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 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 , 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, Hopo, in Papua New Guinea


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