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Frontier Lapita interaction with resident Papuan populations set the stage for initial peopling of the Pacific


The initial peopling of the remote Pacific islands was one of the greatest migrations in human history, beginning three millennia ago by Lapita cultural groups. The spread of Lapita out of an ancestral Asian homeland is a dominant narrative in the origins of Pacific peoples, and although Island New Guinea has long been recognized as a springboard for the peopling of Oceania, the role of Indigenous populations in this remarkable phase of exploration remains largely untested. Here, we report the earliest evidence for Lapita-introduced animals, turtle bone technology and repeated obsidian import in southern New Guinea 3,480–3,060 years ago, synchronous with the establishment of the earliest known Lapita settlements 700 km away. Our findings precede sustained Lapita migrations and pottery introductions by several centuries, occur alongside Indigenous technologies and suggest continued multicultural influences on population diversity despite language replacement. Our work shows that initial Lapita expansion throughout Island New Guinea was more expansive than previously considered, with Indigenous contact influencing migration pathways and island-hopping strategies that culminated in rapid and purposeful Pacific-wide settlement. Later Lapita dispersals through New Guinea were facilitated by earlier contact with Indigenous populations and profoundly influenced the region as a global centre of cultural and linguistic diversity.

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Fig. 1: Map of the West Pacific region showing the geographic extent of Lapita culture distribution.
Fig. 2: Location of Brooker Island and Gutunka Bay.
Fig. 3: Meta-analysis of calibrated radiocarbon dates from relevant Lapita sites in Papua New Guinea and Remote Oceania.
Fig. 4: Investigations in Gutunka Bay, Brooker Island.
Fig. 5: Bayesian age model for Gutunka square A.
Fig. 6: Stone, obsidian and pottery from Gutunka, Brooker Island.

Data availability

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article and its Supplementary Information.

Code availability

All Bayesian code generated during this study is included in the Supplementary Information.


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We would like to thank the Brooker and Panaeati Islands communities for permission and support to undertake the archaeological research. We also thank the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea, the National Research Institute and the Provincial Government of Milne Bay for supporting the research programme. We would like to acknowledge S. Kelloway and I. Wainwright of the XRF Facility within the Mark Wainwright Analytical Centre at the University of New South Wales for pXRF support. SEM–EDS was conducted at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney node of the Microscopy Australia network. ZooMS analysis was carried out at the Department of Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. We thank the people of Nissan Island, Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, for their hospitality and continued interest in the archaeology of their ancestors. The project was funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Award (DECRA, DE170100291) to B.S. Radiocarbon dating was partly funded by an Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation grant no. AP11908 awarded to B.S. We acknowledge financial support from the Australian Government for the Centre for Accelerator Science at ANSTO through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

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Authors and Affiliations




B.S. was responsible for conceptualization. B.S., S.C., V.K., J.H., M.L., K.M. and Brooker and Panaeati communities undertook the excavations. S. Hawkins conducted the faunal bone analysis. C.S.M.T., L.B.-V., C.E.M. (Chronos) and G.J. (ANSTO) completed the radiocarbon dating. L.B.-V. undertook Bayesian age modelling. E.H., A.P. and B.S. conducted obsidian pXRF and physical analyses. B.S. conducted sediment, pottery, lithic and shellfish analyses. K.P. conducted SEM–EDS analysis. S. Haberle and F.H. conducted sediment pollen analysis. S.B. undertook ZooMS. M.S. completed the comparative Lebang Halika record. B.S. prepared the manuscript draft and all authors were involved in editing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ben Shaw.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Ecology & Evolution thanks Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith, Dylan Gaffney, Tarisi Vunidilo and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Pollen from excavated sediment 25 cm below the surface (Layer 1b) indicating the presence of heavily disturbed open forest canopy with shrub and herb groundcover within the last 490–310 cal BP.

1) Amaranthaceae (flowering herb/shrub), 2) Pandanus sp. (tree/shrub), 3) Poaceae (flowering grass), 4) Myrtaceae (tree/shrub), 5–6) Macraranga sp. (tree, disturbance indicator1), 7) cf. Stemonurus (tree/shrub), 8) Monolete fern spore, 9) Aerial view of Gutunka Bay showing the heavily disturbed modern vegetation with cleared hillside for garden plots, dense grove of coconut and banana trees, with mangroves lining parts of the shoreline. Note that no mangrove, banana or coconut pollen was identified in the sediment. Photo 1–8 credit: Felicitas Hopf, Photo 9 credit: Ben Shaw.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Gutunka Bay excavations 2018–2019.

(a) The layout of Squares A-B near Spade pit three during the 2018 season. (b) The layout of Squares C-D adjoining A-B showing the high water table during the 2019 season. (c) Bailing of water while removing Square A overburden and spade removal of Square D (sump) sediment. d) The final depth profiles of Squares A–D. Squares A and D revealed a cultural deposit (Layers 6–7) before sustained Lapita settlement (Layers 5b–3, green shade). e) Large stones and pottery recorded in situ at 190-200 cm (Spit 16, base of Layer 5b), Squares A and D. Sediment with dense charcoal inclusions at the southern end of the squares was likely a fireplace. The dense stone was uncovered in a consolidated sediment matrix consistent with sub-soils from the hillside that had washed into the bay following vegetation clearance, effectively sealing the underlying cultural deposits in Layers 6–7. Red symbols indicate the position of in situ recorded pottery from the base of Layer 5b (170-200 cm, Spits 14-16). Photos and drawing credit: Ben Shaw.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Faunal remains recovered from Layer 6 (202-255 cm) and Layer 7 (255-281 cm).

a) Pig rib, Square A, Spit 22, Layer 6, 244–255 cm. b) Dog metapodial, Square D, Layer 6, 220–250 cm. c) Modified turtle carapace, Square A, Spit 21, Layer 6, 236–244 cm. d) Modified turtle carapace, Square A, Spit 22, Layer 6, 244–255 cm. e,f) Cuscus teeth, Square A, Spit 22, Layer 6, 244–255 cm. g) Cuscus, Square A, Spit 20, Layer 6, 226-236 cm. h) Unidentified large mammal (cf. human), Square D, Layer 7, 270 cm. i) Rat acetabulum/ilium/partial ischium and vertebra, Square A, Spit 17, Layer 6, 202-210 cm. j) Dog tooth, Square A, Spit 19, Layer 6, 221-226 cm. Photo credits: Ben Shaw.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Corrected volume of finfish bone recovered from Square A, Gutunka by NISP/m3 (A-C) and g/m3 (D-F).

Most identified remains were from herbivorous fish families (Scaridae and Acanthuridae), although carnivorous fish families were more numerous. Figure credit: Ben Shaw.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Gutunka obsidian metric and pXRF sourcing results.

(a) Box and whisker plot of all obsidian pieces (n = 387) from Squares A–D by cultural context showing median, upper and lower quartiles, and maximum and minimum weights. Dashed line marks the heaviest obsidian piece found in a Lapita context on the south Papuan Coast (2.56 g)2. (b) length and width of all obsidian from Squares A–D compared against 1:1, 2:1, and 3:1 length:width lines. Artefact type for obsidian pieces over 30x20mm in size shown. (c) Strontium (Sr) and Niobium (Nb) ppm concentrations for pXRF analysed obsidian pieces relative to geological source samples from the New Guinea region. (d) Factor analysis of first two principal components (unrotated) of Log10 transformed pXRF data from archaeological obsidian pieces and Fergusson geological source samples. (e) Hierarchical cluster analysis dendrogram (Between-group average linkage) showing the structure of Log10 transformed pXRF data and allocation to a geochemical source. Figure credit: Ben Shaw.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Excavated obsidian from Lapita (Layers 5b–3) and Indigenous (Layer 6) contexts categorized by interpreted tool type.

Square and layer from which each artefact was recovered is shown. Note the presence of concreted sand on some pieces from Layer 6 is consistent with deposition in an intertidal context. Photo credit: Ben Shaw.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Excavated ground and flaked stone artefacts from Gutunka.

(a) Ground and rounded amphibolite rock sourced from Misima Island. Square A, Spit 12, Layer 5b. (b) Ground clastic sandstone, possible grindstone, sourced locally. Square A, Spit 5, Layer 3-4. (c) Ground clastic sandstone grindstone sourced locally. Square A, Spit 10, Layer 5a. (d) Ground agglomerate, hammerstone, sourced locally. Square A, sump, 240–250 cm b.s., Layer 6. (e) Rounded and ground tuff with possible axe-adze sharpening grooves, sourced locally. Square A, Spit 19, Layer 6. (f) Rounded and ground tuff with flattened end, possible abrader, sourced locally. Square A, Spit 13, Layer 5b. (g) Ground silica-rich sandstone with cut mark sourced locally. Square A, Spit 16, Layer 5b. (h) Water rounded sandstone with ground surfaces, sourced locally. Square D, 74 cm b.s., Layer 3. (i) Rounded and ground andesitic sandstone, sourced locally. Square A, Spit 9, Layer 5a. (j) Quartz core, Square D, 70 cm b.s., Layer 3. (k) chert primary flake with cortex, Square A, Spit 5, Layer 3-4. (l) Large chert flake, SP4, 120–140 cm b.s. associated with dentate stamped Lapita pottery. (m) Chert core, Square A, Spit 3, Layer 3. (n) Chert flake, Square A, Spit 1, Layer 2. (o) Chert core, Square A, Spit 11, Layer 5a. (p) Primary chert flake with cortex, Square D, 80–90 cm b.s., Layer 3-4. (q) Ground metasedimentary axe-adze fragment, Square D, 120–140 cm b.s., Layer 5a. (r) Ground metasedimentary axe-adze fragment, Square A, Spit 4, Layer 3. (s) Ground metasedimentary axe-adze fragment, Square A, Spit 3, Layer 3. (t) Ground metasedimentary axe-adze fragment, Square A, Spit 4, Layer 3. (u) Chert flake fragment, Square B, Spit 7, Layer 4. Chert was sourced from islands other than Brooker in the Louisiade Archipelago. Arrows indicate the location of ground surfaces consistent with broken axe/adze fragments. Photo credits: Ben Shaw.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Reef-Lagoon system surrounding Brooker Island, evidence for mid-Holocene high stand, and later beach formation in the Louisiade Archipelago.

a) Aerial drone image looking east along the Calvados island chain 500 m above Brooker Island. b) Wave cut notch in the limestone cliffs on the north side of Panaeati Island consistent with the elevated sea levels during the mid-Holocene high stand. c) Excavated section at the back of Malakai beach, Nimowa Island, 90 km from Brooker, showing beach rock and initial beach formation from 2550-2320 cal BP (Beta-479380: 2720 ± 30 BP, shell). Photo credits: Ben Shaw.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) imagery and Energy dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS) elemental mapping of Lapita and modern sherds from Brooker Island.

The top two sherds are from the base of Layer 5b in Square A (Spit 16) and represent the earliest pottery on the island. The bottom is a modern sherd made on Brooker. Elemental mapping shows all to have an aluminosilicate matrix. Elemental mapping and point analyses identify the presence of minerals characteristic of the local igneous/metamorphic geology, with no evidence of carbonate minerals, shell or coral. White bars represent 1 mm. SEM image credits: Karen Privat. Pottery photo credits: Ben Shaw.

Extended Data Fig. 10 Excavated dentate stamped pottery and vessel forms from Gutunka.

a) Scale drawings of decorated sherds. Note that the surfaces of some sherds had eroded, making it difficult to identify the presence of surface decoration. The proportion of decorated sherds may therefore be under-represented. Lapita pottery vessel forms from Gutunka (B, F) compared with those from Caution Bay Lapita sites (C-E) on the south coast of Papua New Guinea3 and Lapita assemblages in the Bismarck Archipelago4 (G). (b) Gutunka, Square A, layer 5a, 2750-2500 cal BP. (c) Bogi 1, Square Y, Spit 1, 135 cm b.s., dated to 2750-2500 cal BP. (d) Tanamu 1, Square N, Spit 2, ~50–70 cm b.s. dated to 2800-2750 cal BP (e) Bogi 1, Square F, Spit 14, 140–150 cm b.s. dated to 2900-2800 cal BP. Drawing credits: Ben Shaw.

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Shaw, B., Hawkins, S., Becerra-Valdivia, L. et al. Frontier Lapita interaction with resident Papuan populations set the stage for initial peopling of the Pacific. Nat Ecol Evol 6, 802–812 (2022).

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