People are more than just Pots

What is Lapita? This question, as many have noted, continuing to stimulate debate amongst those who are interested in the archaeology of Oceania. Although this student is not qualified to discuss many of the issues raised (particularly linguistics), an attempt will be made to address this question. There is no doubt something (temporal horizon, cultural phenomena etc) is represented by the artefacts associated with the distinctive pottery known as Lapita.

It seems to this student that Lapita should be addressed as an archaeological culture rather than as an ethnic culture representing a homogenous group of people. In the first instance, what is known about Lapita will be outlined. The question of whether Lapita is more than just pots will be discussed before the criticisms of Terrell (1989) are reviewed. Finally the theories of Lapita origin will be discussed in an attempt to show that not only is Lapita more than just pots, but also the peoples who created the pots where more that just Lapita.

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The archaeological culture known as Lapita, distinguished by dentated-stamped decorated ceramics (Ambrose 1997), as depicted in Figure 1and 2, extended ‘down the Melanesian island chain from New Guinea to Tonga’ (Allen 1996:11). Kirch noted that the spatial extent of Lapita is some four thousand kilometres ‘as the frigate bird flies’ (1996:61). This is illustrated in Figure 3. The temporal dimensions of Lapita, determined through radiocarbon (C14) dating, began around three and a half thousand years ago (i.e. 1500 B.C), lasted about one millennia and ended around two and a half thousand years ago (i.e. 500 B. C.)(Kirch 1996). The name Lapita comes from the first excavated site found to contain the distinctive ceramic, this was in New Caledonia (Allen 1996). Figure 1. Lapita Pottery (Source Bellwood 1979: 246)

The temporal and spatial homogeneity of sites containing this pottery led archaeologists to classify the sites as belonging to one culture, albeit an archaeological culture. Figure 2. Dentated-Stamped Ceramic (Source Ambrose 1997: 528) Irwin notes ‘Lapita pottery is a conspicuous element of integration among dispersed communities’ (1992:211). Although, it is not the only element common to these dispersed archaeological sites. Kirch suggests ‘Lapita material culture was rich and complex’ (1996: 60). The two to three thousand year old sites associated with Lapita pottery also contain shell tools and jewellery (Allen 1996), wood-working adzes made of stone (Kirch 1996), as well as plant remains associated with a shared subsistence strategy. It is also suggested from the distribution of obsidian that Lapita culture commanded an advanced voyaging technology for inter-regional exchange (Green 2000). This suit of traits directs archaeologists to distinguish Lapita as a cultural complex. It is argued that Lapita is an archaeological, not ethnological, culture.

Figure 3. Map of the western Pacific showing the distribution of Lapita sites (Source The Metropolitan Museum of Art 2004) Terrell believes that the search for an ‘ethnically exclusive’ (1989: 625) Lapita group is misguided. Irwin supports this view, stating ‘Lapita is an uncertain and variable archaeological category…it does not begin to approach an ethnic category’ (1992: 34).Terrell suggests that there is no single archaeological indicator of Lapita.

He sites Gosden and associates and Bellwood & Koon, when he states that Lapita sites are found without pottery and decorated pottery is found that is not Lapita. Hodder suggests ‘material culture has to be understood both as part of an aesthetic tradition and as part of an ideology within strategies of domination’ (1991: 65) and not as an indicator of ethnicity. Terrell also suggests there is ‘distrust of the family-tree model’ of the Austronesian language and its ‘assumptions about linguistic isolation’ (1989: 624). The suggestion that there is no need to approach ‘Lapita [as] a single human and social phenomenon hermetically-sealed off’ (Terrell 1989: 625) seems not only justified but also effective. As a variable category of aesthetic traditions and strategies of domination not Hermetically-sealed off or isolated, Lapita seems anything but ethnic.

Terrell and Welsh (1997) have suggested that Lapita is approached by archaeologists from two directions.. Initially it was argued that Lapita originated in Island Southeast Asia and was carried east by Austronesian speaking horticulturists with advanced sailing technology. Although Allen suggests ‘it is no longer apparent in the archaeological evidence that we need invoke any significant migration to explain Lapita sites’ (1996: 12). The other approach is island Melanesian origin. As Ambrose notes ‘there appears to be no precursor pottery bearing the same dente-stamp technique to the west of Bismarck Archipelago’ (1997: 526).

Terrell & Welsh state there is ‘insufficient evidence in both cases’ (1997: 563). Terrell cautions that rarely if ever can archaeologists ‘reduce the complexities they deal with down to A or B must be true hypotheses’ (2000: 333). Terrell & Welsh (1997) argue for a compromise between the Asian and Melanesian models of Lapita. They support Irwin’s (1992) “voyaging corridor” model of Lapita. This seems reasonable when it is considered that ‘Lapita is an uncertain category…conspicuously associated with the settlement of a large part of the world … [but] being Lapita did not always mean the same thing’ (Irwin 1992: 210). Terrell ; Welsh’s discussion is summarised in Table 1.

Table 1. Key Points in Three Lapita Models (Terrell & Welsh 1997) It has been noted that ‘Melanesia, in ethnographic and late prehistoric times, is characterised by great diversity… [and] we cannot exclude diversity in Lapita’ (Irwin 1992:34). Greater Australia (Suhal), the islands of Southeast Asia and near Oceania have been peopled for some thirty thousand years before the appearance of Lapita (Allen 1996, Gosden 1993, Irwin 1992, Kirch 1996).

This seems to allow ample time for diversification and as Irwin notes, the people of this region had some ‘25,000 years in which to mess about in boats’ (1992:31). It has been suggested that the duration of occupation of the abovementioned region allowed ‘shifting fields of contact to develop and a range of different participants to be involved’ (Irwin 1992: 31). With this in mind one wonders what purpose the search for a Lapita homeland or ethnicity serves.

On initial inspection of Green’s (2000) article this student was under the impression that the author was arguing for a Lapita homeland in the Bismarck Archipelago. On further consideration of the ‘Triple-I’ (Integration, Intrusion and Innovation) model of Lapita (Green 2000: 372) it is contended that Green is arguing, not for an ethnic Lapita origin, but for a spatial origin in the Bismarck Archipelago.

So that The ‘triple-I’ model appears to be not incompatible but actually complimentary to the ‘voyaging corridor’ model of Terrell ; Walsh (1997) and Irwin (1992) as noted by Green (2000: 373). Green appears to be arguing for the origin of Lapita to be a spatial and temporal event, hence not an ethnic phenomenon. Integration and intrusion in the Bismarck Archipelago, combined with the innovation of the distinctive dentated-stamped designs, produced the archaeological cultural complex known as Lapita.

That the peoples of remote Oceania speak languages of the Austronesian family and the language family has its origin in Asia seems generally accepted. This suggests there must have been some form of contact between the two regions. Green (2000) and others argue that certain domesticates, such as pigs, dogs and chickens originated in Asia. It seems clear that for intrusion of a cultural trait to occur in the region being discussed voyaging is needed. It seems that both the ‘Triple-I’ and the ‘voyaging corridor’ models argue for interaction ‘involving interchange between new arrivals and incumbent Melanesians’ (Allen 1996: 12).

Green (2000) outlines quit clearly the data supporting integration or continuity within the Bismarck Archipelago and one wonders if Terrell ; Walsh (1997) are not ‘talking past’ (Terrell 1989: 623) Green when defining integration as Melanesian. However Terrell could just be one of those academics that ‘are by nature a quarrelsome lot’ (Terrell 1989: 623, also see Terrell 2000). Green’s ideas of integration and intrusion seems to be supported by Terrell & Welsch’s conclusion that the; ornate Lapita style found in the Bismarck Archipelago and farther to the east in the pacific was only one of several related, but not identical, early styles in Irwin’s voyaging corridor between Asia and Bismarck Archipelago (1997: 560-561)

An examination of Green’s definition of innovation as ‘something arising which has no direct antecedents’ (2000:373) would be questioned with reference to Basalla’s (1988) contention that technological change is more evolutionary then revolutionary. For the purpose of this discussion it is suggested that integration and intrusion in a voyaging corridor is a productive preparatory hypothesis with which to test archaeological data. But it must be remembered that ‘homogeneity and diversity are not only explained by different lengths of settlement, but also by a whole set of cultural mechanisms’ (Sand et al 2002:506 emphasis added). It is the cultural mechanisms, which form the interacting spheres (Terrell & Welsh 1997) where intrusion and integration (Green 2000) occur in Irwin’s (1992) voyaging corridor, that are of most interest.

The literature does not give the impression that there is any contention to the assertion that Lapita pottery makes its earliest appearance in the Bismarck Archipelago. There does however seem to be contention as to the origin of Lapita peoples. It has been suggested that Terrell (1989) is justified in his caution against seeking an ethnic origin for Lapita. It has been argued that Green has not only presented a strong case for his Triple-I model of Lapita but has also demonstrated a productive approach to the spatial and temporal phenomena that is the archaeological cultural complex know as Lapita. Although, this paper makes no attempt to suggest an origin for the Lapita peoples, it is additionally argued that, due to the spatial and temporal extent of Lapita, Archaeologists studying this region should approach Lapita as an archaeological culture complex. However they should remember that the people of this region and time where more than just Lapita.


Allen, J.1996. The Pre-Austronesian Settlement of Island Melanesia: Implications for Lapita Archaeology. In Prehistoric Settlement of the Pacific. W. H. Goodenough (ed). Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society. pp 11-27.

Ambrose, W. R. 1997. Contradictions in Lapita pottery, a composite clone. Antiquity 71, 273. pp 525-538.

Basalla, G. 1988, The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bellwood, P. 1979. Man’s Conquest of the Pacific: The Prehistory of South-east Asia and Oceania. New York, New York University press.