The Origin of the Polynesian Peoples

La Cultura Lapita · The Lapita Culture

Among the rare archaeological certainties that we have on the ancient Polynesian peoples, one undisputed fact stands out: The Polynesian people descend from the creators of a complex culture, today called “Lapita”. This group established itself in the islands of a vast oceanic area ranging from Papua New Guinea to Samoa between 3,800 and 3,000 years ago. They were known to speak an Austronesian language and to have great skill in navigating over long distances, which caused them to initially install themselves in coastal zones. The recognizable trait of the Lapita culture in today’s archeology is their serrated ceramics, unique in the world.

The origin of the Lapita culture, although still shrouded in mystery, is associated with the expansion of the Austronesian languages through Southeast Asia toward Oceania in an episode which began some 5,000 years ago from Taiwan. However, the genetic evidence points to an origin in the Moluccas Islands in Southeast Asia. The most probable explanation is that the Lapita people were the result of genetic mixing while maintaining the Austronesian language of the Taiwanese ancestors.

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Western Province of Distant Lapita

 

The ancestors of the Lapita first arrived to Papua New Guinea, the Bismarck Islands and the Solomon Islands some 30 thousand years after these were initially settled during a previous glacial period. The new arrivals maintained their language and their identity, differentiating them from the earlier inhabitants. Once established in small coastal enclaves amid different cultural groups, the Lapita formed maritime commercial networks contributing to advances in navigation, which can be followed through the dispersal of raw obsidian, tools, ceramics and seashells. In these places, they built villages formed of houses on pillars over shallow water. Their diet underwent an agricultural change, abandoning the cultivation of rice and developing a new base of foods. The impetus to abandon the rice paddies on the part of the Austronesian immigrants was probably brought about by the unfavorable conditions for that plant in Papua New Guinea five thousand years ago. However, the interaction of the Austronesians with the Melanesian people showed them how to deal with new crops.

Western and Southern Provinces of Lapita

 

In the lapse of a couple of centuries, the Lapita expanded their culture into zones that had never been previously settled and successfully established themselves on the islands of Santa Cruz, Tikopia and Vanuatu. Within this same period, with advanced navigational techniques, New Caledonia y the Loyalty Islands were populated and became the Southern Province of Lapita. In the Western Province, just as in the future Southern Province and Eastern Province, the villages were found more in the interior, although always just a short distance from favorable access to the sea. If they would happen to find a good vein of obsidian, the Lapita formed a settlement at that site since the export of obsidian was a large part of the commerce between groups in the Lapita provinces. The new crops that were adopted from the Melanesians were taro and many varieties of banana, which became essential for further colonization. Other plants that were carried were coconuts, yams, breadfruit, paper mulberry, turmeric and sugar cane. These were complemented and supplemented by abundant fish, easily scavenged along the shore, as well as high seas fishing. Food was cooked in underground pits over hot rocks, just as is done throughout Polynesia today. In addition, the oceanic ‘highways’ were useful for introducing, in many places for the first time, some domestic animals (chickens, pigs, dogs and rats) throughout the archipelagos in which they were settling.

Eastern Province of Lapita

 

 

The same advanced navigational technology allowed the Lapita to rapidly reach the distant archipelagos of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, completing their cultural expansion some 3,000 years ago. Since there are no ethnographic studies on the Lapita culture, it is impossible to know how they were organized politically. Their dispersion over the seas and the distance between settlements would suggest that they did not have any centralized government. However, the provinces located in the more distant archipelagos had a certain hierarchy of settlement. Some towns had several hundred inhabitants while other secondary villages had barely a dozen or two.

Toward the Fifth Century A.D., the demographics of the islands of Remote Oceania changed considerably. New ethnic groups from Melanesia, who had learned to sail over long distances, began to settle in throughout the area and to mix with the Lapita. It was only in the most easterly part, specifically in Samoa and Tonga, that this didn’t happen, leading these two islands to become the nucleus of a third migratory pulse: the colonization of Distant Polynesia by the descendants of the Lapita cultural complex, that is to say, the Polynesians.

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Lapita Ceramics

 

The most distinctive element of the Lapita culture is their ceramics with serrated designs and incisions that were not found in any other region of Southeast Asia. The designs were extremely intricate with geometric figures, curved lines and anthropomorphic, as well as zoomorphic, figures. Similar designs and the exact same techniques of manufacture were found throughout the entire region inhabited by the Lapita culture between 1350 and 750 B.C. This ceramic was used to make pitchers and pots, as well as plates, cups and other types of bowls. Production was prolific until it was replaced by the smooth designs developed by their descendants – the modern Polynesians – in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga in later centuries.

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