Oceania's seafaring ancients make journey to Paris

9th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Ancient seafarers who launched one of the world's swiftest migrations, settling the virgin islands of remote Oceania 3,000 years ago, have brought their story to Paris for an unprecedented new exhibit.

The Lapita, as the ancient Oceanic people are known, were all-but-unheard of just a few decades ago.

But since the mid-1990s the discovery of a body of highly-distinctive potteries, spread across some 250 sites, has shed light on how the Lapita set out over uncharted waters, bringing their language and culture with them.

Now, for two months starting on Tuesday, the Quai Branly museum of tribal arts in Paris is hosting what is being billed as the first ever comprehensive exhibition on the people's artefacts and history.

"For indigenous people in the region, this is their heritage," said Stuart Bedford of the Australian National University of Canberra, who has studied the Lapita for the past 15 years and is co-curating the Paris exhibit.

"But it's also a great human migratory story, an extraordinary chapter in the colonisation of the planet -- of this vast area that was uninhabited until just 3,000 years ago.

Many of the pieces on show have never left the region, according to Bedford, who lives and works in Vanuatu, home to many of the richest Lapita sites.

The Lapita's story is part of a wider pattern of migration that saw Southeast Asian peoples head south from Taiwan to Papua New Guinea and as far as the main Solomon islands, where they stopped some 40,000 years ago.

Then, after a break of tens of thousands of years, the Lapita took once again to the open seas around 3,300 years ago, pushing east past the Solomon Islands to the Bismarck archipelago and beyond to Vanuatu, Fiji and Samoa.

Wherever they went, they left behind archaeological "markers" in the form of distinctive potteries, decorated with complex, dotted motifs, whose discovery is now enabling researchers to retrace their route over the waters.

"Pacific islanders have an oral tradition of seafaring stories that were dismissed by scientists," said Bedford, who works in partnership with Vanuatu communities that train up local fieldworkers to assist with excavations.

"Missionaries spoke of what came before them as a period of darkness," he said. "After 30 years of independence, Vanuatu is regaining confidence, as people start to appreciate they have a history that is older than the Church".

"They're very excited about the history," said Bedford.

Shell bracelets, disks, pearls and pierced teeth, obsidian shards used as cutting devices and shellfish hooks are shown in Paris alongside dozens of pots -- both in fragments and as whole, reconstituted pieces.

Typical Lapita pots have a large, complex motif running around in a central band, surrounded by a series of smaller friezes, with zig-zags, labyrinths or curls made with the teeth of a tiny comb-like instrument.

Lapita designs are still visible today in some of the region's artefacts -- most strikingly in the Tapas weaves of Fiji and West Polynesia.

But the ceramics -- which have also been recovered from burial sites across the region, used as funerary urns or to mark tombs -- are also believed to have carried deeper meaning.

"Each pot is unique in design. These were not being made for trade," said Bedford. In some cases, intricate dotted motifs are buried under a thick coat of glaze, suggesting a symbolic rather than aesthetic role.

Modern-day Vanuatu is home to a ritual called sand drawing -- or "Sandroing" -- a UNESCO-protected practice which uses graceful, ephemeral patterns to communicate across dozens of language groups.

For Bedford, "just as the sand-drawers pay customary rights to use certain motifs, so the pot designers probably used patterns according to set rules."

Looking beyond the artefacts, Lapita culture is seen as a founding period in the history of Oceanic societies, offering "a chance to understand how people survived in an unpopulated area," said Bedford.

For instance, the discovery of extinct animals -- like a large flightless bird that was hunted to extinction by early Caledonia explorers -- "gives us a picture of the human impact" on the ecosystem.

"We've realised there was a high level of interconnectedness, with people moving around the region for hundreds of years."

Twenty five years ago there were 50 known Lapita sites. Today there are more than 250, from Papua New Guinea to Samoa -- and now that researchers know what they are looking for, new sites are cropping up in Northern Australia as well.

"This story is still being written," Bedford said.

© 2010 AFP

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