Incredible New Finds from Fiji’s Earliest Settlement

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Press release, 11 April 2008, by Prof. Patrick Nunn. Relicensed under open content license for use in the AST1000 OERu course by personal email.

Sepeti Matararaba and his team excavating a 4-metre by 2-metre pit at the Bourewa excavations in Fiji, early December 2007.
Eight weeks of excavation at Bourewa, believed to be the earliest human settlement in the Fiji Islands, revealed a lot of new information about the people who lived there. These people were a group known as the Lapita people, who were the first colonists of Pacific Island groups including the eastern Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. The descendants of the Lapita people, which disappeared as a distinct cultural group about 550 BC, live today in these countries but also continued to sail east to colonize other island groups, finally reaching about AD 1200-1300 the west coast of the Americas and New Zealand.

Excavations involved more than 70 people, including 38 students from the University of the South Pacific. The project was directed by Professor Patrick Nunn from the School of Geography at the University of the South Pacific, supported by Roselyn Kumar from the University and Sepeti Matararaba of the Fiji Museum. Researchers from universities in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, USA and UK were also involved. Funding was received from the University of the South Pacific, Earthwatch Institute, the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, and Fiji Resorts Ltd.


To reach Fiji more than 3000 years ago, the Lapita people sailed across 1200 kilometres of open ocean. As they approached the Fiji Islands, they encountered the huge coral reef that skirts the western part of the archipelago and probably followed it cautiously until it met the land for the first time, at a place named Bourewa Beach, close to Natadola in what is today the southwest part of Viti Levu Island. But more than 3000 years ago, when the sea level was about 1.5 metres higher, Bourewa was not part of large Viti Levu, but instead occupied a bay on the southeast coast of a small offshore island. Since this is where the broad reef meets the shore, Bourewa adjoins one of the largest fringing coral reefs in Fiji today, nearly 3 kilometres wide at one point. To the Lapita people, perhaps close to starvation after weeks at sea, the sight of this reef meant food in abundance. And so they came on shore.

Some of the pits excavated at Bourewa in 2007-2008


And this is one of the big mysteries. For they chose not to live on the land, instead building houses on stilts – perhaps part of a stilt-platform complex – that overlay a sand ridge which was underwater at high tide.

Recent excavations suggest that there were two stilt platforms at Bourewa during the earliest period of its human occupation, positioned so that they adjoined the coral reef on one side and a brackish-water lagoon on the other.

Why the Lapita people favoured such complicated structures rather than simply living on one of the hills, 30-40 metres away, is a mystery.

Shell necklace found at Bourewa. Note the shape and the four fine holes drilled in each corner.

An organised society

Excavations during the southern-hemisphere summer, from November 2007 to February 2008, focused on the earliest part of the Bourewa site. Maps were made of the two stilt platforms, but these maps also showed something unexpected. For one of the main foods consumed by the Lapita people at Bourewa was shellfish, and they discarded the shells in the shallow water below their stilt platforms. The unexpected part was finding that the thickest part of the shell midden (rubbish dump) was along the edges of the stilt platforms.

From this we can infer that the Lapita inhabitants of Bourewa 3000+ years ago were organized to the extent that they did not just dump their rubbish anywhere. It was carried to the edges of the stilt platforms and dropped there.


Studio shot of Lapita pottery sherds from excavations at Bourewa
The Lapita people have attracted interest not only for their voyaging feats, which were unmatched anywhere in the world for another thousand years, but also for the evident complexity of their society.

One sign of this is the way in which they decorated some of the pottery they made – with intricate designs made from small dots (dentate stamping). Some of the fragments of pottery recovered during the recent phase of excavation were remarkable. Analysis of the designs hint at an almost direct colonization from the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea, 3250 kilometres away in a straight line, but we need more data to support this tentative conclusion.

Roselyn Kumar sees a pair of eyes from 3000 years ago.
Perhaps the most extraordinary piece of pottery recovered during the recent eight weeks of excavation was found by Roselyn Kumar in the wall of Pit A7A. It was exposed in section in the sand of the wall and, after having been carefully exposed, Roselyn pulled it out. It was a huge piece of pottery, but apparently undecorated. Then she turned it over and, for the first time in more than 3000 years, a pair of eyes saw the light of day. A thick piece of exquisitely decorated pottery, the eyes and nose decorations enhanced with white lime infilling, this was probably part of a pot standing at least one metre tall.


Studio shot of the Lapita jewellery box and its contents found in Pit C6A
The recent excavations revealed a large quantity of shell jewellery suggesting that the Lapita occupants of Bourewa spent considerable time manufacturing this. For the first time, a connection has become clear between the grinding stones found throughout the site and the shell “bracelets” and “rings” that were found. It is clear that the people who lived at Bourewa more than 3000 years ago were taking large cone shells, slicing them into sections, and then grinding and polishing these to make bracelets and rings. They made other types of jewellery not only from shells but also from seeds. Many of the pieces found were finely drilled.

An amazing discovery of shell jewellery was made by Sepeti Matararaba in Pit C6A. Digging down, he found a series of six cone shells laid in two rows. This was clearly a deliberate burial. As Sepeti continued excavating, he found in the middle of these two rows an upturned pot. Realizing the importance of this, he proceeded carefully and, when he eventually turned this upside-down pot over, he found it was filled with shell jewellery. Nine shell rings of different sizes, four shell bracelets, six straight units with drillholes. Here indeed was a Lapita jewellery box, deliberately buried by someone 3000 years ago at Bourewa for reasons about which we can only speculate.

Other finds

Pig vertebra found in layers estimated at 900 BC
The Lapita inhabitants of the Bourewa site used stone tools for a variety of purposes. Remains were found of large adzes, used for hollowing out canoes, and of axes. Some small stone chisels were also found, suggesting that the Lapita people were also fine woodcarvers. Almost all the stone tools found were made from a local greenstone (dacite) that outcrops about 10 kilometres inland on Viti Levu Island today. It is inferred that the Lapita people travelled upriver and collected suitable greenstone river rocks and took them back to Bourewa where they manufactured stone tools.

Bones of many of the animals that arrived in Fiji with the first humans were also found. It seems that dogs and rats and chickens arrived during the first 200 years of occupation at Bourewa. The time when pigs were introduced has long been controversial, most previous research suggesting that pigs arrived after the end of Lapita culture. In recent excavations, a vertebra of a large pig was found in layers tentatively dated to 900 BC, so this conclusion may change when the bone itself has been dated.

Discoveries in the areas around Bourewa

Studio shot of Lapita pottery sherds, dating from around 3050 cal BP (1100 BC) from the Bourewa site.
Test pits were excavated during the latest phase of fieldwork at several other coastal flats in the Bourewa area in order to see whether they were occupied during Lapita times. There were two surprises.

First, at the coastal flat named Waikereira, a place where stone tools were being manufactured from the local greenstone (dacite) was found. The size of the stone tools suggests that this place may have been one of the earliest used by the Lapita occupants of the area, but more research is needed to test this.

Second, at a place near Vusama Village called Matelita Tree, which adjoins a large mangrove swamp, an excavation revealed two pieces of Lapita pottery. This shows that the Lapita people living at Bourewa probably camped at Matelita Tree in order to gather clay for pot manufacture.


Radiocarbon analyses undertaken since the fieldwork ended have slightly refined our ideas about the time when the Bourewa settlement was occupied. It seems certain that the earliest occupation occurred 1260-950 BC, probably around 1100 BC. After that there were at least two distinct phases of settlement, presumably associated with the arrival of new migrant groups, before the Bourewa settlement was abandoned about 550 BC.


The Bourewa settlement is significantly older than any other settlement excavated in the Fiji Islands, and there seems little reason to doubt that it is the earliest. The discoveries made there throw light on the nature of the first people in Fiji, their diet, the raw materials they used, and even the way they organized themselves. It is hoped that these discoveries will continue to raise awareness amongst people in Fiji about these issues.