People of the Pacific

Photograph by: Stephen Alvarez, National Geographic March 2008

By Marisa Larson and Barbara Wyckoff, National Geographic staff

Who were these amazing seafarers? Where did they come from? And how could a Neolithic people with simple canoes and no navigational gear manage to find, let alone colonize, hundreds of far-flung islands scattered across an ocean that spans nearly a third of the globe?

The recent discovery of an ancient cemetery in Éfaté, Vanuatu, may shed light on the distant ancestors of today’s Polynesians. Called the Lapita, they weren’t just daring adventurers but also pioneers who brought along everything they would need to build new lives on distant shores. Within a few centuries, their settlements stretched from Papua, New Guinea, eastward across the Pacific to Tonga, a distance of at least 2,000 miles. 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, Somoa.

Centuries later the great Polynesian navigators—Tahitians, Hawaiians, New Zealand’s Maori, and the people who erected the statues on Easter Island—pushed out even farther. But it was the Lapita who laid the foundation for the spreading of their culture, customs, and language by their descendents.

For all their influence, however, little is known about the Lapita, who left few clues about themselves. What scant information we have has been pieced together from fragments of pottery, animal bones, and obsidian flakes, as well as from the use of 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.

But some of the most puzzling questions in South Pacific anthropology remain: Did all Pacific islanders spring from one source or many? Was there only one outward migration from a single point in Asia or several from different points? Archaeologists say that the cemetery is their best chance yet of finding some answers.


Smith, Roff. “Beyond the Blue Horizon.“ National Geographic (March 2008), 106-23.

Other Resources

Volcanoes of the World.

Vanuatu Cultural Center.

Vanuatu Cultural Center link to dig on Éfaté.

Reconstruction of Lapita pot.

Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Nan Madol site on Pohnpei.

Beaglehole, J.C. The Life of Captain James Cook. Stanford University Press, 1974.

Bergreen, Laurence. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. 2003.

Cook, James. The Voyage of Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780. Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Irwin, Geoffrey. The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Kirch, Patrick Vinton. On the Road of the Winds. University of California Press, 2000.

Robson, John. The Captain Cook Encyclopedia. Chatham Publishers, 2004.

Spriggs. Matthew. The Island Melanesians. Blackwell, 1997.

Steadman, David. Extinction & Biogeography of Tropical Pacific Birds. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Other National Geographic Resources

Villiers, Alan. “The Man Who Mapped the Pacific.” National Geographic (September 1971), 297-349.

Keywords: Lapita, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Hawaii, Easter Island, Pacific islanders, Efate, Vanuatu, James Cook, Magellan, Pacific navigation

Last updated: January 28, 2008