Deciphering the riddle of Lapita
The strange faces drawn on the first pottery made
in the South Pacific more than 3,000 years ago have always been a mystery to archaeologists.
Research done by two Field Museum scientists using the Museum's Pacific
collections published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal in 2007
offers an entirely unexpected solution to this long-standing riddle.*
What archaeologists working in the Pacific call prehistoric “Lapita” pottery
has been found at more than 200 different places on islands in a broad arc of
the southwestern Pacific from Papua New Guinea to Samoa. Pacific scholars
have long considered the faces sometimes sketched by ancient potters on Lapita
pottery to be human faces, and the prevailing judgment has been that ancient
Pacific Islanders evidently must worshiped their ancestors.
John Terrell, Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum,
and Esther M. Schechter, a Research Associate in the Museum's Department of
Anthropology, however, have been able to piece together evidence of several
sorts leading to a radically different understanding of the religious life of
people in the Pacific 3,000 years ago.
Most of these mysterious faces, they report, may represent sea turtles.
Furthermore, these ceramic portraits may be ways of expressing religious ideas
held by early Pacific Islanders about the very origins of humankind.
Terrell and Schechter say the evidence they have assembled also reveals that
these ideas did not die when people in the Pacific stopped making Lapita
pottery about 2,500 years ago. They have not only identified this
expressive symbolism on prehistoric pottery excavated several years ago by
Terrell and his colleagues at Aitape on the Sepik Coast of northern New Guinea,
but they have also identified this iconography on wooden bowls and platters
collected at present-day villages on this coastline that are now in the
Museum’s anthropological collections.
* John Edward Terrell
and Esther M. Schechter (2007). Deciphering the Lapita code: The Aitape
ceramic sequence and the late survival of the ‘Lapita face.’ Cambridge
Archaeological Journal 17: 59-84.