History, Language & Culture Vanuatu
Owing to the lack of any written sources prior to European colonisation, the prehistory of Vanuatu is obscure. Furthermore, only limited archaeological work has been conducted, with Vanuatu's volatile geology and climate also likely to have destroyed or hidden many sites. Archaeological evidence gathered since the 1980s supports the theory that the Vanuatuan islands were first settled about 3,000 years ago, in the period roughly from 1,100 BC - 700 BC. These were almost certainly people of the Lapita culture, with the formerly widespread idea that Vanuatu was only marginally affected by this culture rendered obsolete by the numerous sites discovered in recent decades covering most islands in the archipelago, from the Banks Islands in the north to Aneityum in the south.
Notable Lapita sites include Teouma on Efate, Uripiv and Vao off the coast of Malakula, and Makue on Aore. Several ancient burial sites exist, most notable Teouma on Efate, which contains a large cemetery site containing 94 individuals. Also on Efate, and the adjacent islands of Lelepa and Eretoka, are sites associated with the 16th-17th century chief Roy Mata (possibly a title held by different men over several generations), who is said to have united local clans and instituted an era of peace.
Roy Mata lives on in local oral tradition, which had maintained accurate knowledge of the sites down the centuries. They became Vanuatu's first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
The immediate origins of the Lapita lay to the northwest, in the Solomon Islands and the Bismark Archipelago of Papua New Guinea, though DNA studies of a 3,000 year old skeleton found near Port Vila in 2016 indicates that some may have arrived directly from the Philippines and/or Taiwan, pausing only briefly en route. They brought with them crops such as yam, taro and banana, as well as domesticated animals such as pigs and chickens. Their arrival is coincident with the extinction of several species, such as the land crocodile (Mekosuchus kalpokasi), land tortoise (Meiolania damelipi) and various flightless bird species. Lapita settlements reached as far east as Tonga and Samoa at their greatest extent.
Over time, the Lapita culture lost much of its early unity; as such, it became increasingly fragmented. The precise reasons for this are unclear. However, over the centuries pottery, settlement and burial practices in Vanuatu all evolved in a more localised direction, with long-distance trade and migration patterns contracting. However some limited long-distance trade did continue, with similar cultural practices and late-period items also being found in Fiji, New Caledonia, the Bismarks and the Solomons. Finds in central and southern Vanuatu, such as distinctive adzes, also indicate some trade connections with, and possibly population movements of, Polynesian peoples to the east.
Over time it is thought that the Lapita either mixed with, or acted as pioneers for, migrants coming from the Bismarks and elsewhere in Melanesia, ultimately producing the darker-skinned physiognomy that is typical of modern ni-Vanuatu. Linguistically, however, the Lapita peoples' Austronesian languages were maintained, with all of the numerous 100+ autochthonous languages of Vanuatu being classified as belonging to the Oceanic branch of the Austronesian language family.
This linguistic hyperdiversity resulted from a number of factors: continuing waves of migration, the existence of numerous decentralised and generally self-sufficient communities, hostilities between people groups, with none able to dominate any of the others, and the difficult geography of Vanuatu that impeded inter- and intra-island travel and communication. The geological record also shows that a huge volcanic eruption occurred on Ambrym in circa 200 AD and on Kuwae in c. 1452-53 AD, which would have devastated local populations and likely resulted in further population movements.