Study provides insight into diet of early Pacific colonists

Lapita people relied on foraging as well as agriculture; men enjoyed a more varied diet than women.

Between 1400 and 800 BC, Polynesian colonists associated with the Lapita culture spread out into the Pacific from Island Southeast Asia, eventually settling the islands of central and eastern Melanesia and western Polynesia. The word ‘Lapita’ is a Western mispronunciation of Xapeta’a, the native Kanak name for the site in New Caledonia that gave its name to the culture. The Lapita culture is noted for its distinctive pottery, which was typically red-slipped, and decorated with small-toothed (‘dentate’) bone or shell chisels.

By around 1300 to 1200 BC, Early Lapita communities were established over a wide area of the Bismarck Archipelago. The dispersed communities formed a network of societies that maintained regular contact with one another, and were probably related by kinship and marriage. The clearest evidence for these long-distance interactions is the trade in obsidian from New Britain and the Admiralty Islands, and parallel changes in pottery styles over the region up until around 1000 BC. After that time, inter-island contacts seem to have dropped off markedly. In the meantime, by around 1200 to 1100 BC, Lapita people had moved beyond the Bismarck Archipelago and settled parts of Remote Oceania. In just 600 years, the Lapita people spread through Melanesia to the Central Pacific, reaching Vanuatu by 1000 BC, Fiji and Tonga by 900 BC, and Samoa by 700 BC. It was here that the migration paused after covering some 5,500 km (3,400 miles), one of the fastest movements of a prehistoric colonising population on record.

The Lapita colonists brought with them domesticated pigs, chickens and dogs, and crops including yams, taro, breadfruit, coconut, sago and bananas. However, the extent to which they relied upon this ‘agricultural package’ for sustenance remains uncertain, and in particular there are questions about how settlers sustained themselves during the initial stages of colonisation of each island.

A powerful technique for understanding the diets of prehistoric peoples is stable isotope analysis. The ratios in which isotopes of certain elements occur in human remains are dependent on what individuals ate while they were alive. Investigations have focussed on stable (i.e. non-radioactive) isotopes of carbon and nitrogen and, more recently, sulphur.

In the case of the Lapita people such investigations have been hampered by a scarcity of human remains, despite around 250 sites being known throughout the western Pacific. However, a cemetery at the site of Teouma, on Efate Island, Vanuatu has yielded 68 burials – the largest number of human remains from the Lapita period ever found. The cemetery dates to the earliest known settlement of Central Vanuatu, around 1000 BC. As such, it can provide information about the settlers’ diet during the initial stages of Lapita colonisation.

The researchers obtained isotopic ratios for bone collagen from 51 adult Lapita people. They then obtained a comprehensive isotopic dietary baseline made up of both modern plants and animals, and prehistoric animal remains from the site. By comparing the two sets of results, they found that the settlers’ diet included reef fish, marine turtles, and fruit bats in addition to domesticated pigs and chickens. Rather than rely solely on their ‘transported landscape’ of domesticated crops and animals, the settlers were practicing a mixed subsistence that included significant quantities of native wildlife, as well as domestic animals.

Dietary differences were found between men and women. The men enjoyed a more varied diet, which included greater access to pigs, chicken and tortoises. Such foods are considered to be of high status in present-day Pacific island societies, and the difference may reflect a higher status for men in Lapita society.

The results are consistent with the view that a newly-established colony would not be able to produce enough food to support itself, and would have to rely to an extent on foraging. This is also supported by an analysis of the remains of domestic pigs and chickens, which suggested that they were reared as free range animals. Such a system of husbandry would reduce demand for the limited amount of plant food that was available.

1. Kinaston, R. et al., Lapita Diet in Remote Oceania: New Stable Isotope Evidence from the 3000-Year-Old Teouma Site, Efate Island, Vanuatu. PLoS One 9 (3), e90376 (2014).

Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author