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South Pacific island's earliest inhabitants relied primarily on foraging, not horticulture

Lapita islander settlers foraged, ate domesticated animals


Early Lapita inhabitants of Vanuatu, a South Pacific Island, ate fish, marine turtles, and wild or domestic animals, rather than relying on horticulture during early colonization, according to a study published March 5, 2014, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Rebecca Kinaston from University of Otago in New Zealand and colleagues.

Around 3000 BP, human populations with cultural and biological links to South East Asian islands, a culture or people known as Lapita, sailed to Remote Oceania (islands of the tropical Pacific Ocean) with domestic plants and animals, a 'transported landscape,' which enabled the settlement of previously uninhabited Pacific islands in the area. However, the extent to which the Lapita people and their domestic animals relied on the transported landscape at Vanuatu, a sparse island, compared with native flora and fauna during the initial settlement period, remains uncertain. Scientists analyzed the nitrogen, carbon, and sulfur isotopes from the bone collagen of adults, excavated from the Lapita cemetery of Teouma on Efate Island, Vanuatu (ca 3000-2900 BP) against a dietary baseline, measured using both modern and prehistoric plants and animals, to assess the paleo diet of some of Vanuatu's earliest inhabitants.

The authors found that the nitrogen and carbon levels indicate that humans foraged for food, and that dietary protein at Teouma included a mixture of reef fish, marine turtles, fruit bats, and domestic land animals. Horticultural foods were likely grown and eaten at Teouma, but may not have been relied on heavily during the earliest settlement in Vanuatu. Males displayed significantly higher nitrogen values compared to females, possibly suggesting dietary differences associated with labor specialization or sociocultural practices relating to food distribution. Finally, the carbon levels in the settler's domestic pigs and chickens imply a diet of primarily plants, but their nitrogen levels indicate that they were also eating foods such as insects or human fecal matter, a diet of free range rather than pasture.


Citation: Kinaston R, Buckley H, Valentin F, Bedford S, Spriggs M, et al. (2014) Lapita Diet in Remote Oceania: New Stable Isotope Evidence from the 3000-Year-Old Teouma Site, Efate Island, Vanuatu. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90376. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090376

Financial Disclosure: Funding of the project during 2004 and 2005 was provided by the Australian Research Council (ARC) (DP 0556874,, Pacific Biological Foundation (PBF04-1, The excavations in 2006 were funded primarily through a National Geographic Scientific Research Grant (8038,, with further support from the ARC Discovery Grant (DP 0556874, Excavations from 2008 to 2010 were primarily funded by an ARC Discovery Grant (DP 0880789, Funding for the excavation and analysis of the humans remains, prehistoric fauna and collection and analysis of the modern plants and animals was provided by Two Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Grants (04-UOO-007 and 09-UOO-106, ) and a University of Otago Research Grant during 2009 (no number, Further funding for the stable isotope analysis was provided by CNRS: Aix-Marseille Université, MCC/CNRS (UMR 7269 LAMPEA, and UMR 7041 ArScAn, The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interest Statement: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


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