A Brief History of Pottery in the Pacific

Pottery emerged 3,500 years ago in Oceania and spread throughout the Pacific. These pots showcase the marvels of pottery in the Pacific.

Oct 12, 2022By Arthur Grainger, MA in Archaeology
lapita pottery papuan pot
The Pacific showing the spread of the Lapita (shaded circle), via SpringerLink; with a Papuan pot, Abelam Culture, 19th-20th century, via the Bowers Museum


Pottery emerged in several regions throughout the Pacific as early as 3,500 BP (before present, 1950). The technology came from Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) and spread out from the east and south with the expansion of what would become known as the Austronesian culture. Pottery is perhaps the most important archaeological material left behind by these peoples who predominantly used perishable materials such as wood to build their coastal stilt houses and tools.


There is much debate about where the technology originated from in ISEA, with some pinpointing its origins to the Northern Philippines, while others suggest it came from islands in the southern part of the region. Wherever it may be, what is known is that pottery in the pacific moved east quickly colonizing Micronesia and reaching the Papuan inhabitants of Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago.


Pottery in the Pacific: Austronesian Pottery in ISEA

austronesian pot pottery in the pacific
Pottery from Island Southeast Asia, c 3,500 BP, via SpringerLink


Before pottery spread out of Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) across the Pacific the Austronesian culture was born. These ancestors to many of the indigenous Oceanic populations would lead groups of people on an epic voyage across uncharted oceans to colonize distant lands. And they brought with them the technology of pot-making to these islands.


So, what did their pots look like and how do we know that they were made by people that came after them including the Micronesians, and Polynesians? It comes down to red-slip pottery, certain decorative styles, as well as certain pot types. We should also acknowledge for a second that other research focusing on DNA and sourcing studies shows direct connections between ISEA and distant Pacific lands.


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Excavations of sites in the Northern Luzon valley in the Philippines sheds light on pottery technology before it spread out across the Pacific.  These sherds are red-slipped, out-curving vessels, with incised decoration (see figure above).


Micronesian Pottery

mariana islands pottery shards
Pottery from the Mariana islands, 3,500 BP, via Flickr


The first regions that the Austronesians settled in were the previously uninhabited islands of Micronesia. The exact dating is very much still up for debate, including the date of the first islands settled and the routes taken. However, the general consensus is that they arrived in the Mariana Island of Saipan circa 3,500 BP.


The pottery excavated from the earliest dated site, Unai Bapot, shows red-slipped pottery tempered with local beach sands. The types of pots include thin outcurving jars, which are largely plain. What makes these pots remarkable is the rare decoration found. They are incised and impressed with bands infilled with lime and they are superficially similar to pottery decoration found in ISEA.


Other parts of Micronesia also show evidence of pottery technology which appears a few hundred years after the currently accepted dates for pots on the Marianas. These include places like: Yap, Palau, and the Caroline Islands.  They too show their own “style” of pottery, but with similarities to Austronesian settlers with red-slip and decorated sherds. Over time, pottery across all of Micronesia evolved into unique regional styles. Take the Mariana Islands where pots became thicker as populations grew until the red-slip signature of their past all but disappeared.


The Birth of Lapita

pottery in the pacific lapita cultural sites
The cultural spread of Lapita, via Britannica


Around 3,300 BP, the Austronesians moved east into the Bismarck Archipelago and the northern coastline of Papua New Guinea. They came into regions previously occupied by Papuan peoples and as the two cultures merged, they gave birth to a new culture known as Lapita. This new cultural complex had aspects of both their parents and so the pottery they made reflected this.


The sherds excavated from around the Bismarck Archipelago show that pots were created under low-fired conditions and sand-tempered. They were slab-built and finished with a paddle and anvil. The finished pots were red-slip and decorated with a wide range of styles that spread just as far east as the Lapita cultural complex.


So, what makes Lapita distinctive? Arguably, the most distinctive quirk of Lapita pots is the dentate-stamped designs, which include both complex and very simple motifs which go into their hundreds. These dentate designs are regarded as a unique development from Lapita as it is not seen in ISEA before the birth of this culture.


Around three hundred years after the birth of Lapita, the culture made a drastic shift east out of the Bismarck region, and in a short space of time, they passed by the Solomons and went as far as Samoa and Tonga. They passed through the barriers of what is sometimes called “Near Oceania”, and into the far ocean of the previously unexplored “Remote Oceania”. On the islands of Samoa and Tonga, Lapita culture settled and eventually transformed into Polynesian culture.


Papuan Pottery

clay pot papuan pottery
A Papuan pot, Abelam Culture, 19th-20th century, via the Bowers Museum


With the birth of Lapita in the Bismarck Archipelago roughly 3,300 BP, it comes as no surprise that pottery technology quickly spread to the north coast of Papua New Guinea and then onto the mainland.  Pottery material sourced from the highlands was excavated along the north coast and dated to 3,000 BP.


The spread of pottery in the Pacific is an ever-changing story as until recently no Lapita pottery was found along the south coast of Papua New Guinea, until Caution Bay became the most significant archaeological site in the region.  Pottery excavated here showed evidence of tight networks between distant parts of Oceania, and the influence of Lapita culture.


Pottery became a staple of Papuan society and even after Lapita fell, they still created pots all over the mainland. On such a large landmass and across a cultural context so diverse it is hard to describe the pottery of Papuan pots alone.


But if we look at this example above, we can see a unique pot piece that does not represent a Lapita pot, but a unique blend of Papuan cultures. Yes, you could argue that the incised triangles reflect a Late Lapita style, but the face and shape of the pot is a cultural development right out of PNG!


Polynesian Pottery

spread of polynesian culture map
The Polynesian triangle, via PNAS


The homeland of the Polynesian peoples cannot be defined as a single island, but more a collection of islands which were interconnected and colonized by the Late Lapita push from the west.  These are theorized to be Tonga and Samoa.


So, what about Polynesian pots and how are they different from the Lapita before them? Emerging Polynesian identities continued to practice pottery for a long time well after the Lapita existed, however in some contexts it fell out of fashion. This was almost certainly the case when they pushed eastwards to colonize Hawaii and New Zealand.


The pottery uncovered from sites around Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji represent the “Late Lapita” period, which differs a lot from the classic “Early Lapita”. The Early Lapita was complex with dentate-stamping designs, but by the time the pottery arrived in these eastern islands, the technology had become simpler with the majority undecorated.


pot sherds tonga
Pot sherds excavated from Tonga showing simple dentate-stamped designs, via Matangi Tonga News


These trends continued as potters settled and started to develop their own unique signatures in new environments. Soon the pottery produced was distinctive and showed early signs of the birth of Polynesian culture. Tonga would stop making its own pottery, while Samoa and Fiji continued. It is likely that people on these islands, having less abundant sources of clay and other suitable materials to create pots, found other technology, such as weaved bags or wood, to fill the same roles.


Pottery in the Pacific: Concluding Remarks

cemetery vanuatu pottery in the pacific
A Lapita pot found in Teouma cemetery in Vanuatu, via, RNZ


The history of pottery in the Pacific is a complex tale that is ever-changing and spreads out far across many islands, periods, and cultures. Pottery is a purely utilitarian technology for cooking, storage, or transport, but to an archaeologist looking back, it is something more than that. They are magical vessels that were left as sherds in the ground to tell us about the cultures that made and used these divine objects. The pots that we use today could one day inform others about our lives in the future, so we best take care of them and appreciate them.


The tale pots tell is an epic one, that spreads out from ISEA Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, to the birthplaces of Lapita and Polynesian cultures. They tell a tale of ancient peoples that 3,500 years ago against the odds left their homeland behind to go on an epic voyage where they might not have known if they would even find anything. But they did, and as a result, we have many unique cultures to meet today. So, to the marvels of pottery, we tilt our hats.

Author Image

By Arthur GraingerMA in ArchaeologyArthur is an archaeologist with experience in fieldwork around New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Micronesia. He received his MA in Archaeology with honors from the University of Otago, New Zealand. Now a freelance archaeologist and contributing writer looking to share the joys of archaeology and uncovering the mysteries of the past!