The First Settlement of Remote Oceania: The Philippines to the Marianas

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The human settlement of the remote islands of Oceania beyond the Solomon Islands has been a topic of enquiry since the eighteenth century. The modem mainstream view relates this settlement to a migration of Austronesian-speaking Neolithic populations from 1350 BC onwards sailing via equatorial latitudes in eastern Indonesia into the western Melanesian islands, and then via the Lapita cultural complex into Polynesia and central/eastern Micronesia (Kirch 2000; Summerhayes 2007). However, another corner of the western Pacific witnessed a remarkable feat of ocean crossing perhaps a century or two before the Lapita spread, and over a much greater open ocean distance than any known Lapita movement.


The Mariana Islands are the northernmost islands of Micronesia, consisting of more than a dozen islands in a north-south arc between 13 and 20[degrees] north, situated across open sea about 2300km east of Taiwan and the Philippines (Figure 1). A number of archaeologists have already suggested close cultural relations between the Marianas and the Island Southeast Asian Neolithic (eg. Spoehr 1973; Bellwood 1975: 10, 1978: 282, 1985: 253, 1997: 235-6, 2005: 137; Thiel 1987; Kirch 1995, 2000: 167-73; Shutler 1999) and, since 1975, Bellwood has regarded a Philippine connection as most likely. Sites with comparable pottery, which imply such connections, include the Batungan caves on Masbate, the Cagayan Valley shell middens in northern Luzon, Kalumpang in western Sulawesi and Sanga Sanga rockshelter in the Sulu archipelago.

Recent work in both the Marianas and the Philippines allows us now, for the first time, to report specific parallels between red-slipped and decorated pottery, dating to 1500-1400 BC (Table 1), found in the larger southern islands of Guam, Tinian and Saipan in the Marianas, with comparable pottery assemblages from sites in the northern Philippines.

The earliest Marianas sites (Figure 2)

The earliest sites on the Mariana Islands occur in shoreline-oriented settings during a period of slightly higher sea level (about 1.8m) than the present, and are associated with thin-walled, red-slipped pottery termed Marianas Red by Spoehr (1957). After 1000 BC, significantly different pottery types are evident (Moore 1983, 2002), along with a lowering of sea level (Dickinson 2000) and a substantial re-configuration of coastal ecosystems.

The Achugao site on Saipan is by far the most informative for the earliest Marianas pottery, yielding the largest volume of recovered material (Butler 1994, 1995). This large collection of 143 decorated pieces is especially important because of its size, since decorative elements are present on only one per cent or less of the sherds. Other sites are valuable for their precise and confident dating of the earliest settlement period, but have limited pottery collections (e.g. Carson 2010; Clark et al. 2010).

As reported by Butler (1994, 1995), the early Achugao ceramics exhibit only two major vessel forms. The dominant form, representing 85 per cent of all rims, is a small to medium-sized vessel, sometimes carinated, with a sharply everted rim and a rounded base. The other 15 per cent are simple hemispherical bowls. Other vessel forms have been reported from other sites but in very low frequencies and with extreme fragmentation (Carson 2008).

The earliest component of Marianas Red is a thin-walled, often red-slipped, calcareous sand-tempered ware. The decorated sherds show complex, predominantly rectilinear, incised patterns, although some are curvilinear, with the zones between the major elements packed with rows of tiny, delicate punctations (tiny punch-marks). Stamped circles border the decorative bands and sometimes occur within them (Figure 3, sherd group 2). Lime-filling is evident in most of the decoration. Similar decorated and red-slipped pottery is shown in Figure 4, recovered by Pellett and Spoehr (1961) from the House of Taga site on Tinian Island and now stored in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, yet without associated radiocarbon dating. …