Early Pacific Island Cultures & Their Customs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Pacific Islands are home to some unique cultures, but where did these come from? In this lesson, we'll talk about the first Pacific Island cultures to show up in the archeological record and explore their impact on life in Oceania.

The Pacific Islands

On the list of places where most people would like to retire are the islands of the Pacific Ocean. If you've ever been to Tahiti or Hawaii, or even seen pictures, it's not hard to understand. Apparently the desire to retire in this region, formally called Oceania, is millennia old. Humans settled in Oceania at a very early date, and continued expanding across these islands for thousands of years. But, rather than just lounging on the beach in blissful retirement, these cultures were very active. This is great for us as archeologists, as they've left behind some pretty interesting evidence of their early societies.


Settlement of Oceania

Understanding the early cultures of Oceania first requires a little understanding of how people got to these islands. The oldest evidence of human occupation in Oceania actually dates back to about 36,000 years ago, which is not too long after the first major human migrations out of Africa. These sites, found in New Guinea, suggest that early humans developed basic boat technology early on in their quest for reliable resources. We call the area around New Guinea, extending from the Bismarck Archipelago to the Solomon Islands, Near Oceania.

Early hunter-gatherers with their boats spread across Near Oceania, and as they sailed they improved basic boats with some pretty advanced sailing technologies. These cultures owed their success to the development of the outrigger and double-hulled sailing canoes, some of the most important inventions to come out of this part of the world and amongst the most sophisticated sailing technologies in the world at that time. These canoes were so seaworthy that many archeologists actually believe Polynesian sailors eventually made it to South America and back. By roughly 2000 BCE, these early sailors were spreading across Austronesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia (collectively Remote Oceania). These human groups managed to sail across open ocean into Polynesia by about 900 BCE, and had filled the remotest corners of these islands by 1200 CE.

Highly sophisticated canoes allowed early cultures to spread across Oceania.

Early Cultures--The Lapita

There's a lot about the earliest Oceania cultures we'll probably never know, since most of their material culture was made of corrodible materials like plant fibers and animal skins. One of the first cultures that we can tell a lot about appeared in the Bismarck Archipelago around 1500-1300 BCE. We call them the Lapita culture. Lapita sites are characterized by distinct forms of pottery, stone and shell tools, and settled villages along coastlines that would have survived on both domesticated plants and wild marine resources. So, where did this culture come from? Archeological and genetic evidence suggests that the Lapita arose from a combination of Oceanic peoples and cultures and intruding Southeast Asian peoples. The range of Lapita artifacts and sites over Near Oceania does show that there was a large amount of cultural contact between peoples, despite being relatively remote, so it makes sense that this culture developed from interactions between many groups.

Lapita artifacts, or artifacts descendant from the Lapita, are found across Oceania.

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