Pottery Reveals Polynesia's Settlers

Archaeologists working in a remote corner of Papua New Guinea have found evidence that the some of the legendary seafarers who first settled Polynesia 3600 years ago were from the archipelago of Melanesia--not directly from Southeast Asia as previously believed. The find indicates that the peopling of the South Pacific began with a migration from southeast Asia to Melanesia, and from there it fanned out across the remote Polynesian islands.

An international team of scientists has found pottery shards, known as Sumalo ware, along with human bones and other traces of ancient life, in the Aitape hills on the Sepik coast of northeastern Papua New Guinea, which is part of Melanesia. The pottery, estimated to be about 4000 years old, is similar to more recent and distinctive Lapita pottery carried by the first settlers in Polynesia in the central and eastern Pacific. This suggests that the first Polynesians learned how to make pottery from Melanesians, not directly from Southeast Asians, says archaeologist John Edward Terrell of the Field Museum of Chicago, who led the expedition.

Along with new evidence from the genes of Polynesians, the pottery shards counter the leading theory on the settling of Polynesia, which holds that bold seafarers started from Southeast Asia and bypassed Melanesia to settle the Polynesian Islands. "We now have definitive evidence that the ancestors of the Polynesians didn't migrate directly from southeast Asia," says Terrell. "They were clearly living in northern New Guinea for a very long time before some people finally left Melanesia to colonize Polynesia."

The Sumalo ware in Papua New Guinea also appears to be an intermediate step between older pottery in Asia and the Lapita pottery. "Sumalo ware fills a major gap in our understanding of the genesis of pottery-making in the Pacific," says Glenn Summerhayes of LaTrobe University in Australia. "Sumalo is the missing link," he says, between Southeast Asian pottery and Lapita ware.