07 May 2008

The Lapita people

"Who were these amazing seafarers? Where did they come from, starting more than 3,000 years ago? And how could a Neolithic people with simple canoes and no navigation gear manage to find, let alone colonize, hundreds of far-flung island specks scattered across an ocean that spans nearly a third of the globe? Answers have been slow in coming. But now a startling archaeological find on the island of Éfaté, in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, has revealed an ancient seafaring people, the distant ancestors of today's Polynesians, taking their first steps into the unknown...

A backhoe operator, digging up topsoil on the grounds of a derelict coconut plantation [on Vanuatu], scraped open a grave—the first of dozens in a burial ground some 3,000 years old. It is the oldest cemetery ever found in the Pacific islands, and it harbors the bones of an ancient people archaeologists call the Lapita...They were daring blue-water adventurers who roved the sea not just as explorers but also as pioneers, bringing along everything they would need to build new lives—their families and livestock, taro seedlings and stone tools. Within the span of a few centuries the Lapita stretched the boundaries of their world from the jungle-clad volcanoes of Papua New Guinea to the loneliest coral outliers of Tonga, at least 2,000 miles eastward in the Pacific. Along the way they explored millions of square miles of unknown sea, discovering and colonizing scores of tropical islands never before seen by human eyes: Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa.

It was their descendants, centuries later, who became the great Polynesian navigators we all tend to think of: the Tahitians and Hawaiians, the New Zealand Maori, and the curious people who erected those statues on Easter Island. But it was the Lapita who laid the foundation... There is one stubborn question for which archaeology has yet to provide any answers: How did the Lapita accomplish the ancient equivalent of a moon landing, many times over? No one has found one of their canoes or any rigging, which could reveal how the canoes were sailed.

The real adventure didn't begin, however, until their Lapita descendants neared the end of the Solomons chain, for this was the edge of the world. The nearest landfall, the Santa Cruz Islands, is almost 230 miles away, and for at least 150 of those miles the Lapita sailors would have been out of sight of land, with empty horizons on every side.

Reaching Fiji, as they did a century or so later, meant crossing more than 500 miles of ocean, pressing on day after day into the great blue void of the Pacific... By the time Europeans came on the scene, virtually every speck of habitable land, hundreds of islands and atolls in all, had already been discovered by native seafarers—who ultimately made it all the way to South America. Archaeologists in Chile recently found ancient chicken bones containing DNA that matches early Polynesian fowl..."
Much, much more at this well-written National Geographic article.

Those interested in the Lapita and South Pacific exploration should read about Polynesian stick charts.


  1. How interesting...really,how did you come cbout this things

  2. thats amazing. we are learning about this in school

  3. man this is awsome looked up lapita people for some reasearch and found this plain awsome thanks

  4. can anyone answer "how lapita people survived while traveling? " anyone ? please ? :)

    1. Did you read all eight pages of the linked article?


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