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2 November 2005
Polynesian cemetery unlocks ancient burial secrets

The first people to settle Polynesia went to surprising lengths to honour their dead. Remains from the oldest cemetery in the Pacific suggest the Lapita people buried their dead in many different ways, some in weird yoga positions and that they removed their skulls for ceremonial purposes.
     Dr. Stuart Bedford and Professor Matthew Spriggs of the Australian National University reported their finds on the Lapita culture in Vanuatu at a recent seminar in Canberra, Austrailia. "We found for the first time skulls were buried in a pot, sealed by a flat bottomed ceramic dish that they had been overturned and used as a lid on top of another pot," Dr Bedford said.
     The site where Dr. Bedford and Professor Spriggs have been excavating is at Teouma in Vanuatu, and it appears to be around 3,100 years old. They found evidence of 25 burials, all skeletons without their skulls. The researchers found teeth where the head should be. Dr. Bedford says this is evidence that the heads were not being pulled off soon after death but were removed after decomposition.  
"Clearly there is a reverence for the head as it's being removed," he said.
     Apart from the skull found in the pot, the researchers found another three skulls on the chest of the remains of one person.  Dr. Bedford says removing skulls of the deceased was a long-standing practice in the Pacific before the missionaries arrived, with skulls often being removed to ceremonial houses.
     The Lapita people could be the source of the practice. "We're getting evidence that this burial practice is 3,000 years old," he said.
Dr. Bedford and Professor Spriggs also found a huge diversity in the way bodies were buried at Teouma. They say most were buried horizontally, mostly on their back in amongst the holes in an old uplifted reef. Others, still were found with their legs bent up or in what Dr. Bedford describes as "weird yoga positions".

Source: ABC News Online (31 October 2005)

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