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Prehistory in a nutshell: a Lapita-age nut-cracking stone from the Arawe Islands, Papua New Guinea.


Organic residue on a stone artefact recovered from the Makekur Lapita site (FOH) on Arawe Island in West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea, was sampled and dated. The residue is identified as endocarp fragments of a Canarium species nutshell, most likely Canarium indicum L. The artefact, which is made from coralline limestone, is interpreted as a nut-cracking anvil. AMS dating places its use at approximately 2800 calBP, in Middle-Late Lapita times, and provides the first direct confirmation of Lapita-age use of nut-cracking tools. The careful shaping of the tool, combined with ethnographic comparisons, suggests that it was made and used for preparation of special food, possibly for feasting associated with ritual or other ceremonial activities.

Keywords: nut-cracking tool, residue analysis, West New Britain, PNG, Makekur Lapita site (FOH), Canarium.


Arboriculture plays an important role in human subsistence in the western Pacific and South-East Asia, and has been the subject of attention for many years, particularly with regards to various kinds of nuts (e.g. Gosden 1995; Kennedy & Clarke 2004; Latinis 2000; Lepofsky 1992; Stevens et al. 1996; Yen 1974, 1995, 1996). Nuts such as Canarium spp. have been part of the human diet throughout coastal and lowland regions since the late Pleistocene and early Holocene (Barker et al. 2011; Maloney 1996; Morwood et al. 2008; Nguyen 2008; O'Connor et al. 2011; Paz 2005; Yen 1991). During the middle and late Holocene in Papua New Guinea, a wide range of nut species is well documented by assemblages of macro-remains excavated from waterlogged deposits in the Sepik-Ramu basin, on Eloaua Island and in the Arawe Islands, in which hard-shelled nuts such as Canarium spp., Terminalia spp. and others figure prominently (Fairbairn & Swadling 2005; Kirch 1989; Matthews & Gosden 1997; Yen & McEldowney 1991).

In contemporary societies of the western Pacific, nuts play an important part in subsistence and ritual/ceremonial activities, and as a potential cash crop (Hogbin 1964; Kennedy & Clarke 2004: 15-16; Leakey et al. 2007; Stevens et al. 1996; Wissink 1996). The kernels of Canarium nuts can be smoked and stored for extended periods (e.g. Oliver 1955: 29; Ross 1973: 172-173; Spriggs 1997: 56-57), and are often mixed with taro in important ceremonial foods (e.g. Blackwood 1935: 262; Hviding & Bayliss-Smith 2000: 127-128; Oliver 1955: 37, 436; Tedder 1973). Trees of Canarium species are extremely significant socially, as their annual fruiting provides opportunities for group gatherings and affirmation of kin ties and other relationships (Hviding 1996; Walter & Sam 2002). At Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands, the annual harvest is of such importance that it serves to mark the passage of time, and the word for "year" is the same as that for Canarium indicum (Hviding 1996: 262-263).

Given the social significance of nuts and the level of anthropological and archaeological interest, it is surprising that little has been published about the history of their processing, which requires the nuts to be broken to access the kernel. Within the South-East Asian and western Pacific areas, ethnographic analogies for the identification of "nut-cracking stones", with occasional suggestions as to the kind of nut that might have been processed, are common in the archaeological literature (e.g. Paz 2001). The main candidate taxa referred to are Canarium, Terminalia and Barringtonia species (e.g. Kirch 1981:141 for Futuna: Kirch & Yen 1982:80 for Tikopia; Reeve 1989:58 for New Georgia; Ward 1976:176 for Ulawa; Wickler 2001:187 for Buka).

Analysis of residues on stone tools is now becoming common, and starch grain analysis especially so (e.g. Mercader et al. 2007, cf. Haslam 2012; Field et al. 2009; Yang et al. 2009). Here, we present the results of an analysis of crushed material from a stone tool with pitting characteristic of nut-cracking that was excavated from a Lapita-period site in Papua New Guinea. Analysis of macro- and microstructural features of this residue allows us to confirm that it was indeed used for nut-cracking, specifically for processing a Canarium species (most likely Canarium indicum L.).


The tool was excavated at the Lapita pottery site of Makekur (FOH) on Adwe Island, Arawe Islands, in West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea (Figure 1). This site extends across a sandspit that stands about 1 m above high tide level and is fronted by a coral reef platform. Reconstruction of the site's history shows that sandspit development probably began during the Lapita-period occupation and has continued since then (Gosden & Webb 1994). Excavations between 1987 and 1992 revealed that wooden structures were built over the intertidal zone during the pottery period. Cultural debris accumulated under these structures and, together with longshore drift of reef detritus, contributed to the formation of the sandspit (Gosden & Webb 1994: 41-42).

The tool was recovered from spit 14 of test pit 21/H (TP21/H) (Summerhayes 2000: figure 3.6). This was a permanently waterlogged horizon lying below current low-tide level, with excellent preservation of macrobotanical remains. The tool was bagged in the field and was not cleaned after its arrival in Australia, where it is currently held at the Australian Museum, Sydney. In January 2010, Matthews inspected the tool and identified the presence of possible nutshell residue adhering to pitted areas on one surface. On this basis, he suggested that the tool was probably a nut-cracking anvil and, accordingly, he proposed an exploratory study to identify the residue.


The tool is broken and its original size is uncertain. Its maximum extant dimensions are 119 mm long, 98 mm wide and 52 mm high; it weighs 805 g (Figure 2a-d). Assuming that the breakage was near the midpoint of the tool, it was probably about 200 mm long and weighed about 1500 g when complete, thus small enough to be carried around but large enough to be stable when used. It was made from coralline limestone by hammer-dressing to a basically rectangular form and then roughly ground. There is a small pointed projection on the extant end that may have been intended as a handle; this was ground more finely than the other surfaces, perhaps to provide a comfortable grip. The underside is fiat, the sides are rounded and the upper surface has two pitted areas, one at the breakage point. The pitted areas are assumed to be the result of use, but could have been deliberately formed during the manufacturing process to assist the tool's function. Within the main pitted area are many small pieces of a hard, reddish-brown substance covering an area of about 8 [cm.sup.2] (Figure 2a-b). A smaller quantity of a similar material is also present in a pitted area near the end of the tool. In both areas, the fragments are embedded in the surface of the tool.


The tool was photographed at the Australian Museum before a small portion of the residue was removed with a scalpel; most of the residue is still attached to the tool. This residue sample was examined by Lentfer at the Field Sciences Laboratory, National Museum of Ethnology, Japan, where it was first examined without treatment under incidental light microscopy at x40 magnification. This revealed fragments of plant tissue ranging in size from < 0.1 mm to ~1 mm, and sand-sized calcium carbonate particles derived from the tool itself or from the surrounding sediment (Figure 2e). Following this initial examination, a subsample of the residue was washed in 30% hydrochloric acid (HCI) to remove calcium carbonate particulate material and crystals, and then thoroughly rinsed in ultra-pure water before oven-drying. After light microscopy, three portions of the treated and untreated residue were submitted for dating through the University of Waikato Dating Laboratory, New Zealand.

Nutshells from several species, including Canarium indicum L., Aleurites moluccana (L.) Willd., Cocos nucifera L., Cordia subcordata Lamk., Dracontomelon dao (Blanco) Merr. and Rolfe, Pandanus sp. and Terminalia sp., were recovered from the G1 trench adjacent to TP21/H. Canarium indicum L. nutshell was by far the commonest (Matthews & Gosden 1997: table 1). For identification of the residue using light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy (SEM), comparative endocarp reference samples were taken from nutshell taxa recovered at various archaeological sites in the region (Table 1). These included several species additional to those listed by Matthews and Gosden (1997) for the Arawe sites; the identification of these macro-remains was by P. Matthews, D. Yen and L. Hayes. These reference samples were also treated with 30% HC1, rinsed in ultra-pure water, and then oven-dried. Since the residue sample was considered most likely to be C. indicum L., direct comparisons using light microscopy were made between the residue and the archaeological sample of this species from trench G1 spit 11 at FOH. Following this, subsamples of the residue scrapings and the C. indicum L. reference sample were separately crushed in a ceramic mortar and pestle, mounted on to glass slides in benzyl benzoate and examined by transmitted light microscopy at x600 magnification.

For the SEM imaging conducted by Lindsay, a piece of the residue and the reference samples of other nutshell taxa were placed on aluminium pi-type stubs on carbon double-sided tape, and coated with gold sputter using an Emitech K550 Gold Sputter Coater. Photomicrographs were taken using the Zeiss EVO LS 15 scanning electron microscope at the Australian Museum.


Low-powered incidental light microscopy

Examination of the endocarp samples of the C. indicum L. reference material showed characteristic features including weathered outer and inner surfaces, and between them well-preserved ground tissue (i.e. a tissue that lies in between the dermal tissues and around the vascular tissues), in this case primarily sclerenchyma, which is composed of thick-walled, usually lignified cells. This ground tissue comprised a dense, chocolate-brown cellular matrix with distinct patterning and a glossy, resin-like texture (Figure 21). This same set of features was clearly visible in all the fragments of residue material that were examined (Figure 2e,g), indicating that the residue was derived from a single species that accords with Canarium.

High-powered transmitted light microscopy

Examination at high magnification also found consistency between the microcellular structure of the residue and the C. indicum L. reference material, including the presence of brachysclereids (i.e. isodiametric sclereids or "stone cells") commonly found in fruits and seeds, and the same patterning of sclerenchymatous tissue (compare Figure 2h with Figure 2i-k).

SEM imaging

The SEM images provided a final check for confirming the identification of the residue. The tissue structure of endocarps showed distinctive differences in the patterning of inner and outer endocarp surfaces, and cross-sections of ground tissue in all 17 taxa examined (to be reported more fully in Lentfer et al. in prep.). Canarium indicum L. is characterised by a porous texture, patterning of sclerenchymatous tissue and lobate epidermal cells of the inner endocarp. All three features were observed in the residue samples (Figure 3a-d).

The analyses show a strong accordance between the colour, texture and structure of C. indicum L and the residue, the combination of which does not match the other taxa examined. This provides a firm basis for identification of the residue as Canarium. The severity of breakage and crushing of the residue material on the tool has destroyed diagnostic features of the endocarp macrostructure such as ridges, nutshell thickness and shape. This prevents complete certainty in the identification of the residue to species level. However, since the predominant nutshell macro-remains from the same horizon as the anvil were C. indicum L. and as no other Canarium species was identified among them, there is a high probability that the residue came from C. indicum L.

We conclude, therefore, that the tool was a Canarium nut-cracking anvil. Since it is broken near the point of maximum impact in the centre of the main pitted area, breakage probably occurred while the tool was in use.


The Waikato Laboratory processed and dated a portion of the nutshell residue that had been cleaned in 30% HCI. The laboratory reports that pre-treatment of the sample included further washing in hot HC1, followed by rinsing and treatment with a NaOH wash at room temperature. The NaOH-insoluble fraction was further treated with hot HC1, filtered and dried, and then dated by AMS as sample Wk-32734.

Table 2 shows the dating result together with two previous results for the adjacent square TP21/B. All three results are calibrated by OxCal 4.1.7 (Bronk Ramsey 2010), using the IntCal.09.14C atmospheric dataset from Reimer et al. (2009). The result provides age ranges of 2855-2785 calBP (68.2%) and 2925-2760 calBP (95.4%), consistent with the result expected in light of the TP21/B dates. The age determination of Wk-32734, however, is more reliable than these other results, which were on unidentified wood charcoal with an unknown in-built age. In contrast, the Canarium nutshell of Wk-32734 has an in-built age of less than one year, as these nuts are produced annually and reach maturity in 5-8 months (Evans 1999: 49).


The dating result places the use and breakage of the anvil in the Middle to Late Lapita stage (Summerhayes 2001), but just when the anvil was made remains unknown. This could have been just before it was used, broken and discarded, or many years before that. The degree and extent of pitting across the upper surface suggest that the tool had substantial usage, but whether this was for a single event or over an extended period of time, including the possibility of it being passed down between generations, remains unknown. Given the softness of the rock, however, its continuous use over a long period is not likely.

No nut-cracking tools similar to the Makekur anvil have been reported from pre-Lapita contexts in the New Guinea-Bismarck Archipelago region (Spriggs 1996: table 22.1), with the exception of a possible example in the Balof 1 shelter on New Ireland (Downie & White 1978: 787). This contrasts with Island South-East Asia (ISEA), where pitted stones identified as "hammer stones" and "anvils" occur in early and middle Holocene contexts in the Philippines (e.g. Zamboanga: Spoehr 1973: figure 176c) and Indonesia (e.g. Tanjung Pinang: Bellwood 1997: plate 27, bottom right; Bellwood et al. 1998: 242, 247). They were also widely used thereafter throughout ISEA (e.g. Aoyagi et al. 1997: 173; Schmitt 1947: 332). Similar equipment has not previously been confirmed for Lapita pottery contexts in the Bismarck Archipelago, although an unstratified rectangular "hammer stone" was found at the Late Lapita site of DAF, located on the intertidal reef between Buka and Sohano Islands (Wickler 2001:187, figure 5.6e). Other shaped tools with pitted surfaces and identified as hammer stones and anvils have been found in post-Lapita contexts (c.2500-1400 calBP) at other Buka area sites (Wickler 2001: 185-187). This is a reminder that the Makekur anvil represents only half of the equipment required for extracting kernels. Extraction requires two suitable stones, one (the anvil) on which the nut is held and the other (the hammer stone) to strike the nut. Several stones of volcanic origin in other squares of TP 21 at Makekur have been battered on one or both ends and any of these could be hammer stones. Residue analysis has good potential to determine their usage.

The Makekur tool stands apart from most other nut-cracking tools in the western Pacific region as it is made from coralline limestone, which is softer than the igneous and metamorphic rocks normally used (e.g. Wickler 2001: 185-187). The use of coral limestone, however, is not entirely unknown, as in recent times on Buka Island nuts were cracked "on a stone or lump of coral" (Blackwood 1935: 278), and Specht has observed children near Kandrian using limestone chunks as hammers to break open Canarium nuts on the coral platform exposed at low tide. The use of limestone at Makekur probably reflects the scarcity of suitable hard rock for cracking nutshells in this part of New Britain, which is formed by uplifted coralline limestone. All non-limestone rock has to be obtained through trade or as small cobbles scavenged from the beds of rivers draining to the south coast of New Britain (Ryburn 1976). This probably explains why broken axe/adze heads of igneous and metamorphic rocks have been used in recent times as both anvils and hammer stones. In 1979, one such broken stone axe head with pitting on both surfaces, like the Makekur anvil, was stored on a ledge in a rock shelter near Kandrian, about 60 km east of the Arawe Islands; this tool was carefully replaced for future use after being shown to Specht. Similarly, a stone bark-cloth beater collected in the Kandrian area by Beatrice Blackwood in 1937 and now in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford is described in her catalogue as "also used as a nut cracker" (specimen registration number 1938.36.1229). This item is complete and was probably used for cracking nuts because it was a suitable rock type, was available when needed, and was about the right size and mass.

Besides the raw material used, the Makekur nut-cracking anvil is distinctive for the care taken to fashion it. Even allowing for the ease of shaping provided by the relative softness of coralline limestone compared to igneous rocks, the Makekur artisan produced a well-finished, symmetrical form that appears to exceed what was minimally necessary for a functional tool. This may point to it being an object of cultural importance that was perhaps used for preparing food for feasts connected with ceremonies and rituals. Such specific shaping appears to be uncommon in the western Pacific Islands, with the exceptions of Buka Island (Wickler 2001: figure 7.6) and the Western Province of Solomon Islands (Reeve 1989: 58). Elsewhere, stones identified as nut-cracking tools are often unmodified, water-rolled cobbles (Ward 1976: 176; Kirch 1981: figure 13, plate 1; Sand 2001: 81, figure 4g, h).


The present study using residue analysis provides the first direct archaeological evidence in the western Pacific for the processing of a nut of a Canarium species. It also confirms the function of a "nut-cracking tool" as an anvil for opening nuts, most likely C. indicum L., which is the dominant fruit in the macro-remains from the Makekur site (Matthews & Gosden 1997). Direct dating of the nutshell residue by AMS places the use of the Makekur tool at about 2850-2760 calBE

Hitherto, identification of stone tools as "nut-cracking stones" has relied heavily on ethnographic comparisons, at best supported by the recovery of carbonised nutshell fragments that are interpreted as waste from nut-processing. The present study removes the element of guesswork about the function of such tools based on speculation and analogy, with all the possible pitfalls associated with such practices (Spriggs 2008). Residue analysis offers a way to move beyond analogy to develop a sound basis for relating tools and their uses to broader aspects of archaeological inquiry.

On the world scale, the human use of nuts and nut-cracking tools has a long history, extending back into Middle Pleistocene times (Goren-Inbar et al. 2002), well before the arrival of modern humans in the ISEA-New Guinea region in the Late Pleistocene. Whether those first arrivals exploited nuts and brought the technology for processing them remains to be seen. In light of this long history of exploitation in the ISEA-New Guinea region, the Makekur evidence is unlikely to signal the first production and use of special tools for nut-processing. When that began remains to be investigated.


The fieldwork on which this paper is based was funded by a Large Grant from the Australian Research Grants Scheme to CG and JS, supplemented by La Trobe University (Melbourne) and the Australian Museum (Sydney). CL's work on the identification of the residue was supported by a Visiting Fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science hosted by the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan in 2011-2012. We thank the National Research Institute, the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea, John Namuno and John Normu and the West New Britain Cultural Centre for assistance with research permits, affiliations and logistic support. Our special thanks go to the landowners of Adwe Island, who permitted the excavations on their land. We also thank four anonymous referees, most of whose suggestions have been incorporated.

DOI: 10.1002/arco.5008


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Yen, D.E. and McEldowney, P.H. 1991. Appendix: Dongan plant identifications. In E Swadling, N. Araho and B. Ivuyo, Settlements associated with the inland Sepik-Ramu Sea. Indo-Pacific Prehistor3, Association Bulletin 11:109-112.


CL: School of Social Sciences, University of Queensland; PJM: National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka; CG: School of Archaeology, Oxford University; SL: Australian Museum, Sydney; JS: Australian Museum, Sydney, and School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney

Correspondence: Carol Lentfer, Archaeology Program, School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Michie Building, St Lucia, Qld 4072, Australia, Email:

Table 1. Nutshell endocarps from New Britain archaeological deposits,
selected for comparison with the residue on the  Makekur anvil (FOH
TP21/H spit 14). Only samples identified to at least genus level were
chosen; a "?" follows names  where identification requires
independent confirmation. As no one trench contains all of the
different taxa, samples were  taken from several archaeological sites
in the Arawe Islands (Adwe Island, Makekur/FOH; Kumbun Island, Apalo/
FOJ;  Winkapiplo Island, Winkapiplo/FON), and the inland cave site of
Misisil (FHC). ID=person making the identification;  LM = light
microscopy; SEM = scanning electron microscopy.

Species                              Location                  ID

Residue from anvil          FOH/TP21/H spit 14
Canarium indicum L.         FOH/TP 15/G I spit 11         P.J. Matthews
C. indicum L.               FOH/TP 15 G 1 spit 11 (1-b)   P.J. Matthews
C. indicum L.               FCH/II layer 2 spit 1W        D.E. Yen
Aleurites moluccana         FOH/TP15 Gl spit 7 (1-4)      P.J. Matthews
  (L.) Willd.
Bruguieria sp.(?)           FOH/TP8 spit 11 (1-6)         P.J. Matthews
Calophyllum inophyllum L.   FON/TP2 spit 16               L. Hayes
Celtis sp.                  FCH/II layer 3W               D.E. Yen
Cocos nucifera L.           FOH/TP21/E spit 11            L. Hayes
Cordia subcordata Lamk.     FOH/TP21/J spit 8             L. Hayes
Corvnocarpus cribbeanus     FOH/TP21/B spit 17            L. Hayes
  (Bailey) LS Smith
Cycas sp.                   FON/TP2 spit 15               L. Hayes
Diospyros sp. (?)           FON/TP2 spit 14               L. Hayes
Dracontoinelon dao          FOH/TP8 spit 11 (1-3)         P.J. Matthews
  (Blanco)  Merr. & Rolfe
Inocarpus fagifer (Park.    FON/TP2 spit 16               L. Hayes
  & Zoll.) Fosberg
Neiosperma oppositofolium   FON/TP2 spit 16               L. Hayes
  (Lamk.) Fosb. & Sach
N. oppositofolium (Lamk.)   FOJ/L5 spit 19                L. Hayes
  Fosb. & Sach
Pangium edule Reinw.        FON/TP2 spit 20               L. Hayes
Pleiogyniuin timorense (?)  FOJ/L5 spit 18                L. Hayes
Spondias dulcis L.?         FON/TP2 spit 20               L. Hayes
Terminalia catappa L.       FOH/TP8 spit 11 (1-2)         P.J. Matthews

Species                        LM        SEM

Residue from anvil          [check]    [check]
Canarium indicum L.         [check]    [check]
C. indicum L.                          [check]
C. indicum L.                          [check]
Aleurites moluccana                    [check]
  (L.) Willd.
Bruguieria sp.(?)                      [check]
Calophyllum inophyllum L.              [check]
Celtis sp.                             [check]
Cocos nucifera L.                      [check]
Cordia subcordata Lamk.                [check]
Corvnocarpus cribbeanus                [check]
  (Bailey) LS Smith
Cycas sp.                              [check]
Diospyros sp. (?)                      [check]
Dracontoinelon dao                     [check]
  (Blanco)  Merr. & Rolfe
Inocarpus fagifer (Park.               [check]
  & Zoll.) Fosberg
Neiosperma oppositofolium              [check]
  (Lamk.) Fosb. & Sach
N. oppositofolium (Lamk.)              [check]
  Fosb. & Sach
Pangium edule Reinw.                   [check]
Pleiogyniuin timorense (?)             [check]
Spondias dulcis L.?                    [check]
Terminalia catappa L.                  [check]

Table 2. Radiocarbon dates for Makekur, TP21. All samples were
calibrated using OxCal 4.1.7, with the atmospheric  dataset of
IntCa109.14C (Bronk Ramsey 2010; Reimer et al. 2009).

Lab. no.      Context          [delta][sup.13]C           CRA

Beta-54165   TP21/B spit 13   -28.60 [per thousand]   2900 [+ or -] 80
Beta-54166   TP21/B spit 17   -26.90 [per thousand]   2730 [+ or -] 70
Wk-32734     TP21/H spit 14   -26.80 [per thousand]   2730 [+ or -] 32

             Material      Cal. range   Cal. range
                           68.2%        95.4%

Beta-54165   Charcoal      3204-2930    3321-2851
Beta-54166   Charcoal      2919-2760    3051-2741
Wk-32734     Canarium      2855-2785    2925-2760
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Author:Lentfer, Carol; Matthews, Peter J.; Gosden, Chris; Lindsay, Sue; Specht, Jim
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Geographic Code:8PAPU
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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