Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Prehistory in a Nutshell: A Lapita-Age Nut-Cracking Stone from the Arawe Islands, Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Prehistory in a Nutshell: A Lapita-Age Nut-Cracking Stone from the Arawe Islands, Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt


Organic residue on a stone artefact recovered from the Makekur Lapita site (FOH) on Arawe Island in West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea, was sampled and dated. The residue is identified as endocarp fragments of a Canarium species nutshell, most likely Canarium indicum L. The artefact, which is made from coralline limestone, is interpreted as a nut-cracking anvil. AMS dating places its use at approximately 2800 calBP, in Middle-Late Lapita times, and provides the first direct confirmation of Lapita-age use of nut-cracking tools. The careful shaping of the tool, combined with ethnographic comparisons, suggests that it was made and used for preparation of special food, possibly for feasting associated with ritual or other ceremonial activities.

Keywords: nut-cracking tool, residue analysis, West New Britain, PNG, Makekur Lapita site (FOH), Canarium.


Arboriculture plays an important role in human subsistence in the western Pacific and South-East Asia, and has been the subject of attention for many years, particularly with regards to various kinds of nuts (e.g. Gosden 1995; Kennedy & Clarke 2004; Latinis 2000; Lepofsky 1992; Stevens et al. 1996; Yen 1974, 1995, 1996). Nuts such as Canarium spp. have been part of the human diet throughout coastal and lowland regions since the late Pleistocene and early Holocene (Barker et al. 2011; Maloney 1996; Morwood et al. 2008; Nguyen 2008; O'Connor et al. 2011; Paz 2005; Yen 1991). During the middle and late Holocene in Papua New Guinea, a wide range of nut species is well documented by assemblages of macro-remains excavated from waterlogged deposits in the Sepik-Ramu basin, on Eloaua Island and in the Arawe Islands, in which hard-shelled nuts such as Canarium spp., Terminalia spp. and others figure prominently (Fairbairn & Swadling 2005; Kirch 1989; Matthews & Gosden 1997; Yen & McEldowney 1991).

In contemporary societies of the western Pacific, nuts play an important part in subsistence and ritual/ceremonial activities, and as a potential cash crop (Hogbin 1964; Kennedy & Clarke 2004: 15-16; Leakey et al. 2007; Stevens et al. 1996; Wissink 1996). The kernels of Canarium nuts can be smoked and stored for extended periods (e.g. Oliver 1955: 29; Ross 1973: 172-173; Spriggs 1997: 56-57), and are often mixed with taro in important ceremonial foods (e.g. Blackwood 1935: 262; Hviding & Bayliss-Smith 2000: 127-128; Oliver 1955: 37, 436; Tedder 1973). Trees of Canarium species are extremely significant socially, as their annual fruiting provides opportunities for group gatherings and affirmation of kin ties and other relationships (Hviding 1996; Walter & Sam 2002). At Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands, the annual harvest is of such importance that it serves to mark the passage of time, and the word for "year" is the same as that for Canarium indicum (Hviding 1996: 262-263).

Given the social significance of nuts and the level of anthropological and archaeological interest, it is surprising that little has been published about the history of their processing, which requires the nuts to be broken to access the kernel. Within the South-East Asian and western Pacific areas, ethnographic analogies for the identification of "nut-cracking stones", with occasional suggestions as to the kind of nut that might have been processed, are common in the archaeological literature (e.g. Paz 2001). The main candidate taxa referred to are Canarium, Terminalia and Barringtonia species (e.g. Kirch 1981:141 for Futuna: Kirch & Yen 1982:80 for Tikopia; Reeve 1989:58 for New Georgia; Ward 1976:176 for Ulawa; Wickler 2001:187 for Buka).

Analysis of residues on stone tools is now becoming common, and starch grain analysis especially so (e.g. Mercader et al. 2007, cf. Haslam 2012; Field et al. 2009; Yang et al. 2009). Here, we present the results of an analysis of crushed material from a stone tool with pitting characteristic of nut-cracking that was excavated from a Lapita-period site in Papua New Guinea. …

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