4,000 Miles Down the Lapita Pottery Trail

Tikopia Canoe
Photo – tikopia.org

The Lapita Voyage Project

Let’s take a 4,000 mile, island hopping canoe journey into Remote Oceania to the far eastern end of the Solomon Islands. The tiny, remote islands of Anuta and Tikopia are the destination and the entire voyage is a good replication of what the Lapita Culture – Polynesia’s earliest – did from ~1500 B.C. to about 0 A.D. This is the story of The Lapita Voyage Project and an incredible four month journey that that ended in March 2009 yet transcended its place in time.

OK, having set the premise, who would devote time, money and energy to this project? The principals of the Lapita Project are Klaus Hympendahl, a German author, explorer and sailor; James Wharram a ship architect who designs and builds sailing catamarans; and Hanneke Boon who is Wharram’s design partner. The principals of the Lapita Voyage Project had previous experience with Tikopia and Anuta. Klaus Hympendahl visited Tikopia while on a round the world sailing voyage 1986-1990. When Cyclone Zoe destroyed the small medical clinic in 2002, the only Western style building on the island, Klaus raised funds to rebuild the clinic in 2003.

The Lapita Voyage Project (LVP) raised funds to build two ‘Lapita derived canoes’ based upon traditional canoe design that had survived on the remotest of the Solomon Islands, Anuta and Tikopia. The LVP then set sail on the ocean to follow the Lapita pottery trail. The people of Anuta and Tikopia would be central to removing the veil of more than 3,000 years of history and help reveal an ocean trail upon which the Polynesians entered history on an epic scale. The Polynesian descendants of the Lapita culture traveled and explored the largest ocean on the planet and settled all Pacific islands that could support permanent human settlements.

Panglao, Philippines / Fisherman’s Canoe
Photo – Opnook / eBay

The Lapita Voyage Project journey would start at the small Philippine island of Panglao, a good choice that fits the model for a ‘jumping off point’ to begin a Lapita migration eastward. The longest distance between islands would be no more than 200 nautical miles (360 km). The Lapita people were island hopping to establish settlements and apparently they planned to secure a vast territory. They were not intent on journeys to ‘out of site’ targets nor long distance exploration over a great expanse of ocean. It is important to keep this in mind because Lapita objectives determined the maximum size and many design specifics of the canoes designed by James Wharram and Heineke Boon for the Lapita Voyage Project.

Polynesia / Hawaii – Ocean Catamaran
Painting – Steve Priske

The contrasting situation can be seen in the first settlement of the Hawaiian Islands from the Marquesa Islands. Here there was no choice but to design large double hulled catamarans fit for two weeks or more on the open Pacific Ocean and able to carry two or three generations of a family, 30 ‘canoe plants’ for food and medicine, plus dogs, pigs and chickens to raise for additional food.

The minimum open water distance to be traveled for settlement to the Hawaiian Islands was over 2,000 nautical miles. The Lapita journeys had the luxury of relatively easy return to starting point (island) for additional supplies and people. Historians believe that Hawaiian return journeys to the Marquesas were infrequent at best, and the same can be said for the second influx of emigration to the Hawaii Islands from Tahiti in the late 14th century.

Tikopia / Net Fishing and Fishing Canoe
Photo – Lapita Voyage Project Archives

Canoes of Anuta and Tikopia –

Apparently extreme isolation allowed the canoe building tradition on Anuta and Tikopia to survive through the period of European contact. Nonetheless, the Lapita Voyage Project arrived at a time when the knowledge to build a large ocean going canoe appeared to have been lost. Evidence suggests that no such large canoes were built on either island after c.1940. The limiting factor may have been the scarcity of large logs (tree trunks) from which to hollow out a hull large enough to build a canoe that could safely travel on the open ocean. There are a few surviving large, old Tikopian canoes that were studied intensively for important information about hull design, masts and rigging.

In the past, the ocean going canoes of Tikopia would travel 1,000 km to the Banks Islands for frequent trade. There was an ancestral claim to a small islet called Ravenga which is 204 km southwest of Tikopia and just off Vanua Lava. In 1891, a missionary named Coddington noted as many as 11 Tikopian canoes sailing together to Vanua Lava.

Anuta / Crab Claw Sail and Rig – Fishing Canoe
Photo – Lapita Voyage Project Archives

Anuta is Tikopia’s closest neighbor and 150 km distant. Each island’s people regard the other as Wantoks and have a parallel family on the other island. Regular canoe visits occurred between each island, with occasional side trips to Fatutaka for sea bird eggs until several decades ago. Trade routes went to Vanikolo where Tikopian mats were exchanged for arrows. Very rarely, open ocean voyages went to Rennel, over 1,000 km distant according to the Lonely Planet Guide about Tikopia. Interestingly, there is no right and left on Tikopia, only inland or seaward and death at sea is a ‘sweet burial’.

Tikopia “Vaku Tapu” (sacred canoe) / Tamaki Paenga Hira, Auckland NZ
Photo – Auckland Museum, NZ

In 1829, Admiral Paris (France) took meticulous notes about the few Polynesian canoes he encountered in the Pacific region. One canoe he found in use was a large, double hulled, ocean going canoe design from the Tuamotu Islands, the largest chain of atolls in the world (French Polynesia). He also drew and described a canoe hull from Tikopia, which is a very close match to the canoes built on that island into the 1970s.

When the Lapita Voyage Project visited Tikopia in 1996 with the double hulled canoe “Spirit of Gaia”, no canoes were being built on Tikopia. Tikopia canoe builders, however, were still at work on the island of Vanikoro – an isolated island group with 800 inhabitants in the Santa Cruz Islands. When Tikopia officially adopted Christianity in 1916, they decided against destroying their sacred canoe “Vaka Tapu” and donated it to Bishop Woods of Auckland, New Zealand. That decision ensured survival and preservation of this unique, mythic canoe and it remains on display in the Auckland Imperial Museum.

Anuta Outrigger Canoe
Photo –Lapita Voyage Project Archives

Canoe building lasted longer on Anuta, which was smaller in all aspects and even more isolated than Tikopia. An academic study of Anuta canoe building and navigation was made in 1972/3 by Prof. Richard Feinberg of Kent State University, USA. Canoes are still built on Anuta, but they are small and only sufficient for offshore fishing.

Tikopia Outrigger Canoe 1966
Photo – Lapita Voyage Project “Tikopia”

In 1995, James Wharram and Hanneke Boon were sailing the Pacific as part of a round the world voyage on a 63’ double hulled canoe named “Spirit of Gaia” whose design was inspired by traditional Polynesian ocean going catamarans. They studied a small V hull Anuta fishing canoe in the Auckland Museum, and the large, famous sacred canoe donated in 1916 by the island of Tikopia. The resemblance between the V hull shape, which sailed windward with excellence, and the ‘Spirit of Gaia’ was uncanny.

Wharram and Boon departed Espirito Santo in northern Vanuatu for Tikopia and spent five days there. They had extensive discussions with two chiefs, including Chief Taumako, whose ancestor had donated the sacred canoe to the Anglican Bishop in 1916. Sadly it was apparent that in 1996, larger ocean going canoes were no longer built on the island and the knowledge to build a large double hulled canoe may have been lost on Tikopia.

”Tama Moana” / “Child of the Sea”
Catamaran Design – Lapita Voyage Project Archives

Design of Lapita Voyage Canoes

Inspired by a new partner, the American Glen Tieman, the Lapita Voyage Project began with the design of a ‘small’, 38’, double hulled canoe called “Child of the Sea’ (Tama Moana). The one significant departure from the traditional Polynesian design would be to have a full deck over the hulls, although one hull could be used as an outrigger, a thin, long, solid hull used to stabilize the main hull.

Tikopia “Vaka Tapu” / Sacred Canoe / Hull Design
Hull Design – Lapita Voyage Project “Tikopia” / Prospectus

There would be no attempt to replicate precise, historical fidelity, indeed given the knowledge that has been lost about ancient Polynesian canoe design and the lack of archeological evidence, such an historical recreation is likely impossible. Catamaran hull shape and sails would be ‘traditional’ as designed by Hanneke Boon and James Wharram. A two hundred year old canoe was found on Anuta, and the sacred, old Tokipia canoe in the Auckland, New Zealand museum was studied intensively. V-shaped hulls allow for sailing to the windward side. “Tama Moana” is modest with a length of 38’ (11.5m), width of 15’ (4.55m) and weight of 3.5 tons. Four spartan births were included in the design.

There would be no modern navigation equipment on board the canoes of the Lapita Voyage Project. Navigation would only use those assets in the natural world available to the original Lapita people: sun, stars (zenith star navigation), wind, birds and wave pattens.

Lapita Voyage Project / Hull construction
Photo – Lapita Voyage Project / Boat Building

Building these boats on Anuta and Tikopia would not have been practical because every construction item would have to be transported to these very isolated islands.

The construction method employed is strip planking laid over a plywood backbone and bulkhead framework. Wood was glued and sealed with marine epoxy resin and glass cloth which allows for the traditional dug-out shape to be emulated. Hull lifetime is estimated at 25 years. Each catamaran has two masts with traditional crab-claw sails and bamboo spars that provide superb performance in the local wind environment. The traditional ‘Crabclaw’ rig was handstitched from low cost fabric. Crossbeams, spars, center decking and steering paddles were made from locally grown timber, usually bamboo. The project’s affiliated boatyard is in the southern Philippines.

Lapita Voyage Project / Ocean Sailing
Photo – Lapita Voyage Project Archives

4,000 Miles down the Lapita Trail

The Lapita Voyage began on November 11, 2008 when the two catamarans ‘Anuta’ and “Tikopia’ set out from Panglao, Philippines to Anuta and Tikopia over a 4,000 mile route. When dead calm was encountered, the canoes were towed by a dinghy with a 5 hp motor. Rough weather was immediately encountered but the 2,000 mile mark was reached on January 22, 2009 (offshore Wewak, a seaport in the north of Papua New Guinea). At this point, the voyage was only one week behind schedule and the only damage to the canoes was cracked spars. During the trip and numerous island stopovers, the crew found Lapita pottery fragments on the Duke of York Islands (PNG) and Ndene Island (Santa Cruz Islands). Rain was incessant and at the end of the voyage “only the sherry remained dry”.

The voyage was very successful and the Anuta arrived at her destination on March 16, 2008. The ‘Tikopia’ with Klaus Hympendahl at the helm reached her island one day earlier to an equally joyous and tumultuous welcome. The two canoes were donated to their respective islands so that their people could resume independent inter-island voyaging for trade, medical needs and social renewal. These catamarans are large enough to reach Fiji, where young Tikopians go to study, and they can easily travel between Tikopia, Anuta, Vanikoro, and the Banks Islands which are over 1,000 km distant.

Enjoy this video that captures that last days of the voyage of the ‘Lapita Anuta’, her arrival at Anuta and the island’s welcome ceremony with traditional dance and song.

Watch this short film and wonder at the majesty of timeless history still before us.

Sources –
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6