Introduction to the Lapita Cultural Complex

First Settlers of the Pacific Islands

View of Nguna from Paonangisi Beach, Efate, Vanuatu
View of Nguna from Paonangisi Beach, Efate, Vanuatu. Phillip Capper

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 located in the Bismarck islands, and within 400 years of their founding, the Lapita had spread over an area of 3,400 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 Workshop
Pottery making workshop demonstrating Lapita pottery styles as part of Heritage Month 2017 in New Caledonia. Gérard

Lapita pottery consists of mostly plain, red-slipped, coral sand-tempered wares; but a small percentage are ornately decorated, with intricate geometric designs incised or stamped onto the surface with a fine-toothed dentate stamp, perhaps made of turtle or clamshell. 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. That artifacts are not completely uniform throughout Polynesia, but rather seem to be spatially variable.

Tattooing

The practice of tattooing has been reported in ethnographic and historical records throughout the Pacific, by one of two methods: cutting and piercing. In some cases, a series of very small cuts is made to create a line, and then pigment was rubbed into the open wound. A second method involves the use of a sharp point which is dipped into the prepared pigment and then used to pierce the skin.

Evidence for tattooing in Lapita cultural sites has been identified in the form of small flake points made by alternating retouch. These tools sometimes categorized as gravers have a typically square body with a point raised well above the body. A 2018 study combining use-wear and residue analysis was conducted by Robin Torrence and colleagues on a collection of 56 such tools from seven sites. They found a considerable variation across time and space as to how the tools were used to intentionally introduce charcoal and ochre into wounds to create a permanent mark on the skin.

Origins of the Lapita

Young men in canoes in Northwest Malakula, Vanuatu.
Young men in canoes in Northwest Malakula, Vanuatu.  Russell Gray & Heidi Colleran (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History)

In 2018, a multidisciplinary study of DNA by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History reported support for ongoing multiple explorations of greater Oceania beginning about 5,500 years ago. The study led by Max Planck researcher Cosimo Posth looked at the DNA of 19 ancient individuals across Vanuatu, Tonga, French Polynesia and the Solomon islands, and 27 inhabitants of Vanuatu. Their results indicate that the earliest Austronesian expansion began 5,500 years ago, starting from modern-day Taiwan, and ultimately carrying people as far westward as far as Madagascar and eastward to Rapa Nui.

About 2,500 years ago, people from the Bismarck archipelago began arriving on Vanuatu, in multiple waves, marrying into the Austronesian families. The continual influx of people from the Bismarcks must have been fairly small, because islanders today still speak Austronesian, rather than Papuan, as would be expected, given that the initial genetic Austronesian ancestry seen in the ancient DNA has been almost completely replaced in the modern residents. 

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, Hopo, in Papua New Guinea

Sources