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K. Kris Hirst

The Lapita Face and its Cultural Context

By December 21, 2006

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Is the Lapita Face a Turtle?

In a paper to be published early in 2007 in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, researchers John Edward Terrell and Esther M. Schechter report on their archaeological and archival investigations on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea, where they believe they have discovered iconographic remnants of the Lapita face, an important key element of the cultural complex called the Lapita culture [1500 BC-AD 300], occurring on pottery and wooden artifacts as late as AD 800 and perhaps into the 20th century.

The Lapita culture is the name given to the artifactual remains associated with the people who settled the area east of the Solomon Islands called "Remote Oceania" between 3400 and 2900 years ago. The earliest Lapita sites are found in the Bismarck islands, and within 400 years, the Lapita had spread over an area of 3400 kilometers, stretching through the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and eastward to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Based on small islands and the coasts of larger islands and separated by as much as 350 kilometers, the Lapita lived in villages of stilt-legged houses and earth-ovens, made distinctive pottery, fished and exploited marine and aquacultural resources, raised domestic chickens, pigs and dogs, and grew fruit- and nut-bearing trees.

Lapita Pottery

Lapita pottery consisted of low density wares often tempered with coral sand and fired at a low temperature. Most of it lacks decoration except for a red slip; but a small percentage of the ceramic assemblages are of ornately decorated pottery, with intricate geometric designs incised or stamped into the surface with a fine toothed dentate stamp. One often-repeated motif in Lapita pottery is what appears to be the highly stylized eyes and nose of a human face. This motif, called the Lapita Face or Lapita Eye is found on ceramic pots, and perhaps on wooden bowls and serving platters.

Terrell and Schechter's research arose from work in the Aitape region of the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea, where Terrell and Robert Welsch discovered ceramics that contained recognizable Lapita conventional motifs, but were dated as late as 650-800 AD, called Sumalo ware. Excavations on PNG revealed a pottery ancestral to Sumalo called Nyapin ware (1500-2000 bp) that had even more obvious affinities with Lapita ware. Lapita ware itself is found very rarely on New Guinea Island: in fact, only two sherds have been found at Aitape, one in a museum collection and one from a surface collection. But remnants of the Lapita face motif as well as the intricate geometric patterns are identifiable within the pottery recovered from the Sepik coast.

Turtles and the Lapita Face

One possible reason for such a long persistence of the Lapita face tradition became apparent as a result of ethnographic study conducted by Terrell and Welsch during the 1990s, when they were excavating in PNG, as well as Terrell and Schechter's further work with the AB Lewis Pacific Collection at The Field Museum in Chicago.

Researchers Terrell and Schechter believe it is possible that the face seen on Lapita pottery is not human (or not always human or only human) but is representative of the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). The Lapita face never has been the easiest motif to see on sherds, hidden as it is in bands and zones of repeating geometric elements. But using the collections at the Field Museum, Terrell and Schechter began to see connections between the long nose and eyes of the Lapita Face to that of the long beak and deep set eyes of the turtle. Circular components thought to represent ear plugs by others are considered possibly representative of scales on the side of a turtle's head or of the patterning on its carapace. The curvy design zones emanating from either side of the nose could represent the front legs of the turtle, as she swims through the ocean. Other geometric patterns, say Terrell and Schechter, are reminiscent of the trail left by a sea turtle on the beaches of the Pacific islands.

Most interestingly, a creation myth collected by Joseph Abi from PNG at Vanimo Village, features a sea turtle who builds an island because she is tired of swimming and longed for "a place where I could rest and enjoy the warmth and the clear air."

The Persistence of a Legend

Much of the recent debate over the Lapita has been focused on the origins of the culture. The Lapita culture has long been associated with Austronesian speakers, but a search for a place where the master seafarers came from has been fruitless. Recent cave research has determined that the Lapita were not the first humans to live on many of the islands of the Pacific, and in fact some sites in Near Oceania and Australia are dated to 40,000 years ago. But the cultural resonance of the Lapita face, whether it indeed represents a turtle in some of its reincarnations, is in itself reminiscent of the lure of the Lapita culture.

Photo credits

Top three images courtesy John Terrell. Captions in order:
  • Reconstructed vessel from the eponymous Lapita site on the Foué Peninsula of New Caledonia (from site WKO013A; approximate diameter 45 cm; reprinted, courtesy of Christophe Sand).
  • Wooden bowl from Tarawai Island (catalogue No. 148556, George A. Dorsey Collection, 1908; photograph A114374, John Weinstein, photographer, © 2004 The Field Museum).
  • "Lapita Face' design on three potsherds excavated at the Talepakemalai archaeological site in the Mussau Islands, Papua New Guinea (redrawn by Jill Seagard from Kirch 1997, fig. 5.6).
  • Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), cpchannel.

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