Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Starch Residues on Undecorated Lapita Pottery from Anir, New Ireland

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Starch Residues on Undecorated Lapita Pottery from Anir, New Ireland

Article excerpt


Starch granules and raphides were identified on the surfaces of undecorated Lapita pottery sherds from the Kamgot site, New Ireland, c. 3300 BP.

The microbotanical remains provide direct evidence for on-site plant-processing. Preliminary identification of the residues based on their morphology suggests they are from the aroid, Colocasia esculenta (taro), but further analysis is required to confirm this identification.

Keywords: Colocasia esculenta, New Ireland, Lapita, starch


The range of vessel forms and shapes encompassed by the Lapita ceramic series, which includes flat-bottomed dishes, large globular vessels and restricted jars, is thought to reflect specific and differing functions (Kirch 1997:120). Reconstructed terms in Proto Oceanic (the ancestral Oceanic language thought to correlate with Lapita) for food preparation involving pots, such as *kuron, meaning 'earthenware cooking pot' (Osmond and Ross 1998:68), or *nasu, 'to boil [food in water]' (Lichtenberk 1994:275), indicate that at least some component of the Lapita pottery assemblage was probably utilitarian--most likely the plain wares (cf. Kirch 1997; Summerhayes 2000). Furthermore, starchy foods must be cooked before they can be consumed, either to eliminate toxicity or to increase digestibility (Bradbury et al. 1988), and boiling or steaming in pottery vessels is one such method documented in the Pacific (Oliver 1989; Roth 1935). Reliance on indirect indicators of function and use, such as linguistic reconstructions and morphology, is not without problems, however, and as Spriggs (1997:161) notes, 'the relation between form, decoration and function of pottery vessels of Lapita and other styles can only be properly assessed by incorporating studies of the chemical residues remaining in the pots'. Such studies of Oceanic pottery (e.g. Fankhauser 1997; Hill and Evans 1987, 1989; Hill et al. 1985; Hocart et al. 1993) have met with only limited success and have yet to find widespread application to archaeological assemblages from this region.

The applicability of starch residue analysis to Pacific archaeology has been demonstrated in recent years by experimental research and studies of stone tools (e.g. Barton and White 1993; Barton et al. 1998; Fullagar 1992, 1993; Loy et al. 1992). Loy et al. (1992) found that starch granules from various plant species could be differentiated based on their morphological attributes (including size, overall shape and the appearance of any facets) and the co-presence or absence of raphides. Raphides, which are needle-shaped calcium oxalate crystals, are common in many higher plants but are particularly abundant in the Araceae family of aroids (Sakai 1979; Sakai and Hanson 1974). Owing to the archaeologically and linguistically documented reliance on roots and tubers in Pacific subsistence systems, the possibility that microscopically distinctive residues of cooking and other food processing activities have survived on Lapita pottery sherds was investigated.

This paper reports on the first residue study of Lapita pottery to use light microscopy, comprising an exploratory analysis of microbotanical remains preserved on undecorated Lapita potsherds dating to c. 3300 BP from Anir, New Ireland (Figure 1). Preliminary identification of the residues, which include starch granules and raphides, indicates they are of likely aroid origin, most probably Colocasia esculenta (taro). This identification is based on the in situ analysis of residues on the sherds' surfaces and requires confirmation via transmitted light analysis, an issue discussed further below.


Materials and Methods

A sample of 20 undecorated pottery sherds from a single l[m.sup.2] test-pit (Test Pit 17) of the Early Lapita Kamgot site (ERA), dated to 3380-2950 calBP (Summerhayes 2001:56), was analysed for microscopic residues. The majority of cultural material from Kamgot was excavated from an orange-brown soil layer (Layer II), although some artefacts, including those examined in this study, were found in an underlying layer of white beach sand (Layer III). …

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