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3,000 years of pottery show who we are

Ancient Lapita pot
Ancient Lapita pot

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PORT MORESBY - Clay pots in many parts of Papua New Guinea are household items and people say they enjoy food cooked in clay pots.

In the Markham valley, the signature clay pot, or ‘gurr’ as we call it, is on the fire every day of the week.

Boy, could I eat some sweet orange long bananas and taro with pig meat simmered in greens, herbs and spices drowned in steaming coconut milk and served with sides of pumpkin, corn and potato straight from the good old graun pot?

Mmm, maybe later, first I want to share some tales with you.

Pots are ancient cooking items in the traditional Markham culture and a proud part of our heritage.

People even wrote songs about them: ‘Ten burning warriors, all lined up in a row, all lined up in a row.’

Pots often feature in our legends and superstition, but I’d rather not go into tumbuna story but pull out some archaeological facts showing how these clay pots came to places like 360 km north-west of the Markham valley in the mountains of the Wanelek area.

Clay pots were made by coastal people and I have a theory that the Markham pots could have originated from the north coast of Madang and been carried along an ancient trade track between Markham and Saidor.

But before then history tells us of two ancient waves of migration that populated the island of New Guinea.

The first wave is dated to 50,000–60,000 years ago, the prehistoric ancestors of the Melanesian race came - the original inhabitants of New Guinea island. But they didn’t make clay pots.

The second wave is known as the Lapita migration of the oceanic people - around 3,500–4,000 years ago. These were the ancestors of the Polynesian and Micronesian peoples. They made clay pots.

The consensus amongst historians is that the second wave of migration briefly stopped on the northern islands of New Guinea but never interacted with the indigenous people and canoed off further into the Pacific islands (modern day Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and others).

However, the recent discovery of a 3,000-year-old fragmented piece of pottery in the Wanelek area near the mountainous Madang-Western Highlands border has significantly rewritten that history.

This site is a short distance from the ancient Kuk swamp, which you can read more about here.

Analysis of the pieces of clay pot by researchers at New Zealand’s University of Otago show that the second wave of oceanic people did not just skirt the northern parts and canoe off.

No, they did settle on the New Guinea coastline first – and for some 2,200 years - before moving further into the oceanic region.

Furthermore, the discovery of 3,000-year-old pottery so far inland means that the technology of the oceanic people – designed pottery, outrigger canoes, building houses over water, body tattoos, pigs, dogs and chickens, varieties of bananas and yams – were all shared at that time with the indigenous people of PNG.

Genes were shared as well. Those ancient Melanesians and Polynesians were definitely busy.

The genes of the Lapita people show they mixed with Melanesians, reversing the view that Polynesians and Micronesians are direct ancestors of south-east Asians and never interacted with Melanesians.

The Motuans, for example, have a distinct physical appearance that resembles the Lapita people, clearly standing out from the darker complexion of the Melanesian people to the north.

I have a crazy theory of how our famous ground-pots (gurr) could have found their way into the vast savannah plains of the Markham valley.

There’s an ancient trade track called the Kaiapit-Saidor track that the ancient people of the Markham used for back and forth trade with people on the north coast of Madang. Kaiapit to Saidor is much closer than Kaiapit to Lae.

This track was still active when the Japanese used it in World War II. Well, 3,000 years ago, there was no Lae city, so folks would be like: “Hey, let’s head north to the coast and get some fish and pigs, we’ll trade those with our marafri, jirabs and umant (bananas and taro)”.

It could have been that on one of those trips north, our people could have come into contact with the oceanic people who might have traded pots amongst other things.

As the relationship grew, the skills of making those pots could have been passed on to our people. Evidence of pots dug up in the Markham plains shows resemblances to the patterns of Lapita pottery and those pots stretch up to the Agarabi area near Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands.

To me, this indicates an active cultural trade and interaction in those areas around 3,000-4,000 years ago.

Peter Jokisie
Peter Jokisie

In conclusion, a little team we put together will attempt to journey the Kaiapit-Saidor track (if it still exists) to hunt for artefacts.

If my theory is proven and new artefacts are found along the north coast of Madang that pre-date or matches those of the inland Wanelek, that could clearly show the influence that the oceanic people had on indigenous folks, especially the Markham people.

I’m a science major but who wouldn’t want to go on an adventure hunting for old ancient treasures?

Clay pots are a hallmark of our ancient culture and proud historical heritage. I think there’s a story there worth documenting and sharing.

Possible spread of pottery from Madang to Kaiapit and Wanelek-Simbai (far left)
Possible spread of pottery from Madang to Kaiapit and Wanelek-Simbai (far left)


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David Knight

A friend sent me a link to your website regarding a story about ancient artifacts. My father owned a sawmill on Rabaul in the 1970s and one day the locals brought us some stone carvings dug up while digging a garden on an island off Nonga Sawmill called Watum Isand.

These were stone carvings and very unusual and looked very old. The locals wanted 5 dollars per piece and we bought several. My father transported some of them to Australia in the late 1970s and had them for quite a while.

Not sure what happened to them although my sister has more information.

H Tavovona

At Lapita Site 13 - in the Northern Province of New Caledonia, near Kone - shards of Lapita pots were recovered from an excavated context by two American archaeologists, Edward Gifford and Richard Shutler, in the 1950s. That is where Xaapeta originates from.

In 1909 Catholic priest Fr Otto Myer found pot shards on the eroding beach front at Watom Island, East New Britain, bearing the same designs and decorations related to those shards recovered later from New Caledonia and Tonga.

By the way, the 9th Lapita Conference will held from 15 October (tomorrow) to Friday 18th in Port Moresby, hosted by the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery.

Peter Jokisie

Hi Arthur,

Thank you for sharing. Xaapeta! O yeah, that sounds way cooler.

I think the pots can unlock our history

Arthur Williams

Peter, after your earlier article on the Kuk swamp I spent some time surfing the internet about it and got a link to Lapita. I read a long item ‘Lapita and/or Polynesians’ [email protected] It is worth reading if you have the time to spare - as do old men like me.

One item I liked was the root of the word Lapita he suggests: “Lapita pottery has been misunderstood from the day it was discovered when an archaeologist picked up a piece of pottery from the bottom of his pit.

"Some natives (no tribe or location) arriving on the scene exclaimed ‘Xaapeta!’ which means "He dug a pit!"

Unfortunately the scientist thought the natives were getting excited about the piece of rubble he was holding in his hand and decided that the exclamation "Xaapeta" was the name of the culture the pottery represented.

Unfortunately he misheard them and decided the word said was Lapita and through his ‘scientific’ paper the Lapita name has stuck”. That’s ex-spurts for you!

It contains a lot of alleged evidence of Melanesians not being same as Polynesians and attempts to trace the former's ancestral roots back to several countries including China, East Africa, even West-Coast Canada while repeating Thor Heyerdahl’s theory of migration coming west from South America for the Polynesians. Apparently the Polynesians didn’t make pottery and their two hulled canoes were different.

In light of recent High Commissioner’s sort of apology for Maori deaths by Captain Cook’s crew it also mentions that there were pre-Maori people living in Aotearoa. Did the Maori ever apologise to them?

I have heard tales of ‘the little people’ who were original inhabitants of my wife’s island of Lavongai. Indeed one recently dead uncle told of his carrying for an unnamed kiap in the 50s a caged ‘Mus’, I think these forest folk were called. That unhappy person apparently escaped during the night in Taskul.

Surely such an important archaeological event would be there in a patrol report. My only personal experience was on a very early walk on an used forest track from Neikonomen to a small hamlet.

Something ran away in the forest from me. It sounded unlike any wild pig retreat that I had occasionally heard. One of my carriers said it might have been a cassowary which most islanders thought had died out for quite a few years on the island.

The Lapita story is enthralling so keep up your studies into it especially in the PNG context.

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