exhibition organized

in partnership with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and the Institute of Archaeology of New Caledonia and the Pacific.

With the support of the Pacific fund of the Ministry of Foreign and European affairs



Oceanic Ancestors

  • East Mezzanine
  • exhibition ticket 8,5 € full tariff and 6 € reduced tariff


CURATORS: Christophe Sand and Stuart Bedford

The exhibition

Head © musée du quai Branly photo Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado

The LAPITA, Oceanic ancestors exhibition showcases a panorama of the Lapita ceramic tradition through an exceptional selection of objects and fragments of objects originating mainly from New Caledonia and Vanuatu.


Based on recent archaeological discoveries that have led us to reassess our knowledge of prehistoric Oceania, the exhibition repositions Lapita ceramics – which dates to 3000 years ago - in its historical and archaeological context.

It displays the technical specificities and stylistic diversity of Lapita objects and analyzes the still prevalent heritage of these decorative pieces in contemporary Oceanic decorative traditions. 
The first international exhibition on the subject, LAPITA, Oceanic ancestors is a testimony to the history of the settlement of Remote Oceania.

The Lapita ceramic tradition is historically linked to the first settlement of Austronesian language speakers in the Southwest Pacific, from the middle of the second millennium BC. These potteries, the first fragments of which were discovered in the beginning of the 20th century, remain the most identifiable archaeological markers of the spread of these populations.


Lapita ceramics

streamlined pottery with surmoulded decoration © Cultural Vanuatu Centre, Vanuatu, Vanuatu / Philippe Metois

The surprising consistency of stippled potteries dispersed along nearly 4500 km in less than 400 years has led archaeologists to identify a “Lapita cultural Complex” in the Pacific Southwest 3000 years ago.


More than 300 prehistoric sites containing Lapita fragments have been identified so far. But the discovery of a New Caledonia pit and of a cemetery in Teouma (Vanuatu) have allowed, in the last decade, to study for the first time an important series of well preserved Lapita recipients and to make an important contribution to the description of this ceramic tradition. One of its main characteristics is the complexity of the shapes. After reassembling pottery fragments and the analysis of materials found during archaeological digs, emerged a rich artefact typology and evidence that Austronesian potters had developed a specific technique of pottery making. Potteries, mostly made of swamp clay, were mounted on plaques. Motifs printed on dry clay before kilning were fashioned with dented tools and symmetrically stippled. Motif is characterized by one or two central bands with often complex bordered by friezes with simple and repetitive patterns. Studies have revealed about 15 great categories of decor. More digs in Melanesia Lapita sites have identified more or less sophisticated human face figures in the decorative Lapita Complex, already defined by geometric patterns.

Exhibition itinerary

fragment © musée du quai Branly photo Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado


The exhibition starts with an outline of the general context of the history of Lapita. Visitors can discover the archaeological and human context linked to the Austronesian settlement of the Southwest Pacific about 3000 years ago. This general introduction contains area maps showing the movement of Austronesian populations and objects that display the characteristics and evolution of the traditions of this cultural complex (pottery from various regions of Southeast Asia and of the Lapita area, adzes, ornaments, fishhooks, etc.). This section also details of the impact of human settlement on local flora and fauna.


Large ceramic fragments are displayed next to sketches of their design motifs. Around twenty graphic sets showcase the rich diversity of Lapita patterns and allow visitors to identify regional specificities. Around ten largely intact Lapita pottery vessels, the only ones known to date for the Pacific region, are located throughout the exhibition but mainly in this section to highlight their graphic diversity.

Paddle © musée du quai Branly photo Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado


This section focuses on relationships between the Lapita period designs and those present in several Oceanian decorative traditions. This heritage is exemplified with a set of traditional objects: tapa cloth, mats and carved wood from the collections of the musée du quai Branly.


Lastly, a link is made between Lapita patterns and current artistic productions from the Pacific region through contemporary objects from Vanuatu: mats, baskets, etc.