Prehistoric Polynesian Puzzle: The 'Founding Culture' of Modern Polynesian Societies Was Surprisingly Complex 3,600 Years Ago. but Where Did It Originate?

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Prehistoric Polynesian Puzzle

In 1985, a team of archaeologists traveled to a small South Pacific island in search of the homeland of the prehistoric Lapita people, whose descendants first settled Hawaii and the rest of the Polynesian islands. Amid the muck and wet sand that now straddles a former shoreline of one of the Mussau Islands, the Lapita threw them for a loop.

What the investigators found was an extensively preserved record of the earliest known Lapita settlement, dating to about 1600 B.C. To their surprise, the remains were not those of a primitive "homeland' group, but of people whose culture was comparable to that of their counterparts more than a millennium later.

"It's an amazing site,' says archaeologist and project director Patrick V. Kirch of the University of Washington in Seattle. "The pottery is the best and most sophisticated that we've yet obtained from any excavation of Lapita sites. The range of shell and bone tools and ornaments is well beyond anything we've found in 30 years of Lapita excavations.'

As well as uncovering a cornucopia of Lapita artifacts, the investigators came upon the remnants of a stilt house that once stood in the shallow water of a lagoon, reports Kirch in the summer JOURNAL OF FIELD ARCHAEOLOGY. More than 30 wooden posts jut out of the waterlogged sand and coral rubble, with larger posts in several clusters that appear to have supported a dwelling of some kind. Numerous household items have been recovered around the posts, including vegetable peelers and scrapers, obsidian tools and ceramic pottery sherds.

The site also yielded a 6-inch-high figurine, its stylized human features carved into what is probably a porpoise bone. "Nothing like this has been found before at a Lapita site,' says Kirch. "There's no way to say what it meant or how it was used, but it's reminiscent of later bone sculpture in Polynesian cultures that often symbolized high-status figures such as chiefs.'

For now, the impassive face of the bone figure symbolizes the continuing mystery surrounding the origins of the Lapita. In the first few decades of this century, there were suggestions that they migrated from India, the Americas and even from a sunken continent in the mid-Pacific. Thor Heyerdahl took his 1947 voyage on the balsa raft Kon-Tiki to show that South American Indians could have founded the Polynesian cultures.

Many archaeologists now hold that the Polynesians originated in the west toward Southeast Asia. This theory assumes that they sailed across expanses of uncharted ocean with no known navigation instruments against prevailing winds and currents. Nevertheless, it appears that the Lapita island-hopped throughout the South Pacific with surprising speed. Lapita sites range from the Bismark Archipelage--which includes the Mussau Islands--and Papua New Guinea in the west to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa in the east, a distance of about 3,000 miles. Radiocarbon dates bracket the time span for their settlement of the scattered islands from about 1600 B.C. to 1200 B.C.

In the last several years, a number of investigators have argued that the most promising place to look for origins of the Lapita culture is the Bismark Archipelago. An international scientific investigation was launched in 1985 called the Lapita Homeland Project, in which 11 field teams, including Kirch's group, explored sites in the Bismark Archipelago that appeared promising.

Kirch and his co-workers excavated three sites on two of the Mussau Islands. The most important site, where the stilt house remains and figurine turned up, is called Talepakemalai ("under the malai tree'). Radiocarbon dates indicate that it was occupied from 1600 B. …