Lapita culture: ancestors of Polynesians, Micronesians, and some coastal areas of Melanesia

“Mana”- the true face of Lapita unveiled

Thursday, 11 August 2005, 2:38 pm
Press Release: University Of The South Pacific

The University of the South Pacific today revealed the face of one of the very first people to have lived in the Fiji Islands. The face of Mana – the 3000 year old woman from Fiji, was unveiled by USP Vice-Chancellor Professor Anthony Tarr during a special ceremony organised to mark this historical event.

While something like this is becoming common internationally, this is the first time a face from the Lapita era in the Pacific, has been revealed. The face of Mana was reconstructed using a model of her skull which was discovered by a member of a research team from USP and the Fiji Museum which excavated an early human settlement at Naitabale in the south of Moturiki Island, central Fiji (Map 1) in June-July 2002. The team was led by Patrick Nunn, Professor of Geography at USP, aided by Mr Sepeti Matararaba of the Fiji Museum and Ms Roselyn Kumar (USP’s Institute of Applied Science).

The Naitabale settlement was probably established about 1000 BC by a group of Lapita people whose ancestors had come from the Solomon Islands. The distinctive Lapita pottery that identifies the culture of these early settlers was found in abundance at the Naitabale settlement.

In the course of excavations at Naitabale in 2002, a complete human skeleton was discovered in beach sand more than 1.5 metres below the ground surface. The skeleton was covered by undisturbed layers of sediment (sand and silt) in which Lapita pottery was found. The discovery of the skeleton was exciting because it appeared certain to be of Lapita age.

Lapita-age skeletons are few. Some have been found in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, but this skeleton was perhaps only the 16th found. What was also remarkable about this skeleton was the excellent state of preservation of the skull.

The discoverer of the skeleton at Naitabale, a Solomon Island student from USP named Chris Suri, named it “Mana” which means “truth” in the Lau dialect of Malaita Island in the Solomon Islands. The bones of Mana were removed from Naitabale with the permission and cooperation of the landowners. Initial analysis was undertaken at USP, and thence at the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University in Japan.

In December 2003, the bones of Mana were returned to Fiji from Japan, placed in a coffin and re-buried at Naitabale.

While the skeleton of Mana was in Japan, a model was made of her head. This is the first time that the skull of a Lapita-era skeleton had been so well preserved that it was possible to faithfully reconstruct the head. This therefore represents the first time that the face of a person from the Lapita era (1350 BC to 650 BC) has ever been seen. It is the face of one of the very first people to have lived in the Fiji Islands.

During detailed analysis at Kyoto University, the skeleton was determined to be that of a female who had died between the ages of 40 and 60 years. She appeared to have been 161-164 cm tall and to have given birth to at least one child. She was probably right-handed.

Mana’s body would have been tall, muscular and tough. Like other Lapita-age skeletons, Mana’s body was adapted to heavy mastication, and strenuous physical activity involving the neck, arms and feet. The roots of Mana’s teeth were stained brown, perhaps from chewing roots of kava (Piper Methysticum).

To determine the age of Mana, shells associated with the skeleton were subjected to radiocarbon dating. These include a big shell (Trochus Niloticus) placed beneath the neck, and another between the knees. The bones of Mana were also dated directly. Dating was overseen by Professor Nunn, and undertaken at Nagoya University in Japan and the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

The results suggested that Mana lived in the year 800 BC, perhaps earlier.

The face of Lapita

Using computer modelling, it was possible to re-create the head of Mana from the well-preserved remains of her cranium. The results represented the first time it was possible to see what one of the earliest occupants of the Fiji Islands looked like.

It is clear that certain aspects of the face of Mana resemble what are commonly regarded as ancestral Polynesian, Fijian, and Asian people, but that her features do not allow her to be readily classified into any such category.

No DNA was recovered from the skeleton of Mana.

Lapita People

The Lapita people were the first humans to colonise the western tropical Pacific Islands. They remain visible as a distinctive cultural group for only a few hundred years, starting about 1350 BC in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea and ending about 650 BC in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Around the beginning of this period, from bases in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, they set out eastwards on intentional voyages of colonisation. They encountered groups of islands (New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) that were not occupied by humans. The first place they landed in Fiji is believed to have been at Bourewa, near Natadola in southwest Viti Levu Island. The Naitabale settlement was probably established a few generations later (Map 2).

Research Results

Today the remains of the Lapita-age settlement at Naitabale are about 300 metres inland from the coast. But at the time the settlement existed, it was much closer to the shore, occupying the back of a beach ridge and part of the estuary at the mouth of the Mataloaloa Stream (see Map 3).

When the Lapita people were living at Naitabale, the sea level was about 1.5 metres higher than it is today. This is why the shoreline was farther inland. Since that time (until quite recently), the sea level has been falling causing the shoreline to extend seawards at this location.

The first indication that a Lapita settlement existed at Naitabale was when the research team was walking along the sides of the Mataloaloa River, and Mr Matararaba discovered one of the most elaborate pieces of Lapita pottery ever found in Fiji. After the settlement was excavated, Professor Nunn mapped the geology and was able to reconstruct its geography about 1000 BC (more than 3000 years ago) (see Map 3B).

During the excavation process at Naitabale, more than 17,000 pieces of pottery were collected from the Lapita-age settlement there and analysed at USP. Of these, only 92 pieces displayed decoration characteristic of the Lapita culture. Pottery analysis was carried out by Roselyn Kumar (USP), William Dickinson (University of Arizona, USA), and Tomo Ishimura (Kyoto University).

Analysis of the decorative style of the 92 Lapita potsherds showed that they had more affinities with Lapita pottery made in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands rather than that made at other sites in Fiji. This surprising result implied that Naitabale was one of the very first places to be settled by the Lapita colonisers of Fiji. Analysis of the sand tempers of selected potsherds showed that only around 70 per cent were made at Naitabale from locally-available materials. Around 30 per cent were imported from elsewhere in Fiji (perhaps beyond Fiji), including about 10 per cent from the Rewa Delta (Viti Levu Island), 10 per cent from Kadavu Island in southern Fiji, and 10 percent from the Lau Group of eastern Fiji. This result demonstrated that the Lapita people who occupied Naitabale from about 1000 BC to about 650 BC had links with people living at the same time in these other places.

On evidence of life at the time, much of the material that the research team excavated from Naitabale was the remains of food that the Lapita-age people living them had consumed. This material included animal bones and shellfish. These materials were analysed by Tomo Ishimura (Kyoto University, Japan), Frank Thomas (formerly USP), and Janet Davidson (New Zealand).

What was clear was that marine foods dominated the diet of the Lapita people who occupied Naitabale. Most of the fish bones are from species that live within the reef and can be caught from the shore (such as Scaridae and Serranidae) rather than from boats at sea. Large numbers of turtle bones were found.

Other animal bones found at Naitabale included pigs, dogs, chickens, rats and fruit bats. It is unclear which of these were eaten and which were not.

Most shellfish remains found at Naitabale are from the inner reef zone. They include large specimens of Trochus Niloticus and huge numbers of the tiny surf clam Atactodea striata.

The field research was funded by USP.




Lapita: Oceanic Ancestors – review

Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, stages the first exhibition on mainland France to focus on one of the oldest civilisations of Oceania
  • Véronique Mortaigne
  • Guardian Weekly, 

Lapita Oceanic Ancestors

A wood-carved mask with white pigment, part of the Lapita: Oceanic Ancestors at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Photograph: Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado

Lapita: Oceanic Ancestors at the Musée du Quai Branly, in Paris, is the first exhibition on mainland France to focus on one of the oldest civilisations of Oceania, a continent long considered as empty, or almost. This Austronesian people left Taiwan in about 2000BC, establishing theLapita complex in the Bismarck Archipelago, east of New Guinea, some 600 years later. From there they fanned out, travelling as far as theSamoa Islands circa 850BC.

The Lapita mixed with the natives they met on the way, leaving behind them pottery with triangular patterns. The geometric designs drawn on thetapa (bark) cloth or pandan fibre mats still made on the islands of Wallis and Futuna, and Vanuatu bear witness to their passing.

In its contemporary section the exhibition (until 9 January) features some very fine tapa, which are fascinating from a political point of view. The curators, Christophe Sand, the head of the New Caledonia Institute of Archaeology, and Stuart Bedford, from Canberra University, have also chosen some magnificent ceramics, in particular large pots discovered in 1995 at Koné, in the north of New Caledonia, funeral pottery dug up in 2004 in the cemetery of Teouma in Vanuatu, and from Tubuai, in the Austral Islands, a small male head in mother-of-pearl and a paddle.

Maps and videos describe the Lapita’s travels, but also the story of their discovery. In 1909 Father Otto Meyer picked up a shard of pottery decorated with angular patterns on a Papua New Guinea beach. Then, in 1950 a French geologist compared Meyer’s shards with recent finds from the Isle of Pines, south of New Caledonia, and realised that they belonged to the same tradition.

The term “Lapita” was coined in 1952: an American, Edwin Gifford, was digging on the Foué peninsula. He asked a Kanak for the name of the site, but mistook the response, xapeta’a, for “Lapita”. In the Haveka language spoken by the Kanaks xapeta’a means “the place where one digs”. It was assumed initially that this referred to the work of the archaeologists. But it finally emerged that the Kanaks had understood that the land had been settled before their arrival.

Herein lies the exhibition’s political significance. “Given the situation in New Caledonia, this discovery was enormously important,” Sand says. “For a long time the Kanaks, who claimed first-people status, rejected the idea of any earlier settlement. Then the colonists used the sophistication of Lapita art to prove that there had been a more intelligent, more developed people than the Kanaks.” Only in 2002 did they recognise the memory of the Oceanic civilisation.

This article originally appeared in Le Monde




Lapita culture

The Lapita culture or tradition was a pre-historic Pacific Ocean people and society dating from about 1600 BCE to 500 BCE. Archaeologists believe that the Lapita was 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 perhaps the most advanced people of their day 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.

File:Carte lapita.png

Region where Lapita pottery has been found


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 culture

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 shellartefacts, 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.

Burial customs

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 defense. 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 from Vanuatu, Museum inPort Vila.




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.


The ‘Lapita people’ are supposed to have spoken proto-Oceanic, a precursor of the Oceanic branch of Austronesian. It is, however, difficult to link non-literate material culture to languages, and it 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 colonized 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

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 artifacts”.

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