Lapita Culture and the Arrival of Asians in the Pacific

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The Lapita culture is the name given to a Neolithic Austronesian people and their material culture, who settled Island Melanesia via a seaborne migration at around 1600 to 500 B.C.. The ''Lapita Culture'' is named after a site in New Caledonia. The Lapita intermarried with the Papuan populations to various degrees, and are the direct ancestors of the Austronesian peoples of Polynesia, eastern Micronesia, and Island Melanesia. [Source: Wikipedia]

The term 'Lapita' was coined by archaeologists after mishearing a word in the local Haveke language, xapeta'a, which means 'to dig a hole' or 'the place where one digs', during a 1952 excavation in the Foué peninsula on Grande Terre, the main island of New Caledonia. The excavation was carried out by American archaeologists Edward W. Gifford and Richard Shulter Jr at 'Site 13'. The settlement and pottery sherds were later dated to 800 B.C.. More than 200 Lapita sites have since been uncovered, ranging more than 4,000 km from coastal and island Melanesia to Fiji and Tonga with its most eastern limit so far in Samoa.

Lapita Culture people appear to have been village-dwelling horticulturalists with a tool kit that, like their ornamentation, emphasized the use of shells. They clearly had impressive navigational and sailing skills, enabling them to engage in extensive interisland trade and to spread out well into the central Pacific. Relics from Papuans that lived in Melanesia beginning between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago are far less diverse than the relics dating from after the Lapita culture arrived in the region. The older material culture appears to have contributed only a few elements to the later Lapita material culture: some crops and some tools.

Dispersal of Lapita Pottery

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Archaeologists have been able to trace their influence and probable movements thanks to discoveries on numerous islands of a relatively sudden and widespread appearance of their trademark a distinctive kind of pottery, characterized by small dentate toothlike) patterns stamped into the clay and simple line incisions, often in complex geometric designs.[Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991. Hays is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Geography, Rhode Island College, Providence, Rhode Island. |~|]

Lapita pottery has been found as far west as the Bismarck Archipelago, as far east as Samoa, and as far south as New Caledonia. Excavation at a site in the village of Mulifanua in Samoa uncovered two adzes that strongly indicate Lapita influence. Carbon dating of material found with the adzes suggests there was a Lapita settlement at this site in roughly 1000 B.C.. Radio carbon dating of sites in New Caledonia suggest there were Lapita settlements there as early as 1,110 B.C.. The dates and locations of more northerly Lapita-influenced settlements are still for debated.

'Classic' Lapita pottery was produced between 1,600 and 1,200 B.C. on the Bismarck Archipelago. Artifacts exhibiting Lapita designs and techniques from a period later than 1,200 B.C. have been found in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Lapita pottery styles from around 1,000 B.C. have been found in Fiji and Western Polynesia. In Western Polynesia, Lapita pottery became less decorative and progressively simpler over time. It seems to have stopped being produced altogether in Samoa by about 2,800 years ago, and in Tonga by about 2,000 years ago.

By about 500 B.C. (or 1,500 Years ago) the distinctive Lapita pottery largely disappears from archaeological sites in the western Pacific. Rather than seeing this disappearance as the result of massive extinctions or some other cataclysm, most scholars interpret it simply as a reflection of local change, coinciding with the development of what would become the classic "Polynesian" way of life. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

Origin of Lapita Culture

The Lapita Culture people are believed to have originated from the northern Philippines, either directly, via the Mariana Islands, or both. This deduction is based partly on the similarities between the distinctive geometric designs on dentate-stamped on Lapita Culture pottery and the pottery and pottery recovered from the Nagsabaran archaeological site in northern Luzon. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Lapita complex is part of the eastern migration branch of the Austronesian expansion, which started from Taiwan. between about 5,000 and 6,000 years ago. Some of the emigrants reached Melanesia. The strongest support for the theory that the original people of the Lapita culture were Austronesian is linguistic evidence showing very considerable lexical continuity between Proto-Malayo-Polynesian (presumably spoken in the Philippines) and Proto-Oceanic (presumably spoken by the Lapita people). In addition, the patterns of linguistic continuity correspond to patterns of similarity in material culture.

Archaeological evidence also broadly supports the theory that the people of the Lapita culture are of Austronesian origin. On the Bismarck Archipelago, around 3,500 years ago, the Lapita complex appears suddenly, as a fully-developed archaeological horizon with associated highly developed technological assemblages. No evidence has been found on the archipelago of settlements in earlier developmental stages. This suggests that the Lapita culture was brought in by a migrating population, and did not — as had been proposed in the 1980s and 1990s by scholars like Jim Allen and J. Peter White — evolve locally.

There are different theories about the route Lapita Culture people took to get to Melanesia. They may have gone through the Marianas Islands, or through the Philippines, or both. In 2011, Peter Bellwood proposed that the initial movement of Malayo-Polynesian speakers into Oceania was from the northern Philippines eastward into the Mariana Islands, then southward into the Bismarcks. An older proposal was that Lapita settlers first arrived in Melanesia via eastern Indonesia. Bellwood’s proposal included the possibility that both migration patterns happened, with different migrants taking different routes. Bellwood’s proposal is supported by the pottery evidence mentioned above.

Dispersal of Lapita Culture

Researchers from Monash University in Australia and Kwantlen Polytechnic University reported in World Archaeology: The Lapita pottery-making and pottery-carrying colonizers of the western Pacific are famed worldwide for their expansive travels across some 4500 kilometers of seascape from the Bismarcks to Samoa be tween approximately 3400 and 2900 years ago. Emanating from the Near Oceania islands of the Bismarck Archipelago of northeast Papua New Guinea (PNG). [Source: Bruno David, Ian Mcniven, Thomas Richards from Monash University (Australia) and Sean P. Connaughton, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, World Archaeology, December 2011]

Over a period of somewhere between fifty and 400 years, Lapita peoples first ventured eastward along the coastlines of already-occupied Melanesian islands immediately to the east of the Bismarcks, and onwards to colonize previously unoccupied islands to the east of the Solomons.

As the distances between islands and island groups increased progressively eastward into Remote Oceania, Lapita ceramics eventually ceased to be made, but in time the post-Lapita colonizing process continued into the more remote islands of Polynesia so that by 750 years ago the far distant islands of Hawai‘i, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Aote aroa (New Zealand) too came to be colonized by Austronesian-speaking descendants of Lapita peoples who were themselves also maritime peoples. This Austronesian diaspora has been hailed as one of the greatest colonizing seafaring ventures of the human species.Yet two of the great mysteries of this expansive process of exploration and colonization are: first, why Lapita potters do not appear to have ventured onto the large continental island of New Guinea nearby; and, second, why Lapita peoples never ventured the 600 kilometers southward and then southwest-ward that would have seen them enter the southern waters separating the main island of New Guinea from Australia, despite travelling eastward some4500 kilometers. As Anson noted, ‘No Lapita sites have yet been found west of the Bismarck Archipelago’.

Archaeologists have long tried to determine the degree of geographical and temporal variation in Lapita ceramic practice, with broad consensus being reached in recent years. Green originally proposed a division of Western versus Eastern Lapita, while Anson Kirch and Sand further subdivided the Lapita world into an additional set of regional provinces including Far Western/Western, Western/Central,Southern and Eastern. While there is a general view that the richness of motif forms decreases towards the eastern end of Lapita’s reach, some authors have argued that the major differences in design conventions between so-called ‘provinces’ should be explained as a reduction of dentate-stamped decoration through time rather than across space. Summerhayes thus defined an Early, Middle and Late Lapita based ontemporal differences, arguing that the apparent regional variations characterized by the Lapita provinces are in fact temporal differences in assemblages. Thus, as Summerhayes notes, ‘early Lapita assemblages are seen in terms of a predominance of dentate stamping and some incised decoration, with later assemblages showing ‘‘fewer dentate-stamped shards, an increase in incision, and some shards which are transitional to late industries with impressed applied and incised decorations”. Towards the end of the Lapita period, in most areas dentate stamping gives way to linear incisions and to plainware, although both incision and plainware are themselves also part of the earlier Lapita corp us. Indeed, it is unusual for dentate stamping to make up more than 10 per cent of any given Lapita assemblage.

Connection Between the Lapita Culture and Southeast Asia

The vast majority of the Lapita material-culture elements are clearly Southeast Asian in origin. These include pottery, crops, paddy field agriculture, domesticated animals (chickens, dogs, and pigs), rectangular stilt houses, tattoo chisels, quadrangular adzes, polished stone chisels, outrigger boat technology, trolling hooks, and various other stone artifacts. [Source: Wikipedia]

Lapita pottery has very distinctive elements, like the use of the red slips, tiny punch marks, dentate stamps, circle stamps, and a cross-in-circle motif. Similar pottery has been found in Taiwan, the Batanes and Luzon islands of the Philippines, and the Marianas.

The orthodox view, advocated by Roger Green and Peter Bellwood, and accepted by most specialists today, is the so-called "Triple-I model" (short for “intrusion, innovation, and integration"). This model posits that the Early Lapita culture arose as the result of a three-part process: “intrusion” of the Austronesian peoples of the islands of Southeast Asia (and their language, materials, and ideas) into Near Oceania; “innovation” by the Lapita people, once they reached in Melanesia, in the form of new technologies; and “integration” of the Lapita peoples into the pre-existing (non-Austronesian) populations.

Spread of Chinese Culture to Taiwan, Asia and the Pacific

Pottery and stone tools of southern Chinese origin dating back to 4000 B.C. have been found in Taiwan. The same artifacts have been found in archeological sites in the Philippines dating back to 3000 B.C. Because there were no land bridges linking China or Taiwan with the Philippines, one must conclude that ocean-going vessels were in regular use. Genetic studies indicate that closest genetic relatives of the Maori of New Zealand are found in Taiwan. [Source: Jared Diamond]

Southern Chinese culture, agriculture and domesticated animals (pigs, chickens and dogs) are believed to have spread from southern China and Taiwan to the Philippines and through the islands of Indonesia to the islands north of New Guinea. By 1000 B.C., obsidian was being traded between present-day Sabah in Malaysian Borneo and present-day New Britain in Papua New Guinea, 2,400 miles away. Later southern Chinese culture spread eastward across the uninhabited islands of the Pacific, reaching Easter Island (10,000 miles from China) around A.D. 500.

The ancestors of modern Laotians, Thais and possibly Burmese, Cambodians, Filipinos and Indonesians originated from southern China. The Austronesian family of languages of which are spoken as far west as Madagascar, as far south of New Zealand, as far east as Easter island and all Philippine and Polynesian languages most likely originated in China. A great diversity of these languages is found in Taiwan, which has led some to conclude they originated there or on the nearby mainland. Others believe they may have originated in Borneo or Sulawesi or some other place.

The ancestors of modern Southeast Asian people arrived from Tibet and China about 2,500 years ago, displacing the aboriginal groups that occupied the land first. They subsisted on rice and yams which they may have introduced to Africa. Rice was introduced to Korea and Japan from China in the second millennium B.C.; bronze metallurgy in the first millennium B.C. and writing in the first or early second millennium A.D. Chinese characters are still used in written Korean and Japanese today.

DNA Evidence and the Origin of Lapita Culture

Geneticists have deduced that Polynesians largely came from Southeast Asia. Genetic studies indicate that closest genetic relatives of the Maori in New Zealand are found in Taiwan. Recent DNA studies show that the Lapita people and modern Polynesians have a common ancestry with the Atayal people of Taiwan and the Kankanaey people of the northern Philippines.

Genetic studies of ancestry are based on observations of mitochondrial DNA. Unlike chromosomal DNA, which changes when sperm and an egg fuse, mitochondrial DNA is passed on only by the mother, unchanged and unaltered, except for occasional mutations, which occur every several thousand years or so and provide distinctive markers from which common ancestry can be traced. The more differences there are between samples, the longer ago they diverged. In this way mitochondrial DNA not indicates how similar or dissimilar two people are but also indicates how far one must go back to find a common ancestor.

In 2016, DNA analysis of four Lapita skeletons found in ancient cemeteries on the islands of Vanuatu and Tonga showed that the Lapita people had descended from inhabitants of Taiwan and of the northern Philippines. This evidence of the Lapita peoples’ migration route was corroborated in 2020 by a study that did a complete mtDNA and genome-wide SNP comparison of the remains of early settlers of the Mariana Islands with the remains of early Lapita individuals from Vanuatu and Tonga. [Source: Wikipedia]

The results suggest that both groups had descended from the same ancient Austronesian source population in the Philippines. The complete absence of "Papuan" admixture in these remains suggest that the voyages of the migrants bypassed eastern Indonesia and the rest of New Guinea. The study authors noted that their results also support the possibility that early Lapita Austronesians were direct descendants of the early colonists of the Marianas (who preceded them by about 150 years); this idea is also consistent with the pottery evidence.

Lapita Pottery

Pottery whose detailed decorative designs suggest Lapita influence was made from a variety of materials, depending on what was available, and their crafters used a variety of techniques, depending on the tools they had. But, typically, the pottery consisted of low-fired earthenware, tempered with shells or sand, and decorated using a toothed (“dentate”) stamp. It has been theorized that these decorations may have been transferred from less hardy material, such as bark cloth (“tapa”) or mats, or from tattoos, onto the pottery — or transferred from the pottery onto those materials. Other important parts of the Lapita repertoire were: undecorated ("plain-ware") pottery, including beakers, cooking pots, and bowls; shell artifacts; ground-stone adzes; and flaked-stone tools made of obsidian, chert, or other available kinds of rock.

Researchers from Monash University in Australia and Kwantlen Polytechnic University reported in World Archaeology: Lapita peoples produced a highly recognizable ceramic assemblage rendered iconic by its dentate-stamped designs banded across the external walls of a range of vessel types and their equally iconic collared and carinated pots, bowls, flat-based dishes and cylinder stands. Other decorative techniques were also present, including incisions, shell impressions (restricted to Late Lapita), red slipping, burnishing and lime infilling. Plainwares typically make up a majority of assemblages, but it is the highly recognizable dentate stamping, coupled with a range of well-defined banded designs, that make Lapita ceramics so readily identifiable wherever they occur. [Source: Bruno David, Ian Mcniven, Thomas Richards from Monash University (Australia)and Sean P. Connaughton, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, World Archaeology, December 2011]

The commonest and most iconic item s of Lapita material culture are the ceramics, in particular dentate-stamped pottery consisting of a range of needlepoint to coarser-tined-dentate-stamped designs banded around bowls, collared and carinated pots, jars, dishes, globular pots and pedestals in repeated geometric designs. Many attempts at characterizing Lapita decoration have followed Mead et al.’s (1973) language of design at the expense of analysing complete motifs for themselves, some of which are highly complex constructions; Anson’s (1983) later, influential work was based on motifs and alloforms.

While non-figurative decorations of repeated pattern are the norm, some figurative form Lapita sites also exist, including highly abstract but relatively rare faces constructed of geometric design elements and even rarer three-dimension al faces. These predominantly comb dentate-stamped, incised andshell-impressed decorations have come to be recognized from the westernmost to easternmost edges of Lapita’s distribution, with some conventions such as shell impressions occurring only in Late Lapita and post-Lapita assemblages.

Lapita Culture Language, Burials and Settlements

Linguists and other researchers theorize that Lapita culture people spoke a proto-Oceanic language, thought to be branch of the Austronesian language family which is widely spoken throughout Southeast Asia. However, because the culture existed thousands of years ago it is impossible to say exactly what languages were spoken by the Lapita is unknown. The languages spoken in the region today derive from a number of different ancient languages. Material culture uncovered by archaeology does not generally provide clues to the language spoken by the makers of the artifacts. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 2003, at the Teouma archeological excavation site on Efate Island in Vanuatu, a large cemetery was discovered, including 25 graves containing burial jars and a total of 36 human skeletons. All the skeletons were headless: At some point after the bodies had originally been buried, the skulls had been removed and replaced with rings made from cone shells, and the heads had been reburied. One grave contained the skeleton of an elderly man with three skulls sitting on his chest. Another grave contained a burial jar with four birds looking into the jar. Carbon dating of the shells placed this cemetery as having been in use around 1000 B.C..

Lapita Culture Life and Settlements

The Lapita kept pigs, dogs, and chickens. Horticulture was based on root crops and tree crops, most importantly taro, yam, coconuts, bananas, and varieties of breadfruit. These foods were likely supplemented by fishing and mollusc gathering. Long-distance trade was practiced; items traded included obsidian, adzes, adze source-rock, and shells.

Lapita culture villages on islands in the area of Remote Oceania tended not to be located inland, but instead on the beach, or on small offshore islets. These locations may have been chosen because inland areas — for example in New Guinea — were already settled by other peoples. Or they may have been chosen in order to avoid areas inhabited by mosquitoes carrying malaria microbes, against which Lapita people likely had no immune defence. Some of their houses were built on stilts over large lagoons.

In New Britain, however, there were inland settlements; they were located near obsidian sources. And on the islands at the eastern end of the archipelago, all settlements were located inland rather than on the beaches — sometimes fairly far inland.

Expansion of People Across the Pacific

About 3000 B.C. speakers of the Austronesian languages, probably from Taiwan (Formosa), mastered the art of long-distance canoe travel and spread themselves, or their languages, south to the Philippines and Melanesia and east to the islands of Micronesia. The Polynesians branched off and occupied Polynesian Triangle to the east.

Some have theorized that these people traveled first to the Philippines and Indonesia. Then they made it the coast and islands of New Guinea. After that they moved eastward towards Fiji and the Pacific islands in that area and possibly westward to Madagascar. The last place to be reached were New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.

Dates and routes are uncertain, but they seem to have started from the Bismarck Archipelago, went east past Fiji to Samoa and Tonga about 1500 B.C.. By A.D. 100 they were in the Marquesas Islands and A.D. 300-800 in Tahiti, west of the Marquesas. Between A.D. 300-800 are also given as the time of arrival of people in Easter Island, their easternmost point, and Hawaii, which is far to the north and distant from other islands. Far to the southwest, New Zealand was reached about A.D. 1250. The Chatham Islands, about 500 miles east of New Zealand were reached about 1500.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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