Pacific Migration, Existence, and Paradox: A Deep History

To "P" or not to "P"

Ceramic Pot, Lapita cultures
c. 3000 BCE
Vanuatu National Museum
(also briefly at Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France)

Humans left Africa about 77,000 years ago, and arrived to the far ends of East Asia and Taiwan about 30,000 years ago. So, how old do you think this Pacific pot is, and when do you think the culture who created it arrived in Oceania?

As fate may have it, this item is actually less than 3,000 years old, and it belongs to the Lapita culture: an early Neolithic Austronesian peoples that are hypothesized to be ancestors of the various other peoples of the Pacific, including Polynesians, Melanesians, and Micronesians.

Through its recency, this Lapita item controversially rebels against the notion of a heterogeneous Pacific islands. Indeed, the reason why Lapita culture pottery has been found across a broad spectrum of over 230 locales (from the westernmost Bismarck Islands off New Guinea all the way to the easternmost island of Samoa) is reflective of the shockingly rapid time frame by which a vast expanse of the Pacific world was settled in less than 2,000 years. That short time period also hints that many peoples across the Oceanic islands- and thus also their linguistics, cultural attitudes, and ethnographic identifiers may have more in common that one might think or be inclined to believe.

But this pot also evokes, questions, and pokes holes at the apparently-anachronistic recency in deep historical time by which that less than 2,000-year period of rapid settlement occurred within as well; after all, understanding the Lapita period in Oceanic prehistory as composing a so-called “Ancestral Oceanic” society beginning less than 3,000 around years ago intuitively jarring when also paired with the fact that the descendants of these pottery makers - the Polynesians - must have by definition then settled the islands of Aotearoa and Hawai‘i around 500 and 800 AD (not BCE), respectively.

When presented with all these facts, difficult questions arise in a viewer - who can say they are local or native to an island? In deep historical time, how do Pacific Islanders complicate the idea of indigeneity, if at all? In sum, a second-order analysis of the Lapita pot raises difficult but necessary questions surrounding migration, non-European settlement, and misguided chronological understandings of Pacific cultures among laymen and the well-educated alike.