The Lapita Site of Atanoasao, Malo, Vanuatu

Jean-Christophe Galipaud (Institut de Recherche pour le Dévelopement, Orleans, France)


Ce rapport présente les premiers résultats des fouilles réalisées sous la direction de l’auteur en 1997 sur des sites de la période Lapita dans l’île de Malo, au sud de Santo dans l’archipel de Vanuatu.  Quelques sites avaient été découverts sur la cote Ouest de l’île et fouillés à la fin des années ’60 par un chercheur américain (John Heydrick) et très partiellement publiés.  Les travaux en 1997 ont montré que la plupart des sites de cette période avaient été endommagés par la mer à une époque ultérieure.  L’étude des transformations du milieu naturel a également permis de montrer que l’île de Malo avait fait l’objet d’une surrection différentielle importante pendant les 3 derniers millénaires.  Enfin, de nouveaux sites de la même période ont été découverts sur la côte est de Malo et précisément datés.



The island of Malo has been known for many years for its ancient archaeological sites from the Lapita period.  Named for its characteristic pottery featuring intricate dentate-stamped decoration, this period is when people first penetrated the remote Pacific, and is dated in its initial, classic manifestation between about 3300-2700 cal BP (see Lilley, this issue, for more background and references).  A few of the Malo Lapita sites were excavated by Hedrick in the 1970s (Hedrick and Shutler 1969, Hedrick 1971).  Unfortunately, the lack of detailed publication has precluded proper assessment of the data that were gained during excavation.  Furthermore, in the absence of a suitable sample, no accurate dating of the initial occupation was possible until now.  A few other places with Lapita pottery are now known in Vanuatu but they cannot be compared with the big settlements found on Malo, which today remains the main focus of Lapita settlement in the Vanuatu archipelago.

This report presents the first results of some excavations conducted in August 1997 in a previously unknown Lapita site on the east coast of Malo.


Background to excavation

Between 1991 and 1996, I conducted a series of surveys in Malo for the Vanuatu Cultural and Historic Site Survey project (VCHSS).  I mapped about 80 sites with archaeological potential, a few of them along the north coast with Lapita pottery.  Hedrick had concluded from his long-term work on the island that no Lapita would be found on the east coast.  In 1994 I found in several locations on the east coast undecorated sherds with fine and abundant volcanic sand temper which reminded me of Lapita material.  One of the aims of my 1997 field work was to test further the possibility of early occupation on this coast.  The discovery of the Atanoasao archaeological site (Ma 8-40 and Ma 840-A ), buried and well-preserved under a metre of sand, attested that Lapita colonists visited most of Malo Island.

The present report summarises the preliminary results of fieldwork done between 27 July and 30 August 1997 on the west and east coasts of Malo.  Until the 14th August, we re-excavated the Avunatari sites previously researched by Hedrick (NH Ma-6, Avunatari and NH Ma-8, Naone).  These sites were easy to locate as most of the excavated area had not been backfilled.

The excavation work was led by J.C. Galipaud and M. Intoh (then Hokkaido Tokai University, Japan), assisted by Jean-Pierre Siorat from the New Caledonia Museum and Rufino Pineda from the University of the South Pacific centre in Port-Vila.  Participants included a team from the Vanuatu Cultural and Historic Site Survey project led by Jean-Paul Batik, fieldworkers from the Cultural Centre including Titus Joel, Aldi Ezekiel, Colombas Todali, Joel Iau and Joseph Vira, as well as Stuart Bedford from the Australian National University, Arnaud Noury from Université de Paris-1, Stephane Lardy and Caroline Brunet.

The project was funded by the Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre Mer (ORSTOM, now the Institut de Recherche pour le Dévelopement, IRD), the Takanashi Academic Foundation and the training program of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.


The Sites and their settings

Malo is an uplifted coral island just south of the large island of (Figure 1).  It is the largest of a series of off-shore islands only separated from the Santo mainland by a narrow channel, the Bougainville Strait.  It is roughly 18 km from west to east, with a total land area of 134 km2. Its highest peak, Lahusava or Malo Peak, has an altitude of 338m.

John Hedrick surveyed and excavated Lapita period sites on the north and northeast coasts, mainly around the village of Avunatari (Sites NH-Ma-6 to NH-Ma-8) and at Batuni-Urunga, a

Figure 1. Location map, showing Lapita sites on Malo

place now called Malo Pass, opposite the island of Aore (NH-Ma-101).  Hedrick states that he discovered 19 Lapita sites, all on an uplifted coral plateau about 10m above the sea and along what he interpreted as an “ancient beach line or lagoon shore”.  However, his work gives no more details of the location or distinctive features of the ‘sites’ and they might actually be an area of scattered deposits in the Avunatari region that he later recognised

as belonging to a single occupation.  In a later publication, however, he mentions two more sites near the mission villages of Avunambulu and Alawara on the southeast coast.  I re-surveyed these two places in 1997 without any success.


The excavations

As noted above, excavations were conducted on the NH-Ma-6 and NH-Ma-8 sites in Avunatari as well as in the newly-discovered site of Atanoasao (Ma-8-40A) near the village of Ambakura.

In Avunatari (MA 8-38 in the numbering system of VCHSS), we dug two 2m x 1m pits (S1, S2) and a 1m x 1m pit (S3), the first 3m away from what seemed to be Hedrick’s main excavation at NH Ma-6 and the others 22m (S2) and 55m (S3) to the north respectively.

In Naone (MA 8-39), we dug three 1m x 1m pits at 20m intervals, starting toward the back of the Burns Philp plantation there (S1) and ending at Hedrick’s main excavated area (S3), progressing in a north-north-west direction along the boundary of the plantation.  In addition to the test excavations we drilled a series of auger holes and recorded levels at the Avunatari and Naone sites in order to assess the extent of tectonic uplift in each area since the Lapita occupation.  Details of this latter work have been published recently (Pineda and Galipaud 1999).

In Atanoasao (MA 8-40 and MA 8-40 A), extensive surface surveys as well as auger drilling and four test pits (S1 to S4) in a nearby plantation allowed us to get a precise idea of the extent of the remaining Lapita occupation.  This area was then checked with two 2m x 1m pits (J20/J21 and K12/K13) as well as a further 1m x 1m pit (S5) 30m to the north.

In the first two sites, archaeological work showed that the Lapita horizon had been badly disturbed by the sea before being covered by sand and uplifted.  The pottery sherds that were recovered were very small and mostly undecorated.  No age determinations are available from the excavations owing to the lack of suitable material for dating.  In the site of Atanoasao, however, an in-situ horizon was found to have been sealed by pumice and protected under 1m of sediment.  The artefacts and structural remains found in the site so far will be discussed in the following sections.


Stratigraphy (Figure 2)

The cultural layers at Atanoasao extend beyond 1m in depth in a sandy material derived from beach deposits.  The first 70cm (layer A) comprise a dark brown humic midden soil which is probably evidence of former gardening activities.  It contains the remains of a recent occupation with incised and applied pottery.  The midden soil lies above about 10cm of lighter-coloured sand with lenses of ash (layer B).  Below this is 20cm of dark grey sand (layer C) containing lenses of ashes and many pieces of weathered yellow pumice in a sometimes very compacted matrix.  The pottery in this layer is mainly plain with notched rims, but towards the bottom of the layer were found most of the large, decorated Lapita sherds.  The sand becomes lighter with depth and reaches, about 1m below the surface, a layer of fine, yellow beach sand (layer D).

All excavated squares exhibit some differences from the general stratigraphic pattern just described, owing mainly to gardening activities and later perturbations. While some Lapita sherds are found in all layers, the presence of large, undisturbed sherds together with faunal remains and fireplaces in layer C suggest that the later perturbations only superficially affected the early levels of the site.




Figure 2. Stratigraphic outline of the main Atanoasao excavation.

Structural features

A few structures were excavated from pit J in layers B and C.  The largest is composed of several layers of scattered large coral and volcanic stones in layer B.  The excavated portion of the feature covers most of square J20.  Under the burned stones, large concentrations of charcoals and shells as well as turtle bones suggest that this feature was a large fireplace or a stone oven.The second structure, in layer C, is a 60cm-wide pit containing many burned volcanic stones, calcareous rock fragments and charcoal.  Only part of the pit was exposed by excavation, in the southwest corner of the square.  This rather small structure could have been used as a stone oven.



Four samples of charcoal were sent to Beta Analytic laboratories for dating.  The samples where chosen to date the initial occupation of the site by Lapita potters and give an estimate of the chronology of later occupation.  The stratigraphic context and characteristics of the samples is as follows.

1.    BETA 110143 : Charcoal from the earth-oven in layer C of square J21, 100cm below surface. Clearly associated with dentate-stamped Lapita pottery; dates initial occupation by Lapita colonists.

2.    BETA 110144: Grey, hard, sandy sediment (layer C1), 80 cm below surface. Pottery found within the same environment includes dentate-stamped body sherds as well as notched rims.

3.    BETA 110145: Dark humic layer above a hard grey sandy sediment, 60 cm below surface. Pottery is not abundant and lacks the classic characteristics of ancient styles.

4.    BETA 110146: Large pieces of burned wood in a yellow beach deposit, 100 cm below surface in Pit 5.  No cultural items were associated with the sample but the stratigraphy of this pit suggests that the burned material is from a Lapita context.

The results of the radiocarbon analyses are presented in Table 1.


Site N°      SampleN°       14C Age        C13/C12         cal BP


MA 8-40A  Beta-110143  2830±100 BP  -26.0 °/°°    2810±100 BP

MA 8-40A  Beta-110144  2900±50 BP    -27.5 °/°°    2860±50 BP

MA 8-40A  Beta-110146  2830±60 BP    -25.0 °/°°    2830±60 BP

MA 8-40A  Beta-110145    730±50 BP    -27.1 °/°°      690±50 BP

Table 1. Radiocarbon dating results from site MA 8-40A.



Material recovered


Lapita dec.115
Non-Lapita dec.36
Table 2: Distribution of sherds by type.

Pottery sherds were by far the most frequent artefacts collected during excavation.  Analysis of the material is not yet completed, apart from a study of the decorated Lapita sherds which was made by Noury (1998) for his Master’s degree.  Most of the decorated sherds are Lapita (115 sherds against 36 non-Lapita sherds, see Table 2).  The other decorated sherds exhibit incised or applied-relief of the later Mangaasi tradition (see Garanger 1972).  In the upper layers, pottery with visible coils is a recent introduction from the north of Malekula, an island southeast of Malo where it are very common.  In the early levels, rims are often incised or notched.

One important find was three fragments of a flat dish exhibiting a dark red slip carefully applied between dentate-stamped motifs which seem to have been deliberately infilled with crushed coral powder.  This is only the second example of a ‘painted’ Lapita sherd known to me, the other of which I found at Koumac in New Caledonia.  This suggests that what is today considered to be a very elaborate style might have been even more sophisticated and possibly included, in addition to lime infilling of the dentate impressions, painting in different ochre colors of the undecorated area.


Worked shell

A relatively large amount of worked marine mollusc shell was found in the excavated area as well as on the surface around the site.  The distribution of these items is summarised in Table 3.  While items found on the surface might belong to any of the cultural traditions represented here, it is interesting to note that Trochus and Tridacna rings (or small armbands) are clearly distributed in the lower levels, while Tridacna adzes and Conus rings are mainly found on the surface and in the upper levels of the site.

Tridacna rings describe a flattened oval in section and in this sample vary in size from 6.0-9.5cm for the outer diameter and 4.0-5.0cm for the inner diameter, while the thickness of all the fragments is between 4.0-5.0mm.  Trochusrings or armband have a diameter ranging from 4.0-7.0 cm with a majority of them around 5.0 cm.  The size of the shell, of course, determines the size of the ring and large Trochus shells are not so easily found, but none of the examples found is of exceptional size.  The section of Trochus rings is oval.  The Conus rings are respectively 4.0 and 5.5 cm in diameter.  The one found on the surface is made in the upper 2.5 cm of the Conus shell while the one found in Square J21-Spit 4 has been made on the upper flat cap of the shell and is of a shape and section similar to the Tridacna ones.










1.    Shell bead

2.    Conus bead

3.    Conus ring

4.    Trochus ring

5.    Tridacna ring

6.    Tridacna adze

7.    Terebra adze

8.    Lambis adze

Sq. + Spit N.12345678

Table 3: Distribution of shell artefacts in the MA 8-40A site.



Stones found while excavating were systematically sorted and identified.  Most of the stones are either of volcanic or marine origin.  The former include mainly trachytes and microdiorites while the latter are beach rock or fossil coral from the uplifted terraces.  Very few of these stones seem to have been worked and only a few small fragments of siliceous stone may have been broken intentionally.

A few volcanic glass fragments were also recovered on the surface of the site and in some of the excavated layers.  As some volcanic glass artefacts had already been found in Malo and sourced to the New Britain area, three fragments from Atanoasao and one from Avunatari (east of Malo) were given to Wal Ambrose at the Australian National University for analysis of their chemical components.  The results of the analysis (EDAX) of major elements are presented in Table 4.


ElementItem            8-38/1              8-40/1              8-40/2              8-40/3

Na2O                 5.89                   4.61                   4.70                   4.62

Al203                16.60               13.93               13.92               13.89

Si02                  64.36               71.12               71.27               71.24

Cl                       0.21                   0.16                   0.15                   0.15

K20                    5.99                   5.11                   5.17                   5.24

Ca0                    1.50                   1.13                   1.10                   0.98

TiO2                   0.57                   0.39                   0.28                   0.29

Fe0                    3.69                   2.92                   2.81                   2.94


Table 4: Results of the analysis (EDAX) of major elements in selected volcanic glass artefacts from Malo.


The composition of all the samples is similar and is closely comparable with the known composition of volcanic glasses from the Banks Islands (Vanua Lava) in northern Vanuatu.  They thus seem to be of local origin rather than imported from outside of the archipelago.  Nevertheless, a more thorough analysis, including minor and trace elements, will be needed to confirm these first results.



Table 5 summarises the distribution by weight of faunal material.  Most mammal bones and all teeth are from pig (Sus scrofa).  No evidence of this animal was found in early levels. Faunal remains are scarce and only turtle is abundant in all layers.


Spit N°1234567891011121314
Mammal bone54218
Mammal tooth241

Table 5: Distribution of faunal remains in all layers of site MA 8-40 A.


Marine mollusc shell remains were collected in all layers. Shells large enough for adult human consumption were very infrequent and only found on the surface (Trochus) and in early levels (Trochus, Tridacna and Lambis sp).


Discussion and conclusions

The preliminary work conducted in Malo in 1997 allows us to be significantly more precise about the time and conditions of the initial human occupation of Malo in particular and Vanuatu more generally.

The discovery of a barely-disturbed Lapita horizon on the east coast has widened our knowledge of the Lapita world and also suggests that the geomorphology of the coastal area has changed significantly in the last 3000 years.  A variable uplift rate from west to east of 2.2-3.2 mm/year was calculated using the archaeological data and the hypothesis of a small positive marine oscillation just after the Lapita occupation can now be seriously entertained (Pineda and Galipaud 1999).

The secure dating of the initial settlement to about 2850 BP shows that Malo was occupied in the same period as other Lapita sites in the same area.  The temporal correlation between Malo and some of the sites on not-too-distant Santa Cruz island (especially Nangun and Nenumbo) is further amplified by the similarity in pottery styles (Noury 1998).  Further work will have to clarify the relationship between these sites and eventually test the hypothesis of one unique cultural group having colonised the two islands.

The size of the excavated area did not allow us to assess the exact nature of the Lapita occupation.  The settlement is close to the limit of the high tide mark of the former beach and the amounts of shell and turtle remains strongly suggest, as for other Lapita sites, that this was a fishing camp rather than a coastal village.  A lot has to be done before it will be possible to understand the colonizing habits of these early settlers.  The diversity in extent and the richness of some of the Lapita sites on Malo may mean that these settlements represent several chronologically-unconnected seasonal camp sites as well as more long-lived small coastal villages.  This hypothesis will have to be tested by future work.



This intensive research on Malo would not have been possible without the help and strong commitment of everyone in Malo and especially in Abanghura and Avunatari. Michiko Intoh, Rufino Pineda and Jean-Pierre Siorat assisted in many useful ways and were excellent companions.  The team of VCHSS, the fieldworkers, Stuart, Caroline and Stephane, worked hard on the sites and shared with us all the lively happiness of their Pacific lifestyle.  We all miss Jean-Paul, who left us forever shortly after fieldwork ended.  Wal Ambrose in the Division of Archaeology and Natural History at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the ANU kindly agreed to undertake the major element analysis on theMalo volcanic glass fragments.






Garanger, J.  1972.  Archéologie des Nouvelle Hebrides.  Publications de la Société des Océanistes 30.  Paris: Musée de l’Homme.

Hedrick, J. D., Shutler, M. E.  1969.  Preliminary report on “Lapita style” pottery from Malo Island, Northern New Hebrides.  Journal of the Polynesian Society 78(2): 262-265.

Hedrick, J. D.  1971.  Lapita style pottery from Malo island.  Journal of the Polynesian Society 80(1): 5-19.

Noury A.  1998.  La poterie Lapita du Vanuatu : étude des décors, émoire de maitrise, Université Paris-I.  Non publié.

Pineda R. and Galipaud, J. C.  1998.  Evidences archéologiques d’une surrection différentielle de l’île de Malo (Archipel du Vanuatu) au cours de l’holocène récent.  C.R. Acad. Sci.  327:777-779.