Around 3,500 years ago the earliest ancestors of many Pacific people and Māori – the people provisionally named Lapita – appeared in Oceania. Records of the Lapita people and the way in which they lived – their culture – have been recorded across 200 sites.
The Lapita people are of interest to those looking at human migration and dispersal across the globe and down into Oceania and the Pacific. The remnants of their culture is referred to as the Lapita cultural complex. The Lapita name comes from one of the first places in which a distinctive pottery related to the culture was discovered.
What evidence do we have?
The earliest appearance of the Lapita is dated to between 1500 and 1300 BC. The earliest sites with records of the Lapita are found around the Bismarck Archipelago on the northwestern edge of the Oceania region. Later dates show a spread of the Lapita from this area out to what is now Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and then down to New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
How do we know that the Lapita appeared around 1300 BC and that later related Polynesian people arrived in Hawai’i, Tahiti and Aotearoa (among other places) between 1190 and 1290 AD? Predominantly, the evidence comes from ancient archaeological sites with artefacts.
The Lapita sites excavated to date have revealed artefacts including pottery, stone tools, human burial sites and middens. Scientists, archaeologists and historical linguists (experts who study the development of languages) among others are helping anthropologists to reveal the story of the Lapita.
Bone, charcoal and other remains such as shells in middens and decorative items or tools like fish hooks made from bone are able to be radiocarbon dated. Amongst archaeologists, there is debate about the timing of settlement for different islands, and some issues arise from the complexities of radiocarbon dating artefacts.
Sherds of Lapita pottery have a distinct style of decoration that was eventually replaced by plain, less-decorative pottery.
Pottery – low fired earthenware – is one of the oldest human technologies.
Lapita pottery, also referred to as lapitaware, has unique patterns and designs imprinted on the surface by ‘dentate stamping’. Dentate stamping is where a pattern is applied by a tool, for example, a shell with small grooves cut in it. Some archaeologists have theorised that the patterns may also have been pressed into the clay by tapa cloth or woven materials.
Design elements evolved but retained commonalities and are able to be traced from the earliest Lapita settlements through to later settlements in Vanuatu, Fiji and Samoa.
The Lapita also produced plain pottery that was used for cooking and food. Some of the decorated pottery has been found containing human remains, leading archaeologists to infer that decorative pots may have been used in rituals around burials and other practices. It is not known if the decorative pieces were used for food storage or cooking.
Lapita pottery production appears to have stopped in Samoa by about 2,800 years ago and in Tonga by about 2,000 years ago. Lapitaware is followed by the Polynesian plainware period. This period is considered to mark the onset of ancestral Polynesian society, including forebears to tangata whenua in Aotearoa today.
How did the Lapita live?
Lapita burial sites have been unearthed – these sites offer up answers as to how the Lapita people lived and died.
Chemical analysis of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotope ratios from the bone collagen of Lapita people revealed they ate reef fish, marine turtles, fruit bats, pigs and chickens. Analysis of the teeth and material found in the tartar show a diet that included seeds and bananas. Bananas, taro, yam, breadfruit and coconut were likely transported across the region by people.
Artefacts support these findings – these include implements and tools for fishing and cooking such as fish hooks made from shell, nets, spears and different types of stone adzes.
The analysis also shows that males had greater access than women to protein from tortoises, pigs and chicken. It is difficult to infer what this means – it could suggest men had higher status in Lapita society, but it may alternatively mean that men were the main hunters with more ready access to protein.
The burial sites also offer tantalising glimpses into Lapita culture. For example, how they laid out their dead, the use of decorative pots to hold certain remains and the way bones were later reinterred suggests a culture with distinct rituals and beliefs around death.
Lapita and migration
The migration of peoples across Oceania is not linear. Genetic science hints at different waves of travel at different times and the admixture – interbreeding of two or more previously isolated populations – at different times.
Ancient DNA analysis – palaeogenomics – involves the sequencing of ancient DNA and comparison with the genomes of modern people. Usually, bones found in tropical and wet climates are too degraded to sample DNA from. Fortunately, in the fast moving field of palaeogenomics, a scientist identified the inner ear bones – the petrous – as a good source due to the density of the bones. With permission from the local people, DNA was sampled and analysed from skulls and teeth from some of the remains. Analysis shows a relationship with early people from the modern day Taiwan and northern Philippines area, indicating the first wave of the Lapita came from Southeast Asia.
Genetic evidence shows a mix of Lapita and other peoples across Oceania at later dates. In turn, these people can be traced spreading down into Hawai’i, the Cook Islands and Aotearoa.
Many questions remain as to when different populations interbred and journeyed out to new locations, and debate among experts is robust. Some experts argue that the lack of ancient DNA samples in Oceania means that we have to be careful not to read too much from what presently exists. Current ideas are based on analysis of DNA from burials in Vanuatu and Tonga.
What experts do agree on is that Aotearoa was one of the last areas to be settled in the region.
Meet the Director of the Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory, Associate Professor Fiona Petchey. Fiona has played a significant role in the radiocarbon dating of many early sites across the Pacific and New Zealand, including a number of Lapita sites.
Work to refine calibration curves in the South Pacific has led to more precise dates for the settlement of the North and South Islands in Aotearoa New Zealand. Read more in Ancestral Māori adapted quickly in the face of rapid climate change.
Understand how technological and scientific developments have advanced the understanding of human evolution and migration in Evolutionary research – advancing our understanding of us and Palaeogenomics and human evolution.
The activity Exploring Lapita pottery through observation and art is a cross-curricular activity that uses Lapita pottery as the context for enhancing scientific observation by recreating designs on paper or in clay.
The Connected journal article The long pause explores Pacific migration and offers scientific and technological explanations for a thousand year gap between settlements in West Polynesia and East Polynesia. Puzzling out Pacific migrations has a worksheet with a variety of activities related to this article.