Dating Lapita Pottery in the Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea

By Specht, Jim; Gosden, Chris | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Dating Lapita Pottery in the Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea


Specht, Jim, Gosden, Chris, Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


Prehistoric sites with pottery known as Lapita have been the focus of archaeological attention in the western Pacific for more than thirty years. For much of this time the main concern has been with the relationship between Lapita pottery and the origin and spread of people who were the ancestors of the Polynesians. Whereas in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea Lapita pottery appears in the archaeological record many millennia after the first human entry into the region, in Western Polynesia--and possibly also in New Caledonia and Vanuatu--the carriers and users of Lapita pottery appear to have been the first humans to colonize these island groups. For Kirch and Hunt (1988a:161), this expansion of Lapita pottery-using people from Papua New Guinea to Samoa "may be among the most rapid dispersal events in human prehistory." As Spriggs (1990:17) has noted, this claim warrants further assessment. The reliable dating of Lapita pottery is thus important because changes in its chronology may affect interpretations of the nature and speed of its dispersal throughout the southwestern Pacific. Kirch and Hunt (1988a) accept a date of cal. 3550 B.P. for the appearance of Lapita pottery and propose that it spread extremely rapidly from the Bismarck Archipelago in Papua New Guinea to Western Polynesia, with no statistically significant time difference between northern and southern sites. Spriggs (1990) prefers a slightly later starting date of cal. 3450 B.P. and sees the northern sites as slightly earlier than those to the south, thus allowing time for Anson's (1986) "Far Western Lapita" developmental stage of the decorative system in the Bismarck Archipelago. The difference between these two interpretations derives primarily from Spriggs's critical assessment of the dated samples. He rejects several because of undemonstrated or doubtful association between the samples and the pottery occupations, in particular five of the earliest samples on which Kirch and Hunt base their chronology. Both papers, however, are concerned with the chronology of the pottery throughout its distribution and do not examine closely any one area. This paper addresses issues of dating for sites in the Bismarck Archipelago (Fig. 1), widely regarded as the "homeland" of Lapita pottery, whence the knowledge and skills for its production were carried south and east, eventually into Western Polynesia (e.g., Allen 1984, 1991; Green 1979; Spriggs 1984).

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The main aim of the paper is to assess the dating evidence for the introduction of Lapita pottery into the Bismarck Archipelago. However, the pottery cannot be separated either physically or conceptually from the sites in which it is found or from the other artifactual elements of those sites. Taken together, the nature of the sites and their included artifacts also raise questions as to the meaning of the Lapita phenomenon in human terms. We feel that the new dates presented here, when set into the context of existing dates from the region, throw new light on whether Lapita sites or the artifacts in them were intrusive and possibly indicative of population movements into the region. We return to these issues at the end of the article.

We present 24 dates (Appendix 1) for Lapita dentate-stamped pottery, or for stratigraphic contexts bearing on the date of its appearance, for sites in West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. We compare them with dates from other sites in the archipelago and suggest that two interpretations are possible. First, if the earliest dates accepted by Kirch are valid, Lapita may have begun in the Mussau Islands slightly earlier than in New Britain. Alternatively, if the earliest Mussau dates are not supported, Lapita pottery may have started throughout the archipelago later than the accepted calibrated date of 3450-3550 B.P. (Allen and White 1989; Green 1979:32-34; Kirch and Hunt 1988a, 1988b; Kirch et al. 1991; Spriggs 1990). …

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