The Chronology of Lapita Ware in New Caledonia

By Sand, Christopher | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview

The Chronology of Lapita Ware in New Caledonia


Sand, Christopher, Antiquity


The ware known by the name of Lapita is a lowfired pottery with distinctive geometric dentate-stamped decorations and complex shapes, found in archaeological sites from the Bismarck Archipelago (northeast of New Guinea) to western Polynesia. It is the major identifiable element of the Lapita Cultural Complex, linked with the first human expansion into Remote Oceania (Green 1993). It is a key to understanding the peopling of the southwestern Pacific.

Since Gifford and Shutler first excavated 'Lapita' site 13, on the west coast of the Grande Terre (main island) of the New Caledonia archipelago, in 1952 (Gifford & Shutler 1956), the debate on the significance and duration of the production of Lapita ware in New Caledonia has been of major interest to all archaeologists working on the ceramic chronology of southern Melanesia [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Starting with the excavation of the St Maurice-Vatcha site by Golson in 1959-60 (Golson 1962) and by Frimigacci in 1970 (Frimigacci 1974), the re-excavation of site 13 by Shutler in 1967, and the different programmes carried out on such sites as Boirra in Koumac (Frimigacci 1978; Calaque et al. 1980), Nessadiou in Bourail (Frimigacci 1980), and Patho on Mare Island (Galipaud 1986; Semah & Galipaud 1992), everybody has tried to clarify Lapita chronology. Galipaud's (1988; 1992a) ceramic sequence started with the Kone period, representing the first 1500 years of the Austronesian settlement, from 1400 BC to the beginning of the 1st millennium AD. In this period, two major traditions were identified: Lapita (dentate-stamped) and Podtanean (paddle-impressed), whose production seems jointly to end around AD 200 (Galipaud 1996). This represented one of the longest-known uses of Lapita pottery in the southwest Pacific (Kirch & Hunt 1988; Spriggs 1990a).

Excavations conducted during the last few years by the territorial Department of Archaeology of New Caledonia on Kone-period sites have defined more clearly the ceramic sequence of the 1st millennium BC, and makes possible a more precise Lapita chronology in the southernmost archipelago of Melanesia.

Dating the beginning of human settlement in New Caledonia: problems and hypothesis

The question of the first human intrusion into Remote Oceania is still a matter of debate (Green 1993). No site has at present shown remains of pre-ceramic occupations in Vanuatu or New Caledonia - be they Austronesian or not. Although some research has addressed this subject, results are at present not conclusive. The most recent studies on tumuli from Grande Terre and Ile des Pins have given dates calibrated around 1800 BC (Sand 1994; 1995b: 49-51): the significance of this in relation to a possible preceramic occupation is far from clear.

At present, the first human settlement in New Caledonia is archaeologically related to the spread of Austronesian-speaking populations into the southwestern Pacific during the 2nd millennium BC (Spriggs 1995). The chronology of this spread, studied by various people over the last decade, shows that the arrival in Remote Oceania must have happened around 1200 BC (Green 1993). The re-dating of Natunuku in Fiji to the 1st millennium BC (Davidson & Leach 1993) and new excavations of the Lapita sites of Ha'apai in Tonga (Shutler et al. 1994) seem to indicate a more recent chronology of arrival of about 100 years in the Fiji-western Polynesia area compared to southern Melanesia. New Caledonia, showing more numerous Lapita settlements than Vanuatu, appears to concentrate part of our understanding of the first settlement phase south of the Solomons (Sand 1995b: 49-76).

Galipaud, analysing the different dates from early ceramic sites in New Caledonia, has recently proposed a two-step settlement of the archipelago: the first occupation, around 1500 BC, was of populations producing paddle-impressed pots; the Lapita tradition arrived later, probably around 1000 BC, maybe from the east (Galipaud 1992b). …

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