This website is a free e-resource, from the book entitled 'Music, Lapita, and the Problem of Polynesian Origins' by Mervyn McLean. The complete text may be read either online or in paginated form as a downloadable pdf here.


Chapter 4

Archaeology and the Lapita culture complex


In these days of radio, television, and urban archaeology, which has recently come to the fore, most people's image of archaeologists is probably of dedicated professionals patiently working their way layer by layer at marked-off sites known as "digs", labouring for hour upon hour with trowels and little brushes, and making meticulous records of everything they find, with little expectation, if the site is pre-European, of discovering anything much more than fish bones, pottery shards, and postholes. In earlier decades, the image might have been of expeditions to discover the contents of ancient tombs such as that of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, or the ruins of lost cities. The transformation came after the end of World War II, when modern techniques of stratigraphic archaeology replaced former emphasis on surface finds, and work began on formerly neglected islands of the Pacific. The yield from such digs may seem unexciting to the non-professional, but the results have been nothing short of spectacular.


The post-war period of archaeology

Archaeology in the Pacific was initially the province of museums, where the subject essentially developed as a handmaiden of ethnology, most notably at the B.P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawai'i. Later, with the cessation of hostilities at the end of World War II, they were joined by departments of anthropology and archaeology at universities.

When the war ended, the present writer was a 15-year old schoolboy. The first week of every year both before and after this event was devoted to "barracks week", when much of the time was spent trudging around the school grounds bearing a .303 rifle and learning how to slope, order, or present arms on command. These events were orchestrated by ex-army members of the teaching staff. The return of soldiers from overseas, however, had at least two powerful impacts on universities. The first was recruitment of staff whose wartime activities included on-the-spot experience of Pacific islands that could be brought to bear on academic studies. Another was a post-war "birth bulge" that required resources to be ploughed into education, initially at pre-school level, then progressively through the education system until reaching the universities in the 1960s. Archaeology was one of the disciplines that benefited, not least, as well, by undisturbed access to sites in former war zones.    

Besides careful attention to stratigraphy and site discipline, twin hallmarks of the new post-war archaeology were use of radiocarbon dating, first demonstrated By L.F. Libby in 1950, and objectives that included the establishment of chronological sequences of artefacts and identification of cultural periods (Suggs 1960:56).

In New Zealand, the first major archaeological event of the 1950s was publication by Roger Duff of the Canterbury Museum of his book The Moa- Hunter Period of Maori Culture (Duff 1950). Based on work undertaken in the 1940s and too early to take advantage of the new radiocarbon dating technique, it nevertheless established kinship of the first New Zealanders with Eastern Polynesia on the basis of adze types (Duff 1956:139), negating earlier ideas that moa-hunters belonged to a non-Maori stratum from Melanesia (Sorrenson 1979:40).

Meanwhile, in the very year that Duff's book was first published, a Department of Anthropology was in process of being set up at the University of Auckland under the leadership of Cambridge-trained Ralph Piddington (1906 - 1974 ), its first professor. Another Cambridge graduate, Jack Golson (1926 - ), was appointed to a lectureship in archaeology in 1954, and was succeeded in 1961 by American-trained Roger C. Green (1932 - 2009) after Golson moved to Australia. Both men were on the vanguard of the new archaeology, with Green, especially, as already indicated in the last chapter, taking a leading role.[1]


The Lapita complex

A perennial problem for archaeologists has been the perishable nature of most of the items they would like to study, forcing recourse to linguistics when supplementary information is required, and frustrating efforts to document the full range of artefacts that might have been in use at any one time. The outstanding exception is pottery, which lasts in the ground indefinitely, and can be radiocarbon dated from associated organic materials such as charcoal, bone, or food residues. During the whole of the early period of archaeological studies in Oceania, the only such finds were in Melanesia and in Western Micronesia, distinguishing these areas from Polynesia, which was believed to be aceramic. Two notable finds were to challenge this belief. One was the discovery by Sinoto in 1968 of potsherds with Fijian tempers and dated to about AD 300-600 in the Marquesas Islands, confirming an earlier find by Suggs in the same area (Bellwood 1978a:321, 323), still the only such finds in Eastern Polynesia. The other was discovery by Gifford and Shutler in 1952 of the famous Lapita form of pottery. Taking its name from its area of discovery in New Caledonia, it was subsequently found in over 200 sites stretching from the Bismarck Archipelago all the way through Island Melanesia as far as Tonga and Samoa in Western Polynesia, providing apparent continuity between the two areas and giving rise to the Lapita hypothesis of Polynesian origin.


The pottery and the people

The characteristic and highly conspicuous feature that distinguished Lapita pottery from all others when it was first found was a type of decoration called dentate stamping, made up of tooth-like patterns pricked into the clay. It is important to understand, however, that not all of the pottery on Lapita sites was so decorated, and in all of the areas where dentate-stamped pottery has been found it fell out of use after a time and was replaced by plainware of similar form which has also been designated as Lapita.

Besides earthenware jars, bowls, and dishes, with and without decoration, a range of artefacts from Lapita sites include stone and shell adzes, flaked tools of obsidian and chert, shell food scrapers, shell arm rings and necklaces, drilled shark teeth, and sling stones (Green 1974:7); occupation sites are typically found on small offshore islands or close to reefs or beaches on larger islands that would provide good launching sites for canoes; middens are full of reef fish and turtle bones, and houses were frequently built on stilts across tidal reef flats (Pawley 2007:19), all collectively attesting to exploitation of marine resources and dependence on the marine environment, as might be expected of sea-going people. Who they were and where they came from will be touched upon in the next chapter. What they did and what they brought with them however, is the province of archaeology.


Regional differentiation of Lapita

Comparison of radiocarbon dates for the sites in which the characteristic dentate-stamped Lapita form of pottery has been found reveals a west to east

progression from 3500-3400 BP in the Bismarck Archipelago to 3000-2500 BP in Samoa, with a pause in the home area of the Bismarcks before breaching the first of the large sea gaps to the south of the Solomons around 3200 BP (Kirch 2000:93). 

In archaeological terms this time span of only a few centuries from first to last is remarkably short, testifying to a rapid expansion of the pottery bearers along the Island Melanesia chain, and possibly occupying not more than a dozen or so generations. During this time, however, as contact with the home area was progressively lost, changes inevitably took place in both pottery forms and styles of decoration. Green distinguishes two zones, designated as West and East Lapita, though with succeeding styles in the several areas evidently included as Lapita. 

. . . the western Lapita ceramics retain their array of shoulder jars, bowls, and flat-bottomed dishes, with their highly complex decorative designs throughout the sequence. In the New Hebrides [Vanuatu] there are fewer vessel forms, and incising becomes the main decorative technique. By contrast, in the eastern Lapita sequences of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, the more elaborate and highly decorated vessel forms disappear during the second half of the sequence (Green 1979:73-4).


The Lapita hypothesis

None of the above would be controversial were it not for the interpretation that has been placed upon it. As will be seen in the next chapter, dialects spoken by the Lapita potters during the greater part of their voyaging belonged to a group of languages known collectively until recently as Eastern Oceanic which is shared by all of the inhabitants of the area now called Remote Oceania, which includes both Polynesians and Eastern Micronesians as well as Melanesians in the areas closest to Polynesia. From this it has been inferred that all of these peoples were of common stock, and Lapita potters were the sole ancestors of Polynesians.

Having reached as far as Fiji, the Lapita colonists moved on to Tonga, Samoa, and adjacent areas, where they are believed to have remained in relative isolation for a period, known as "the pause", of perhaps a thousand or more years, during which voyages beyond the immediate area ceased, and the characteristic features of Polynesian language and culture are thought to have emerged. After this, during the first centuries AD, voyaging over longer distances resumed, Polynesian Outliers in Melanesia were settled, and a final push occurred into Eastern Polynesia as a result of which the whole of this area was ultimately occupied. Referred to henceforth in this book as the Lapita hypothesis, the credibility of this scenario will be tested.   


Duration of The Pause

The most recent work on radiocarbon dating in Eastern Polynesia (Wilmshurst et al., 2011) has relevance for the present book primarily in terms of the so-called "Pause" when, according to the Lapita model of Polynesian origins, both Fijians and Polynesians evolved from a shared ancestry with Lapita potters. 

The length of the Pause has long been a bone of contention among anthropologists. The linguist Andrew Pawley argued very early that at least a thousand years is required for the Proto Polynesian subgroup to have developed from Proto Central Pacific (Pawley 1981:283), clashing in this respect with the archaeologist Geoffrey Irwin who favoured a model of continuous settlement and a correspondingly earlier date for Eastern Polynesia (Irwin 1992, Pawley 1996).

The difference between the two points of view was of the order of 800 years, with Irwin (1992:73) suggesting a date of 500 BC as a not outlandish possibility for the settlement of Eastern Polynesia, and Pawley pointing to arcaeological dates not earlier than the 4th century AD (Pawley 1996:403).

Subsequent debate has split into two camps, labelled as "long chronology" and "short chronology" respectively, with both Irwin and Pawley's assessments of twenty years ago now on the long side of the ledger.

Allen and Kahn (2010:49) report as follows:

Since the inception of a scientific archaeology in the 1950s, the timing and origins of East Polynesian settlement have been dominant research themes. Current debates trace to Kirch's (1986) paper, "Rethinking East Polynesian Prehistory", where he identified crucial geographic gaps, problems related to radiocarbon dating, and key questions about material culture relationships. Spriggs and Anderson (1993) followed with a call for critical assessment of the regional radiocarbon database, and provided protocols for evaluating the accuracy of individual determinations. From these seminal papers and related research, two distinct views emerged as to what constitutes valid evidence of human presence in Pacific Island settings. "Long chronology" models were built largely on palaeoenvironmental evidence (proxy measures of human activities), arguments about the quality and intensity of sampling, and ideas about initial population sizes and rates of dispersal. In contrast, "short chronology" models relied more strictly on radiocarbon dates that were directly associated with cultural activities and met a rigorous set of criteria.

Initially, long chronology advocates placed human arrival between 2400 and 1500 BP, while short chronology supporters posited arrival between 1350 and 1000 BP (e.g. Kirch and Ellison 1994; Spriggs and Anderson 1993). In recent years the gap between these two positions has narrowed . . . There is now near-consensus that settlement took place within the last 1500 years or less, but those using the most restrictive protocols place human arrival no earlier than the 11th to 13th centuries AD . . . Overall, the distance between the two positions on regional settlement has been reduced to only a few centuries, with nearly all agreeing that regional settlement was much later than envisioned two decades ago.

The paper referred to at the beginning of this section (Wilmshurst et al., 2011) is very much at the extreme end of the short chronology spectrum. The method used is a radical statistically-based  reinterpretation of already published radiocarbon dates for Eastern Polynesia, coupled with a body of  recently determined results contributed by the authors.

The authors first grouped the dated materials into six categories: short-lived plants, long-lived plants, unidentified charcoal, terrestrial bird eggshell, bone, and marine shell. These were then found to fall into three reliability classes. In Class 1 were short-lived materials such as twigs, leaves, and seeds, characterised by dates that clustered tightly together. The other two classes had dates that spread further apart and contained materials rated unreliable on a variety of grounds including in-built age for carbon content which compromised the true age of the samples. The conclusion reached, though not so baldly stated, was that only dates from short-lived materials could be trusted in contexts such as Eastern Polynesia, and all other carbon dates must be discarded.

No judgements are made concerning dates for Western Polynesia which are of equal relevance for issues such as determining the length of the Western Polynesian Pause. The rationale is presumably that in the Lapita and pre-Lapita context of thousands of years, small sampling errors can be tolerated, but become crucial when the object is to plot sequences of events that occupy only hundreds of years as in Eastern Polynesia. The authors have retained a date of 800 BC for first settlement of Samoa, but now place first settlement of Eastern Polynesia at AD 1025 - 1120 in the Society Islands, and all the remainder of Eastern Polynesia in a single pulse occupying little more than a century between AD 1190 and 1293. It can be expected that these figures will be disputed by the proponents of the long chronology view, but meanwhile they make little difference to the arguments advanced in the present book. Some further comment will be offered in later pages.  


Modern models of origin

Before moving on to the language affiliations of the potters themselves, some mention is needed of rival theories of Lapita origin which have received publicity in recent years. The most influential of these are named Entangled Bank (Terrell 1988), Express or Fast Train (Diamond 1988), Slow Boat (Kayser et al. 2000), and Triple I (Green 1991b, 2000).

The Fast Train model brings together theories of an origin in Taiwan, followed by transit through the Philippines or Indonesia, then, as indicated above, a swift expansion of Lapita colonists into Remote Oceania from the Bismarck Archipelago through Island Melanesia. Terrell's Entangled Bank, which has had little support, proposes an origin exclusively within Melanesia. The Slow Boat emerged as a result of genetic research on Y chromosomes which identified components of male DNA requiring a more protracted transit than previously thought. Finally, the Triple I model amalgamates elements of the others in a process of intrusion, innovation, and integration.

>>> Chapter 5. Linguistics

[1] See Davidson 2009 for an obituary outlining Green's contribution.