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Lapita Cultural Complex

First Settlers of the Pacific Islands

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View of Nguna from Paonangisi Beach, Efate, Vanuatu

View of Nguna from Paonangisi Beach, Efate, Vanuatu

Phillip Capper
'Face' design on potsherds excavated at the Talepakemalai site, Mussau Islands, Papua New Guinea

The Lapita Face - Schematic of the Lapita Face Motif. '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).

JE Terrell and EM Schechter 2006 (redrawn from PV Kirch 1997)

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 were 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. Located on small islands and the coasts of larger islands, and separated from one another 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 Cultural Attributes

Lapita pottery consists of mostly plain, red-slipped, coral sand-tempered wares; but a small percentage are ornately decorated pottery, with intricate geometric designs incised or stamped onto the surface with a fine-toothed dentate stamp, perhaps made of turtle or clam shell. One often repeated motif in Lapita pottery is what appears to be stylized eyes and nose of a human or animal face. The pottery is built, not wheel thrown, and low-temperature fired.

Other artifacts found at Lapita sites include shell tools including fishhooks, obsidian and other cherts, stone adzes, personal ornaments such as beads, rings, pendants and carved bone.

Origins of the Lapita

The origins of the Lapita culture before their arrival is widely debated, because there do not seem to be clear antecedents to the elaborate pottery of the Bismarcks. One comment made recently by Anita Smith suggests that the use of the concept of the Lapita complex is (ironically enough) too simple to truly do justice to the complex processes of island colonization in the region.

Decades of research have identified obsidian outcrops used by the Lapita in the Admiralty Islands, West New Britain, Fergusson Island in the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, and the Banks Islands in Vanuatu. Obsidian artifacts found in datable contexts on Lapita sites throughout Melanesia have allowed researchers to refine the previously established massive colonization efforts of the Lapita sailors.

Archaeological Sites

Lapita, Talepakemalai in the Bismarck Islands; Nenumbo in the Solomon Islands; Kalumpang (Sulawesi); Bukit Tengorak (Sabah); Uattamdi on Kayoa Island; ECA, ECB aka Etakosarai on Eloaua Island; EHB or Erauwa on Emananus Island; Teouma on Efate Island in Vanuatu; Bogi 1, Tanamu 1, Moriapu 1, in Papua New Guinea

Sources

Bedford S, Spriggs M, and Regenvanu R. 1999. The Australian National University-Vanuatu Cultural Centre Archaeology Project, 1994-97: Aims and results. Oceania 70:16-24.

Bentley RA, Buckley HR, Spriggs M, Bedford S, Ottley CJ, Nowell GM, Macpherson CG, and Pearson DG. 2007. Lapita Migrants in The Pacific's Oldest Cemetery: Isotopic Analysis at Teouma, Vanuatu. American Antiquity 72(4):645-656.

David B, McNiven IJ, Richards T, Connaughton SP, Leavesley M, Barker B, and Rowe C. 2011. Lapita sites in the Central Province of mainland Papua New Guinea. World Archaeology 43(4):576-593.

Dickinson WR, Shutler RJ, Shortland R, Burley DV, and Dye TS. 1996. Sand tempers in indigenous Lapita and Lapitoid Polynesian Plainware and imported protohistoric Fijian pottery of Ha'apai (Tonga) and the question of Lapita tradeware. Archaeology in Oceania 31:87-98.

Kirch PV. 1978. The Lapitoid period in West Polynesia: Excavations and survey in Niuatoputapu, Tonga. Journal of Field Archaeology 5(1):1-13.

Kirch PV. 1987. Lapita and Oceanic cultural origins: Excavations in the Mussau Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, 1985. Journal of Field Archaeology 14(2):163-180.

Pickersgill B. 2004. Crops and cultures in the Pacific: New data and new techniques for the investigation of old questions. Ethnobotany Research and Applications 2:1-8.

Reepmeyer C, Spriggs M, Bedford S, and Ambrose W. 2011. Provenance and Technology of Lithic Artifacts from the Teouma Lapita Site, Vanuatu. Asian Perspectives 49(1):205-225.

Spriggs M. 2011. Archaeology and the Austronesian expansion: where are we now? Antiquity 85(328):510-528.

Summerhayes GR. 2009. Obsidian network patterns in Melanesia: Sources, characterisation and distribution. . IPPA Bulletin 29:109-123.

Terrell JE, and Schechter EM. 2007. Deciphering the Lapita Code: the Aitape Ceramic Sequence and Late Survival of the 'Lapita face'. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17(01):59-85.

Valentin F, Buckley HR, Herrscher E, Kinaston R, Bedford S, Spriggs M, Hawkins S, and Neal K. 2010. Lapita subsistence strategies and food consumption patterns in the community of Teouma (Efate, Vanuatu). Journal of Archaeological Science 37(8):1820-1829.

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