Lapita is the common name of an ancient Pacific Ocean culture which is believed by some to be the common ancestor of several cultures in Polynesia and surrounding areas. The type site in New Caledonia was discovered in 1952.



Classic Lapita pottery was produced between 1350 and 750 BC in the Bismarck Archipelago. A late variety might have been produced there up to 250 BC. Local styles of Lapita pottery are found in Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Pottery persisted in Fiji, whereas it disappeared completely in other areas of Melanesia and in Siassi.

In Western Polynesia, the Lapita culture is found from 800 BC onwards. The colonisation spread from the Fiji-Samoa-Tonga area to Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. However, no pottery was carried further into Polynesia.

Material culture

The fibre-tempered pottery is typically decorated with a dentate stamp. The cultural package includes ground stone adzes and shell artefacts.


Domesticates consisted of pigs, dogs and chickens. Horticulture was based on root and tree crops. This was supplemented by fishing and mollusc gathering. Long distance trade of obsidian and shells was practiced.


In the west, villages were located on small offshore islands or the beaches of larger islands. Some houses were built on stilts over larger lagoons. In New Britain, settlements are found inland as well, near the obsidian sources. In the eastern archipelago, all settlements are located on land, sometimes some distance inland.


Lapita pottery is known from the Bismarck archipelago to Samoa and Tonga. The domesticates spread into further Oceania as well. Humans, their domesticates, and species that were introduced involuntarily (perhaps as the Polynesian Rat was) led to extinctions of endemic (ecology) species on many islands, especially of flightless birds.


The 'Lapita people' are supposed to have spoken proto-Oceanic, a precursor of the Oceanic branch of Austronesian. It is, however, difficult to link non-literate Bully material culture to languages, and it can not be verified by independent sources.


A Southeast Asian origin of the Lapita complex is assumed by most scholars. Intrepid explorers sailing out into the East, the 'Vikings of the sunrise' (Buck 1938), were proposed as spreading civilisation to the furthest reaches of the globe.

P. Bellwood sees the neolithic dispersal as driven by a rapid population growth in east and southeast Asia (Formosa). The model is called 'the express-train to Polynesia'. Direct links between Lapita and mainland Southeast Asia are still missing, due to a lack of data in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Other scholars like J. Allen located the origin of the Lapita complex in the Bismarck Archipelago that was first colonised 30,000-35,000 BC. Others, like Green propose a combination of intrusion, innovation and integration (the triple I-model). Others see obsidian trade as the motor of the spread of Lapita-elements in the western distribution area.


  • J. Allen, In Search of the Lapita Homeland: Reconstructing the Prehistory of the Bismarck Archipelago, Journal of Pacific History 19/4, 1984, 186-187.
  • P. Bellwood, Man's conquest of the Pacific (London, Collis 1978).
  • G. Clark/A. Anderson/T. Vunidilo, The archaeology of Lapita dispersal in Oceania: papers from the 4th Lapita conference, June 2000 (Canberra, Pandanus Books), 15-23.
  • Glenn R Summerhayes, Far Western, Western and Eastern Lapita: A re-evaluation. Asian Perspectives 39/1-2, 2000, 109-138.

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