email a friend iconprinter friendly iconPioneers of the Pacific
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On a lonely sun-drenched knoll on Éfaté, about half an hour's drive east of Port-Vila, the old colonial capital of Vanuatu, Matthew Spriggs is sitting on an upturned bucket, gently brushing away crumbs of dirt from a richly decorated piece of pottery unearthed only a few minutes earlier. "I've never seen anything like this," he says, admiring the intricate design. "Nobody has. This is unique."

That description fits much of what is coming out of the ground here. "What we have is a first- or second-generation site containing the graves of some of the Pacific's first explorers," says Spriggs, professor of archaeology at the Australian National University and co-leader of an international team excavating the site. It came to light only by luck. A backhoe operator, digging up topsoil on the grounds of a derelict coconut plantation, scraped open a grave—the first of dozens in a burial ground some 3,000 years old. It is the oldest cemetery ever found in the Pacific islands, and it harbors the bones of an ancient people archaeologists call the Lapita, a label that derives from a beach in New Caledonia where a landmark cache of their pottery was found in the 1950s.

They were daring blue-water adventurers who roved the sea not just as explorers but also as pioneers, bringing along everything they would need to build new lives—their families and livestock, taro seedlings and stone tools. Within the span of a few centuries the Lapita stretched the boundaries of their world from the jungle-clad volcanoes of Papua New Guinea to the loneliest coral outliers of Tonga, at least 2,000 miles eastward in the Pacific. Along the way they explored millions of square miles of unknown sea, discovering and colonizing scores of tropical islands never before seen by human eyes: Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa.

It was their descendants, centuries later, who became the great Polynesian navigators we all tend to think of: the Tahitians and Hawaiians, the New Zealand Maori, and the curious people who erected those statues on Easter Island. But it was the Lapita who laid the foundation—who bequeathed to the islands the language, customs, and cultures that their more famous descendants carried around the Pacific.

While the Lapita left a glorious legacy, they also left precious few clues about themselves. What little is known or surmised about them has been pieced together from fragments of pottery, animal bones, obsidian flakes, and such oblique sources as comparative linguistics and geochemistry. Although their voyages can be traced back to the northern islands of Papua New Guinea, their language—variants of which are still spoken across the Pacific—came from Taiwan. And their peculiar style of pottery decoration, created by pressing a carved stamp into the clay, probably had its roots in the northern Philippines.
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