And how could a Neolithic people with simple canoes and no navigation gear manage to find, let alone colonize, hundreds of far-flung island specks scattered across an ocean that spans nearly a third of the globe? But now a startling archaeological find on the island of Éfaté, in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, has revealed an ancient seafaring people, the distant ancestors of today's Polynesians, taking their first steps into the unknown.
The discoveries there have also opened a window into the shadowy world of those early voyagers.
Other discoveries included a burial urn with modeled birds arranged on the rim as though peering down at the human bones sealed inside.
It's an important find, Spriggs says, for it conclusively identifies the remains as Lapita.
They were daring blue-water adventurers who roved the sea not just as explorers but also as pioneers, bringing along everything they would need to build new lives—their families and livestock, taro seedlings and stone tools.
Within the span of a few centuries the Lapita stretched the boundaries of their world from the jungle-clad volcanoes of Papua New Guinea to the loneliest coral outliers of Tonga, at least 2,000 miles eastward in the Pacific.
"It would be hard for anyone to argue that these aren't Lapita when you have human bones enshrined inside what is unmistakably a Lapita urn." Several lines of evidence also undergird Spriggs's conclusion that this was a community of pioneers making their first voyages into the remote reaches of Oceania.
For one thing, the radiocarbon dating of bones and charcoal places them early in the Lapita expansion.At the same time, other pieces of this human puzzle are turning up in unlikely places.Climate data gleaned from slow-growing corals around the Pacific and from sediments in alpine lakes in South America may help explain how, more than a thousand years later, a second wave of seafarers beat their way across the entire Pacific.A particularly intriguing clue comes from chemical tests on the teeth of several skeletons.Then as now, the food and water you consume as a child deposits oxygen, carbon, strontium, and other elements in your still-forming adult teeth.But it was the Lapita who laid the foundation—who bequeathed to the islands the language, customs, and cultures that their more famous descendants carried around the Pacific.