Lapita and the Temporal Geography of Prehistory

By Terrell, John Edward; Welsch, Robert L. | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Lapita and the Temporal Geography of Prehistory


Terrell, John Edward, Welsch, Robert L., Antiquity


Ambrose (this issue, above) and Sand (this issue, above) reported on Lapita in the specific, without being parochial in their concerns. This paper looks at the largest Lapita picture, but is itself in turn based on new reports in the specific, here from the coast of Papua New Guinea which is key for the relations in space, in time and in cultural affinity of whatever human it is that Lapita is.

Lapita is an ornate style of pottery found at archaeological sites in Oceania (Spriggs 1990). Sherds in this style have been unearthed on islands located in a wide arc of the southwestern Pacific, from Aitape on the Sepik coast of New Guinea and stretching all the way eastward to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa (Green 1994). In the 1960s, when the style was given its name, no one appears to have anticipated that Lapita would be `a hot source of debate' (Bellwood & Koon 1989: 613) in the decades ahead. Lapita pottery was quickly associated with the settlement of the Pacific by Malayo-Polynesian (i.e. Austronesian) speakers (Suggs 1960); it was judged to have been created by migrants from Southeast Asia; and it was soon identified as the hallmark -- the index fossil -- of `the ancestral cultural complex from which Polynesian culture was derived' (Green 1973: 332; 1974). As Matthew Spriggs (1984: 203) once summarized the argument, this initial interpretation of Lapita pottery required `a fairly direct transfer of culture, genes and language from Island Southeast Asia'.

Although this reading of Lapita still has its advocates, nowadays perhaps more numerous outside Pacific archaeological circles than inside, objections have been raised against this straightforward assessment of Lapita's place in prehistory. Lapita as an empirical phenomenon is poorly known and reported in the literature; for the most part, its associations (i.e. Lapita as a `cultural complex') are also poorly known; interpretations of Lapita have outstripped the actual data available; and `far from Lapita being a basically intrusive Southeast Asian Cultural complex, its form and much of its content may have developed in the northwest Melanesian area' (Spriggs 1984: 222-3).

Scholars working in other parts of the world may wonder what difference it makes if the Lapita style was imported from Asia or developed locally in Melanesia, or if it is the hallmark of a true cultural complex. Getting Lapita's origins and place in prehistory right, however, are not just parochial concerns. As Sherratt (1993: 126) has said, the spatial scale of phenomena such as the Bell Beaker culture or the Lapita complex renders inadequate any methodology based solely on case-studies that privilege local understanding at the expense of wider settings. One of the oldest debates in science is about whether events and processes that we see going on around us are sufficient to explain the character of large-scale phenomena. Some would say that the colonization of a region as big as Oceania requires abnormal explanations: solutions that are qualitatively different from those used by historians and other social scientists to account for patterns of diversity among contemporary or historic people. But was the Lapita phenomenon as remarkable as some say? Here we construct three qualitative models to illustrate how competing interpretations of Lapita differ. We have some new data to present. But we find that the major difference among these interpretations is the discordant ways in which archaeologists and others configure the temporal geography of the past.

Temporal geography

The expression temporal geography is unorthodox. Geography is normally said to be about the study of spatial rather than temporal phenomena. The expression also sounds like a play on the more conventional phrase locational geography which is -- or was back when the `new geography' was new and positivism was still fashionable -- about the geography of things in one, two or three dimensions (Haggett 1966). …

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