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Deciphering the Lapita Code: the Aitape Ceramic Sequence and Late Survival of the ‘Lapita Face’

  • John Edward Terrell (a1) and Esther M Schechter (a1)

Abstract

Archaeological and ethnographic evidence from the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea documents the survival in the western Pacific of a stylized symbol or motif — the so-called ‘Lapita face’ — on pottery and possibly other kinds of material items (such as wooden bowls and serving platters) for at least 3300 years. A plausible reason for the persistence of this iconography is that it has referred to ideas about the living and the dead, the human and the divine, and the individual and society that remained socially and spiritually profound and worth expressing long after the demise of Lapita as a distinct ceramic style. We detail evidence for saying that the ‘faces’ on Lapita vessels from thousands of years ago and certain stylized designs on historic and modern carved wooden bowls and platters from this coast are historically linked ways of alluding to sea turtles, creatures figuring prominently in the lore and cosmology of Pacific Islanders. Here we describe four prehistoric wares (or ‘phases’ or ‘periods’) in the Aitape ceramic sequence on the Sepik coast that, considered in series, fill the temporal gap between practices and beliefs in Lapita times and present-day realities in this part of the world.

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