Story: Pacific migrations

Page 3. Into Remote Oceania: Lapita people

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Around 1500 BC a culture known as Lapita (ancestors of the Polynesians, including Māori) appeared in the Bismarck Archipelago in Near Oceania. Recent DNA analysis suggests that they originally came from Island South-East Asia, and that there was some interbreeding with people already living in the Bismarcks. Archaeological sites in the Moluccas in Indonesia are the closest forerunners to Lapita sites.

The pottery of the Lapita people was similar in form to that of their forebears, but their decorative style was an innovation that emerged in the Bismarcks. The design included stylised faces, which were most elaborate during the early years of the migration and clearly carried cultural significance. This unique style was one of several traits referred to as the ‘Lapita cultural complex’.

Lapita in Remote Oceania

The Lapita were the first people to penetrate Remote Oceania. Between 1200 and 1000 BC they spread rapidly from Melanesia to Fiji and West Polynesia, including Tonga and Samoa. Explorers and settlers travelled across an expanse of the western Pacific in only 5–10 generations. The picture we have is of a fairly small population travelling at speed.

When Lapita people migrated from Near Oceania they left behind the disease of malaria. As a result the population increased, providing extra migrants for the voyaging frontier. They established a few permanent villages in each major island group. Some settled, while others journeyed on, but contact continued between communities on different islands. This migration was not driven by overcrowding, as there was land to spare. Rather, it is likely that social factors such as prestige or curiosity were an incentive to find new islands.

Lapita people lived in villages on small islands near large ones, or on the coast of larger islands. Some had houses that were built on poles over the water. They did not colonise island groups smaller than about 1,000 sq km – probably for environmental and cultural reasons.

As they travelled from island to island they transported plants for cultivation, including taro, yam, breadfruit, banana and coconut. They also took domesticated pigs, dogs and fowls. The Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) was either brought or came as a stowaway on the canoes. As bones of domesticated animals have proved hard to find in the Lapita sites of Fiji and West Polynesia, some researchers think that the earliest Lapita people to reach these eastern islands were foragers rather than gardeners, and that the food plants arrived later.

The migrants caught diverse seafoods with nets, spears and hooks. The large numbers of native birds and animals on the new islands provided a reliable food supply in the early years, as the people established their economies. But many species, including large flightless birds, a land crocodile and giant iguana lizards, were defenceless against this new human predator, and soon became extinct.

The Lapita moved into West Polynesia. It was a long time before people migrated to the smaller islands further east.

How to cite this page:

Geoff Irwin, 'Pacific migrations - Into Remote Oceania: Lapita people', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 October 2017)

Story by Geoff Irwin, published 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 8 Feb 2017