Functional Analysis of Late Holocene Flaked and Pebble Stone Artefacts from Vanuatu, Southwest Pacific

Article excerpt


Functional studies were undertaken on simple, un-retouched flaked and pebble artefacts made from a variety of lithic raw materials, recovered from late Holocene (Lapita) sites in Vanuatu. Use-wear and residue analysis of macroscopic and microscopic evidence identified a wide range of craft, subsistence and social activities. These include cutting, pounding and grinding of non-woody plants; graving, drilling, scraping and sawing of soft wood; drilling shell and cutting and piercing soft elastic material such as skin. This is the first detailed functional analysis on a collection of stone artefacts from Lapita period sites.

Keywords: Vanuatu, Southwest Pacific, use-wear/residue analysis, stone tools


Lithic studies undertaken by Pacific archaeologists have overwhelmingly focused on high quality, isotropic raw materials such as obsidian and chert and have largely ignored flaked artefacts made from other types of stone (e.g. Allen and Bell 1988; Galipaud and Kelly 2007; Pavlides 2006; Sheppard 1993; Torrence 1992; White and Harris 1997). This has left a major gap in our knowledge and understanding of the use of locally obtained stone and particularly its role in the local economy. The study of these stone types can provide important information about the activities that took place at particular sites and, through comparison, can also contribute to a greater understanding of the value and role of imported raw materials. To address these questions, we present functional analyses of late Holocene flaked and pebble artefacts made from a variety of lithic raw materials obtained locally from three late Holocene Lapita sites, found on three small islands in northeast Malekula, northern Vanuatu.

The functional interpretation of prehistoric tools requires a variety of approaches, of which the most reliable and productive is use-wear/residue analysis of macroscopic and microscopic evidence preserved on artefacts. This approach has been successfully applied to the study of obsidian assemblages in West New Britain (PNG) and Vanuatu and selected chert artefacts from an open site, FGT (Yombon), and a cave site, FHC (Misisil), in West New Britain (Fullagar 1992; Kealhofer et al. 1999; Kononenko 2007, 2008; Kononenko and Fullagar 2006). The research here focuses on artefacts made of quartz, fine grained basalts, andesite, jasper and chert and addresses questions of how these tools were used and therefore their role in prehistoric societies. We show that these simple flaked artefacts were widely used for different tasks in processing a range of plant and non-plant materials.

Materials and methods

The lithic assemblage analysed in this study comprises 31 artefacts which were recovered from three Lapita sites on three small islands: Serser (Wala Island), Vilavi (Uripiv Island) and Vao Island (Figure 1). The Islands are three of a string of small, low-lying islands, each less than 2 [km.sup.2], located off the north eastern coast of the much larger island of Malekula in northern Vanuatu. All the Lapita sites are located on uplifted back beaches on the sheltered western coasts facing Malekula. Regular uplift (Dickinson 2001; Taylor et al. 1980) and tephra deposits from the volcanically active nearby islands of Ambrym, Lopevi and Epi (Eissen et al., 1994; Robin et al. 1993; Warden 1967) have contributed to the preservation of the sites (Bedford 2003).

An initial test-pitting grid strategy, orientated to the cardinal points with an average interval of 14 m, was implemented to determine the location of initial colonising sites. This proved effective and four Lapita sites were found on the elevated beach terraces of Uripiv, Wala, Atchin and Vao Islands during the first few days on each island. The primary focus of fieldwork was on establishing the location and extent of the sites and identifying any spatial and temporal variation during Lapita and later-period occupation. …