Indigenous oral histories all describe sandroing as a form of writing that predates the introduction of European education. More specifically, however, it is considered to be a practice that was brought into existence by one or another mythical figure. These origin stories are particularly prevalent on the island of Ambae, where the legendary cultural hero, Tagaro, is attributed with a geometric figure that represents the number one, and which is considered to be the first of all sandroings.
Tagaro subsequently used sandroing for a broader range of conceptual purposes, which included architectural design, kinship organisation, family planning, and ethical teachings. All of these functions are still evident in the multi-layered meanings carried by sandroings today.
The first historical description of sandroing was produced by the cultural anthropologist Bernard Deacon, who conducted most of his fieldwork on the island of Malakula between 1926 and 1927. Reporting on his progress in the field to academic mentor Alfred Haddon, Deacon described them as his “one important catch”, and exclaimed that he’d “never seen or heard of anything like it” (p. 129). He ultimately recorded 118 different designs, but his untimely death from blackwater fever prevented him from bringing this research to fruition and providing a considered account of the tradition’s cultural significance.
Historically, sandroing flourished in the context of the extensive exchange networks that linked the central and northern islands of the Vanuatu archipelago (see attached map). This region has close to 80 different language groups, and its people have always made a practice of traveling in search of knowledge and trade. In part, sandroings developed as a form of communication and symbolic exchange within this dynamic tradition. They facilitated the exchange of ideas between different language groups, and travellers used them to leave messages in meeting places. Moreover, sandroing became a sophisticated means of symbolising and recording the rituals and mythologies of distinct language groups.