Lapita culture

The Lapita culture is the name given to a prehistoric Pacific Ocean people who left evidence of their livelihood in the Pacific Islands, by way of ceramic constructs that range in date from about 1600 BCE to about 500 BCE. Some archaeologists believe that the Lapita are the ancestors of historic cultures in Polynesia, Micronesia, and some coastal areas of Melanesia. Others believe that these are two distinct cultures that evolved separately within shared areas. The historically recognized characteristic of the Lapita culture is the distinctive geometric dentate-stamped pottery.

Region where Lapita pottery has been found
Reconstruction of the face of a Lapita woman. National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka


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.[1][2] 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'.[1] 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 200 Lapita sites have since been uncovered,[3] 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 the Solomon Islands,[4] 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.

Material cultureEdit

Lapita pottery from Vanuatu, Museum in Port Vila.
Prehistoric pottery vessels, including some with Lapita designs, from the island of Taumako

These pots were usually created by any materials that were accessible, as well as the techniques used to make such detailed designs.[5] The low-fired earthenware pottery, often tempered with shell or sand, is typically decorated with a dentate (toothed) stamp. It has been theorized[6] that these decorations may have been transferred to or from less hardy media 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 artifacts, and flaked-stone tools of obsidian, chert, and other available rock, as well as the remainders of beakers, cooking pots, and bowls.[7][citation needed]


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[8], adzes, and favourable adze source rock and shells was practiced.[citation needed]

Burial customsEdit

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.[9]


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.


Jack Golson excavation site in Vailele with a visit from a Samoan family, 1957

Lapita pottery is known from the Bismarck archipelago to Samoa and Tonga[10]. 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 circa 3,000 BP based on 14C dating on a shell.[11] 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.[citation needed] However, given the difficulty of linking nonliterate material culture to languages, this attribution cannot be verified by independent sources.[citation needed]


Chronological dispersal of Austronesian peoples across the Indo-Pacific[12]

The Lapita complex is part of the eastern migration branch of the Austronesian expansion, ultimately from Taiwan some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago and reaching Melanesia via the Marianas Islands or the Philippines or both.[13] The Austronesian origin is supported most strongly by linguistic evidence that shows very considerable lexical continuity between Proto-Malayo-Polynesian (presumably spoken in the Philippines) and Proto-Oceanic (presumably spoken by the Lapita people) corresponding to material culture.[9][14]

Archaeological evidence also broadly supports the Austronesian origin. The Lapita complex appears suddenly as a fully-developed archaeological horizon with associated highly-developed technological assemblages in the Bismarck Archipelago around 3,500 years ago. It has no preceding developmental stages which indicates that it comes from a migrating population and did not evolve locally, unlike earlier proposals in the 1980s and 1990s by scholars like Jim Allen and J. Peter White. Although there have been recovered artifacts and evidence of continuous human occupation of western Melanesia by indigenous Papuans dating back to 30,000 - 40,000 years ago, these were far less diverse than after the Lapita horizon. They only contributed a minority of elements to the later Lapita material culture, comprising only of a few crops and tools.[14][15]

The vast majority of the Lapita material culture are clearly Southeast Asian in origin. These include elements like pottery, crops and 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.[14][15][16] Lapita pottery in particular offers the strongest evidence of an Austronesian origin. Lapita pottery has very distinctive elements like the use of the red slips, tiny punch marks, dentate stamps, circle stamps, and the cross-in-circle motif. Similar pottery has been found in Taiwan, the Batanes and Luzon islands of the Philippines, and Marianas.[17]

The orthodox view, argued for by people such as Roger Green and Peter Bellwood, and accepted by most specialists today is the "Triple-I model" (standing for "Intrusion, Innovation, and Integration"). This posits that the Early Lapita culture arose through a process of Intrusion of the Austronesian peoples and their language, materials, and ideas from Island Southeast Asia into Near Oceania; Innovation of new technologies by the Lapita people themselves within Melanesia; and Integration with the pre-existing (non-Austronesian) populations.[18][17]

In 2016, DNA analysis of four Lapita skeletons from old cemeteries on Vanuatu and Tonga showed that the Lapita people descended from peoples of East Asia and came to the islands through Taiwan and Philippines.[19]

In 2011, Bellwood proposed that the initial movement of Malayo-Polynesian speakers into Oceania went from the northern Philippines eastwards to the Mariana Islands, then from there southwards into the Bismarcks. This is in place of, or in addition to, the older model of Lapita migration which proposed that Lapita settlers first arrived to Melanesia via eastern Indonesia.[16] Bellwoods proposal is supported by the pottery evidence. Lapita pottery bears the strongest resemblance to pottery recovered from Nagsabaran Site in Luzon, which may be the ultimate homeland of the stamped pottery tradition.[17]

Lapita in PolynesiaEdit

As the archaeological record improved in the 1980s and 1990s, the Lapita people were found to be the original settlers in Melanesia and western Polynesia.[20] 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 Mulifanua and Sasoa'a, Falefa in Samoa, with carbon dating of both sites placing the date of settlement to between 2900–3500 years ago.[21]

Other early Lapita discovery sites dating back to 900 BCE are also found in Tonga and contains the typical pottery and other archaeological "kit" of Lapita sites in Fiji and eastern Melanesia of about that time and immediately before.[22][23]

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).”[23]

Plainware pottery is found on many Western Polynesian islands and marks a transitional period between when only Lapita pottery was found and a later period before the settlement of Eastern Polynesia when the Western Polynesians of the time had given up pottery production altogether. Archaeological evidence indicates that plainware pottery ceases abruptly in Samoa around 0.

According to Smith:

“Ceramics were not manufactured by Polynesian societies at any time in East Polynesian prehistory.”[23]

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".[24]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b West, Barbara A. (2008). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania, Volume 1. Infobase Publishing. p. 460. ISBN 9780816071098. Retrieved 29 December 2010.
  2. ^ Mortaigne, Véronique (28 December 2010). "Lapita: Oceanic Ancestors – review". Guardian UK. Originally appeared in Le Monde. Retrieved 29 December 2010.
  3. ^ Sand, Christophe; Sean P. Connaughton (2007). Oceanic explorations: Lapita and western Pacific settlement. Australia: ANU E Press. pp. 3–29. ISBN 9780975122907.
  4. ^ Reading Lapita in near Oceania : intertidal and shallow-water pottery scatters, Roviana Lagoon, New Georgia, Solomon Islands (Thesis). ResearchSpace@Auckland. 2003. hdl:2292/997.
  5. ^ Chiu, Scarlett (2003). The Socio -Economic Functions of Lapita Ceramic Production and Exchange: A Case Study from Site WKO013A, Koné, New Caledonia (Thesis). ProQuest 305336522.
  6. ^ Kirch, Patrick Vinton (2012). A Shark Going Inland is my Chief. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. pp. 21–37. ISBN 978-0-520-27330-6.
  7. ^ "Lapita Culture." Encyclopædia Britannica School and Library Subscribers, best modified 26 February 2016. accessed 1 November 2016.
  8. ^ Specht, Jim (2018). "Research issues in the circum-New Guinea islands". In Cochrane, Ethan E.; Hunt, Terry L. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Oceania. Oxford University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-19-992507-0.
  9. ^ a b Graves of the Pacific's First Seafarers Revealed, Richard Stone, Science Magazine, 21 April 2006: Vol. 312. no. 5772, p. 360 [1]
  10. ^ Spriggs, Matthew (2006), Bellwood, Peter; Fox, James J.; Tryon, Darrell (eds.), "The Lapita Culture and Austronesian Prehistory in Oceania", The Austronesians, Historical and Comparative Perspectives, ANU Press, pp. 119–142, ISBN 978-0-7315-2132-6, JSTOR j.ctt2jbjx1.9
  11. ^ [2] New Information for the Ferry Berth Site, Mulifanua, Western Samoa by Roger C. Green and Helen M. Leach, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 98, 1989, No. 3. Retrieved 1 November 2009
  12. ^ Chambers, Geoff (2013). "Genetics and the Origins of the Polynesians". eLS. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. doi:10.1002/9780470015902.a0020808.pub2. ISBN 978-0470016176.
  13. ^ Blust, R. (1999). "Subgrouping, circularity and extinction: some issues in Austronesian comparative linguistics". In E. Zeitoun and P. J.-K. Li. (ed.). Selected Papers from the Eighth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics. Taipei: Symposium Series of the Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica..
  14. ^ a b c Pawley, Andrew (2007). "The origins of Early Lapita culture: the testimony of historical linguistics". Oceanic Explorations: Lapita and Western Pacific Settlement (PDF). Terra Australis. ANU E Press. pp. 17–49.
  15. ^ a b Kirch, Patrick V. (1996). "Lapita and Its Aftermath: The Austronesian Settlement of Oceania". Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. 86 (5): 557–70. doi:10.2307/1006621. JSTOR 1006621.
  16. ^ a b Bellwood, Peter (2011). "The Checkered Prehistory of Rice Movement Southwards as a Domesticated Cereal—from the Yangzi to the Equator". Rice. 4 (3): 93–103. doi:10.1007/s12284-011-9068-9.
  17. ^ a b c Carson, Mike T.; Hung, Hsiao-chun; Summerhayes, Glenn; Bellwood, Peter (January 2013). "The Pottery Trail From Southeast Asia to Remote Oceania". The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology. 8 (1): 17–36. doi:10.1080/15564894.2012.726941. S2CID 128641903.
  18. ^ Greenhill, S. J. & Gray, R.D. (2005).Testing Population Dispersal Hypotheses: Pacific Settlement, Phylogenetic Trees, and Austronesian Languages. In: The Evolution of Cultural Diversity: Phylogenetic Approaches. Editors: R. Mace, C. Holden, & S. Shennan. Publisher: UCL Press.[3] Archived 28 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ "Origins of Vanuatu and Tonga's first people revealed". 4 October 2016. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  20. ^ Andrew Pawley. "The Origins of Early Lapita Culture: The Testimony of Historical Linguistics," in Terra Australis, volume 26 edited by Stuart Bedford, Christophe Sand, and Sean P. Connaughton, 19. 26th ed. (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2007), 1-15.
  21. ^ Dickinson, William R.; Green, Roger C. (February 1998). "Geoarchaeological context of Holocene subsidence at the Ferry Berth Lapita site, Mulifanua, Upolu, Samoa". Geoarchaeology. 13 (3): 239–263. doi:10.1002/(sici)1520-6548(199802)13:3<239::aid-gea1>;2-5. ISSN 0883-6353.
  22. ^ Burley, David V.; Barton, Andrew; Dickinson, William R.; Connaughton, Sean P.; Taché, Karine (2010). "Nukuleka as a Founder Colony for West Polynesian Settlement: New Insights from Recent Excavations". Journal of Pacific Archaeology. 1 (2): 128–144.
  23. ^ a b c Anita Smith, An Archaeology of West Polynesian Prehistory, 2002.
  24. ^ Matthew Spriggs, The Lapita Cultural Complex, 1985.


External linksEdit