Java. It was not until 1767 that Philip Carteret on HMS Swallow rediscovered what Mendaña had claimed for Spain, voyaging past Santa Cruz, Da'i (Gower) and Malaita Islands. After that, European explorers came fairly regularly: Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1768 reached and named Choiseul and Bougainville; in 1769 Jean-François-Marie de Surville rediscovered Isabel, Ulawa, Makira and Santa Ana. In 1781, French geographic researcher M. Buache realised that these expeditions had all reached Mendaña's Isles of King Solomon. Other exploratory voyages arrived: that of Spanish explorer Don Francisco Antonio Maurelle in 1781; and Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse in 1786-1788. The La Pérouse expedition (q.v.) ended at Vanikolo (q.v.) where the ships were all lost. Once New South Wales on the east coast of Australia was settled, more British ships began to use the outer route past the Solomons on their way to Asia. Lieutenant John Shortland rediscovered Guadalcanal, New Georgia and the Shortlands in 1788. In 1790, Lieutenant Henry L. Ball sailed north along the east coast of Malaita. In 1792, the French Government sent Admiral Raymond Joseph de Bruni d'Entrecasteaux to the Pacific to find out what had happened to La Pérouse; he visited the Solomons twice, never finding the lost ships. (Jack-Hinton 1969; Spate 1979, 1988)

Contacts continued in the early nineteenth century. In 1813, a sandalwood trader Peter Dillon put two men (one with an Islander wife) ashore on Tikopia and found them still there when he returned in 1827. By this time, whalers had also begun to frequent the archipelago-mainly in the north and around Makira-and the Solomons were also visited by trading brigs and schooners out of Sydney. From the 1840s through the 1860s sandalwood traders from the New Hebrides travelled into Solomons' waters purchasing turtle shell, pearl shell and pigs to exchange with New Hebrideans for sandalwood logs. By about 1840, whalers were using Makira Harbour, San Cristoval (now Makira) to careen their ships and there is a record of a Makira man working as a boatman in Sydney Harbour, having travelled there with the traders. During 1845-1847 the Catholics tried to start a mission in the Solomon Islands. Bishop Epalle (q.v.) was killed on Isabel Island and later three other priests were killed on Makira, which led the Catholics to abandon the mission. Onwards from the 1870s, labour trade ships working out of Fiji, Queensland, New Caledonia and Samoa were a constant sight around the islands. The Solomon Archipelago had become well known to the outside world. (AR 1971, 113-114; Bennett 1987, 21-77; Moore 1985; Corris 1973b)

Solomon Islanders also began to travel beyond their islands to Pacific ports as crew on whalers and trading ships. (Chappell 1997) Judith Bennett's research details the presence of American, Australian and New Zealand-based whalers in the Solomon Islands onwards from 1799, and that castaways lived in the islands onwards from the 1810s and 1820s. (Shineberg 1967, 156-157; Bennett 1987, 350-357)

Related Natural Phenomena

Published resources


  • Bennett, Judith A., Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800-1978, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1987. Details
  • Chappell, David A., Double Ghosts: Oceanic Voyagers on Euroamerican Ships, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk (NY) and London (UK), 1997. Details
  • Corris, Peter, Passage, Port and Plantation: A History of Solomon Islands Labour Migration, 1870-1914, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1973b. Details
  • Jack-Hinton, Colin, The Search for the Islands of Solomon, 1567-1838, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1969. Details
  • Moore, Clive, Kanaka: A History of Melanesian Mackay, Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies and the University of Papua and New Guinea Press, Port Moresby, 1985. Details
  • Shineberg, Dorothy, They Came for Sandalwood: A Study of the Sandalwood Trade in the South-West Pacific, 1930-1865, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1967. Details
  • Spate, O.H.K., The Pacific since Magellan: The Spanish Lake: , vol. 1, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1979. Details
  • Spriggs, Matthew, The Island Melanesians, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1997. Details

Book Sections

  • Groube, Les, 'Contraditions and Malaria in Melanesia and Australian Prehistory', in M. Spriggs;D.E. Yen;W. Ambrose;R. Jones;A. Thorne;A. Andrews (ed.), A Community of Culture: The People and Prehistory of the Pacific, Department of prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, 1993, pp. 164-186. Details
  • Spriggs, Matthew, 'The Lapita Culture and Austronesian Prehistory in Oceania', in Peter Bellwood;James J. Fox;Darrell Tryon (ed.), The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, Department of Anthropology, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, 1995, pp. 112-133. Details

Journal Articles

  • Summerhayes, Glenn R., 'Lapita Colonisation of the Pacific?', South Pacific Journal of Philosophy and Culture, vol. 9, 2006-2007, pp. 69-82. Details
  • Summerhayes, Glenn R., and Scales, Ian, 'New Lapita Pottery Finds from Kolombangara, Western Solomon Islands', Archaeol Oceania, vol. 40, 2005, pp. 14-20. Details
  • Wickler, Stephen, and Spriggs, Matthew, 'Pleistocene Human Occupation of the Solomon Islands, Melanesia', Antiquity, vol. 62, 1988, pp. 703-706. Details


  • British Solomon Islands Protectorate, British Solomon Islands Protectorate Annual Reports (AR), 1896-1973. Details