A Trail of Tattooed Pots
In August 1985, after a wearying journey from Seattle via Honolulu and Sydney, I stepped off a Qantas jet in Port Moresby, the dusty capital of Papua New Guinea. I was en route to Kavieng, a small town in the country's New Ireland province, several hundred miles to the north. There, I would meet up with the ship Dick Smith Explorer and members of the Lapita Homeland Project. Our goal was to find the origins of the Lapita culture, believed to be the ancestors of the Polynesians. The Dick Smith Explorer would take me to my final destination, the Mussau Islands on the outer arc of the Bismarck
Archipelago. Before continuing on my journey to Kavieng and Mussau, however, I wanted to visit Papua New Guinea's National Museum. I needed to have a firsthand look at some Lapita finds that had been recovered a decade earlier in remote Mussau.
The museum's curator, Pam Swadling, greeted me warmly and introduced me to Johnny Saulo, a staff member who came from Mussau. With Johnny, I walked through the public gallery filled with imposing Sepik River cult house carvings and crocodile-headed dugout canoes. Johnny turned a key and we ducked through a doorway leading back into the storage room where the archaeological collections are kept. Traipsing down a musty aisle illuminated by bare light bulbs, we located several wooden trays where Brian Egloff's Lapita specimens were stored. Egloff had made a brief expedition to Mussau in 1973 after local missionaries had found pottery sherds while clearing a small airstrip. He later excavated a few squares; from one of these he had obtained a radiocarbon date of about 1900 B.C. It was the oldest date known for Lapita pottery.
Johnny and I laid the trays on a workbench. In front of us were a few hundred small pottery sherds, many covered with characteristic fine-toothed stamped designs. The ancient Lapita culture had first been recognized because of these unique designs. In 1952, at a place called Lapita on the northwestern coast of New Caledonia, Professor Edward Gifford of the University of California at Berkeley had found this kind of pottery. Gifford, a senior professor in the waning days of his career, had gone to New Caledonia to seek the origins of the Polynesians. A few years earlier he had dug in Viti Levu in the Fiji archipelago, uncovering a rich succession of pottery types that pointed to a western origin for the people who had migrated into this part of the Pacific. Turning to the large island of New Caledonia-virtually unexplored up to that time by archaeologists-he hoped that he might find traces of even earlier settlements.
At Lapita, toward the end of his six-month-long expedition, Gifford hit pay dirt. In a series of trenches excavated into the sandy earth not far from the shoreline, Gifford and his student Dick Shutler found quantities of distinctively decorated pottery sherds. A comb-like tool with rows of tiny "teeth" had been impressed into the clay surface of the pots, in complex patterns. (Archaeologists call the technique dentate stamping.) Gifford had seen such sherds before, in Tonga, where in 1920 as a young fieldworker he and his colleague W.C. McKern had dug into kitchen middens. He also knew that similar pottery had been found by the Dutch archaeologist Van Stein Callenfels on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Gifford suddenly realized that he had a clue to the long-standing problem of Polynesian origins: a chain of evidence linking Southeast Asia with the Polynesian island of Tongatapu, via New Caledonia. Gifford became even more excited when, after returning to Berkeley, he received the first radiocarbon dates of charcoal he had excavated along with the potsherds. The charcoal gave an age of about 2,800 years before the present, plus or minus 350 years, making these among the oldest artifacts then known from any Pacific island. Gifford had opened up a new window onto the Polynesian past. He was on the trail of the Polynesian ancestors, including those who eventually discovered and settled Hawai'i.
After Gifford and Shutler made their remarkable discoveries on New Caledonia, other archaeologists began to pursue the Lapita trail. Jack Golson and his students from the Australian National University returned to New Caledonia to pick up where Gifford had left off. They also dug sites in Tonga, and on the island of Watom in the Bismarck Archipelago. Roger Green, with Honolulu's Bishop Museum, turned his sights in the early 1970s to Santa Cruz and the Reef Islands at the far eastern end of the Solomon archipelago. He too found rich Lapita deposits, again full of pottery with those distinctive toothed, tattoolike decorations.
By 1984 a significant body of new data was emerging about what archaeologists were now calling the Lapita cultural complex. Green argued that Lapita represented the ancestors of the oldest Polynesian cultures, found in Tonga and Samoa. In his view, Proto-Polynesian culture had evolved out of this Lapita ancestor during the first millennium B.C., in the Tongan and Samoan islands. Later, according to Green, their descendants again voyaged to the east, where they settled the islands of Tahiti, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, and ultimately Hawai'i. What especially excited the anthropologists was that Lapita spanned the boundary between Polynesia and Melanesia. It thus appeared to be the founding culture throughout the entire southwestern Pacific. Lapita was the key to the puzzle of Polynesian origins.
As Johnny and I turned over in our hands the small, dusty potsherds from Egloff's Mussau excavations in the Papua New Guinea museum's storeroom, I pondered how little was still known about the earliest phases of the Lapita culture. Some scholars even questioned whether Lapita was a part of the greater diaspora of Austronesian-speaking peoples out of Taiwan and Southeast Asia. These contrarians argued that Lapita had an independent origin in the New Guinea region. The Lapita Homeland Project, which I would soon join, was designed to resolve these questions. We needed to know more not only about the origins of Lapita, but also about the nature of this early culture. Were they, as some had suggested, "strandloopers" who subsisted merely by exploiting the bounty of the region's tropical reefs and seas, or did they possess a fully developed horticultural economy? Were they highly mobile, or did they occupy large, permanent villages? What was the nature of their social organization? Was theirs an egalitarian society or did they have some form of inherited rank and status? These and many other questions remained to be answered.
It was clear to me that the fragmentary sherds in these dusty drawers in the National Museum were not going to give me any new answers. New and carefully targeted field research was needed. A few days later, after clearing all of the government formalities in Port Moresby, I boarded my Air New Guinea plane to Kavieng, the capital of New Ireland Province. At the small Kavieng airstrip I was greeted by Jim Allen, a professor at Australia's La Trobe University and organizer of the international Lapita Homeland Project.
"The Dick Smith Explorer is a couple of days behind schedule, Pat," Jim informed me. "But this will give us time to go down to Panakiwuk, where you can have a firsthand look at our recent finds." Jim was referring to a limestone rock shelter about four hours' drive south of Kavieng, where he had been excavating with Rhys Jones and Chris Gosden of the Australian National University. Piling my gear into the Land Rover, we headed down the dirt track that serves as the principal highway on New Ireland. The next morning, Jim led me up a slippery trail into the island's central limestone spine. Panakiwuk is a smallish overhang on one face of a great sinkhole, a place where more than twenty thousand years ago people took refuge from the elements while hunting marsupials and foraging for wild tubers or fruit. Jim's excavations had opened a new window into the truly deep past of Near Oceania, showing that humans had occupied these islands thousands of years before the Austronesians arrived with their distinctive pottery. It was all exciting and fascinating, and made me more eager than ever to get up to Mussau and begin my own fieldwork.
The following day Jim drove me back up to Kavieng, where the Dick Smith Explorer had now anchored in the harbor. On the wharf I met Pru Gaffey and Sally Brockwell, two Australian archaeology students who would assist me in Mussau. We quickly rounded up additional supplies in the little Chinese trade stores in Kavieng town, loaded them in the hold of the Dick Smith Explorer, and prepared to weigh anchor.
The Lapita story is part of an even larger saga of human migration that begins on the shores of Fujian and Guangdong provinces along the South China coast, and on the nearby island of Taiwan. In this coastal region rich in resources and blessed with a subtropical climate, an early maritime culture flourished around the fourth to third millennia B.C. Recently, Chinese archaeologists have unearthed numerous traces of these people, who made distinctive earthenware pottery often decorated by cord-marking. Cord-wrapped paddles were used to beat the surface of the pottery vessels and thin them before firing. My former professor and adviser at Yale University, the famous Kwang-Chih Chang, had excavated at the site of Tap'enk'eng, not far from Taiwan's capital of Taipei. K. C., as he always referred to himself, was one of the first to recognize that these archaeological sites containing cord-marked pottery marked a major stage in the evolution of Southeast Asian cultures.
The pioneering work of K.C. and others who followed him showed that Tap'enk'eng and similar cord-marked pottery sites around Taiwan and along the coasts of south China represent the emergence of early Austronesian culture. (The Greek roots of this term translate as "southern islands.") Austronesian refers to a group of people speaking related languages who are dispersed from Madagascar off the African coast to remote Easter Island, an astounding distance of more than thirteen thousand miles. There are about twelve hundred modern Austronesian languages, all members of a single language family that gradually diversified from an original proto-language spoken in the Taiwan-South China region about six thousand years ago. Hawaiian is an Austronesian language, as are all of the other languages of Polynesia and most of those in island Melanesia and Micronesia. The indigenous languages of the Philippines, and those of Indonesia, are also Austronesian. Peoples who speak these languages all trace their roots back to the shores of Taiwan and Fujian, where their distant ancestors lived in small villages like Tap'enk'eng, making simple earthenware pottery and experimenting with a new way of life that paired horticulture with sophisticated knowledge of the sea.
These Proto-Austronesians were part of a great cultural transformation that anthropologists call the Neolithic revolution: the transition from a hunting-and-gathering mode of existence to a settled village life based on the domestication of plants and animals, and on the dependable surplus production these could provide. The early Austronesians cultivated rice along with other roots and tubers, such as taro and yams, and tree crops such as bananas. They raised pigs and chickens, and probably also dogs. Living along the subtropical shores of Taiwan and China, these people possessed an intimate knowledge of the rich resources of the region's bays, estuaries, and reefs. They knew the habits of the diverse kinds of fish and shellfish that teemed in these waters; they invented various kinds of fishhooks, spears, and nets, and used natural plant poisons to catch fish. Early Austronesian archaeological sites are full of fishbones and shellfish remains, along with fishhooks made from Trochus shell and net weights and line sinkers of stone, all testifying to the abilities of early Austronesians to capture the natural bounty of their coastal waters.
Most important, the early Austronesians invented one of the most remarkable technologies of the premodern world: the outrigger sailing canoe. Chinese archaeologists have dug up preserved parts of simple wooden canoes from swampy deposits at the site of Kuahuqiao, dated to 6000 to 5000 B.C. The existence of regular maritime traffic between Taiwan and the Chinese coast can be traced through the transport of stone adzes (an implement similar to an ax in function, but hafted so that the blade cuts in a stroke toward the user). Historical linguists, who reconstruct ancient languages based on the systematic comparison of words in the many languages descended from a common ancestral tongue, tell us that the early Austronesian vocabulary was rich in words for the outrigger canoe, or wangka as the Proto-Austronesians called it.
The ancient Austronesian wangka had a single hull, presumably hewn with the stone adzes traded across the Taiwan Straits. By adding an outrigger float to one side of the canoe, they achieved greater buoyancy and stability in open seas. The outrigger was secured to the hull with wooden thwarts. In later Austronesian designs, these supported a small platform to hold people and cargo; even a small thatched house could be lashed to the platform between the hull and outrigger. What made the wangka such a marvelous instrument of exploration and expansion was not just the outrigger but the addition of a mast and sail, harnessing wind power for propulsion. The early Austronesians made their sails from the leaves of the pandanus tree, in the same way that they wove mats. Strips of woven matting were sewn together to form sails, lashed to the mast with ropes made from the tough fiber of coconut husks. With a large steering paddle at the stern, these canoes could transport entire families and their cargo along coasts and between islands. The wangka propelled the early Austronesians out of their original homeland along the protected shores of South China and Taiwan, into the Philippines and Indonesia, and along the northern coast of New Guinea out toward the islands of the Pacific. Ultimately, these marvelous sea craft would take their descendants as far as Madagascar in the west and to Easter Island in the east.
The Austronesian expansion has been traced by archaeologists, such as Australia's Peter Bellwood, out of the South China-Taiwan homeland region southward into the islands of the Philippine archipelago, along a trail of sites containing earthenware pottery, stone adzes, and other characteristic artifacts. In the Cagayan Valley of northern Luzon, Austronesian pottery appears in sites such as Lal-lo and Magapit by about 2500 B.C. Soon after, similar sites with an Austronesian "signature" appear far to the east, in Sulawesi, Halmahera, and the small islands of the Moluccas. By about 1500 B.C., some of the Austronesians had skirted the northern shores of the large tropical island of New Guinea, arriving in the coral-rimmed islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, which includes Mussau. It was my task in 1985 to see where the Lapita finds first discovered by Egloff might fit into this emerging picture of the Austronesian diaspora.
The Mussau Islands bake under a near-equatorial sun on the northern arc of the Bismarck Archipelago. The Dick Smith Explorer's steel hull and deck were designed for Antarctic exploration rather than tropical cruising. It was unbearably hot belowdecks, so I opted to pass the night curled up on a hatch cover. We sailed through the night and made landfall the next morning. As we cruised slowly up the Malle Channel, a lookout was posted in the masthead to watch for coral heads, which abound in these poorly charted waters. Off Eloaua Island, a dugout canoe came offshore from one of the little hamlets of thatched huts. This was Johnny Saulo's home island, and he had alerted his uncle Ave Male by radio that our team would be arriving. Confirming that this was indeed Ave's village, I was relieved to find that we were expected. The ship's dinghy landed me and my two young Australian assistants along with our gear on Eloaua, one of several coral islets in the southwestern part of the Mussau group. It was here that construction of the mission airstrip had turned up Lapita pottery back in 1973. We would spend the next six weeks on Eloaua seeking to learn more about the Lapita past.
Ave greeted us warmly and made us feel at home in his tidy compound of sago-leaf-thatched houses nestled just behind the coral sand beach. Once we had unpacked our gear and gotten our bearings, our first task was to relocate Egloff's original find spot, situated in a yam garden to one side of the crushed coral runway, used periodically by the mission's light aircraft. Ave took us to the place. Opening up a new test excavation, we found more pottery sherds in a black soil overlying white coral beach sand. The sherds were disappointingly small and broken up, the result of centuries of turning the soil with digging sticks. After several days of digging, it began to look as if we might not get much further than Egloff had in answering our questions about the Lapita people who had once occupied this place.
Reconnoitering the island more extensively, I discovered that the airstrip where the pottery had first been exposed lay on a slightly elevated natural terrace a meter or two higher than the modern coastal plain. Knowing that sea level had been slightly higher about three to four thousand years ago, I reasoned that the Lapita settlements might have been positioned at the top of what was once the active beach, just as Ave's hamlet is at the top of today's. When sea level fell to its modern level, this would have left the former beach ridge slightly elevated, to be claimed later by the jungle as the shoreline advanced. To test my hypothesis, I laid out a series of test excavations extending across the old beach ridge and down onto the lower coral sand flat, at a place that Ave told me was called Talepakemalai. I expected that I would find the Lapita pottery and associated occupation debris distributed across the elevated terrace, and that these finds would cease as we crossed the slight slope that I thought marked the ancient beach line.
The first few test pits up on the terrace met my expectations. Lapita pottery, shellfish and fishbone remains, and obsidian flakes caught in our sifting screens all indicated that the Lapita peoples had lived on the higher beach ridge. Unfortunately, pit after pit showed the same shallow cultural layer, heavily disturbed by generations of gardening. Moving along our transect line, I then laid out a new excavation pit on the lower sandy flat, which I reasoned had once been the active beach. Expecting to find only a "sterile" deposit of beach sand, I was startled when Pru called out for me to come and have a look at what she was encountering at a depth of about half a meter in her test pit. Peering down into the neat meter-square pit, I watched as Pru's trowel exposed several large pieces of Lapita pottery. One sherd had a distinctive human face motif, whose almond-shaped eyes stared back at me. Unlike the pottery we had been finding up to that point, these sherds were well preserved and clearly had not been disturbed by later gardening. A smooth, shiny circular object proved to be a complete ring, exquisitely carved from the shell of a giant clam. Lapita people had used such rings as a form of shell "money" (not money, really, but valuables exchanged between social groups). Several large pieces of razor-sharp obsidian turned up next, followed by still more pottery sherds, and then an entire pig's tusk drilled for suspension, perhaps as a pendant.
The sand in the test pit had turned distinctly soggy; we were approaching the natural water table, or freshwater lens, that lies not far below the ground surface on coral islands. Yet pottery and other objects continued to appear. I took over digging from Pru and continued down even deeper, periodically bailing the water now rapidly seeping into the pit. A curious dark organic stain appeared in one corner. Mushy at first, it became firmer as I worked my trowel around the object to expose it. I soon discerned that this was a shaft of wood, extending downward into the sand, preserved all these thousands of years in the waterlogged, oxygen-deprived sediment. The shaft turned out to be the base of a post, sharpened to a point with a stone adz. I suddenly realized that a wooden structure of some kind had once stood on this spot.
Over the following weeks, we expanded our excavations out of the initial one-meter test pit, opening up a large area. This revealed not just one but numerous wooden post bases, set in two rows, or alignments, that had originally formed the sides of a stilt or pole house. This house had once stood over the shallow lagoon flat seaward of the beach ridge. Radiocarbon dating later indicated that the house had been occupied about 1300 B.C. My hypothesis about the beach ridge and location of the old shoreline had been correct. What I hadn't anticipated was finding the remains of a stilt-house village that had once extended out over the lagoon (figure 2). Not that this should have been wholly unanticipated: other Austronesian societies in island Southeast Asia, along the New Guinea coasts, and as far east as the Solomon Islands were known to have built stilt houses over coastal waters. It was just that they had never been found in a Lapita context. After six weeks of intensive digging, Pru, Sally, and I returned to Kavieng with several crates full of precious Lapita pottery and a vast quantity of other specimens and samples. These materials would allow me to reconstruct in great detail the life of this early community of Austronesian settlers. I hand-carried the most spectacular finds with me, stopping off en route to show them to former colleagues at Honolulu's Bishop Museum. They were stunned at the beauty of the pottery with its fine decorations, and by the exquisitely carved shell and bone artifacts.
In 1986, and again in 1988, I returned to Talepakemalai to excavate and recover one of the largest collections of Lapita materials to date. What we subsequently learned from our detailed studies of the pottery, obsidian, food remains, and other materials that had been discarded by the Lapita occupants of that stilt-house village greatly expanded our knowledge of this early phase of Polynesian ancestors. Other field teams of the Lapita Homeland Project, including Chris Gosden in the Aware Islands off New Britain (Gosden also found the remains of stilt houses), Matt Spriggs on Nissan Island, and Ian Lilley in the Duke of York Islands, all added to the growing body of data about Lapita. Since then other investigators have joined in the quest to understand Lapita, including Glenn Summerhayes of New Zealand, Christophe Sand in New Caledonia, and my own student Scarlett Chiu, who has helped to break the code of the Lapita pottery design system. Archaeology is a science that depends on teamwork and the accumulation of knowledge. What we now know about this earliest phase of the movement of Polynesian ancestors into the Pacific owes much to the work of these colleagues.
The Lapita Homeland Project showed that Lapita did not arise independently in the Bismarcks, as some had claimed. Instead, it was a key part of the expansion of the Austronesian peoples eastward out of the Sulawesi-Halmahera region of Southeast Asia into the Pacific proper. Plying their wangka sailing canoes through the equatorial waters north of New Guinea, perhaps in search of new trading opportunities, these Austronesian people moved into the Bismarck archipelago between 1500 and 1300 B.C. Pottery found in the earliest Lapita sites such as Talepakemalai closely resembles early Austronesian pottery in the Philippines, Sulawesi, and Halmahera.
However, the Austronesian-speaking Lapita people were not the first humans to settle this region. Evidence from limestone caves such as Panakiwuk excavated by Jim Allen on New Ireland showed that early hunting-and-gathering peoples settled the large islands of the Bismarcks as long ago as 36,000 B.C. Those early populations, doubtless small in number and probably highly mobile, subsisted from hunting marsupials, birds, and reptiles in the forest, gathering wild plant foods, and collecting shellfish and fish from the reefs and shallow lagoons. Their descendants followed this mode of existence for thousands of years, until the early Holocene. About 8,000 B.C., the indigenous occupants of the Bismarcks and New Guinea began to domesticate plants and gradually shifted to a horticultural way of life. The plants that they domesticated included tuber crops such as taro and yams, fruit crops including bananas and breadfruit, and nut-bearing trees like canarium almonds. These people spoke a diversity of mutually unintelligible languages that linguists group under the broad category of Papuan.
Between about 1500 and 1300 B.C., the Austronesians in their mat-sail-propelled wangka arrived in the waters of the Bismarck Archipelago, encountering the indigenous Papuan peoples already in residence. As nearly as can be ascertained, this contact of cultures was for the most part peaceful. Recent biological analysis of human DNA shows that these peoples exchanged marriage partners. Genetic traits that had evolved in the local Papuan populations, including a blood hemoglobin mutation that gave them resistance to the pervasive malaria of the Bismarcks, were taken up into the Austronesian gene pool. More than that, the distinctive Lapita culture was a kind of synthesis of the indigenous Papuan and the migrant Austronesian. From the former, the Lapita culture gained local knowledge of domesticated root, tuber, and tree crops, abandoning the older Austronesian reliance on rice. For their part, the Austronesians introduced the outrigger sailing canoe, and new fishing techniques such as trolling for pelagic fish, including bonito. They also brought to the Bismarcks the art of manufacturing pottery. Roger Green summed up the cultural synthesis that took place around the islands of the Bismarcks Sea in the mid second millennium B.C. with three words: intrusion (the arrival of the Austronesian people), innovation (the adoption of new technologies), and integration (the bringing together of indigenous Papuan and newcomer Austronesian cultural traits). We call this the Triple-I model of Lapita origins.
One of the most fascinating Lapita innovations involved the pottery vessels. Earlier Austronesian pottery in the Philippines or Sulawesi shows simple stamped or incised decoration. But Lapita pottery is unique in that many, if indeed not nearly all, of the designs represent human faces. Many of the beautifully decorated jars and bowls that we lifted from the waterlogged sands of Talepakemalai are covered in intricate, dentate-stamped motifs (figure 3). They portray faces with an elongated nose set between almond-shaped eyes, topped with a "flame" headdress. Sometimes there are upraised arms and fingers depicted to the sides of the face; other times there are geometric motifs that Matt Spriggs has likened to ear ornaments. We have yet to decipher this Lapita artistic code in full, but these were not mere utilitarian objects-they were valuable creations imbued with rich symbolic meaning. Indeed, the faces may have represented ancestors; the pottery (at least the decorated vessels) seems to have been used primarily in ceremonial contexts. In some Lapita sites such as Teouma in Vanuatu, people were buried in pots, or the pots themselves were buried after the end of a ceremony.
Tattooing is widely practiced among Austronesian peoples. The art was an early invention among the Proto-Austronesians in their South China-Taiwan world. Polynesians, like other Austronesians, tattooed profusely. In fact, our English word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word for this practice, tatau. (Sailors on Captain Cook's ships were among the first Europeans to be tattooed, and brought the word with them back to England, to be followed by generations of other seamen.) The intricate fine-toothed decoration that graces Lapita pottery mimics very closely the Austronesian method of tattooing. Both use a multitoothed comb-like "needle," whether to insert the dye under the skin or to make the elaborate designs in the clay surface of the pots. In decorating their clay pots with the faces of deceased ancestors, the Lapita people were in essence tattooing the pots. The act of tattooing a human body was considered to be an important rite of passage, associated with coming of age or with assuming an important title or social role. In the same way, the act of tattooing a pot was likely to have been fraught with meaning. Scarlett Chiu has shown that some of the complex designs involving human faces combine two motifs found individually on other pots. She suggests that these new motifs represent the uniting of two lineages or family groups by marriage. There is much still to learn about the role that pottery played in the lives of the Lapita people, and much that we will never know. But the tattooed pots that emerged as a result of the Lapita cultural synthesis in the Bismarck archipelago in the mid second millennium B.C. are a key milestone on the long trail leading from the coasts of Asia to the shores of Hawai'i.
About 1200 B.C., Lapita people from the Bismarcks began to expand eastward, as their ancestors had done, first through the main arc of the Solomon Islands, and then out past San Cristobal Island across more than 280 miles of open ocean to the Santa Cruz and Reef islands. This seemingly simple act, of exploring the open ocean eastward past the end of the main Solomons group to discover Nendö and the Reef Islands, marks a watershed in the history of human exploration. Up to this time, no human beings had gone farther east into the Pacific. Early hunting-and-gathering peoples had managed to cross narrow ocean channels separating New Britain and New Ireland from the large island of New Guinea as long ago as 36,000 B.C. They got to Bougainville in the Solomons by at least 26,000 B.C., and probably moved down into the other islands of the Solomons chain by the end of the Pleistocene (ca. 8000 B.C.). But at San Cristobal that slow, creeping expansion of the hunters-and-gatherers had come to an end. A vast ocean expanse lay before them, too formidable to cross and explore with simple bamboo rafts or dugout canoes. Whether some tried and failed we shall never know. But it is certain that until the arrival of the Lapita voyagers, the world beyond the end of the Solomons was an island universe known only to the birds, insects, tiny snails, and other creatures able to disperse by one means or another out into a profoundly oceanic world.
The Austronesian wangka was the first watercraft capable of exploring this formidable ocean, of carrying family groups and their precious cargo of seedling crops, domesticated pigs, dogs, and chickens, as well as other necessities for founding a new colony. The Lapita people had perfected the wangka since its initial invention in the calm waters of the South China Sea. For three centuries, Lapita canoes had been sailing among the islands of the Bismarcks and down into the Solomons chain, what my colleague Geoff Irwin calls a great "voyaging nursery."
About 1200 B.C., a Lapita wangka made that first crossing beyond San Cristobal Island, to discover Nendö and the adjacent Reef Islands. Its crew stepped ashore on beaches that only sea turtles had previously marked with their flippered crawl. Some stayed to plant their taros and yams in the fertile earth, and to live off the rich resources of nesting seabirds, shellfish, and teeming fish in the lagoons. Others refitted their trusted outrigger canoes and returned with the news of their discovery: there were indeed more islands to the east. More canoes set out from the Lapita homeland to head eastward, bringing with them a precious cargo of sharp obsidian rock from the quarries at Talasea in New Britain. Flakes of this precious rock were excavated and identified by Roger Green in the sands of Nenumbo and other village sites of the Reef Islands thousands of years later, enabling science to trace this migration.
The Lapita dispersal picked up steam, possibly fueled by rapid population growth in islands that were free of malaria and other old-world diseases, and rich in resources. They may have been driven as well by the incentive to discover new islands in which one could be the unquestioned master (not having to dispute your claim with a prior indigenous population). Austronesian societies are characterized by what anthropologists call ranking, in which birth order determines the inheritance of land, houses, material property, titles, and even access to ritual or esoteric knowledge. Once the Lapita people discovered that new islands awaited them to the east, the incentive for a junior sibling to mount his own voyage of discovery-in which the chances of his being able to discover and claim a new island as exclusively his and for his own heirs seemed reasonably high-was compelling.
Within no more than two to three hundred years, or about eight to twelve human generations, Lapita people had used their wangka canoes to explore and colonize the previously uninhabited islands extending from the end of the Solomons down through the vast Vanuatu archipelago all the way to the Loyalty Islands and New Caledonia. Others moved directly eastward from the Reefs-Santa Cruz islands to cross a daunting five hundred miles of open sea and arrive in the vast Fiji archipelago. By 950 B.C. the most intrepid of them all had gone beyond Fiji-to Tonga, up through the Ha'apai Islands, and on to Samoa. In a mere 250 years, the Lapita people had expanded across roughly one-third of the Pacific Ocean!
In 1976, I led a Bishop Museum expedition to Niuatoputapu Island, at the northern end of the kingdom of Tonga, approximately halfway between Tongatapu and Samoa. Over the course of seven months, our team discovered and investigated dozens of sites, tracing the island's history from initial settlement by a small group of Lapita voyagers until the period of contact with Europeans. The founding settlement, which we radiocarbon-dated to about 900 B.C., consisted of a small village or hamlet at the place called Lolokoka on the island's sheltered lagoon shore. Excavating at Lolokoka, we recovered pottery decorated in the classic dentate-stamped Lapita style, along with shell fishhooks, beads, rings, and other ornaments of shell, adzes of giant clam shell, and sharp flake tools of chert and volcanic glass.
Recently, Dave Burley of Simon Fraser University in Canada has conducted archaeological surveys throughout the Tongan archipelago, from Tongatapu in the south up through the Ha'apai Islands as far north as Vava'u. Dave has shown that small Lapita hamlets are scattered throughout these islands, all dated to about 950 to 900 B.C. Thus, once they discovered the Tongan Islands, the Lapita settlers quickly moved from island to island, establishing footholds on each one. The sites are small, of a size that might be expected from single households or extended families.
In the large and fertile Samoan archipelago, only a single Lapita site has yet been found, in a unique environmental setting. There, Lapita pottery was discovered beneath a reef flat in the course of dredging to make a small boat harbor. The Samoan Islands are rapidly subsiding because of their proximity to the edge of the Pacific tectonic plate. Thus, a Lapita village that was originally on the shoreline of 'Upolu Island (near Mulifanua) had, over the course of three thousand years, sunk beneath sea level and been covered over by a growing coral reef.
The people whom anthropologists call Polynesians all speak closely related languages and share many aspects of culture. They occupy islands and archipelagoes within a great triangle defined by New Zealand in the southwest, Easter Island in the southeast, and Hawai'i at the northern apex. This much has been known since Captain Cook first recognized the Polynesians as a "Nation." Thanks to the evidence from archaeological excavations in more than one hundred sites along the Lapita "trail of tattooed pots," we now know that the first people to enter the Polynesian Triangle were the wangka-sailing pottery makers who arrived on the islands of Tonga and Samoa about 950 B.C. They were the farthest-flung branch of the Austronesian diaspora that had started in Taiwan and Fujian some two thousand years earlier, the descendants of generations of voyager-colonists who had expanded out of the sheltered waters of Near Oceania to brave the open seas of the central Pacific.
Archaeological traces of Lapita have been found only at the western margins of the Polynesian Triangle, in the Tongan and Samoan archipelagoes and on the smaller western islands of Futuna and 'Uvea. Island groups farther east, south, and north were not settled until more than a thousand years later. By then, the Lapita voyagers had settled in to the Tonga-Samoa region, and their descendants had evolved a distinctive new Polynesian culture and language. This is a topic I will take up in the next chapter. The central point is that archaeology has now shown that the "gateway" to the Polynesian Triangle was the Tonga-Samoa region. It was here that people first arrived and here that they developed the traits we have come to recognize as distinctly Polynesian. The discovery of the Lapita "trail of tattooed pots," from the Bismarcks to Tonga and Samoa, is one of the great achievements of archaeology in the later half of the twentieth century.
On a sunny August afternoon in 2002, representatives of the island nations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa gathered on the grassy plain of Lapita, at Foué on New Caledonia. With the lagoon at our backs, gentle waves lapped at the beach of Lapita. The purple-gray nickel-rich mountains of La Grande Terre loomed ominously in the distance. A hundred or so of us-diplomats, archaeologists, and local Kanak inhabitants-gathered in a rough semicircle on the low grass to witness a unique ceremony. Fifty years earlier, Professor Edward Gifford of Berkeley had dug into the windswept plain where we now stood. We had come to remember and honor the event that had revolutionized our understanding of Pacific prehistory. Gifford had died in 1956, not long after making his discoveries. But standing there among us fifty years later was his former student Dick Shutler, now a distinguished emeritus professor of archaeology in Canada. The ground we were gathered on was where Shutler and Gifford had unearthed a key to the unwritten history of the Pacific Islands, including Hawai'i. Since their discoveries, the name Lapita has come to take on an almost reverent quality among Pacific scholars.
As the simple yet moving ceremony unfolded, I glanced over at Shutler, who could have little imagined fifty years earlier that the earthenware pottery sherds he was collecting from the sifting screen under the watchful eye of the balding and half-deaf Professor Gifford would have had such a lasting influence on Pacific affairs. Yet here the representatives of several island nations of the southwestern Pacific had come to acknowledge and bear witness to the common ancestry shared by their varied cultures. Dick's eyes were unmistakably tearing up.
The distant mountains framed the Kanak chiefs as they received their visitors. Tongan noble Tu'ivanuavou Vaea and his adjutant, Vili Vete, their hips girded with finely woven mats to mark the ceremonial occasion, strode forward. Between them they unfurled a magnificent tapa cloth with striking dark brown geometric patterns painted in koka bark pigment. The same designs had once graced the curved surfaces of Lapita pots, and the signaled an unbroken artistic legacy spanning three thousand years. Vaea and Vete laid their gift at the feet of the Kanak chiefs and then stepped back into the crowd. Chief Joseph Vita of Vanuatu presented shell necklaces, another link to Lapita times. Sepeti Matararaba of Fiji held a bundle of dried yagona (kava) root as he addressed the local chiefs. Kava was first domesticated by the Lapita people, later to become the sacred drink of many Pacific island cultures. Captain Cook had been offered 'awa, as the Hawaiians called it, during his second voyage to the islands.
Finally, Taliaoa Pita Ulia from Samoa, the last representative to come forward, stripped off the Western dark suit coat and white shirt he was wearing. Baring his upper body, Ulia exposed an intricate set of dark blue tattoos, extending up from his buttocks over his waist and lower back. To our eyes he revealed a striking connection to the deep Oceanic past. The Lapita people had not only tattooed their bodies, but had "tattooed" their ceremonial vessels, in likenesses of their ancestors. The fine dentate-stamped decorations on the Lapita pots closely mimicked the tattooing of human bodies with similarly fine-toothed tattoo needles.
The trail of "tattooed pots" has given archaeologists clues to trace the origins of the Hawaiians and other Polynesians back more than four thousand years. The puzzle that Captain James Cook pondered in the great cabin of the Resolution, as she slipped away from Kaua'i-"How shall we account for this Nation spreading it self so far over this Vast ocean?"-is finally being answered.
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