The strange faces drawn on the first pottery made in the South Pacific more than 3,000 years ago have always been a mystery to archaeologists. Research done by two Field Museum scientists using the Museum's Pacific collections published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal in 2007 offers an entirely unexpected solution to this long-standing riddle.*
What archaeologists working in the Pacific call prehistoric “Lapita” pottery has been found at more than 200 different places on islands in a broad arc of the southwestern Pacific from Papua New Guinea to Samoa. Pacific scholars have long considered the faces sometimes sketched by ancient potters on Lapita pottery to be human faces, and the prevailing judgment has been that ancient Pacific Islanders evidently must worshiped their ancestors.
John Terrell, Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, and Esther M. Schechter, a Research Associate in the Museum's Department of Anthropology, however, have been able to piece together evidence of several sorts leading to a radically different understanding of the religious life of people in the Pacific 3,000 years ago.
Most of these mysterious faces, they report, may represent sea turtles. Furthermore, these ceramic portraits may be ways of expressing religious ideas held by early Pacific Islanders about the very origins of humankind.
Terrell and Schechter say the evidence they have assembled also reveals that these ideas did not die when people in the Pacific stopped making Lapita pottery about 2,500 years ago. They have not only identified this expressive symbolism on prehistoric pottery excavated several years ago by Terrell and his colleagues at Aitape on the Sepik Coast of northern New Guinea, but they have also identified this iconography on wooden bowls and platters collected at present-day villages on this coastline that are now in the Museum’s anthropological collections.
“Nothing we had been doing in New Guinea for years had prepared us for this discovery,” Terrell explained. “We have now been able to describe for the first time four kinds of prehistoric pottery from the Sepik Coast that when considered in series fill the temporal gap between practices and beliefs in Lapita times and the present day.
“A plausible reason for the persistence of this iconography is that it has referenced ideas about the living and the dead, the human and the divine, and the individual and society that remained socially and spiritually profound and worthy of expression long after the demise of Lapita as a distinct ceramic style,” Terrell added.
*John Edward Terrell and Esther M. Schechter (2007). Deciphering the Lapita code: The Aitape ceramic sequence and the late survival of the ‘Lapita face.’ Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17: 59-84.
Deciphering the Riddle of Lapita
Wooden bowl from Tandanye (Tarawai) Island, Sepik Coast, Papua New Guinea.
Catalog No. 148566, George A. Dorsey collection, 1908.