The Lapita series
In his acclaimed novel The Oxford Murders,
the Argentinean writer and mathematician Guillermo Martínez engagingly shows
how easy it is to hide the truth from others by getting them to think that a
series of similar events—in this instance, a series of murders—is happening
because, when taken in sequence, they appear to add up to a coded message that
we are being taunted to decipher.
Similarly, there is something about Lapita pottery
in the southwest Pacific that seems to be begging us, perhaps even taunting us,
to decipher. But as Martínez shows us, human beings are given to
equating similarity with necessity. Are Lapita’s similarities of appearance
necessarily similarities of cause?
Lapita has long been described as a “community
of culture.” But what is culture?
The word “culture” is ambiguous for it is
polysemantic. For example, some say it
is about learned behavior; others
prefer to talk about it as ideas.
It would seem to follow
that there are also alternative ways to answer the question What is Lapita?
Said differently, Lapita can be also
seen as learned behavior or ideas.
Cognitive models of
Lapita ((e.g., phylogenetic and
linguistic models) tend to see Lapita as telling us important things about
continuities in Pacific prehistory, about the origins of some but not all Pacific
Islanders, and about local blood lines and descent defined in terms of genetics.
On the other hand, behavioral models of
Lapita (e.g., computer simulations, human biogeography)
focus our attention more on issues of adaptation to island environments, the
roles of innovation and decision-making in human life, and the realities
and unpredictable dimensions of historical contingency.
Nobody needs to invoke novelists to observe, however, that just as a finite sequence of numbers can
be continued in a variety of ways, so too, there are many ways to explain the
human settlement of the Pacific.
And as Martínez
illustrates so effectively in The Oxford
Murders, if stories are told cleverly enough, we may be enticed into
thinking that placing one event after another actually explains the sequence
What does the history of
Lapita ideas—it is currently fashionable to call them the "lineages" of Lapita
ideas—have to do with the histories of the people who held them?