SUVA, Fiji – Excavation of the earliest human settlement in Fiji has yielded fine jewelry and high quality pottery made by ancient Lapita people some 3,000 years ago — and never produced in the area since, a South Pacific geographer said.
"These people were artists," Prof. Patrick Nunn told The Associated Press on Tuesday, announcing archaeological finds including the first-ever discovery of a Lapita jewelry cache, found at Bourewa Beach on the southwest coast of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu.
The Lapita people, the original colonizers of the South Pacific, are believed to have migrated eastward from the Bismarck Archipelago off Papua New Guinea to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and other Pacific islands.
Nunn said the two-month excavation he led at Bourewa Beach found remnants of stilt houses built above the sea, quantities of Lapita-decorated pottery and stone tools and the "big mystery" of the high-quality jewelry.
Fiji Museum staffer Sepeti Matararaba found the jewelry, made from shells, under an upturned clay pot that Nunn said was "a deliberate burial" by someone 3,000 years ago.
When Matararaba turned over the pot over, he uncovered a cache of nine shell rings of different sizes, four shell bracelets and six necklace pieces complete with drill holes.
It was likely the site was a manufacturing center for shell jewelry, and the cache a "deliberate burial of a shell jewelry collection" by the Lapita inhabitants, Nunn said.
"These are the first people in the South Pacific, they are a Stone Age people," he said. "Within a decade or so of arriving in Fiji they were producing exquisite shell jewelry [and] they were producing intricately decorated pottery.
"Yet about 550 B.C., they disappeared as a distinctive cultural group. After that you don't see anyone in Fiji making shell jewelry like that, or pottery like that."
This was "the opposite of what we should expect," which would have been "crude pottery and crude jewelry" at the start of settlement 3,000 years ago getting more sophisticated toward the present.
"We're still a long way off knowing why this is," said Nunn, who is professor of oceanic geoscience at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.
He said the Bourewa Beach settlement was the earliest yet uncovered in Fiji by about 200 years.
Three nearby bays had been populated by "overflow" settlements over the next 500 years before the Lapita culture disappeared as it was subsumed by later colonizers around 550 B.C.
Nunn directed the project supported by Fiji Museum and researchers from universities in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the U.S. and Britain.
Peter Shepphard, associate professor of anthropology at Auckland University in New Zealand, who works on early Lapita and other settlement in Solomon Islands, described the finds as an "extraordinary set of materials" from "a very important site."
The "elaborate decorative systems" of the early settlers were "indicative" of efforts to "retain their ties back into their homeland area" in the Bismarck Archipelago, he said.
The elaborate decorations declined as population levels grew, the new settlement became established "and things simplify," added Shepphard, who was not involved in the Fiji project.