It's not certain when the Papuan peoples reached New Caledonia. Some 300 earth mounds dating from 6000 B.C. discovered on the Isle of Pines were once thought to prove habitation for at least 8,000 years, but the mounds are now accepted as having been constructed by extinct giant birds.
What is known for sure is that Austronesian-speakers have been here for more than 3,000 years. Lapita sites have been found near Koné and on the Isle of Pines, the pottery carbon-dated at earlier than 1000 B.C. Prehistoric rock carvings are found throughout the territory. Back migrations of Polynesians reached the Loyalty Islands just a few hundred years before the Europeans.
The Kanak clans lived in small villages of 50 people and farmed their own land, using sophisticated irrigation systems and terraced taro gardens. Kanak culture has been called the "yam civilization," because of the importance of this tuber as a staple and in ceremonial exchanges. Land was owned collectively but controlled by the oldest son of the first clan to settle in a place.
The center of the village was the grande case, a large conical-roofed house where the chief lived and ceremonies were performed. Religion was animistic. Of the many spirits loose in the land, the most powerful were the clan ancestors. Society was based around a relationship between the living and their ancestors, both of whom the chief represented, in a sense.
A number of clans formed an autonomous tribe. Local tribes had little contact with each other, and thus many languages evolved; most people lived in the interior, and language groups extended across the main island, rather than down the coasts. When Captain Cook, the first European, arrived in September 1774, there were more than 70,000 Kanaks living in these islands.
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