Contradictions in Lapita Pottery, a Composite Clone

By Ambrose, W. R. | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Contradictions in Lapita Pottery, a Composite Clone


Ambrose, W. R., Antiquity


Like the cultures of Neolithic Europe -- `Glockenbecherkultur', `Trichterbecherkultur', `Linienbandkeramik' -- the `Lapita culture' of the western Pacific is defined by its distinctive ceramics. What that `ceramic culture' amounts to in human terms has been a key question in the region's archaeology -- complete with a quest for a Lapita homeland.

This fresh review focuses on the pottery, the defining stuff itself of the affair.

Lapita pottery and `Lapita people'

The rigidly ornamented Lapita pottery of the southwest Pacific was seen by Golson (1959) as an archaeological signal of new people in new places. Lapita pottery has now been placed in a wider cultural context, seen as so distinctive and widespread as to indicate major changes in the trajectory of prehistory in the southwest Pacific (FIGURE 1) beginning around 3500 years ago. The Lapita cultural complex has been attributed to the intrusion of fully agriculturalist, Austronesian-speaking groups into the Bismarck Archipelago (e.g. Bellwood 1996; Spriggs 1996a), where Ross (1988) locates the Proto Oceanic language sub group. Ancient New Guinea plant domesticates (Yen 1991: 564), now with Austronesian names, are seen to be imports as part of a major cultural intrusion, including pottery and other innovations, by immigrants from Island Southeast Asia (Spriggs 1996b: 338). But the carriers of these changes are not yet clearly identified despite much genetic research (Bhatia et al. 1995; Hagelberg & Clegg 1993; Hill & Serjeantson 1989; Irwin 1992: 38; Lum et al. 1994; Serjeantson & Gao 1996: 320); the great biological diversity of people in Island Melanesia (Houghton 1991: 185) confounds attempts at isolating founding populations who could be conceivably regarded as `Lapita people'. Alternative models for the emergence of the Lapita cultural complex attempt to reconcile opposing views between migration out of Island Southeast Asia versus an indigenous development in the Bismarck Archipelago (Gosden et al. 1989). Kirch appears to be retracting from a previously strong adherence to an Island Southeast Asian homeland (Kirch & Weisler 1994: 291), while Bellwood (1993: 158) acknowledges the Bismarck Archipelago ranking decisively as that `Lapita Homeland' where elements from diverse cultural threads were combined. Yen sees the New Guinea region holding the important plant and animal subsistence base for the Lapita economy where two independently developed agricultures were blended (1993: 91). In this paper I tend to the view, also expressed by others (Allen & White 1989), that the emblematic Lapita. pottery is part of a locally propagated development inspired by contact with pottery-making groups to the west of the Bismarck Archipelago. This proposition has some support from the evidence to be gleaned from the nature of Lapita pottery as a decorative art applied to a simple ceramic background, while the mode of its propagation may be found by considering other happenings in the Bismarck Archipelago before 3500 years ago, particularly as they relate to the introduction of ocean-going sailing canoes. On the basis of evidence from the stylistic and technological characteristics of the Lapita ceramic there is no compelling reason to accept that it was a fully developed technology imported from elsewhere.

The emblematic pottery

Lapita decoration

The delicacy and precision of many decorative features of Lapita pottery (FIGURE 2), typically expressed by dentate-stamped geometric designs, with its varied suite of vessel shapes and red-slipped surface, are used to support a proposition that it was introduced to the Bismarck Archipelago as a fully developed technology from elsewhere to the west (e.g. Bellwood 1978:244). Against this notion, as Anson (1986: 157) recognized, there appears to be no pre-cursor pottery bearing the same dentate-stamp technique to the west of the Bismarck Archipelago, while the decorated Lapita ware fails to survive its transfer into Polynesia to the east of the Samoa-Tonga line (Irwin 1981). …

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