Central Queensland University : School of Humanities : History : Study Schedule


Initial Occupation - Austronesian Immigration - Lapita

Before we proceed it is important to note that the division of the Pacific into three broad categories of people: Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians, is a Western idea. Melanesia is derived from the French ‘Melanesie’ meaning ‘black islands’ and was first applied to the region by Dumont d’Urville during his 1832 scientific voyage. Thus, like Polynesia and Micronesia, Melanesia is an ethnic as well as a geographic entity.

Melanesia stretches from Maluku (Indonesia) in the west, through the islands of New Guinea, the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, to Fiji in the east. Micronesia means ‘small islands’, and lies in the central western Pacific to the north of New Guinea. Its most significant groups are the Palau, Carolines, Marshalls, Marianas and Gilbert islands. Polynesia (meaning ‘many islands’) stretches from Samoa and Tonga in the west, across to Easter Island on the far eastern side of the Pacific, and south to New Zealand. It includes, among others, the Hawaiian Islands in the northern hemisphere, the Society Islands (Tahiti), the Marquesas, and the Cook Islands (Rarotonga).

Source: Peter Bellwood, Man's Conquest of the Pacific: The Prehistory of South-east Asia and Oceania, New York University press, 1979, p.116.

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Initial occupation

Speculating about how the Pacific was originally settled has fascinated westerners since they first entered that great ocean. The vexing question is, how did people without modern maritime or navigational equipment managed to explore the vastness of the Pacific?

Despite a few theorists who argue otherwise, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Pacific Islanders originated in Southeast Asia. It is thought that the ancestors of humans were in the Indonesian archipelago two million years ago. Homo Erectus has been discovered in Java, and Homo Sapiens were there about 60 000 BP (before present). Java is relatively close to the Sahul Shelf where the first crossings from Southeast Asia to the Pacific are thought to have occurred. The oldest discoveries of human remains in New Guinea date back to about 25 000 BP. Genetic research indicates that New Guineans had a common ancestry with the Australians, who probably crossed onto the Sahul Shelf, which was a great plain, about 50 000BP, before moving north and south. (1) However, it should be stressed that migration into the Pacific was complex. At least two additional groups probably entered New Guinea from the west after 10 000 BP, and other language groups may have transmigrated.

Austronesian migration

About 10-12 000 BP there was a major climatic change and cultures diverged. The New Guineans began to live in a very different environment, and in a different way from the Australians. Then between about 5000 BP and 3500 BP another migration east began. The evidence for this is almost entirely linguistic, and the movement is named after its language group—Austronesian. Austronesian speakers migrated along the coast of New Guinea, into New Britain and New Ireland, and further to New Caledonia. By about 3000 BP further Austronesians had colonised Fiji and Polynesia as far as Samoa, and after about 1000 years of consolidation in the Samoa/Tonga region they occupied the Marquesas 3000 kms to the east, before settling the Society Islands, Easter Island, the Hawaiian Islands and New Zealand. (2)

The original crossing to the Sahul Shelf about 50 000BP may have been by accidental drift. It may also have occurred on bark canoes, or perhaps rafts. There are arguments about which is the most ancient form of water transport. Bark canoes still survive in Australia and some other places. Rafts are a very simple technology. But the Austronesians set out with what must have been a much more sophisticated maritime technology. They had sails and outriggers–major technological advances. They brought with them root crops, taro and yams, dogs, chickens and poultry. They may have had pigs, although that is not certain. They had pottery. Indeed, the Lapita pottery found throughout Melanesia and in Tonga and Samoa is the distinguishing non—linguistic feature of the later Austronesian migrants.

Lapita cultural complex

The name Lapita is derived from the artefact site in New Caledonia, the evidence from which enabled the significance of Lapita pottery to be first elucidated in 1952. The pottery is characterised by a particular mix of material that makes up the pot, and motifs, which although they changed over time, were consistent throughout the regions where it is found. Its range extends from New Britain to Tonga. According to Bellwood, sites where Lapita is found provide a record of

a number of highly mobile groups of sea—borne colonists, who expanded very rapidly through Melanesia in the mid-late second millennium BC, [3000-3500 BP] and on into Polynesia, whose present inhabitants are almost certainly their direct descendants. (3)

They had horticulture and an advanced maritime technology which enabled phenomenal long distance voyages.

Source: Peter Bellwood, Man's Conquest of the Pacific: The Prehistory of South-east Asia and Oceania, New York University press, 1979, p.246.

For a full size map, click here (87k)


There are two theories about the migration of the Austronesian Lapita makers. One, the ‘fast train to Polynesia’ view, is that they spread remarkably quickly from Indonesia or the Philippines east through Melanesia, and that the island sites where the pottery is found are simply encampments on the way. The other theory is that the Lapita culture actually developed in the Bismark Archipelago, consolidated there, and from that base spread east and perhaps west in a steady fashion. (4) Whatever the case, although the Polynesians are almost certainly the direct descendants of the Lapita makers, by about 2500 BP in Melanesia their characteristic culture had begun to dissipate, only to survive as cultural remnants in various places.

  1. D.T. Tyron, "The Peopling of the Pacific: A Linguistic Appraisal", Journal of Pacific History, vol. 19, no. 4, 1984, p. 151.
  2. S.W. Serjeantson, "Migration and Admixture in the Pacific: Insights Provided by Human Leukocyte Antigens", Journal of Pacific History, vol. 19, no. 4, 1984, pp. 160-166.
  3. Peter Bellwood, ManÕs Conquest of the Pacific, Oxford Uni Press, New York, 1979, p. 244.
  4. Jim Allen, "In Search of the Lapita Homeland: Reconstructing the Prehistory of the Bismarck Archipelago", Journal of Pacific History, vol. 19, no. 4, 1984, pp. 186-187.

Central Queensland University : School of Humanities : History : Study Schedule

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