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26 March 2006
Findings from Vanuatu may shed light on human migration

Takaronga Kuautonga carefully examines the ancient fragments of pottery. "It's like a big jigsaw puzzle," he says, as he patiently pieces them together. The 3000-year-old pot he is reconstructing was unearthed, along with 25 headless human skeletons, at a burial site in Vanuatu - the oldest graveyard discovered so far in the South Pacific. It is one of four rare, well-preserved items of Lapita pottery - three pots and a dish - found at the site that have been brought to Sydney for restoration at the Australian Museum.
     The mysterious, seafaring Lapita people were the first humans to settle Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa more than 3000 years ago. While their origin remains a mystery, their burial pots reveal they were expert artisans, says Colin Macgregor, the museum's manager of materials conservation.
It would have taken great skill to model and fire the coarse clay into delicate vessels without cracking them, he says, marvelling at the thinness of one of the larger Lapita pots.
     The cemetery was discovered by chance two and a half years ago at Teouma, only a 20-minute drive from the Vanuatuan capital, Port Vila. A bulldozer driver digging soil for a prawn farm spotted some pottery shards. Fortunately, he showed them to a friend who recognised their significance because he had recently completed an archaeology course at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. The Vanuatu National Museum's director, Ralph Regenvanu, drew together a local and international excavation team, which includes Professor Matthew Spriggs and Dr Stuart Bedford of the Australian National University, to study the site.
     Their first pottery find was the flat-bottomed dish which is decorated with a pattern made from two types of human face. It was discovered upside down, acting as a lid for one of the large pots, which contained a human skull. The other two pots were found nearby, along with the headless skeletons, some of which had big shells placed over their bodies. Most were interred on their backs, but a few were on their front or in strange, bent positions.
     Spriggs says studies of the skeletons show these Lapita people were large and strong, with particularly robust upper arms, probably from paddling canoes. They appeared to treat the heads of the dead with reverence. Three skulls were found placed on the chest of the headless remains of an old man. None were his, says Spriggs. "Even more mysteriously, one of those skulls had a lower jaw but the jaw didn't belong to any of the three skulls."
     Burial pots were common in Taiwan about 5500 years ago, and this could provide a clue to where the Lapita people came from. It is also hoped DNA tests on the bones will reveal more about their past. Ideas on their origins range from a "fast train" theory of rapid migration of Taiwanese to the east to an "indigenous inhabitants" theory that the Lapita culture arose from people living in Papua New Guinea.
     Vinod Daniel, head of collections and research resources at the Australian Museum, says the four pieces of Lapita pottery from Vanuatu are particularly valuable because they represent half of all the complete Lapita pots ever found. Only a small part of the Teouma site has been excavated, and when the four pots are complete they will be shipped back to Vanuatu to go on display.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald (25 March 2006)

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