The Teouma Lapita Site and the Early Human Settlement of the Pacific Islands

Article excerpt


The recent discovery of the Lapita site at Teouma, on the south coast of Elate, central Vanuatu (Figures 1 & 2), a site which can now be identified as one of the more significant Lapita sites yet found, ultimately came about through a series of fortuitous coincidences. In late December 2003 a large dentate-stamped Lapita sherd, representing approximately 25 per cent of a whole vessel, was presented to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC), by Salkon Yona, a VCC fieldworker from the island of Epi. He had received it from a fellow Epi islander, Charlie Nati, who had picked it up in October 2003 when he had been driving a bulldozer quarrying for soil for the construction of a prawn farm, on the east side of Teouma Bay. The site itself was formally identified in January 2004 (Bedford et al. 2004) and two field seasons of excavation, during July and August 2004 and June and July 2005, have now been carried out. Many aspects of the research will be reported on in greater detail elsewhere, in collaboration with various specialists as analyses proceed, but some general observations and summary conclusions are outlined in this paper.


The Teouma site is located about 800m from the sea on the edge of an upraised former beach terrace and reef about 8m above current sea level and set amongst a decaying coconut plantation. It is on the north-eastern side of Teouma Bay, adjacent to a tributary of the Teouma River (Figure 2). At the time of Lapita settlement, the site would have been located on a low promontory bounded by the sea on its western side, the small stream on its northern side and uplifted limestone cliffs extending several hundred metres to the east and south-east. Subsequent to the Lapita occupation, uplift and massive infilling of the shallow end of the bay with alluvial deposits transported down the Teouma River over a 3000 year period has effectively shifted the site to its current, higher inland location (Figure 3). The archaeological deposits are sandwiched between a 500-800mm black tephra-rich soil lying above them and an earlier tephra deposit below, that sits on top of the former rolled-coral upper beach and uplifted reef terrace. During the October 2003 construction works, the site was being mined specifically for the black tephra-rich soil located there and extensive areas of the site were affected (Figure 4). But despite this disturbance, much of the earliest archaeological deposit remained untouched and even in those areas that had been scraped by the bulldozers there appeared to have been limited mixing of the deposits that remained. Discrete activity areas were apparent as was chronological variation across the site (Bedford et al. 2004). Excavations have revealed its spectacular nature, particularly in terms of preservation conditions, and have enabled the identification of discrete activity areas, associated cultural practices and changing site use and development. Findings include a cemetery with the earliest and most extensive collection of burials thus far associated with Lapita, complete pots linked with burial practice, later occupational debris overlying the cemetery and separate midden dumping areas and occupational deposits.


Archaeological excavations

A joint Australian National University-Vanuatu National Museum project began in July 2004 with the commencement of initial excavations at the site designed to assess the extent of recent damage, the boundaries of the site, and further define its stratigraphy, chronology and composition. Areas initially targeted were those that had been modified by earth-moving, as the altered conditions were affecting preservation conditions. This included almost 1000m (2) of the site where the black tephra-rich soil had been removed by machine, as well as another smaller but deeper quarried area (Figure 4). The removal of the black tephra-rich soil, while facilitating access to the Lapita layers of the site, was also potentially altering conditions of preservation within the deposits. …