Aborigines Were Part of a Pacific Trade Network 3,000 Years Ago

The traditional story of Australia’s history before the arrival of captain James Cook in 1770 goes something like this: about 50,000 years ago, when the water levels were significantly lower, people migrated from South Asia to Australia. As the sea rose once more, they were cut off from the rest of the world, living a primal life as hunter gatherers and nomads. Not until the arrival of English settlers were the vast continent connected to the rest of humanity – as part of the British empire.

But it’s been challenged for centuries – ever since Cook’s discovery of the continent – by indigenous versions of aboriginal history. And new historical evidence has put the final nail in the coffin of this dated notion of Australian history.

Pottery shards in all the wrong places

The Lapita were a seafaring people credited with settling a good deal of Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia from 1600 to 500 BCE. Using large outrigger canoes to traverse the Pacific, the people settled islands in a clear pattern from West to East, leaving vast oceanic trade and cultural networks in their wake. Their sole navigational aids were the stars, currents and other natural phenomena, yet they – and other Polynesians – never lost their way. It’s a feat that still confounds experts.

A Polynesian outrigger canoe. The wood that the vessels are made of is prone to natural degradation, and doesn’t survive in the archaeological record – so all reconstructions of the canoes used to settle much of the Pacific is pure guesswork. The earliest record of canoes in the Pacific are European renderings from the 18th century, but it’s likely that the basic seafaring technology stayed much the same throughout the history of Pacific settlement. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Even though the Lapita culture stopped its migration after 600 BCE, the settlement of the Pacific continued for almost two millennia. The last known island to be settled was New Zealand’s South Island, finally reached around 1200 CE. (Although Polynesian knowledge of the island probably goes much further back.)

The way that archaeologists figure out which peoples settled which islands is through scouring the archaeological record. They link material culture to different peoples – such as specific ways of using shells in a necklace, explained further in my post about ancient African trade – and simply follow the evidence.

The calling card of the Lapita culture was pottery. They used sharp tools to stamp geometric designs onto their unfired, soft pottery. When fired, the designs set, creating a distinct, Lapitan pottery. Following and dating these pottery shards have taken archaeologists from the Bismarck Archipelago to Fiji, Tonga and New Caledonia.

Map showing where Lapita pottery shards have been found. When the dates are taken into account, we’re left with a clear, west-east settlement pattern. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

But in 2011, a group of archaeologists found Lapita pottery in Southern New Guinea. Since then, shards have been discovered hundreds of kilometres away from the area associated with Lapitan settlements, on Lizard Island, off the coast of Eastern Australia. This is evidence of contact between Aborigines and Pacific islanders, overturning the idea of an isolated, Australian community.

What’s even bigger is the age of the shards, up to 3,000 years old. Before the birth of Christ, Aborigines and Pacific islanders created a vast network in the Pacific.

Ancient trade

One of the things that struck Europeans when they arrived in Australia was the lack of indigenous pottery making. This was construed by 18th and 19th century historians and archaeologists as evidence of Aboriginal backwardness. If a culture couldn’t even make basic pottery, it was seen as hardly better than primates.

Apart from being unapolegitically racist, it’s also blatantly wrong.

Much of the pottery found on Lizard Island is clearly Lapitan in origin. Yet many of the shards are made from materials native to the island.

This suggests that the Aboriginal islanders not only traded with their Lapitan counterparts, but also learnt how to fire and make pottery from them. Knowledge transfers like these require more than sporadic contact between cultures. In other words, it wasn’t just Lapitan islanders that travelled to Lizard Island: Lizard Islanders sailed to Lapitan lands as well.

This confirms indigenous knowledge that ancient Australia wasn’t just an isolated land of hunter gatherers living in off the land, but a place of many, vibrant cultures connected with each other through vast, complex trade networks.

Across the Coral Sea, from the coast of Australia to the islands of Polynesia, goods, languages and cultures flowed back and forth, and were transformed in the process. The Lapitan pottery shards is just one example. Others include pipes of bamboo, canoes and necklaces, not to mention dissemination of languages.

The historical community is finally coming to terms with what has been known among indigenous peoples for centuries. This begs a question: what other indigenous knowledge have we dismissed out of hand?

The bay at Lizard Island where archeologists have discovered pottery shards linking Aborigines to Pacific islanders thousands of years ago. Used with permission: Nigel Sommerfield.

Want to learn more?

Mike Foley. “Captains of industry: Australia’s ancient seafaring trade rewrites history”, The Sydney Morning Herald. January 30, 2022.

David Abulafia. Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans. 2020.

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