Lapita Culture Colonizes the South Pacific Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Inhabitants of Southeast Asia migrated by boat to the islands of the Bismark Archipelago, establishing a sophisticated agricultural society amid the hunter-gatherer peoples already established there.

Summary of Event

During the time of the establishment of the Shang Dynasty in China (c. 1500 b.c.e.), the first wave of seafaring colonists left the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) to settle the islands of Southeast Asia. Although they probably bypassed the Philippines initially, they settled large islands such as Papua New Guinea and smaller islands to the southwest such as the Solomons and the Bismarck Achipelago. In many cases, the settlers, a light-skinned people of Mongoloid descent, inhabited the coastal regions of islands already inhabited by dark-skinned Negroid peoples, ancestors of modern Melanesian peoples. These original inhabitants had populated these islands for as long as 30,000 years—most likely arriving on foot during ice-age periods that left land-bridge routes from Southeast Asia into what is modern Indonesia and Australia. However, they developed neither seafaring navigation nor the advanced material culture of the light-skinned newcomers.

The so-called Lapita people are named for the archaeological site in the island of New Caledonia in the Bismarck Archipelago, where their distinctive pottery was first identified. The pottery, the earliest of which dates to 1500 b.c.e., is unlike anything previously produced in prehistoric Melanesia or Australia. A comblike device was used to incise elaborate wavelike designs on the wet clay—possible forerunners of the tattoo designs used by Polynesians. Some pots featured anthropomorphic and zoomorphic imagery that may indicate a ritual function. In addition to the pottery, the Lapita exhibited a sophisticated cultural complex that included animal husbandry (raising pigs, dogs, and chickens), intensive agriculture and fishing, stone tools, use of shells and obsidian for purposes of exchange, and a double-hulled outrigger canoe capable of open sea voyage. Their relatively large settlements were situated for defense (possibly against the original inhabitants) and suggest a level of specialization and social hierarchy that may have developed into the theocratic nobilities of Polynesia. By way of contrast, the original inhabitants of Melanesia and Australia lived largely as landbound hunter-gatherers in small, unstratified bands speaking a bewildering number of archaic languages. (It must be noted, however, that recent archaeological finds, such as the possibility of an indigenous pottery in prehistoric New Guinea, may point to greater cultural sophistication among these original inhabitants than previously expected.)

Anthropological debate has arisen regarding the degree of interaction between the Austronesian-speaking Lapita and their neighbors in forming the advanced cultural complex that they spread to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, and eventually throughout Polynesia. In a sense, the question dates back to the eighteenth century, when European explorers in the Pacific first noticed the distinction between dark-skinned and light-skinned peoples in the Pacific.

Two main theories have been advanced to explain the rise of the Lapita cultural complex and its importance in the migration to and initial colonization of the Pacific islands. The “express train” model views the Lapita as Austronesian-speaking Asians originally from Formosa who quickly spread their advanced culture throughout Polynesia with little or no input from “less sophisticated” Melanesian neighbors. However, the lack of archaeological evidence of any prototype for the elaborately incised Lapita pottery in Asia has led to the “triple I” (intrusion, innovation, and integration) model of cultural change. According to this theory, Lapita pottery and the advanced skills necessary to populate the widely scattered islands of the Pacific were the result of a gradual process of cultural integration between the Austronesian newcomers and the original inhabitants of Melanesia. It also discredits the implicit, possibly racist, notion that cultural innovation was necessarily the result of light-skinned newcomers rather than dark-skinned original inhabitants. Indeed, the new theory seeks to expose as a Eurocentric construction the tidy and simple division of Pacific cultures into Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian, arguing for more complex patterns of cultural exchange and development in the Pacific islands. Rather than the simple east-to-west migration proposed by the express train theory, the triple-I theory proposes multiple waves of migration, both eastward and westward, “forward” and “reverse,” throughout prehistoric Oceania.


The debate over the ultimate origins of the Polynesians is both ideological and, increasingly, political. Some twenty-five hundred years before Viking explorers inched along the coast of Greenland to the North American continent, the Lapita people had developed their navigation skills to the degree that they could make open-sea voyages into the wide expanses of the Pacific, taking food and animals with them on their journeys. In simple geographic terms, it qualifies as one of the largest diasporas in world history. Yet this achievement also bears on contemporary politics in Oceania as Melanesian and Polynesians debate land ownership in places such as Bougainville and New Caledonia and seek to reestablish traditional cultural identities as the period of European and American colonization comes to an end.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, J., and J. P. White. “The Lapita Homeland: Some New Data and An Interpretation.” Journal of the Polynesian Society 98 (1989): 129-146. Disputes the theory of Austronesian migration and considers the Lapita cultural complex an indigenous phenomenon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bellwood, Peter. Man’s Conquest of the Pacific. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. One of the first texts to explore the connections between material cultures and dispersion patterns of Austronesian languages in order to identify the Lapita people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bellwood, Peter, ed. Indo-Pacific Prehistory 1990. Jakarta, Indonesia: Asosiasi Prehistorisi Indonesia, 1991. A collection of conference papers that presents a broad range of opinion regarding migration theories and the rise of the Lapita cultural complex.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirch, P. V. The Lapita Peoples. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A good overview of the current theories of Lapita origins and migrations, incorporating new archaeological and genetic data.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sergeantson, S. W., and A. V. S. Hill. The Colonization of the Pacific: A Genetic Trail. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Argues that certain markers identified in contemporary Polynesians indicate a significant level of non-Austronesian genetic strains.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spriggs, M. “What Is Southeast Asian about Lapita?” In Prehistoric Mongoloid Dispersals, edited by T. Akazawa and E. Szathmáry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Discusses aspects of the proposed migration of Asians from Formosa throughout the Pacific, as opposed to the theory of an indigenous development within the area.

Categories: History