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3 November 2007
Study of ancient skeletons found in Vanuatu

More than fifty headless skeletons have been unearthed in one of the oldest Pacific Islander cemeteries in the world. The individuals were members of a socially complex society, traveling between islands hundreds of miles away, a new study suggests.
     The finding could solve a long-held debate over whether the Lapita people, thought to be ancestors of the Polynesians, were isolated on individual islands or interacted with other distant Lapita tribes. Results paint a picture of the ancient people as expert seafarers. "The real question is did they live in isolation or did they keep in communication with the islands that might have been further back in their ancestry, because they generally spread from west to east across the Pacific," said lead author Alex Bentley, an anthropologist at Durham University in the UK.
     The 3,000-year-old skeletons were uncovered in 2003 at an archaeological site on Efate Island, part of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. None of the buried individuals had a skull attached to the skeleton, their skulls had been taken away by mourners some time after burial, although one male was adorned with three skulls lying on his chest. "This site is that much more extraordinary due to the fact that it is the earliest and by far the largest cemetery ever found in the Pacific," said study researcher Stuart Bedford of the Australian National University. "The excellent preservation and large number of burials, now up to 60 individuals, is giving us a first real chance to study this early colonizing population."
     Bentley and his colleagues analyzed chemical isotopes from the teeth of 17 of the buried, headless skeletons. Relative abundances of certain isotopes signify where the people lived, broadly speaking, and their diet. Teeth analysis proved the Lapita were neither solely hunter-gatherers, as had been speculated, nor intensive farmers, Bedford said. Rather, they were a mix of the two. The researchers also found four Lapita individuals who were buried facing south, unlike the others, and whose isotope levels were significantly different from the others, possibly indicating a small group of immigrants who traveled from hundreds of miles away, Bentley said. These individuals had isotope levels that matched a more terrestrial diet, as opposed to the marine foods eaten by the other islanders buried. "There's no way they could be from East Asia. Most likely they were from maybe as far away as New Guinea," Bentley said.
     One male, called TEO 10E, was buried with three skulls on his chest and was himself one of the "immigrants," though the skulls on his chest were of the local community. The Lapita initially buried the deceased with heads attached, and only later after the flesh had rotted away did they dig up the graves and remove the skulls, which were kept in shrines or other sacred places. "It is a sign of veneration of the senior individual. The skulls of all those buried were removed during the mortuary process and presumably curated somewhere," Bedford said. Professor Glenn Summerhayes, head of archaeology at Otago University in New Zealand, agreed the arrangement was a mystery. "Mass burials are not unusual, but having heads of different people associated with the body? We haven't got a clue," Summerhayes said. "The curious burials among the identified group of prehistoric Pacific mariners, who were among the best navigators on earth for the next 3,000 years, indicate they were admired by the locals for their amazing long-distance traveling abilities," Bentley said.
     The team also found pottery burial jars, the oldest so far discovered in the region. The containers are similar to others found in Taiwan and in Southeast Asia. One contained a human skull.

Sources: Live Science (29 October 2007), National Geographic News (2 November 2007)

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