Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Lapita Pottery (ca. 1500–500 b.c.)

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The term Lapita refers to an ancient Pacific culture that archaeologists believe to be the common ancestor of the contemporary cultures of Polynesia, Micronesia, and some areas of Melanesia. The culture takes its name from the site of Lapita in New Caledonia, one of the first places in which its distinctive pottery was discovered. While archaeologists debate the precise region where Lapita culture itself developed, the ancestors of the Lapita people came originally from Southeast Asia. Beginning around 1500 B.C., Lapita peoples began to spread eastward through the islands of Melanesia and into the remote archipelagos of the central and eastern Pacific, reaching Tonga and Samoa by roughly 1000 B.C. The Lapita were a seafaring people who settled primarily on the coast rather than inland and their skilled navigators traversed the ocean with ease.


Lapita art is best known for its ceramics, which feature intricate repeating geometric patterns that occasionally include anthropomorphic faces and figures.


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  • Lapita face

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Lapita art is best known for its ceramics, which feature intricate repeating geometric patterns that occasionally include anthropomorphic faces and figures. The patterns were incised into the pots before firing with a comblike tool used to stamp designs into the wet clay. Each stamp consisted of a single design element that was combined with others to form elaborate patterns. Many Lapita ceramics are large vessels thought to have been used for cooking, serving, or storing food. Some of the designs found on Lapita pottery may be related to patterns seen in modern Polynesian tattoos and barkcloth. In addition to vessels, a number of freestanding pottery figures depicting anthropomorphic and zoomorphic subjects have been unearthed at Lapita sites, as well as a single bone image representing a stylized human figure.

Jennifer Wagelie
Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York

Pottery Fragment, 1000 B.C.
Solomon Islands, Reef Islands
Nenumbo site, Lapita culture
Terra Cotta; h. 3 in. (7.5 cm)
Courtesy of the Photographic Archive, Department of Anthropology, University of Auckla

One of the finest examples of the Lapita potter's art, this fragment depicts a human face incorporated into the intricate geometric designs characteristic of the Lapita ceramic tradition.


Map of the western Pacific showing the distribution of Lapita sites.