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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 361-364

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Book Review

The Lapita Peoples: Ancestors of the Oceanic World

The Lapita Peoples: Ancestors of the Oceanic World. By PATRICK VINTON KIRCH. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. Pp. xxv + 353. $77.95 (cloth); $30.95 (paper).

The Lapita Peoples is an ambitious project for a series; edited by Peter Bellwood and Ian Glover, it is dedicated primarily to the living cultures of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. How can one breathe life into mute artifacts left behind by peoples that must have been gone for some 2,500 years? An archaeologist of Lapita culture must infer even the most basic social facts from fragmentary remains of pots and other refuse, or from word lists of a posited protolanguage, where anthropologists and historians, the usual authors for a series such as this, can draw upon more or less direct observation and testimony. Artifacts that provide some direct link to their producers, such as the iconic two-inch human faces that stare out from complex geometric pottery designs or the human figure carved into a small piece of porpoise bone, are unusual finds at only a few of the approximately one hundred sites that have yielded remains of the Lapita culture. And although it is possible to reconstruct words spoken by some, if not all, Lapita peoples, it is rarely possible to deduce their precise meanings. That scholars disagree about fundamentals such as where Lapita culture developed, [End Page 361] whether its people spoke one or more languages, and which of the Pacific Island cultures are descended from the Lapita peoples, only compounds the inherent difficulties of the project.

The established facts of the Lapita archaeological record reveal one of the greatest migrations in world prehistory. The culture's distinctive archaeological characteristic is a pottery design system in which geometric motifs are stamped with a toothed tool into the wet clay of certain fairly elaborate vessel forms following a regular set of rules. Sherds from these so-called dentate stamped vessels, which typically make up a small proportion of an excavated assemblage, the majority of which derives from plain, utilitarian pots and bowls, point strongly to a community of culture spread over a vast portion of the Pacific. The earliest dentate stamped pottery, found in the islands north of New Guinea, dates to about 3,500 years ago, but sites of similar age, often too close in time to distinguish with the radiocarbon dating method as it is currently applied by archaeologists in the Pacific, are found as far east as Tonga and Samoa, some 3,000 km distant. At the western end of its range, from New Guinea to the Solomon Islands, the pottery was produced and deposited on islands that have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. East of this, however, Lapita is the founding culture and the Lapita peoples are now recognized as the discoverers of the Santa Cruz Islands, Vanuatu, Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, a prodigious achievement accomplished in an archaeological heartbeat.

Who were these people? How did they organize themselves in their conquest of the Pacific? How did they manage to colonize so many islands in so little time? And how did their lives change once they settled in their new island homes?

Patrick Vinton Kirch, an archaeologist at the University of California at Berkeley, approaches these and other questions with a combination of archaeologic and linguistic data, arguing, correctly in my view, that their combination can yield more than either one alone. Kirch doesn't present a synthesis of the archaeologic data, however, and the linguistic data often stand alone as lists of words likely used by Lapita peoples to refer to artifacts that are found today in archaeological sites, or as evidence for Lapita use of perishable items. Instead, the book uses three archaeological sites as examples of patterns that Kirch believes are typical. Two of the sites he excavated himself: the Talepakemalai site at the western end of Lapita's range yielded a wealth of normally perishable plant remains...