Saturday, August 11, 2007


We will never know for sure, of course, where the first people on Fiji's shores actually landed.

We will never know for certain who they were, where they came from, or when they arrived.

But there is great interest in these questions both in Fiji and beyond and science is helping us get the best possible answers.

Where did the first people land in Fiji?

The best available scientific evidence that we have at present suggests that the first humans to see the Fiji Islands came ashore for the first time in the southwest part of Viti Levu Island. This is understandable. They arrived in large watercraft probably bamboo rafts which were difficult to manoeuvre through the maze of coral reefs close to many island coasts today. So they stayed outside the largest reefs and followed them along until they were so close to land that they crashed ashore.

If you look at a map of Fiji, you will see that the largest such barrier reef in the west of Fiji runs from west of the Yasawa and Mamanuca island groups towards southwest Viti Levu, where it meets the land for the first time without an intervening lagoon along the Rove Peninsula, just west of Natadola. If you did not know where to look for the earliest human settlement in Fiji, these factors might encourage you to look along the Rove Peninsula. You would not be disappointed.

For the Rove Peninsula is dotted with ancient settlements, dating from the Lapita era in Fiji between 550 and 1100 years before the birth of Christ (years BC). All of these settlements have been discovered in the past four years, by a research team from the University of the South Pacific and the Fiji Museum. The earliest and the largest settlement along the Rove Peninsula is that at Bourewa. All the available scientific evidence points to Bourewa Beach as being the first place that humans walked upon in the Fiji Islands.

Who were the first people in Fiji? We call them the Lapita people, after the place in New Caledonia where their distinctively-decorated pottery was found just over 50 years ago. They were the greatest seafarers of their times, crossing distances of more than 1000 km at a time when people elsewhere in the world could barely sail 100 km.

They were people of the sea, their diets mainly seafood, their preference for living being on boats or in houses constructed on stilt platforms raised above a coral reef.

But most remarkably, and most mysteriously, they have left us signs of a complex belief system that we shall probably never fully understand. For some of their pottery they made very finely, and decorated with intricate designs made from a series of tiny dots something we call dentate stamping. Some of the designs look like faces they have eyes, ears, and noses so perhaps they were intended to represent ancestors. It has been suggested that dentate-stamped pottery was only one element of this decorative scheme, and that the Lapita people were also fine wood-carvers, and tattooed their bodies with the same designs that we find on the remains of their pots.

But this may all be wrong. Recent research has found that almost all the decorative motifs found on Lapita pots can be interpreted as parts of turtles. One emerging idea is that the Lapita people had a belief system that was centred around the turtle.

Where did the first people in Fiji come from?

The people who landed at Bourewa must have been heartily relieved to touch dry land. They would have been at sea for several weeks probably far longer than they had expected to be. The taro and yams that they had brought to plant in the new land they had expected to find had long since died. The dogs and chickens they carried, if any still lived after their horrendous ordeal at sea, were as hungry and thirsty as the people onboard. Bourewa saved them, for the beach is fringed by one of the widest coral reefs in the whole of Fiji it is nearly 3 km broad and even today it is renowned as a source of food. Bourewa shellfish, octopus, and sea grapes (nama) are common foods for the modern inhabitants of the area.

There are many ways by which we can trace the migrations of the Lapita people, including language, genetics (DNA), and through their pottery. With the pottery, we can look at both its mineral composition and the designs. Studies of the minerals in the Bourewa pottery show so far that it was all manufactured locally but we are hopeful that one day we analyse a piece that we can demonstrate to have been made elsewhere. But analysis of the designs on the Bourewa pottery suggests a close affinity with the Lapita people of Solomon Islands, particularly those living at the time in the eastern outer Solomon Islands (Santa Cruz Islands). This is likely to have been the immediate homeland of the Lapita people who landed at Bourewa.

But we know from research elsewhere in the Pacific Islands that the earliest Lapita people lived in Papua New Guinea, on the offshore islands that are today known as the Bismarck Archipelago. In 2005, while we dug at Bourewa, we received spectacular confirmation of a Papua New Guinea origin for the Lapita settlers of Fiji. This came in the form of a beautifully-worked piece of obsidian, a volcanic glass that does not occur naturally in Fiji. This obsidian has since been traced to the quarries of the Kutau-Bao area of the Talasea Peninsula on New Britain Island in Papua New Guinea, which is some 3300km in a straight line from Bourewa. This obsidian was brought to Bourewa by its Lapita settlers an estimated 900 years before the birth of Christ.

When did the first people arrive in Fiji?

Just like most other places in the world, there have been countless migrations of people to Fiji from elsewhere. We remember many of these arrivals in different ways in pictures, in writing, and in oral traditions. But none of these memories are thought to be able to accurately recall arrivals that took place more than a few hundred years ago. The Lapita people lived in several places in Fiji.

We estimate that they occupied places like Natunuku (near Ba), Matanamuani (Naigani Island), and Naitabale (Moturiki Island) about 900 BC.

They may have lived on Yanuca Island (Nadroga) and Ugaga Island (Beqa Lagoon) slightly earlier.

They reached islands like Mago and Lakeba in Lau, and Yadua in Bua slightly later.

But the earliest ages for the Lapita occupation of Fiji all come from the Rove Peninsula.

It is estimated that the Bourewa settlement was established between 1260 and 900 BC. A second group of migrants appear to have arrived between 990 and 720 BC, and a third group after 830 BC.

Each group occupied a different part of the settlement. Recent research at Bourewa has concentrated on trying to understand how this Lapita settlement grew and eventually overflowed into adjoining bays. Satellite Lapita settlements were established close to Bourewa at Qoqo Island (Tuva River estuary) about 1000 BC and on Rove Beach about 850 BC.

The research team from the University of the South Pacific and the Fiji Museum is continuing its research into the earliest period of Fiji's history, and an episode of Noda Gauna featuring the Bourewa site will be shown on Fiji One at 8pm on Monday August 13.

Patrick Nunn is Professor of Geography at the University of the South Pacific and leads the research on the Rove Peninsula. The opinions that he expresses in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the University.

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