Pacific discoveries reveal region's ancient connections

Pacific discoveries reveal region’s ancient connections

Cosmos Magazine


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The village of Pang Pang is like many in Vanuatu. A dozen or so traditional houses, covered in native natangura palm leaves lay nestled between tall coconut palms and mango trees. Led for the first time by Indigenous archaeologists, a dig team at Pang Pang is tapping into the Pacific’s ancient past. Prianka Srinivasan was there to witness something special.

I’m standing at an archaeological dig at Pang Pang, Vanuatu. About a dozen people are hard at work under the dappled light of the forest, sifting through soil, scrubbing at bits of shells and bone, and painstakingly digging in square pavilions, neatly marked with bright yellow string. One of the locals has hooked up his phone to a speaker, and now a steady pulse of reggae and pan-pipes accompanies the sound of scraping dirt and chatter among the team. The site could be easily lost in the dense green foliage – only a large banyan tree marks the entrance from the main road. To get there, my guide and I had to clamber under its roots and then follow a winding trail that cut past the riverbank. The canopy then opens to small flat hills, about a metre or so tall, upon which all the activity is taking place.

One of the workers pulls four recently-found pottery shards, each about the size of a postage stamp, out of a ziplock bag and lays them flat on his palm for me to see. To an untrained eye, they don’t look like much. Under a crust of dirt, the deep orange clay peeks out. Each piece is marked with tell-tale puncture patterns. Definitely Lapita.

A few pot fragments are held in a hand.
Credit: Prianka Srinivasan.

“This is from a time before Jesus,” the man says. A woman from a nearby village, there to see the excavation, raises her eyebrows in awe.

The Lapita pottery shards have been an impressive find for the team, which began searching the area last year. Their discovery marks this region, on the east coast of Vanuatu’s main Efate Island, as one of the first human settlements of the Pacific, dated around 3,000 years before present (BP).

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Discovering Lapita’s legacy

The Lapita people are considered the Pacific’s ancestors, believed to have set sail from Papua across the Pacific Ocean to populate its many islands. Tracing their journey through the sea has been notoriously hard for researchers. Only a few Lapita remains have been recovered, offering archaeologists very little genetic material to map out the colonisation of the region.

But some of the clues helping modern archaeologists fill these gaps are remnants of pottery, like those found in Pang Pang. The Lapita decorated vessels by pressing the edges of shells and other tools into the wet clay, creating distinctive pinprick patterns. By studying the evolution of these designs, researchers can follow the Lapita’s journey and track the development of the Pacific’s unique cultural groups.

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Working with the community has allowed ni-Vanuatu archaeologist Lucas Sarvanu and team to identify key Lapita sites in Pang Pang. Credit: Prianka Srinivasan.

The earliest pottery pieces dating back to 3,500 BP have been found in the Bismarck region of Papua New Guinea, therefore considered the birthplace of Lapita’s Pacific lineage. How exactly Lapita’s ancestors got here is up for some debate, but genetic evidence shows they descended from Austronesian people, who lived in Taiwan and nearby Southeast Asian islands.

It’s likely these early seafarers were met by existing Papuan populations in Bismarck, who had been living there as early as 65,000 BP. Some Lapita would move further into New Guinea, mixing with local Papuans. But others are believed to have rapidly travelled south from the Bismarck islands, before heading through Melanesia and east to Polynesia. Upolu in Samoa is the easternmost island where Lapita pottery has been found.

The speed of the Lapita expansion is incredible – in just 2,500 years, Lapita and their descendants colonised the Pacific, a region comprising one-tenth of the world. Rather than traversing the region in a wave of migration, the current prevailing theory, first proposed by New Zealand archaeologists in 2006, is that the Lapita leapfrogged to different islands in their outrigger canoes, bypassing much of the Solomon Islands archipelago to settle in Vanuatu and its nearby islands. That’s why these areas are considered a gateway to Pacific migration – likely a first stop for the Lapita out of Bismarck, and from where further settlement of remote islands took place.

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Credit: Prianka Srinivasan.

Edson Willie, an archaeologist from Vanuatu’s Cultural Centre (Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta, VKS) has been studying the Lapita for most of his career and is one of the lead researchers at Pang Pang. He became Vanuatu’s first archaeology graduate, earning his degree at the University of Papua New Guinea.

Tall and imposing, with a furrowed brow that often forms over his carefully selected words, Willie talks passionately about Vanuatu’s history and culture. When I ask him about being Vanuatu’s first ever archaeologist, he corrects me.

“I’m Vanuatu’s first archaeologist with a degree,” he says in Bislama. “There are plenty of local people who do the work of archaeologists but don’t have a degree and aren’t Western-educated.”

That respect for local knowledge bleeds into Willie’s work. At the site in Pang Pang, Willie sits beside the village workers, wrist deep in muddy water, scrubbing shells and laughing with them.

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Locals (left) have been recruited to help excavate artefacts. Credit: Prianka Srinivasan.

Willie believes researchers have only “scratched the surface” of understanding the Lapita people’s journey, their cultural practices and impacts on the islands, despite their importance to the Pacific’s history.

“When we find evidence of Lapita, it connects our people of the Pacific – not just Melanesians but Polynesians too,” Willie says. “We’ve uncovered a bit, slowly we’re uncovering more about where they went and how they lived.”

The village of Pang Pang is like many in Vanuatu. A dozen or so traditional houses, covered in native natangura palm (Metroxylon warburgii) leaves lay nestled between tall coconut palms and mango trees. But since the find in October 2022, elements of the community have transformed.

Villagers have become part of the excavation team in the nearby forest, working with a group of international researchers, including Associate Professor Stuart Bedford from the Australian National University and Dr Frédérique Valentin from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Often, dignitaries from Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila, 25 kilometres south-east, also visit. The group has been told that the French ambassador, whose embassy has funded some of the excavation, will be paying a visit very soon.

Lapita pottery on museum tour in france web
Pots were created by partially superimposing layers of clay, then were fired between 600 and 750°C. Credit: Musée du Quay Branly.

At the site, the local men squat over a shallow dish, scrubbing at newly uncovered shells. Nearby, undergraduate archaeology students from the Australian National University, on a field trip during their winter break, carefully sift through the dirt from a square hole about a metre deep.

“I’m glad that all these people are here, because we didn’t really know about our own history,” says local man Matthew David, who has been nicknamed ‘Pang Pang’s historian’ for his knowledge of the area. “We didn’t know that the Lapita people came here until [researchers] told us.”

The digging is slow and meticulous, but steady progress is being made. In addition to the pottery pieces, the team have so far unearthed shells, coral and animal bones – including some from an ancient giant tortoise that an Australian team believe was hunted to extinction by the Lapita, as published in Scientific Reports in 2016.

A new mound containing piles of limestone rocks has excited the researchers, as such stone piles are known to mark Lapita burial sites. If human remains are found at Pang Pang, it could lead to a major archaeological breakthrough.

The landmark discovery

In 2003 in Teouma, a site close to Port Vila in Efate’s south, quarrying work uncovered one of the Pacific’s oldest graves, containing dozens of individual Lapita remains.

Thanks to the find, not only were French and Australian archaeologists able to document ancient Lapita burial practices – which included the ceremonial removal of skulls from decomposed corpses – but an Australian/US/UK team was also able to use DNA samples to confirm Lapita’s lineage out of Taiwan and other islands in Southeast Asia.

Figure p31
Illustration: Greg Barton.

“We’re still analysing some of the things we found there,” Willie says.

Although it’s unclear if Pang Pang will yield such pivotal relics, the dig has already acquired historical significance. The excavation marks the first time that indigenous archaeologists of Vanuatu have discovered a Lapita site. Lucas Sarvanu – Vanuatu’s only other formally educated archaeologist, who, like Willie, works at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre – made the discovery after he and colleague Iarawai Philip surveyed the area last year. The young archaeologist is gregarious and quick to laugh. He was inspired to become an archaeologist after watching Indiana Jones as a child, and his ambitions have taken him from Vanuatu to the University of New Caledonia, and most recently – thanks to a French government sponsorship – to the Sorbonne University in Paris where he earned his archaeology degree.

“We came to Pang Pang and chatted to the community, especially the chief, old Chief [Tarpuelepul] David, who told us about some of the customary stories,” Lucas explains.

Pangpangdig 17 of 17 web
Credit: Prianka Srinivasan.

After this conversation, they were allowed to walk through the nearby area with the chief’s son and some other young villagers.

“This survey was really fruitful because at the end of it, we found all these mounds,” Sarvanu says. “These mounds are not natural … Basically it was a place where our ancestors used to throw away their rubbish. Over hundreds of years, this rubbish piles up until it becomes a big mound that today we can look into.”

Cultural connection

Sarvanu and Willie are part of a new generation of Pacific islander graduate archaeologists specialising in Lapita. In Vanuatu, as in many Pacific islands, the majority of recorded archaeological science has been done by foreigners.

This was particularly true before the country’s independence in 1980, when foreign scientists working under colonial governments were able to freely enter villages, at times despite protests from locals.

“Before 1980, people here didn’t have power, so foreigners could come inside any community,” Willie says.

The pottery unearthed by the Pang Pang community has unique markings that identify the time and place of the Lapita people who made them. The distinctive, intricate style of the pot rims above, for example, was replaced in later years by plainer decorations. Credit: Lapita Cultural Complex.

This history is not lost on a new generation of Western archaeologists. Over lunch at Pang Pang village, the young ANU students discuss the case of Roi Mata, a Vanuatu chief whose grave was uncovered by French archaeologist Jose Garanger almost six decades ago. According to surveys conducted when the site was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there was “widespread dissatisfaction” from local villagers about the excavations, which were thought to offend the ancient chief’s spirit and led to the regrowth of vegetation around the site (the villagers believe the grave was once so sacred plants were unable to grow there).

They see the tale as a warning, and pledge to always collaborate with local communities, as they are doing in Pang Pang. Such an approach is now mandated in Vanuatu, with all researchers obligated by law to work with the VKS to undertake any studies in the country.

“Archaeology is a field where we go into areas that are considered taboo, for instance we have to touch human remains or dig up graves,” Willie says. “Archaeologists must have a respect for culture … a community must say yes before we go inside, and if they say no then it’s up to us at the Cultural Centre to negotiate a road forward.”

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Edson Willie (left) and Lucas Sarvanu (right) are Vanuatu’s only formally trained archaeologists, but both acknowledge that there are many locals with archaeological skills and knowledge – just without a Western degree. Credit: Prianka Svinivasan.

There’s still a long way to go before local scientists can conduct research independent of foreign institutions. Vanuatu’s national university has only two recognised science courses – in environmental and social sciences – and to study archaeology or any other fields, students rely on international scholarships.

“We are letting outsiders write our history, which is not too good,” Willie says. “My aspiration is that the people from this country are the ones learning and researching about our history … because it shows that we have pride in ourselves, that we’re not just looking at foreign systems but can look at our own traditions.

“It reminds me of a saying from Tanna Island – we’re standing on the back of a turtle, while asking others where the turtle is.”

Searching through dig materials.
Credit: Prianka Srinivasan.

Sarvanu agrees, saying “Vanuatu must produce more local archaeologists”. But he also knows being a Vanuatu-born archaeologist at this point in history, where there is so much still to be discovered, has afforded him an immense privilege.

“Lapita is the pinnacle of Pacific archaeological research,” he says. “Imagine, you dig and you uncover a Lapita pot, and then you have to tell yourself ‘the last person who touched this pot did that 3,000 years ago’ and here you are touching it again. There are no words for that feeling.”

Prianka Srinivasan is a reporter and photographer specialising in the Pacific.

  • This article was published in Cosmos Print Magazine Issue 100 on September 14, 2023. You can purchase the magazine now for $17 or become a subscriber to receive four magazines a year for only $50 AUD (international prices will vary).

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