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The Lapita culture or tradition was a prehistoric Pacific Ocean people from c. 1600 BCE to c. 500 BCE. Archaeologists believe that the Lapita is the ancestor of historic cultures in Polynesia, Micronesia, and some coastal areas of Melanesia. The characteristics of the Lapita culture are the extension of human settlement to previously uninhabited Pacific Islands scattered over a large area, distinctive geometric dentate-stamped pottery, the use and widespread distribution of obsidian, and the spread of Oceanic languages.
The Lapita were expert in seamanship and navigation, reaching out and finding islands separated from each other by hundreds of miles of empty ocean. Their descendants, the Polynesians, would populate islands from Hawaii to Easter Island, possibly even reaching the South American continent.
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 the 1952 excavation in New Caledonia. The Lapita archaeological culture is named after the type site where it was first uncovered in the Foué peninsula on Grande Terre, the main island of New Caledonia. The excavation was carried out in 1952 by American archaeologists Edward W. Gifford and Richard Shulter Jr at 'Site 13'. The settlement and pottery sherds were later dated to 800 BCE and proved significant in research on the early peopling of the Pacific Islands. More than two hundred 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.
'Classic' Lapita pottery was produced between 1350 and 750 BCE in the Bismarck Archipelago. A late variety might have been produced there up to 250 BCE. Local styles of Lapita pottery are found in Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Pottery persisted in Fiji, whereas it disappeared completely in other areas of Melanesia and in Siassi.
In Western Polynesia, Lapita pottery is found from 800 BCE onwards in the Fiji-Samoa-Tonga area. From Tonga and Samoa, Polynesian culture spread to Eastern Polynesia areas including the Marquesas and the Society Islands, and then later to Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. However, pottery-making did not persist in most of Polynesia, mainly due to the lack of suitable clay on small islands.
The low-fired earthenware pottery, often tempered with shell or sand, is typically decorated with a dentate (toothed) stamp. It has been theorized that these decorations may have been transferred to or from less hardy mediums such as tapa (bark cloth), mats or tattoos. Undecorated "plain-ware" pottery is an important part of the Lapita cultural complex, which also includes ground-stone adzes and shell artefacts, and flaked-stone tools of obsidian, chert and other available rock.
Domesticates consisted of pigs, dogs and chickens. Horticulture was based on root crops and tree crops, most importantly taro and yam, coconuts, bananas and varieties of breadfruit. This was supplemented by fishing and mollusc gathering. Long-distance trade of obsidian, adzes and favourable adze source rock and shells was practiced.
Excavation of a large cemetery at Teouma on Efate Island in Vanuatu, discovered in 2003, found 36 bodies in 25 graves, as well as burial jars. All skeletons were headless with the skulls removed after original burial and replaced with rings made from cone shell. The heads were reburied. One burial of an elderly man had three skulls lined up on his chest. One burial jar featured four birds looking into the jar. Carbon dating of the shells placed this cemetery at about 1000 BC.
In the west, villages were located on small offshore islands or the beaches of larger islands. This may have been to avoid areas already settled in coastal New Guinea, or malaria-carrying mosquitoes for which Lapita people had no immune defence. Some houses were built on stilts over larger lagoons. In New Britain, settlements are found inland as well, near the obsidian sources. In the eastern archipelago, all settlements are located on land, sometimes some distance inland.
Lapita pottery is known from the Bismarck archipelago to Samoa and Tonga. Currently, the most eastern Lapita site is Mulifanua in Samoa where 4,288 pottery sherds and two Lapita type adzes have been recovered. The site has a true age of c. 3,000 BP based on 14C dating on a shell. The domesticates spread into farther Oceania as well. Humans, their domesticates, and species that were introduced involuntarily (perhaps as the Polynesian Rat was) led to extinctions of endemic species on many islands, especially of flightless birds.
Researchers suppose that the "Lapita people" spoke proto-Oceanic, a precursor of the Oceanic branch of Austronesian. However, given the difficulty of linking non-literate material culture to languages, this attribution cannot be verified by independent sources.
An ultimate Southeast Asian origin of the Lapita complex is assumed by most scholars, perhaps originating from the Austronesians in Taiwan or southern China some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. This Neolithic dispersal was driven by a rapid population growth in east and southeast Asia (Formosa), and has often been called 'the express-train to Polynesia'. Burial pottery similar to "red slip" pottery of Taiwan, as well as detailed linguistic evidence, seem to lend support to this theory.
The orthodox view argued for by people like Roger Green and Peter Bellwood argues for a Triple-I model where Lapita arose from this Austronesian expansion through a process of intrusion into new territories, innovation of new technologies (such as the outrigger canoe), and integration with the existing populations.
Direct links between Lapita and mainland Southeast Asia are still missing, due to a lack of data in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Other scholars like J. Allen located the origin of the Lapita complex in the Bismarck Archipelago that was first colonised 30,000 to 35,000 BCE. Others see obsidian trade as the motor of the spread of Lapita-elements in the western distribution area.
Lapita in Polynesia
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Many scientists believe Lapita pottery in Melanesia to be proof that Polynesian ancestors passed through this area on their way into the central Pacific. The earliest archaeological site in Polynesia is in Tonga, dates to 900 BCE and contains the typical pottery and other archaeological "kit" of Lapita sites in Fiji and eastern Melanesia of about that time and immediately before.
Anita Smith compares the Polynesian Lapita period with the later Polynesian Plainware ceramic period in Polynesia:
“There do not appear to be new or different kinds of evidence associated with plain-ware ceramics (& lapita), only the disappearance of a minor component of material culture and faunal assemblages is apparent. There is continuity in most aspects of the archaeological record that appears to mimic post Lapita sequences of Fiji and island Melanesia (Mangaasi and Naviti pottery).”
Plain-ware pottery is found on many Western Polynesian islands and marks a transitional period between when there was only Lapita pottery and a latter period before the settlement of Eastern Polynesia when the Western Polynesians of the time had given up pottery production altogether. Archaeological evidence indicates that plain-ware pottery ceases abruptly in Samoa around BCE 0.
According to Smith:
“Ceramics were not manufactured by Polynesian societies at any time in East Polynesian prehistory.”
Matthew Spriggs stated: "The possibility of cultural continuity between Lapita Potters and Melanesians has not been given the consideration it deserves. In most sites there was an overlap of styles with no stratigraphic separation discernible. Continuity is found in pottery temper, importation of obsidian and in non-ceramic artefacts".
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- 'Heads found in pots in Vanuatu dig', ANU media release, 14 July 2005, on discovery of Lapita skulls following 2004 find of headless Lapita skeletons
- Over 1000 Lapita photographs from the University of Auckland Anthropology Photographic Archive database. Search for "lapita"