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Lapita sites in general
Archaeological sites containing Lapita pottery have been identified on all island groups in the Kingdom of Tonga and currently number over 30 sites (Burley, 2001). Most of the known sites that have been excavated are in the Ha'apai Group and are an intrinsic component of the Ha'apai cultural landscape. The archaeological deposits containing Lapita ceramics are similar in their range of artefactual material and in their locations, almost all located on or adjacent to a beach and commonly on small islands. The decorated ceramics found in these sites have a characteristic style of decoration known as ‘Lapita' (after the site at which these ceramics were first recorded, the Lapita site on New Caledonia) and also contain a range of artifacts manufactured from shell and stone, plain pottery and faunal remains.
Tongan Lapita sites on the Tentative List
Continuing research is being undertaken to document Lapita sites (and their contents) around Tonga, and the permission of researchers is required to reproduce such lists in detail, or the comparison of such. It is likely that many more sites exist than the 30+ mentioned above, and it is hoped that over the years, more sites will be identified, well researched, excavated, documented, named, sized and dated. As preparation for Tentative Listing is an exhaustive task requiring minute detailing and the engagement of multi-disciplinary teams to competently analyse available information and knowledge, and obtain prior approval of researchers (dating back to 1920s) for the use of their findings, it is not possible through this exercise to detail the sites that could be considered for Tentative Listing. Those included, however, should be the best examples based on their integrity and intactness and the excavated material that has been recovered as this material will provide the evidence for outstanding universal value. On current evidence, the Lapita sites in Ha'apai provide to be the best examples.
However, of more recent, Professor David Burley of Simon Fraser University, Canada, who has been carrying out archaeological research in Tonga since the 1980s, has continued excavating Lapita sites in the village of Nukuleka located in the eastern part of Tongatapu, (and not far from the Ha'amonga ‘a Maui and Ancient Royal Tombs of Lapaha). From his findings, he argues that Nukuleka could be the first settlement of Tongans or Polynesians for that matter dating back to 9th-10th Centuries. This is very interesting as this era ties in with the Tu'i Tonga Empire. It would be further interesting to trace migration patterns from Nukuleka across the Pacific region, and the relationship of Pacific people, if it were confirmed that Nukuleka was the first settlement of the Polynesians. In addition, the content of Lapita sites around this area may also reveal the type of materials used in those early days, particularly for the construction of the massive stone slabs of the Ha'amonga ‘a Maui and ancient royal tombs. Given its strategic location of having easy access to both lagoon and ocean waters, it is possible that this village was another centre for active trade in the chiefly kingdom.
Lapita sites reflect the initial human colonization of Tonga at around 2800 years ago. Sites containing Lapita pottery are also found in the Bismarck Archipelago (PNG), Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa and collectively these sites reflect major social and cultural changes in the Western Pacific around 3000 years ago, possibly associated with the spread of Austronesian speaking people from Island southeast Asia that resulted in the movement of the makers of Lapita pottery out of Island Melanesia into Remote Oceania being the initial human colonization of the region.
Lapita sites are of international significance for the story they tell of the human colonization of the last major region of the world, and the navigational and seafaring skills this required to successful reach and settle on the Islands of Remote Oceania, that is, those islands to the south and east of the Solomon Islands. The successful colonisation of this region depended on very detailed knowledge and understanding of the Oceanic environment, the natural resources of the land and sea and a knowledge of horticulture and arboriculture that enables these early colonizers to transport their food resources from island Melanesia to the island of West Polynesia creating the landscapes of the Pacific that we see today.
Ha'apai sites are an intrinsic component of the cultural landscapes of Tonga and reflect the sophisticated adaptation of the first colonizers of the Kingdom and the region as a whole to this truly oceanic environment of small coral islands.
Lapita sites in general
Sites containing Lapita ceramics are the best researched archaeological sites in the Pacific. There is an immense amount of data that has been accumulated from excavation and analysis of Lapita sites not only in Tonga but throughout the region that attests to the sites being the archaeological signature representing the initial human colonization of Remote Oceania. There are now at least 100 known Lapita sites of which a number have been systematically excavated and analysed. Radiocarbon dating of the sites has demonstrated that although the Lapita ceramics occur across a vast distance of six major Pacific archipelagos, the decorated ceramics were all manufactured within a very short time frame, perhaps of only 300-400 years. Although researchers have debated the ultimate origin of the people who made and decorated Lapita ceramics, all agree that the archaeology reflects a major and very rapid episode in human colonization that required highly sophisticated seafaring and navigational skills.
As discussed above, Lapita sites are found across the Western Pacific and collectively tell the story of a major episode of human colonization and the first colonization of the Oceanic world, a story of great regional and international significance and clearly of outstanding universal value. Collectively the archaeological sites containing Lapita ceramics and other important very important archaeological material create a pattern that tells this story through their locations, being found from Papua New Guinea to Samoa.